Monday 18 March 2013

Saint Commaneth of Kilcomenty, March 18

On March 18 we commemorate the memory of a County Tipperary saint, Commaneth of Kilcomenty. As you will see below, Canon O'Hanlon in talking of the 'bed' associated with the saint believed that Commaneth was a male saint. This was the view of the Irish scholar John O'Donovan who had visited the site as part of his work for the Ordnance Survey. And what an interesting site it is too, not only do we have the saint's 'bed', a ruined church and graveyard but there is also a holy well. I have inserted a couple of the local traditions regarding the well which were in O'Hanlon's footnotes into the main text. In 1904, the year before Canon O'Halon's death, a paper was published on the antiquities of the parish of Kilcomenty which established that O'Donovan had been mistaken in attempting to associate the early Irish theologian, Saint Cuimín Fada with this site. The saint Commaneth or Comnaid commemorated on March 18 at Kilcomenty was actually a female saint, although a saint with the male form of the name was also listed on this day in the Martyrology of Donegal. I will start with Canon O'Hanlon's account of Saint Commaneth from Volume III of the Lives of the Irish Saints, before proceeding to the evidence presented in the 1904 paper by H. F. Berry:

St. Commaneth, of Kilcomenty Parish, County of Tipperary.

This almost unknown saint has a traditional fame among the people of Kilcomenty parish, county of Tipperary. Within two and a-half miles of Birdhill railway station, and two and a-half of the town of Newport- formerly called Tullagh—there is to be seen an old graveyard, containing several tombs and graves, the most curious of holy wells, and places of pilgrimage, with the remains of an ancient church. They well reward a visit from the tourist or antiquary. Old men remember the walls of the ancient church standing. A curiously-cut holy water font was taken at a former time, out of the ruins, and brought to Birdhill. In and about the churchyard, there are remains of well-carved mullions, and other work, which show how beautiful was the tracery, and mouldings, in the windows of the old church. It is said to have been dedicated to St. Cummaneth, whose festival is observed, in the parish of Kilcomenty, on the 18th of March. The district is called Kilcommenthy, or the country about the church of St. Commenath. The well is shaded over by an enormous ash tree, which near the base of the trunk divides itself into two great shafts. From these, a quantity of branches project, all covered with leaves in summer, and these shelter numerous pilgrims, who make their "rounds " of the well, and who pray for the intercession of the local saint, in order to be relieved from bodily and mental ailments. In this well are two of the mysterious trout, said to frequent nearly every holy well in Ireland. [The following is a local legend. A person of the neighbourhood, at one time, scorning to respect the well, took one of these trout home, and made an effort to roast it; nothing but blood appeared, and the rascal had to bring the trout back to the well; but from that day forward, the family have not had good luck.] The water, by which the well is supplied, comes in a rivulet or stream, from Ballinahinch, some two miles off. Various traditional stories are current, among the people about Birdhill. About two hundred yards north-east of the well, in the midst of hawthorn and alder trees, there is a great Druidic rock basin, of brown sandstone, quite unlike stone of the immediate place, which is limestone. The stone is about two and a-half feet in height from the ground, in breath at the top, it is two and a-half feet, and rounding off in form, it becomes broader, until at the extremity, it is about four and a-half feet in breadth. Within a few yards from the stone, the well runs under the ground, for about two hundred yards, and then it emerges from under the great shady ash tree, within a few yards of the churchyard. The stream thence continues to run a considerable distance, until it empties into the bog of Shower. On the top of the stone are two circular basins, about a foot in diameter, always full or half full of water; and, on the top of the stone, there are two perpendicular cuttings, like Ogam characters—the top one, containing six strokes, the lower one, or one about the middle of the stone, eight. This curious stone, according to a popular tradition, had been the bed of St. Cummaneth, and the perpendicular strokes, are regarded, as the marks of his hands, and of his ribs. The period of this saint is not discoverable to us. [There is a curious story told about the well. It is said, that at some distant period, it was situated near the stone, just described, but that the shepherds and herds of the place allowed sheep and cattle to sully the water, and, in one night, the well moved down to its existing site.]

Rev. John O'Hanlon, Lives of the Irish Saints, Volume III, (Dublin n.d.), 842.

This parish, which is situated in the barony of Owney and Arra, in the south-west comer of north Tipperary, is bounded on the north by the Shannon and the parish of Templeichally; south by the parish of Kilvellane; east by the parishes of Kilmastulla, Killoscully, and Kilnerath; and west by the county Limerick. It takes its name from cille= 'cell' or 'church,' and Commaneth, the name of the patron saint…

O'Donovan, in the course of one short letter, speaks of the patron saint of this parish as Cuimin fodha, Cumenad, and Cumenod, while in the Ordnance Survey the name takes the form of Cuminad. With all these variants before us, we must now consider what is most likely to have been the real name of the saint whose memory is still venerated in the district. In the letter indicated above— an Ordnance Survey letter— dated at Nenagh, 13th October, 1840, now in the Manuscript Room, Royal Irish Academy, O'Donovan names Cuimin fodha as the patron saint of Kilcomenty, adding, “The 18th March is still kept holy in the parish, in honor, as it is believed, of St. Comenad, but the 12th is his day, according to the Irish Calendars." As a matter of fact, 12th November is St. Cuimin fodha' s day, and the word “November" has been accidentally omitted in the original letter. O'Donovan thinks it probable that the parish was “transferred to some continental saint," as, he alleges, was frequently the case in different parts of Ireland. This seems straining a point overmuch, as 18th March has been observed from time immemorial in the parish. One wonders why, in two of his references, O'Donovan makes the name end in ad and od, unless it were to retain some abbreviation of fodha. The country people invariably speak of the patron as St. Cummenat; and so much is known concerning St. Cuimin fodha, and his history, that very little consideration will show how unlikely it is that he was ever connected with Kilcomenty. The holy person, who, in addition to a cell, had a "bed” and well at the latter place, was probably a recluse or anchorite. St. Cuimin was Bishop and Abbot of Clonfert, a man of distinguished learning, and one who led a busy, active life, crowds of students being attracted to his famous school at Clonfert, He was the writer of the celebrated letter to the Abbot of Iona, on the Paschal controversy, which about the year A.D. 630 had reached its culminating point in dividing Christendom on the question of the correct computation of Easter. With a view to a proper study of this subject, he is recorded to have gone into strict retirement for a year, and to have chosen "Disert Chuimin in regione Roscreensi " for his retreat. This place is near Roscrea, and the parish is called Kilcommin. Had St. Cuimin had any connexion with what is now known as Kilcomenty — an ideally lonely and isolated spot — he would naturally have resorted thither; but it seems clear that the cell, bed, and well were appropriated by quite another, one whom Canon O'Hanlon is compelled to speak of as “this almost unknown saint."

An additional and very strong reason for differing from O'Donovan is to be found in the fact that the Martyrology of Donegal, under the date of 18th March, commemorates a saint named Coman, son of Ernan. This saint was a bishop, and came of the race of Conall Gulban, son of Niall. Were he the true patron of Kilcomenty, however, one is at a loss to account for the parish name appearing in any other form than that of Kilcoman.

It seems more likely that the form of the word ‘Kilcomenty' indicates a female saint. The termination nat or net was anciently used as a diminutive in women's names, e.g. Killasnet and Kilbegnet. The former represents a saint named Osnat, which signifies little fawn (os = ‘a fawn'); the latter place was so called from St. Becnat (bec = ‘small: extremely little body'). Dr. Joyce gives some other instances; and analogy justifies us in supposing that our saint may have been ‘little Comma.' The Martyrology of Donegal mentions two saints named Comnat; but neither is commemorated on 18th March. St. Commaneth is not noted in the hagiologies.

St. Senan's mother is found to be named Cumaina and also Comgella; and Cum in the former is the same as Com in the latter. The Calendar of Aengus does not mention Comgella as a saint; but Coma, daughter of Comgall, appears on 22nd January, while Comgella is made to be daughter of Ernach. Coman, who is mentioned by O'Hanlon on 18th March, is said to be son of Eman; the accounts of him are rather complicated, but we cannot fail to be struck by the coincidence of this Coman being son of Ernan, while Comgella' s father was Ernach.

Some confusion appears to have occurred; but on a review of the apparently contradictory evidence, the truth seems to be that, while in some places a saint named Coman was revered on 18th March, a female saint Comanait was commemorated on the same day in the parish of Kilcomenty. Comanait is the ancient form of Commaneth, and the genitive of Comanait is Comnata; Kilcomenty in Irish, then, is Cill-Comnata....

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