Emerald Isle

The War of Wisdom

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle

The best victories are never fought at all

Most people have heard of Ireland's famous title, “The Island of Saints and Scholars”, and the reason it was so well known was because of the many fine Irish Catholic universities and colleges that preserved and spread learning throughout Europe. Of them all, there were few finer than the one in Howth, and so wonderful was its reputation that it drew jealous eyes from abroad!

Students were travelling from all over Ireland, what we today know as England, Scotland and many places in Europe to gain an education there, and soon Howth college was the standard to be measured by. So popular was it that the great university in Paris felt itself at risk of complete desertion by its students!

So the French Superior decided to send their best scholars to that Howth backwater, as he derisively called it, and there to challenge the Irish professors to a contest of sciences and languages, to determine who ran the better centre of learning.

A letter was sent to Howth, and the challenge was to take place no later than four weeks time. Well I can tell you, the Father Abbot in Howth was quite surprised and in ways flattered by the challenge from such a prestigious institution, but he took counsel with his clergy and they all agreed it could go badly for them if they lost.

A young monk there said they should accept the challenge and not show the white feather, feeling they were more than a match for the continentals, but the others told him that it's easy to show bravado when the enemy was far off – and there was truth in that!

An older, wiser and craftier priest spoke up then – the suggested that they accept the challenge, but prepare a special welcome for their visiting French colleagues! And with a cheer the others agreed to his plan.

The month came to a close and the French ship pulled into Howth harbour after an uneventful journey, little did they know their placid voyage was about to become considerably less tranquil. Spotting a poor man by the quay wall, they asked of him the way to Howth. He waved over another fellow in a rough-woven tunic and the French were greeted in fluent Latin!

Startled and not a little worried that so humble a person might have such a refined grasp of the learned tongue, the French professors asked where the man had studied, and he replied that he had been to Howth for a few months. He accompanied them further up the road, where another labourer waved merrily and greeted them in Latin again!

Perhaps even more surprised than before, the French head lecturer stopped and asked him where he had gained such skill in Latin, to which he replied that he had studied a little in Howth. And every quarter of a mile thereafter, they had the same experience – some farmer, rough looking person or fisherman would hail them merrily in perfect fluent Latin!

The professors stopped one worker and questioned him in many ways, on many subjects, all in Latin, and he not only gave effortless answers, he started to question them in turn!

At last they came to the great Hill of Howth and spotted the towers and buildings of the monastery college rising up among the trees, when the French professor held up his hand and said to his friends that since even the common folk and labourers of Ireland had such exceptional mastery of the sciences and arts, they might be as well not to put their teachers to the test!

The rest of them nodded and swallowed, turning their horses around and riding back to the boat, with the labourers bidding them a cheery farewell in Latin, then they left Ireland and never returned. Of course, the labourers and common folk were the masters of the college in disguise, and this was their plan in action!

The French spoke little of their experience, making out they had never even bothered to go in the first place, but the truth spread sure enough, sure enough, and Howth prospered like never before!

Howth can be found on the map below.

More Tales from the Historical Cycle

If you'd like to leave a tip, just click here!

Archaeological information is licensed for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence from the National Monuments Service - Archaeological Survey of Ireland.

Note that this license DOES NOT EXTEND to folkloric, mythological and related information on the site. That data remains under full private copyright protection