This folktale from Howth tells of the wonderful reputation of the local college, and how its honor was defended by means of a clever trick.
It is said that the College of Howth turned out fine scholars, long before the rise of Maynooth or Trinity College. In fact, the monks in charge of the college ensured such a high quality of education that students from all over Ireland, England, and Scotland came to study there.
It did not take long for the school’s reputation to spread to other countries in Europe, and schools all over the continent soon strived to compare with Howth College.
There was a fine university in Paris at the same time, and the professors there began to fear that their students would leave to finish their courses in Howth. They grew jealous of the Father Abbot and the monks of Howth, and the Paris Superior and his clergy considered how to save their university from complete desertion.
The French Superior suggested to send their best professor to visit that ‘out-of-the-way place called Howth’. After all, he thought, the reputation of Howth College could just be based on unjust bragging and boasting.
The other French professors agreed, believing they were every bit as learned in languages and sciences. Voices were raised to challenge the scholars of Howth to a contest, and half-a-dozen professors at once volunteered to take up the challenge. And so a letter was sent to Howth informing the College of the challenge, which would take place in a month’s time.
When the Father Abbot in Howth received the letter, he called the community together to discuss what they should do about the situation. If they didn’t accept the challenge, they’d lose all their credibility. But if they did accept, and were beaten by the Frenchmen, they feared their students would go off to Paris for their education, and that would mean the end of the fine college of Howth.
The youngest of the monks, called Father Teague, was the first to offer his opinion. He thought that they should not show the white feather, as they were more than a match for the French professors. Then Father Pathrick, the vice-president of the college, spoke. He explained to Father Teague that it was easy to be bold when the enemy was far away, but that the certainty of victory might not last when the moment of truth was upon them. He offered another approach.
Since they knew exactly when their French rivals would arrive in Howth, they would send out all the masters of the college. They would scatter themselves along the roadsides between Howth and Dublin, dressed as simple labourers. When the word was given that the French ship arrived into Dublin Harbour, they would start cleaning the roads, and bid the passing French the time in fluent Latin.
Father Pathrick’s advice was taken, and this is what happened:
At the end of the month, the six French professors had learned a little Irish and sailed to Dublin. When they landed they saw a poor man at the quay wall, and politely asked if he could show them the road to Howth. Naturally, the man they approached was one of the lay-brothers of the monastery looking out for them, and, in disguise, he volunteered another college man to be their guide.
The guide moved a little in advance of the rest, and when they came up to the first of the labourers, he winked, and the disguised Father Teague greeted the French in fluent Latin. The head-professor returned his salute in the same language and curiously asked where the labourer had studied. Teague replied that his parents had sent him to Howth for a few semesters.
And so they went on to the next labourer, and there too the guide gave a wink as he approached. The second labourer raised his hat as politely and called out in Latin. No less surprised than before, the Frenchmen stopped to speak to him, and they were told that this laborer too has studied in Howth for a short while.
They traveled on, wondering at the great education given to the poor in Ireland. To make a long story short, the French professors walked along, and at every quarter of a mile, they were greeted by friendly labourers in fluent Latin.
At last they approached the Hill of Howth, and met Father Pathrick in disguise. He saluted them in the grandest way, and in the best Latin they had yet heard. The French professors questioned, examined, and tested him, in every way, and for a long time on the road. He in turn began to put questions to them. Soon they found themselves at a loss for answers.
Seeing the turret of the monastery church nearby, and believing that the abbot and monks were all there, ready to meet them on the public platform, the head-professor fell back among his colleagues, and he suggested that they’d turn around and return to France. After all, if the simple labourers of Ireland were so fluent in Latin after a few short courses at Howth, the professors teaching there could surely humiliate anyone who would challenge them to a contest.
The other professors approved this advice, and they all turned their backs on Howth. The labourers they passed on their way back bid them farewell in Latin, all the while laughing in their sleeves.
The French were so ashamed when they reached Paris that they denied ever reaching Ireland at all, but the monks of college spread far and wide the tale of the French retreat at the gate of Howth.
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