Sunday, 12 June 2022

The Three Scoto-Irish Hermits of Griesstetten

On June 12, 1689 the relics of three reputedly twelfth-century Irish hermits, Marinus, Vimius and Zimius, were translated to a new chapel at Griesstetten in Bavaria, where they continue to be held in reverence to this day. The trio may have been connected with the Irish monastery network of Ratisbon (Regensburg), the history of which can be read in a paper at the blog here. These monasteries, originally founded by and staffed by Irishmen, are known as Schottenklöster, literally 'Scottish monasteries' and it is here that the confusion begins. For in the Middle Ages Ireland was described in Latin sources as Scotia and it was not until later that this label was applied to the country we now know as Scotland. As the memory of this distinction faded the Irish were written out of the history of the foundations they had made in Germany and both the credit for their achievements and the compensation granted for their closure went to Scottish churchmen. The memory of our three hermits also appears to have been lost along the way as Irish Benedictine Dom Patrick Nolan, O.S.B. explains:  



IN the following pages an attempt is made to rescue from oblivion the memory of three Scotic, i.e., Irish or Scoto-Irish, hermits who lived and died some eight hundred years ago in an obscure corner of Bavaria. Like so many of their countrymen, to use the words of an ancient Irish monk of Ratisbon, they 'left behind dear friends and possessions, and, spurning temporal things for things eternal, they passed over so many seas, so many trackless wastes, to follow Christ.' It had been their wish to pass their lives unknown to the outer world, wrapt up in God and heavenly contemplation, and, if their wishes had been consulted, their very names would have been forgotten. But it was the will of God that the light of their saintly lives, which they would have hidden under a bushel, should be raised aloft, and exposed to the admiring gaze of men. 

 So obscure, indeed, was the memory of these holy men for many centuries, that it even escaped the observation of the all-scrutinizing gaze of the Bollandists, who, from their hagiological observatory in Brussels, pass in review the lives of holy men and holy women throughout the whole Catholic world. And, if we may be permitted to push our astronomical metaphor a little farther, it was only when their bodies, long at rest, were set in motion that their existence was once more revealed to the world just as the presence of some obscure planetoid or comet becomes known when its motion has made a faint streak on the sensitive film of the photographer. 

 In other words, the bodies of our three saints were solemnly translated on the 12th of June, 1689, by the Right Rev. Coadjutor-Bishop of Ratisbon, Albert Ernest Count von Wartenberg, who drew up a narrative of the translation and sent it to the Bollandists. The latter have printed it in their bulky tomes, under the date mentioned, and preface it with the remark that they had never before heard of the saints, and that they had even escaped the observation of the learned Matthaeus Raderus, who has written a monumental work on the Saints of Bavaria. 

What little information I have been able to put before the reader in the following pages, I have obtained chiefly from four sources: (1) From the above-mentioned documents, published by the Bollandists. (2) From a historical sketch of the lives and cultus of the hermits, drawn up in the year 1850 by Dom Anselm Robertson, O.S.B., from documents in the archives of the Scotic monastery at Ratisbon, and published in the Spicilegium Benedictinum (Dec., 1899), from an authenticated copy in the archives of the monastery of St. Paul's, Rome. (3) From a petition drawn up in 1848 by the then Bishop of Ratisbon (J. B. Weigl), concerning the cultus of the hermits. This document is to be found likewise in the Spicilegium (March, 1900). (4) From a little German brochure, Die drei Elenden Heiligen zu Griesstetten, by a Franciscan, published at Ingolstadt, 1906. 

As Dom Anselm's sketch gives a concise and connected account of the lives of the three hermits, as far as the facts can be ascertained, I shall give a translation, from the original Latin, of the principal portions merely premising that all his statements are not to be accepted as historically accurate. I need hardly remark that he and his Scottish brethren were not of the same nationality as the 'Scoti ' or Irish, who originally founded the monastery of Ratisbon. The latter were pure Celts from ancient ' Scotia ' or Ireland, with perhaps a sprinkling of members from the Irish colony in Scotland. Dom Anselm Robertson and his brethren were modern Scots, by which we mean a nationality which had its origin somewhere about the time of the Norman Conquest and in which a predominant element was Saxon. 

And here it may not be out of place to say a few words as to the proper signification, in medieval Latin, of the words 'Scotia' and 'Scoti,' which are still frequently misunderstood by foreigners, and even by many of us nearer home. Most of my readers are aware that the latinized name 'Scoti' was originally applied to the last of the ancient colonizers of Ireland, in other words, to the progenitors of the Irish race. It seems to be derived from the Celtic 'Scotraide,' which was the name of the predominant tribe. From them Ireland was called 'Scotia ' (by Latin writers) from about the sixth till the thirteenth centuries. 

These Scoti or Irish made a permanent settlement in the north of Britain about the year 500 A.D., when Fergus Mac Ere, chief of the Dalriads of Antrim, with Lome and Angus, led a colony into the modern Argyle and the Isles, and thus began the long line of Irish kings who held sway in Scotland from the reign of Aedhan Mac Gabhran (crowned by St. Columba in the year 574) till that of Donald Bain, who was deprived of his kingdom, and of his eyes, by the Saxon, Edgar Atheling, in the year 1097. From these Irish, or ' Scoti,' the north of Britain began to be called Scotia, somewhere about the end of the tenth or the beginning of the eleventh century. Ireland, the home of the Scots, was for some two centuries longer still called Scotia, and by some writers Scotia Major, or Greater Scotia, to distinguish it from the new Scotia, which the Irish were building up in the north of Britain. 

It cannot be too clearly realized [says Mr. Plummer, in his scholarly edition of St. Bede] that at the time when Bede wrote [his Ecclesiastical History, about the year 781], and for more than two centuries after, the term 'Scottia ' refers to Ireland, and to Ireland alone. It was only towards the end of the tenth century that it began to be used of any part of Britain; and even then it was applied to a very limited district, and only gradually during two more centuries was the application extended to the whole of the northern kingdom. ... Of course the tribe name 'Scotti ' would apply to any member of the Irish race, whether living in Ireland or in Britain. 

The same author quotes the following passage from The Chronicles of the Picts and Scots (ed. Skene): 'Scotois . . . lour propre pays est Ireland, lour coustoum et patoys acordaunt, qi puis furount mellez od Pices,' i.e., 'The Scots . . . their proper country is Ireland, their customs and language agreeing thereto, though they afterwards became mingled with the Picts.' 'It is not safe to count,' says Burton,  'that the word Scot must mean a native of present Scotland, when the period dealt with is earlier than the middle of the twelfth century.' 

And now that my readers have got a clearer idea of the meaning of the expressions 'Scotia' and 'Scoti,' I shall venture to quote some passages from the Bollandists, which will leave no doubt as to the nationality of the founders of the Scotic Benedictine congregation in Germany, and will at the same time settle the question as to the nationality of our three hermits, who, we are told, were fellow-countrymen of the monks at Ratisbon. 

 To begin with, the charter granted to the Scotic monks of Ratisbon by the Emperor Frederick II, in the year 1212, states that 'Scots only and none others dwelt in these monasteries.' This is further explained by the confirmatory charter of the Emperor Sigismund, where we read the following words: 'A humble petition on behalf of the Abbot, Prior, and community of Scots and Irish from greater Scotland' etc. And Matthaeus Raderus, in his work on the Saints of Bavaria, speaking of the hermit Murchertach (who was the first of the Irish pilgrims to settle at Ratisbon), says: 'Muricherodachus, an Irishman from ancient Scotia, preceded his countryman Marianus, and was the first of all those who came from that country to Ratisbon.' And of Marianus, the founder of the Scotic monastery at Ratisbon, he says : 'Marianus, therefore, was a born Scot or Irishman, for ancient Scotia is the same as Ireland . . . the other [Scotia] of which we do not speak here is a corner of Britain.' 

From this we may gather that our three hermits were, like the founders of the famous Scotic Benedictine congregation of Germany, Scots or Irish from ancient Scotia or Ireland. It is very probable, at the same time, that these Irish monks were joined, later on, by numbers of their fellow-countrymen across the Channel, the Celtic Scots or Irish of North Britain, with whom, owing to their near relationship and close proximity, they had always been on the most intimate terms. This is rendered still more probable by the fact that about the time that the Irish monks were founding their congregation in Germany, momentous changes were taking place in the ancient Irish kingdom of Scotland, which would make it a less desirable place of residence for its Scoto-Irish inhabitants. 

 I allude to the rapid anglicization of the country, which began with the reign of Malcolm Canmore (1058-1093), who, himself only half a Celt, was married to the Saxon Queen Margaret, better known as St. Margaret. Malcolm had been brought up at the Court of Edward the Confessor, where he would probably have been imbued with Saxon and Norman ideas. Moreover, it was during his reign that the Norman Conquest took place, which drove many Saxon refugees to the Court of Scotland, among them Edgar Atheling, whose sister Margaret became Malcolm's consort. During the brief reign of his brother and successor Donald Bane (1093-1097) a Celtic reaction took place, but the Saxon and Norman influence, which first began to make itself felt in the reigns of Malcolm and Margaret, made rapid headway under their three sons, Edgar, Alexander, and David, who successively ascended the throne of Scotland. 

In the reign of Edgar (1097-1107) the seat of government was removed from Scone (the ancient Celtic capital) to Edinburgh a Saxon city. His brother Alexander I (1107- 1124) continued the process of anglicization. He founded a monastery for Canons of St. Augustine at Scone, while Fothad, the last Celtic Bishop of St. Andrews, was succeeded in turn by a monk of Durham and a monk of Canterbury. His protection was asked by Anselm of Canterbury for monks sent to Scotland at the request of his brother Edgar. 

 In the reign of his brother David I (1124-1153) the Celtic Culdees at St. Andrews and Dunkeld were ejected and bishoprics established in their places, while at Melrose and elsewhere Cistercian monks were introduced. It was in this reign that the feudal system took firm root in opposition to the Celtic clan system, at least in the still limited territory which submitted to the new Scottish dynasty. And thus, as the Irish monks had been obliged to retire from their foundations in the north of England from Ripon and Lindisfarne and many other spots, so now their monastic strongholds north of the Tweed were invaded. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that numbers of the Scoto-Irish of North Britain, both monks and laymen, should have preferred to quit the country, and we may reasonably suppose that many of them joined their Irish or Scotic brethren, who flocked to the Continent in such numbers in this and succeeding centuries. 

Having premised this much, let us now hear Dom Anselm's account of the three Scoto-Irish hermits, after we have first given the reader a few biographical notes about this, the last, monk of the Scoto-Irish monastery of Ratisbon. Dom Anselm Robertson was born in Fochabers, Scotland, in 1824, was professed in the monastery of St. James, Ratisbon, in 1845, and was ordained priest in 1851.

When the Bavarian religious houses were suppressed by Napoleon in 1806, Ratisbon was allowed to linger on and die a natural death, no novice being allowed to be received. This, however, did not prevent the profession of Dom Anselm, but in 1850 the monastery was finally suppressed. As he was the only monk left he sought admission into the English congregation of St. Benedict's Order, and in 1878 was aggregated to the community of Fort Augustus, which had been founded by Lord Lovat in that year. Thither Dom Anselm brought with him some chalices and other belongings of Ratisbon, and eventually died in retirement at Fochabers. It is interesting to note that the late octogenarian Scottish baronet, Sir Everard Gordon, who gave the country house of Buckie in Banff to the Fort Augustus monks, was once a student or novice at Ratisbon. 

Nobody will deny [says Dom Anselm Robertson] that Scotic monks acquired, in times past, very great renown for holiness, and that they rendered illustrious by their sanctity the diocese of Ratisbon. This is acknowledged by all the hagiographers who have written the Lives of Blessed Marinus, Abbot of St. Peter's [Ratisbon], and of Blessed Murecherodachi,  a hermit in the Upper Monastery, as we are informed by Matthaeus Raderus in his Bavaria Sancta

Wherefore, being inspired thereto by the spotless lives of these good monks, the most distinguished members of the first nobility in Ratisbon erected two monasteries, one being dedicated to St. Peter, chief of the Apostles, the other to the Apostle St. James the Greater, wherein Scotic monks for many years served God, in strict monastic discipline, according to the rule of St. Benedict. 

Although the first mentioned monastery has been reduced to ashes, the second one, dedicated to St. James, is still, after many eventful changes, occupied to this day by Benedictine monks of the same nationality, to the great edification of the neighbourhood. From out of it came the Blessed Marinus, or Martinus,  distinguished for the sanctity of his life and for his observance of the strict monastic discipline, on account of which he was made Prior of the monastery instead of the Blessed Macharius, who was appointed as first Abbot of Wiirzburg. For, about the year 1186, Blessed Macharius, the Prior of Ratisbon, was sent with twelve companions to Wiirzburg to occupy the monastery erected for the Scotic monks by Bishop Embricho, as Trithemius declares. 

 Now, it happened that while the Blessed Marinus was faithfully fulfilling his duties as Prior, two holy pilgrims of the Scotic race, having visited the shrines of the Holy Apostles, and other celebrated places of pilgrimage, arrived at Bavaria on their journey homewards. But while they were passing the night in a wood close to a certain unoccupied farm, at that time called Wide, not far from the river Altmil, they were inspired by Heaven, during their sleep, to lead a solitary life in that spot, and consecrate the rest of their days to divine contemplation. So when they awoke and began to look about for a spot suitable for their retreat, they decided to settle down in that very solitude, especially when they learned that the place belonged to the Scotic monks of Ratisbon. 

Accordingly they hasten to their fellow-countrymen at Ratisbon, by whom they were hospitably received, and from whom they easily obtained not only permission to settle down there, but also all the assistance necessary to enable them to lead the eremitical life. Moreover, Blessed Marinus, at that time Prior of the monastery, being greatly impressed by the holiness of our pilgrims, obtained his Abbot's permission to join them; and so the perfect number of three was made up, and there issued forth the triad of Scotic saints, afterwards renowned at Gristett, Marinus above-mentioned being the leader of the band." 

Now, Blessed Zimius was already a professed monk and priest of the celebrated monastery of Dunfermline of the Order of St. Benedict, in modern Scotland; and as he was about to make a pilgrimage to the shrines of the Apostles, he took along with him as his companion the Blessed Vimius (at that time a layman), of the noble house of the Vimii, and a true Benedictine monk by his holiness of life. 

These three most holy men, one in heart and one in soul in their desire to serve God perfectly, entered upon the solitary life in the aforesaid place, the Abbot of Ratisbon being Dermitius (second), whom Hundius wrongly calls Mauritius, and makes him the first abbot. For, about the year 1150,  a most holy man named Christianus was elected third abbot of the said monastery, and it was during his term of office that these three holy hermits were called to their heavenly reward. Their remains were placed in the parish church of Gristett, and the place was thenceforward called, from the hermits, 'Einsidl' in the vernacular, Le., Hermitage. It is now a rural property inhabited by two farmers, and it belongs still to the above-mentioned monastery by prescriptive right, as is witnessed by the charter of the Emperor Frederick II, confirming the possessions of the monastery, which expressly names the place Einsidl, or Hermitage. 

 Our annals assign the year 1154 as the date of the erection of the church of Gristett, which the aforesaid Abbot Christian caused to be built in honour of St. Martin, Bishop, and he had the holy bodies of the three saints translated there, one after the other, for they did not pay the debt of nature in one and the same year. The obit of Blessed Marinus is assigned to the year 1153, and he was consequently buried in the little oratory of the hermitage until the church of Griestet was roofed in. I have found the following reasons for building the church mentioned in an ancient register: firstly, that the original burial-place in the hermitage was too narrow and inconvenient for the reception of the crowds who flocked every day to visit the sacred relics; and secondly it was desirable that the heavenly quiet and retirement of the two remaining companions should not suffer from such frequent visits of the faithful. 

The deaths of Blessed Zimius and Vimius are assigned to the year 1150,  but the exact date cannot be fixed on which Blessed Marinus or the other two saints ended their earthly course and entered upon their eternal reward. As, however, for many centuries past the faithful have been wont to flock to the holy tomb of the three saints, early in the month of November, we may fairly presume that it was about that time of the year that Blessed Marinus went to Heaven, especially as it was in honour of his relics that the church was built, and dedicated to the great St. Martin, Bishop of Tours, whose feast is celebrated on the 11th of that month. And, in fact, I have seen it stated in an ancient register that it was on the very feast of St. Martin that the body of Blessed Marinus was translated, with great solemnity, from the little chapel of the hermitage to the hew church it being the anniversary of his death. The record adds, moreover, that,  from the very first day on which the church of Griestett was roofed in and the relics of Blessed Marinus translated thither, the daily concourse of the faithful was so great that even the church was not sufficiently large to receive the people coming from the neighbourhood.'

Our author then goes on to mention the manner in which they were buried, as described in the same register. 

Blessed Marinus was buried before the high altar on the Gospel side; BB. Zimius and Vimius on the Epistle side, at the steps of the choir, being placed next under each other, but in separate coffins. . . . The first two were buried in sacerdotal vestments and Benedictine habit while B. Vimius, not being in orders, was buried in the habit of a Hermit of St. Benedict. Blessed Marinus spent thirteen years in all in the hermitage (1140-1153), the other two fifteen (1140-1155). 

He then describes the situation of Griesstetten, and alludes to the solemn translation of the relics, made by order of the Ordinary of Ratisbon,  on the 12th day of June, 1689, when the holy bodies were transferred to a more suitable position behind the high altar. 

The reader will find in the Bollandists, under date 12th June, a full account of this last translation, in a document drawn up by the Coadjutor-Bishop of Ratisbon, and transmitted by him to the Bollandists. This document is interesting, as it contains a brief notice of the history of the three hermits. The same Right Rev. Prelate also drew up a narrative of two miracles worked through the intercession of our saints, not long after the solemn translation. He also drew up a prayer and antiphon in their honour. Both these documents he transmitted likewise to the Bollandists, where they may be seen, so that it is not necessary to give them here. The third document dealing with our saints, to which I have alluded in the beginning of this article, consists of an instant supplication to the Holy See, by the Bishop of Ratisbon, for advice as to what attitude he should observe with regard to the cultus of the three hermits. It was drawn up at Ratisbon in the year 1848, and may be summarized as follows: 

 He begins by remarking that the veneration and cultus of the three Scotic saints (whom the people call die elenden drei Heiligen, i.e., the three foreign saints) increases among the faithful daily, and that he has seen two books compiled in German containing narratives of the miracles worked by the intercession of these saints. He has accordingly been asked by the priest and people of Griesstetten to approve of their placing the bodies in costly shrines under separate altars for the veneration of the faithful a pious couple having volunteered to pay all the expenses. To this pious request he was about to accede, had not his attention been drawn to the decree of Urban VIII, 1634, forbidding the public veneration of saints not canonized by the Holy See, unless such cultus had been practised already before the year 1534. He was consequently advised to consult the Apostolic See, especially as the people desire to have Masses said in honour of these saints, as has been done from time immemorial, if we are to trust the books containing their miracles, but no authentic documents exist concerning their cultus before 1534. 

While awaiting the decision of Rome he begs to add the following remarks to what the Bollandists have published. It is not surprising that these saints should have escaped the notice of Matthaeus Raderus, as he would not be likely to suspect that an out-of-the-way hamlet in Bavaria, not even marked on the map, should possess such a great treasure. Moreover, the disorders consequent on the so-called Reformation are largely responsible for the oblivion into which their memory had fallen. Not to mention the Bohemian disturbances and the Thirty Years' War, the town of Ratisbon was occupied by the Swedes in 1635, when priests and religious were obliged to fly for their lives, while the Lutherans ruthlessly destroyed all the most valuable books and documents in the archives, especially those dealing with lives of the saints. In Bavaria alone 3,000 villages are said to have been devastated by the Swedes, and Griesstetten did not escape their ravages. 

The Bishop then gives, from the archives of the Scotic monastery of St. James and of the city of Ratisbon, a resume of the history of Marianus, and of the foundation of the monastery at Ratisbon and of the hermitage of Griesstetten. It does not add many new details to what we already know, but differs in a few particulars. He begins by stating that Marianus, with some of his countrymen, came to Ratisbon in the year 1064, during the pontificate of Alexander II. He was at first supported by the bounty of the abbesses of the Upper and Lower monasteries, and later occupied a little monastery, which a certain Sebastian Beer erected for him near the chapel of St. Peter outside the walls. But as Marianus and his companions rendered great educational services, especially by learnedly expounding the Holy Scriptures for the benefit of young clerics, and as his community was increased by new arrivals from Scotia, some of the first citizens of Ratisbon erected the large monastery of St. James of the Scots, together with its celebrated church, which was dedicated by Hartwic, Bishop of Ratisbon. 

Among the principal benefactors was Otto von Ricthenburg, Burgrave of Ratisbon, who endowed the monastery richly with money and lands, including the property of Grienstett, where the hermits settled down. This probably took place under the first abbot, Domnellus,  who is stated in the necrology of the monastery to have died in the year 1121. The year of their death cannot be fixed with certainty, but their translation to the chapel in Griesstetten was carried out by Christian, the third abbot, who died in 1172, having ruled as abbot for twenty-three years.

 Bishop Weigl concludes by giving a sketch of the modern history of Griesstetten, which may have interest for some readers. Its church and presbytery were all but burned to the ground by the Swedes in the year 1633, the parish priest being obliged to flee for his life. It was, as far as possible, restored by Placid Fleming, who was elected Abbot in 1672, and received the abbatial blessing in 1692,  from the Coadjutor of Ratisbon [the same who carried out the translation of the relics in 1689]. 

 From 1651 to 1714 the parish was administered by the parish priests of Mulbach, Dietfurt, or Zell, as the case might be. In the year 1714 Abbot Placid Fleming exercised jurisdiction there through his vicar, Father Maurus Stuart, and established a small seminary for Scotch youths, which was placed under the direction of Father Bernard Baillie. It was afterwards removed to Ratisbon. 

 The church which at present exists at Griesstetten is circular in form, and adorned with frescoes. It was built, or rather transformed, by the aforesaid Bernard Baillie (at that time abbot) and his successor Bernard Stuart, and consecrated by Bishop Schwabl in 1836. At the present day the parish is administered by the Franciscans of Dietfurt, in the name of the parish priest of Altmuhlmunster, to whom the ordinary jurisdiction has been assigned since 1806. 


  The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol XVI, July to December 1920, 441-452.

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Sunday, 5 June 2022

On the Day of Pentecost

This advent of the Spirit on the apostles was prefigured in the fire that came from heaven on the offerings of righteous Abel, as is testified in Genesis, (the book) of the Law, where it says,'respexit Deus ad Abel et ad munera eius,' when fire of God came from heaven on the offerings of Abel, for they were pleasing to God; so, too, in the fire that came of yore on the Bush, in prefiguration of the descent of the Spirit on the apostles on this day of Pentecost; again, in the fiery column of old, that led the children of Israel out of the Egyptian captivity to go up into the land of promise, in prefiguration of the Holy Spirit, who summoned the apostolic people from the straits of Jewish persecution in which they were held, to go and preach to everyone in every direction; and He invites the people of the New Testament from the darkness of sins and transgressions to the light of virtuous and goodly deeds; so, too, in the sevenfold candelabrum, that illumined the tabernacle of Moses, in prefiguration and foretoken of the sevenfold Spirit, that illumined the Church of the Seven Orders in this seven-day festival of Pentecost; and in this same manner in many other places the advent of the Holy Spirit was prefigured. It was foretold by the prophets: by David, the son of Jesse, when he said, 'fluminis impetus laetificat ciuitatem Dei' [Ps. xl. 5], concerning that honour of the spiritual grace in which the Church rejoices; by the prophet Joel, son of Phathuel [Salahel], when he said, 'erit in nouissimis diebus, dicit Dominus, effundam de Spiritu meo super omnem carnem' [Acts ii. 17], 'the time will come, saith the Lord, when I will pour out the grace of the Holy Spirit on every holy man of faith in the Church' ; by the Author of every prophecy and of all true knowledge, Jesus Christ Himself, after His resurrection, when He said to His apostles, 'accipietis uirtutem superuenientis Spiritus sancti' [Acts i. 8], ' the grace of the Holy Spirit shall come upon you.'

Haec est historia huius lectionis.

'XII. On the Day of Pentecost' , The Passions and the Homilies from Leabhar Breac - Text, Translation and Glossary by Robert Atkinson (Dublin, 1887),439-40.


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Friday, 3 June 2022

The Larks of Glendalough

June 3 is the feast of Saint Kevin of Glendalough, a saint in whom there has been a revival of interest in recent decades thanks to his status as a poster boy for 'Celtic Christianity'. This movement claims that our native saints were especially in tune with the natural environment and as a result enjoyed a special relationship with the animal creation. And no anthology of 'Celtic Christianity' is complete without a reference to one of the most famous episodes from Saint Kevin's hagiography - the sheltering of a nesting bird in his outstretched, praying hands until her young have fledged. It is a theme which has also inspired poets (including the late Seamus Heaney), and below is a 1905 example, The Larks of Glendalough, by Thomas Walsh. It is striking that Walsh has chosen the lark here for most retellings of this tale, which originated in the History and Topography of Ireland by the twelfth-century chronicler, Gerald of Wales, identify the avian as a blackbird. I am left wondering therefore if Walsh has conflated the story of the blackbird which nests in Saint Kevin's palm with another legend of Glendalough which seeks to explain why the song of the lark is never heard over the site. This lark legend is bound up with the construction of the Seven Churches of Glendalough and here it is as told to a mid-nineteenth-century traveller to Ireland by his guide, a Mr. Winder: 
Among the portentous events that my friend Mr. Winder told me was this,— that for 1,300 years the skylark had never been heard to warble over the lake, because St. Kevin prayed that it might never have the power to do so; and the reason was, that the men who were building the city where the Seven Churches stand had made a vow to commence their work each day as soon as the lark rose, and not to leave off till the sun had set. They kept their vow, and were in consequence so worn out with fatigue, that many of them died; when St. Kevin, out of compassion, offered up his prayers that no lark should henceforth rise into the air — the prayer was granted, and 'the plague was stayed.' All this is firmly believed. Subsequent to this, a man, who was driving me in a jaunting-car, told me that it was as true as we were sitting in the car that the skylark was never heard to warble over the lake for 1,300 years, though it was heard commonly outside the Seven Churches, at the distance of a few hundred yards. I asked him, if he did not think that skylarks preferred warbling over cornfields rather than over lakes?"
          The tourist's illustrated hand-book for Ireland, (London, 1854), 42.
The lark legend thus seems quite distinct from that of Saint Kevin and the Blackbird. I have not been able to find out any more about our poet Thomas Walsh but, whether or not he has confused his Glendalough bird legends here, his poem at least has the merit of depicting Saint Kevin as someone engaged in the monastic life. Indeed, Walsh seems to be describing Saint Kevin using the ancient prayer posture known as crois-fhigill, cross-vigil, where the arms are outspread in imitation of Christ's position on the cross. Overall, although it is typical of the sentimental verse published in the popular religious press of this time, I find The Larks of Glendalough charming:
The Larks of Glendalough
By Thomas Walsh
All night the gentle saint had prayed,
And, heedless of the thrush and dove,
His radiant spirit still delayed 
To hear the seraph choirs above.
So still he knelt — his arms outspread,
His head thrown backward from his breast —
A lark across the casement sped,
And in his fingers built its nest.
The angel music from his soul 
Receded with the flood of day;
Through Glendalough the sunlight stole 
And brushed the mists and dews away.
’Twas then the saint beheld the bird 
Serenely nesting in his hand,
And murmured, “Ah, if thou hadst heard 
The matins in that seraph land!”
Then, soft again he turned to pray;
Nor moved his arm at even close 
Or matin call from day to day 
Until their nestling voices rose.
And when his loving task was done, 
Above his cell he heard them cry: —
“O Kevin, Kevin! Gentle one !
We bear to heaven thy soul’s reply!”

 The Rosary Magazine, Volume 26, (January-June 1905), 18.

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Sunday, 29 May 2022

Saint Buryan, May 29

May 29 is the feast of the County Offally female Saint Brunsecha of Killyon, whose story is interwoven with that of Saint Ciarán of Saighir and his mother, Saint Liadhain. Today we are going to reprise Saint Brunsecha's story but this time in connection with a Cornish saint, Buryan (Burian, Buriana, Buriena) who seems to have assimilated aspects of our Irish holy woman's identity, including her feast day. As we shall see though, May 29 is only one of a number of different feast days ascribed to the Cornish saint in the sources. In general I am sceptical about the Irish origins claimed for saints such as Buryan, since Ireland in the Middle Ages was regarded as the insula sanctorum there was a certain cachet associated with claiming an Irish saint as a monastic or church founder. That is not to deny of course that there are Irish saints whose well-documented careers in Britain are beyond question, but the vague claims surrounding 'Irish princesses' such as Buryan cannot readily be substantiated. But let us start by looking at what these claims were. Canon O'Hanlon's Lives of the Irish Saints has an entry for Saint Buriena on this day, but our guide below is the prolific Anglican writer Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), who relies on the hagiography of Saint Ciarán to explain why both he and Brunsecha leave Ireland for Cornwall where he becomes Saint Piran and she Saint Buriena:

S. BURIENA, Virgin Abbess.

S. Buriena was one of the Irish Colony that came over about 520. Leland in his Itinerary (iii, 18,) says, "S. Buriana, an Holy Woman of Ireland, sumtyme dwellid in this place and there made an oratory. King Ethelstane going hence, as it is said, unto Sylley and returning, made ex voto a College where the oratorio was." She has been identified by Mr. Adams with 'Bruinech the Slender' of the Martyrology of Donegal, "who" says the scholiast on the martyrology, "is venerated in a town bearing her name, in England, on the 29th May." But this is inaccurate, the feast of S. Buryan being the nearest Sunday to May 12.

Leland calls her Bruinet, and says she was a king's daughter, who came into Cornwall with S. Piran. The forms Bruinet and Bruinech are mere variations in spelling, that occur repeatedly as Gobnat and Gobnach, Rignat and Eignach, Dervet and Dervech. The ech, or at, or et, is a diminutive for female names, like the oc for male names. So Brig becomes Bridget.
Bruinech was of illustrious birth. She was the daughter of Crimthan a chieftain in Munster, grandson of that Oengus MacNadfraich who had been baptized by S. Patrick. She was a kinswoman of S. Kieran.

The story of Buriena is found in the life of S. Kieran (Piran), of Saighir. It has been paraphrased by Mr. Adams, from Colgan (Journal R. Inst, of Cornwall, vol. iv. p. 141). But it will be preferable to give it from the original text in the Salamanca Codex: — She was, as already stated, daughter of a chieftain in Munster, and she embraced the religious life under Liadhain the mother of S. Kieran, one of the first abbesses in Ireland. Liadhain had a religious house at Killyon in King's County. The damsel was slim in form, and so went by the name of Bruinech or Brunsech Caol, the "Slender;" she was also very beautiful.

Dimma, of the Hy Fiachai District in West Meath, fell in love with her and carried her off against her will, with the assistance of his clansmen.
The wrath of S. Kieran was kindled, and he sped after the ravisher, to demand her back again. Dimma refused to restore her to liberty, "Never!" — said he — " till I hear the cuckoo call at day-dawn and arouse me from sleep."

It was winter time, and a deep snow lay on the ground and crested the castle walls. As the gates were shut, Kieran and his companions had to spend the night in the snow outside. They passed it in prayer. Lo! next morning a cuckoo * was perched on every turret of the chieftain's castle, uttering its plaintive call. Surprised and alarmed at this marvel, Dimma released the maiden. [* Mr. Adams says "a Swan," the word is "Duculus," but according to another version the bird was a heron.]

Putting aside what is fabulous in this story, we see the venerable saint's enthusiasm for the protection of innocence, and there is something very pathetic in the thought of his spending the winter night in the snow, outside the gate, rather than abandon his efforts to save the poor girl.

What actually took place was that Piran or Kieran "fasted against" Dimma. This was a practice among the Irish. If a man wanted something very particular, and was refused it, he went to the door of the man of whom he made petition and remained there exposed to the inclemency of the weather, and refused all food, till he died. This was literally laying his death at the door of the other, and it entailed on the man who let him die all the consequences of a blood-feud. The practice is not unknown now in India.

When, in the 12th century, the life of S. Kieran was re-written, the editor could not understand the practice, which had long ago been abandoned, so he invented the story of the cuckoo to give point to the incident, and account for the surrender of Dimma.

As soon as Bruinech had been released, Kieran took her back to his mother at Killyon.
After a few days the chieftain repented of having released her, his passion for the girl was not overcome, and he returned to the convent to again carry her off. In her fright, Bruinech fainted away, and Dimma was shewn her, lying unconscious. He stormed at Kieran, who he thought had killed her rather than give her back to him, and he threatened to drive him out of the country.
Kieran replied, "Thou hast no power over me. Thy strength is but a vain shadow."

According to the legend, at this juncture news arrived that Dimma's dun was on fire; that is to say, the wooden and wickerwork structures within the fort were blazing. At the tidings, the chief hastily left the convent, in hopes of rescuing some of his valuables from the flames.

Dimma is by no means a fabulous personage, he was chief of the Cinel Fiachai; he was fourth or fifth in descent from Niall of the Nine Hostages, King of Ireland, who died 405, and was even uncle of a Saint, Aid Mac Bric, who died in 588.
It was clearly undesirable for Kieran to remain in the place, and it is possible that it was at this time he removed to Cornwall, taking the damsel Bruinech with him. She is said to have lived many years afterwards.

Kieran or Piran became Bishop about 538, and he is thought to have died about 550, but this is mere conjecture, as the Irish Annals do not give the date of his decease, and as this occurred out of Ireland we may put his migration to Cornwall at about 520. Buriena is identified with Bruinech by several martyrologists.
Nothing is recorded of the acts of S. Buriena in Cornwall, but the general tradition is that she spent the rest of her days in good works. It is rather remarkable that her settlement should have been near the foundation of S. Senan, rather than near any of those of S. Kieran. Her settlement must have been of considerable importance, for it had a Sanctuary, which implies this. The Sanctuary, with its oratory, remains about a mile south-east of the parish church that bears her name, beside a rivulet, on the farm of Bosliven. There are traces of extensive foundations near the oratory. Probably popular veneration attached to this place, long after the transfer of the church, for it excited the rage of Shrubsall, one of Cromwell's Officers, and he almost totally destroyed it.
The day of S. Bruinech, in the Irish Calendars is on May 29, and this indeed is the day marked as that of S. Buriena in some English Calendars. But at Burian the feast is now held on the Sunday nearest to May 12, and in the Exeter Calendar her day is given as May 1. The Feast at Burian is on Old-Style May-Day, i.e. eleven days after May 1.

In the second edition of the "Martyrologium Anglicanum" of Wilson, 1640, she is inserted on June 19, but in his first edition, on May 29.

Her death probably occurred about 550.

In art she would be represented as an Irish Nun, in white, with a cuckoo.
Rev. S. Baring-Gould, 'A Catalogue of Saints connected with Cornwall, and List of Churches and Chapels Dedicated to them', Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Volume XIII, (1895-98), 485-488.
Modern scholar, Nicholas Orme, has a number of observations to make on Saint Buryan in his authoritative 2000 study The Saints of Cornwall. He traces the first mention of her in the historical record to a tenth-century list of saints, where she appears as 'Berion' and 'in a charter attributed to King Athelstan (925-39) granting property to the clergy of the church of Sancta Beriana, meaning St Buryan (Cornwall)'. As for her supposed Irish origins, Orme concludes:
The context of Cornish history, however makes Buryan more likely to have been a Brittonic saint from Brittany or Cornwall.

Nicholas Orme, The Saints of Cornwall (Oxford University Press, 2000), p.78

Yet, although I don't accept Saint Burian as an Irish saint, it is nevertheless fascinating to see the process by which the cult of a saint from this country is transferred to another. Interestingly, on June 4 the Irish calendars mark the feast of the Cornish saint Petroc, so the traffic is not all one-way!

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Saturday, 21 May 2022

Saint Colmán Lobhar of Moynoe, May 21

On May 21 we find the feast of Saint Colmán, one of a number of Irish saints to be described as lobhar, a 'leper'. The name Colmán is derived from Colum and along with a bewildering number of other variants is one of the most commonly found names on the Irish calendars of the saints. Our foremost modern hagiologist, Pádraig Ó Riain, has argued that many of these saints represent local manifestations of the cult of the most famous Colum of them all - Saint Colum Cille (Columba). Saint Colmán Lobhar of Moynoe, County Clare, might fit this theory. Canon O'Hanlon in Volume V of his Lives of the Irish Saints lists the evidence from the calendars and offers some observations on the nature of the 'leprosy' associated with our saint:

Article VII. St. Colman, Lobhar, or the Leper, of Magh-n-ec- or Moyne, County of Clare
In the"Feilire"of St.Aengus, the festival of "zealous Colman, a leper," is mentioned at this date;' and, therefore we may infer, that he flourished, at an early period, in the Irish church. His office is not known. The Martyrology of Tallagh registers this name, at the 21st of May. His place is called Maighe Eo. The Bollandists have a festival for Colmanus leprosus de Magh-eo, on the same authority; but, as they allege, little more can they find regarding him, except that Colgan refers Colmanus Lobhar and his feast to this date. Muighe-Eo—which was in Dal-Cais—must be distinguished from Mayo, in Connaught. Its fuller denomination was Maigh-neo-Norbhraighe, now known as Moynoe, or Mayno, an old church, which gives name to a parish, on the margin of Lough Derg, in the barony of Upper Tulla, and county of Clare. A church at this place had been burned by the Conmaicni, in 1084. This church is mentioned, also, in the Caithreim Toirdheal-bhaigh, or "Wars of Thomond," at the year 1318, as the hereditary termon of the Ui-Bloid. This day veneration was paid to Colman, Lobhar, or the Leper, of Magh-n-eo, in Dal-glais, as we find entered,in the Martyrology of Donegal. It  seems not improbable, that some of our saints, called Lepers, had not been afflicted with the same form of disease, known as leprosy, in certain countries at the present time; and, it is likely enough, that their malady was some form of erysipelas, or of a skin distemper, corresponding with the bodily infirmity to which allusion has been made.


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Tuesday, 17 May 2022

The Monk of Devenish

May 17 is the feast of Saint Siollan of Devenish, County Fermanagh, an account of whose life can be read at the blog here. Below is a short story called The Monk of Devenish published just over one hundred years ago in the Dominican periodical, The Irish Rosary, which is set in his island home. The popular religious press of this time regularly featured short stories or novels published in instalments which were intended to provide a more edifying alternative to the 'penny dreadfuls' of the secular world.  This short story features a female narrator who describes a visit to the ruins of Devenish where, despite her insistence that she is of a practical disposition and not given to 'imaginative experiences', finds herself gripped by gripped by a vision of the monastic community which once flourished there. The Monk of Devenish incorporates many of the familiar images of the preceding Victorian era's understanding of the 'Celtic Church' where the winds whistling through the lonely ruins of once vibrant monasteries act as a metaphor for a lost golden age.  The wistful, melancholy reaction of the boatman to the lady's experiences provides an appropriate response. This story, however, by its reference to  'Crummle' (Cromwell) also recalls the destruction of the monasteries at a later period of Irish history:

The Monk of Devenish.


IT was a lovely sunny day in September when I went down the long, narrow lane, with its whitewashed walls on either side, from Enniskillen's pretty town towards the stony shore of Lough Erne, where my boatman was awaiting me. Anything less eerie or suggestive of spirit influences I could hardly imagine than this brilliant and buoyant forenoon so reminiscent of the jubilant hours of young Spring. Nor was my quiet boatman in the least to be described as ghost-like in his conversation, and certainly not as regards his appearance, which was decidedly everyday, plain, and a little melancholy. My own disposition is generally regarded by my friends as belonging to the obviously practical and matter-of-fact category, and imaginative experiences have never been considered either by myself or by anyone else to be my forte. Thus equipped, I set out upon my reasonable entertainment of sailing a little among the islands of wide and lovely Lough Erne and of seeing a few of the greater, notably famed Devenish.
The sun sparkled upon the bluish silver waters of the lake with its thousand currents, both of air and of water, the soft green hills and the many green islets seemed to bask placidly in an atmosphere of peace, brightness and utter contentment. And my boatman, after gentle conversation regarding the town and any objects of interest about us, including a mild description of the blasting operations which hollowed out a deeper stone basin for this mighty lake and prevented its annual overflooding into the lower rooms of the houses of Enniskillen's island town, commenced at my request a legend or story concerning a castle's ruins, suggested by an ancient stronghold we had passed.

The boat glided onwards, never did my boatman's eye stray from his delicate task of piloting our little skiff among the many cross currents, while his soft voice poured out the history of the lords of the castle and some tale of heroism and terror of "Crummle's" days. And whether it were the magic of the brilliant sunlight which was too strong here among the thousand islands, where, in spite of the breezes crossing and re-crossing, one seemed to be shut in, whether it were the soft monotone of his voice, certainly my thoughts seemed to become as it were freed from the bounds of time and space and, by some enchantment, to roam in another world of deeper, more inward silences than even those of the sunlight, the waters and the green islets.
What, it seemed, was the use of speaking of the old monks who were gone they were not gone at all, their presence was like an atmosphere in this place of outward and inward silence. It was true one could not see them, the wattled huts, the stone churches and cells no longer peopled, the empty green isles, the very flowers hardly grew there any longer. But the monks were only round some bend, only hidden by a curve, they were there.

I came to suddenly; my thoughts had drowned me in a deep place of their own. The boatman was still speaking, the story was going on, but he looked at me curiously once or twice. 

"Now we have arrived, Madam," he said, navigating his boat with greater care than I had seen him use yet, "at the island of Devenish. As ye see, there are ruins there, and if you will just wait a few moments I will make the boat safe and then ye can go ashore and look at the ould church up there."

So it was done, and amid the tall rushes our boat was pulled up until she lay safely, and we went up the bank. There was little to see, as my guide did not fail to point out, upon the Holy Isle, but we looked at the ruined church, walked silently down its grassgrown length and looked into the peaceful enclosed space without, lying within its low grey walls of stones piled together by holy hands in the long ago. It had been, it seemed, the burying ground of Saints.

The winding stone stairway in the square tower attracted me, and I was told that I should find the upper chamber there closed by an iron railing and filled with pieces of masonry, stone head and remains. I said I would go up, and my boatman slipped out of the ancient building, informing me as he did so that he would wait on the green shores, but that he was within hailing distance. I assured him that I should be back again in a moment or two, and, obviously thinking me rather unwise, he left me.

He went, and I stood for a moment looking adown the nave of the small, ruined, but still holy fane. My boatman's feet made no sound on the green sward. I was alone, quite alone on this heaven-enchanted isle. After a moment I commenced the small ascent slowly, looking at the tower all the way as I went up. A strange cool wind blew through the ruined windows at the summit, and, having arrived there on the small square landing I stood looking at the great, grotesque, calm stone faces lying collected and enclosed up there before me. They were mighty pieces of simple, old-world masonry, said my everyday sense as I looked.

They were faces from a thousand years ago looking at me, said this strange new self which had wakened here amid the hills and silences. I looked at them until I began to fancy I should presently imagine a human face of flesh and blood, or the semblance at least of one, to be looking steadily at me from out that medley of cut and carved stones and grey, uncouth blocks. Turning, I looked out of the broken window at my back. Down there, quite by the lake where our boat waited, I saw the boatman stand, his back towards me, foolishly perched in my tower among rather ghastly stone heads, as I knew was his unspoken thought. Well, I must be going, or else the wind and those calm, terribly calm, stone faces, so huge and mesmeric, at my back, would cause me to fancy I hardly knew what. A large dark cloud, too, with one of those changes which make the climate in some parts of Ireland so moody and which yet have a witchery all their own, was looming every moment greater in the sky. Perhaps a squall was imminent. Was it all the effect of the change of light? As I turned to descend I cast another glance, half of interest, half of a strange feeling that was neither fear nor repulsion yet had elements of both at the railed chamber opposite. It seemed a room now cold, uncivilised as regards creature comforts, rough stone blocks served as bench and prie-dieu before an equally rough and rather large stone rood and roughly hewed figure of the Great Mother. There must have been a roof, after all, or perhaps it was all the darkness caused by the great cloud. At the same moment an eerie rustle of wind swept through the tower and chamber, and it seemed to my fancy like the movement of a habited figure. Was it shadow, was it fancy? a greyish pale figure seemed to stir in that windy chamber.

I did not stay to look, a kind of panic held my reasoning powers and I fled down the stone stairs. Yet the presence that I felt following, following was altogether kind, friendly, very far from hostile. After all I was a Catholic, and my interest had not been that of the antiquarian alone. But the presence was too remote, too holy, too austere for a soul of smaller stature. I remembered, all at once, a strange dream once told me by a cousin since dead.

He knew this Holy Isle, and he dreamed that he had come hither by night, taking the boat at the command of a tall man dressed in some long dark flowing garb who had come to his door at midnight, carrying a shaded lantern whose light was like a star. They went down to the dark, lapping water in silence, and the boat went gliding, rowed with powerful, smooth strokes by the monastic-looking figure and finding its way swiftly under the stars, among the black shapeless masses of the islands, to the wind-swept Holy Isle. His stern, silent guide took his hand in a cold grasp and drew him ashore. Above them on the island the ecclesiastical mass of the ancient church rose massive and powerful, outlined against the stars, and as he looked the light of tapers seemed to shine through the windows,  whether still ruined or perfect, he hardly knew, and the sound of a dirge, chanted in low voices, rose and fell, like sighing, upon the gusty night-wind. 

He listened as together they went towards the dimly lit, shadowy church, and he could distinguish the Latin words it was a lament over the ruined house of God, for Jerusalem wherein not a stone has been left upon a stone. And as he stood, his hand still held in that cold, powerful grasp, a voice, like a presence, seemed to come yearningly towards him from out that assembly of mourning, black-clad figures, and he understood the strange Call of the Holy Isle to him that he should give up all, be, as it were, a victim, for the glory of the House of God laid low and for the kindling of a great light of faith and of continual prayer there on that spot again in the future. A cold terror seized him as he hearkened what did all these sad ghosts want to do with him? And wrenching his hand free, from the chill hold in which it lay he fled, swift as an arrow, to the waiting boat and sailed fast for home. Three times the dream had recurred to him, at long intervals, and each time his resistance had seemed to grow less. And the idea had grown in him of possibly doing something, in some way, to get some tiny, contemplative community to take up residence as near as might be to Devenish some day. And then one evening, years later, and my cousin one of a party yachting on the Lough, the stars shining wonderfully and all who were aboard the yacht with him admiring the beauty of the scene in the clear darkness of the hour, a strange wind had blown from off the Holy Isle and the yacht had dipped before it, and another tragedy had been added to the Lake's list of conquests over man. My cousin had been drowned the rest were rescued.

The weird little story recurred to me as I ran swiftly down the steps. Yet to prove to myself that my nerves were completely under control I paused at the foot of the steps and looked upward and then into the ruined church. Everything was very dark, and the first splashing drops of a late summer thunderstorm were falling with a strange effectiveness of sound, and so possibly my eyes deceived me, for the church, for a brief instant, seemed a real, though small monastic church, with two rows of grey-clad figures standing in it. At that moment the wind entered the building with a wild swirl, a great bell from one of the churches over at Enniskillen pealed the hour, and a mighty roll of thunder following instantaneously upon a vivid blue flash of lightning (which showed me an altar with lights and cross and lamp and hanging dove of gold in the church) filled my ears as with a world of sound coming simultaneously. At that instant also the boatman ran towards me seeking the shelter of the tower. It was as if to my startled senses a burst of organ music and men's singing had suddenly broken forth. 

"O," I said, when I had regained my breath, "I will never come here again !"

"Ah ! sure," he said, but very gravely, and I could see that only for the dangers without he would not have remained another moment in the ancient church, "they were all holy men that lived here long ago. And the storm won't last long."

It lasted for a wild ten minutes, but the whistling of the wind, the crashing of the thunder, and the sharp beating of the rain were all we heard. Then with a sudden, long-drawn, sobbing sigh, as it seemed, the disturbance subsided as suddenly as it had arisen, and the sun began to peep fitfully from among the flying clouds.

We lost no time in picking our way through the soaking grass down to the muddy shore, and there we embarked again. As we put out into mid-stream I looked back again at the lonely tower rising from the green banks of the Holy Isle where the presence of the saintly men of old is as distinct as the shining of the sun, or the blowing of the wind among the hardly-trodden grass. Was it again my fancy? a face seemed to glimmer from the upper window of the tower, and then was gone.

"Sure, the shadows and the sun do make wonderful play there, Madam, on the ould church," said the boatman. But his voice and his eyes were grave and almost sad.

Irish Rosary, Volume 25 (1921), 694-698.

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Sunday, 15 May 2022

Saint Dymphna: 'Lode-star of the Lost Ones'

Saint Dympna - or Davnet of Ireland may belong to legend or mythology; Saint Dympna of Gheel to a holy tradition: Saint-Dympna-of-Today belongs to us all. She is part, as it were, of our national innocence...

...While the secret of Creation remains hidden from the wise and the prudent, it does seem to be revealed from time to time through this little saint whose century and nationality is quite obscure.
Rejected from the acta of saints, she is paradoxically become the lode-star of the lost ones and has quietly but firmly established herself as their advocate.
"Saint Dympna!" They cried long ago - AND THEY STILL DO - 
"Saint Dympna - pray for us". 

Angela Verne, Fugitive Saint (Farnworth, 1961), 201-202.

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