Friday 8 March 2013

Saint Seanan of Inis Cathaigh, March 8

March 8 is the commemoration on the Irish calendars of Saint Seanan of Inis Cathaigh (Scattery Island).  In the account of his life below, Irish Redemptorist, Father Albert Barry, draws on the hagiographical accounts to present a portrait of this much-loved son of County Clare:

Saint Seanan

When the men of Tuath-mumha (Co. Clare) came to Domnachmor of Magh-Aine (near Bruff), where Saint Patrick was preaching the Gospel, they earnestly besought him to come and preach to their kindred. But he said, There is no good reason for my going with you, for God will send you a Teacher: a child beloved by God and man shall be born amongst you, and he shall be full of the gifts of God from his childhood." He baptised them at Tir-da-ghlass to the south-east of Domnachmor. A longing then fell on him to behold the broad river of which they had spoken to him and to bless their land.

Saint Patrick, after thus foretelling the birth of Seanan of Inis Cathaigh, blessed the men of Tuath-mumha and sent some of his Disciples with them to preach to their people.

Saint Seanan was born at Mogh-locha in Corca-Bhaiscinn (Co. Clare) in the year 488. His father was Gergen, and his mother was Coemghal of Altraige. He grew in grace as in years, and was wiser and more holy than any of his play-fellows.

When the Chieftain of Corca-Bhaiscinn made war on the people of Corcomruaidh (Burren), Seanan had to go with him to fight. The two tribes fought against each other like beasts; and the invaders were put to flight with great slaughter. Seanan hid himself in a wheat-stack as soon as he saw his kinsmen flying from the onslaught of their foes. He was soon found. But when thirsting for his blood they endeavoured to drag him from his hiding place, they were driven away by a wonderful light that shone around him. They then said to him, Tell us who are you and what has brought you here." He answered, '' I belong to the tribe that made war on you, and I came here in order to hide from you.” They not only spared his life, but even treated him well, for they saw his face shining like an angel.

When he was on his way home he became both hungry and thirsty, and begged for food and drink at the rath of a Chieftain. He was driven away by the heartless inmates with kicks and blows. He meekly bore this harsh treatment and went slowly homewards. When the Chieftain came back at nightfall he learned what had happened, and at once sent some men after the forlorn youth; and when they had led him back, food and drink were set before him, and he was treated with kindness. The next day he bent his steps towards Mogh-Locha.

Seanan, when driving home the cows belonging to his mother one evening, came to an inlet of the river Sionan (Kilrush), and was unable to go across to the other side as the tide was rushing in. He, therefore, drove them back before him to Dun Mechair, the rath of a Chieftain, and begged for shelter for the night, but was driven roughly away. He then went sadly back to the shore of the inlet, intending to wait there until the tide should ebb. As soon, however, as he came there he saw the waters making way for him and he was able to go dryshod to the other side. When he reached the opposite bank he knelt down on the grass and thanked God for His goodness and then offered himself up in sacrifice to Him. Dun Mechair soon afterwards was beset by foes and burned to the ground.

Seanan bade farewell to his mother and his friends and went to live with a holy old man at Irros on the sea-coast. He got religious knowledge from him, and also learned the holy Books, but above all became perfect in humility, obedience, and charity. After staying for a long time with this holy man, he went to Kil-na-managh (Ossory) and put himself under Naile, and by his help became very holy. There were 150 Monks in that monastery, and Seanan became the servant of all, for he spent his days grinding corn for them. Three thieves came one day to the door of the corn-mill with the intention of stealing the corn, but looking in through a chink of the door saw another young man standing by his side. They then said, "Let us stay outside until one of them comes forth, and we will first overpower him and afterwards overpower the other inside. '' They waited a long time, but as no one came out they grew weary and went in, but saw no one within the house except Seanan. They said to him, '' Who was that youth who was helping you to grind the cor?”  Seanan answered, It may have been He of whom it is written,He sleeps not, nor shall He sleep who watches Israel.”' They again said, " Who was he?” And Seanan answered, It was He who is near to all who call upon Him." When the thieves heard these words they begged his forgiveness, and even sought to become Monks in that monastery. They themselves told this miracle to the Writer of the life of S. Seanan,

Seanan, at length, by the command of Saint Naile, left Kil-na-managh and went to Hy-Ceinnseallagh (Wexford) and built a monastery on a small grassy island in the river Slaine at Inis-Corthadh (Enniscorthy). As soon as that monastery began to flourish he left it and went back to Mumha, and took up his abode first on the island of Oilen-Arda-Neimhedh (Barrymore), and then on the bland of Tuaim-na-mba in the river Laoi(Lee). The Chieftain Lugaidh, however, threatened to slay him unless he paid rent to him and also allowed his horses to feed on the land. Seanan, however, answered, " You shall lose the happiness of heaven and earthly prosperity unless you give over ill-treating the servants of God”. A few days afterwards one of the horses belonging to the Chieftain fell into the stream and was drowned. His two sons and some of his friends entreated him to become friends with the man of God. He yielded to their entreaties, and his two sons gave themselves to Seanan as his faithful followers. Seanan then foretold that they would be blessed by God and would enjoy the Chieftaincy in turn for many years. The island was ever afterwards called Inis Carra. He left eight Monks there under the care of Saint Cilliann, and under the protection of Fechen, son of Faighe the King of Muscraighe, and went to Inis Luinge in the river Sionan. He built a monastery there for holy Virgins and gave the veil of Religion to the daughterof Breandhad, a Chieftain of Hy-Figeinte (Co, Limerick). He then set sail for Inis Caerach (Mutton Island), an island in the sea lying off the coast of Ibh Caisin. He built a church and monastery, and after living there for a short time went to his birthplace in Corca-Bhaiscinn.

Whilst he was at Mogh-Locha he learned from an angel that it was the will of God that he should spend the last years of his life at Inis Cathaigh (Scattery Island). He therefore went there, but whilst standing on the highest ground of the island, and beholding how bleak it was and how the sea breeze blew fiercely over it, and the great waves dashed like wild beasts against it, he thought within himself and said, This island seems exposed to every danger and is not suitable for a monastery.” But the angel said to him, “Be comforted: not one of the Monks shall be lost, when crossing the stormy water, either going from it or coming to it, when they come or go by the will of the Head of the monastery.” Seanan thereupon set to work to build huts for his Monks, as well as a Damhliag for the Divine Office and for the sacred Rites. When the Chieftain Mac-Tail heard what Seanan had done, he sent some of his men to drive him from the island. They seized him and began to drag him down to the beach, but they were hindered in their unholy work by the power of God. Seanan said to one of the men, who was unwilling to lay hands upon him, “You shall keep your land, and your children shall be the owners of it after you; but whoever clings too fondly to his land shall lose it.'' The Chieftain, brimful of wrath, then came himself and said, ''I will take your life unless you leave this island at once: I will tie a stone around your neck, and throw you into the river.” Seanan answered, ''God can save me from you.” The angry Chieftain said, '' I fear neither God nor you more than I do a sheep.” Seanan answered, '' This gentle animal, through the providence of God, shall occasion your death.” The Chieftain uttered many threats and then went away. When driving in his chariot through a wood in Corca-Bhaiscinn a short time afterwards, his horses were frightened by a sheep, his chariot was overset, and he was killed. Seanan lived in peace from that time forth in the island of Cathaigh.

The monastic family soon became very great: and in the year 534 Seanan built several Oratories, or small Churches. A very ancient writer says, There is many a grassy and widespreading island on the bright expanse of the windings of the river between Luimneach and Leim Chonchuillinn, and Inis Cathaigh is one of them; and there the holy Seanan of glorious life, built eleven churches, and a beautiful and lofty Tower alongside of them.” One of the Oratories was called Temple of the dead” and another built on a hill, was called Temple of the angels.” The Belfry was 115 feet in height, and when the bell on the top of it was rung, it was heard all over Corca-Bhaiscinn, so that sacrifice was offered in each Church at the same time as it was offered at Inis Cathaigh. (Ancient Life.)

Seanan led a holy life and suffered very much from constant sickness. Cuinnen of Coindire writes, Seanan, the noble sufferer: good was every response of his responses: he loved to have thirty diseases in his body: a sufficient mortification for this wise man.” He was wont to go by himself from time to time, to a small and lonely island of the ocean (Bishop's Island), and there he spent his days, fasting and praying in the little stone hut, still standing there. He often went about the country, preaching and baptising, and gathered great numbers into the sheepfold of the Church. Thus what Saint Patrick had foretold, happened, and he became a bright and shining light to his native land.

Seanan worked many miracles whilst he dwelt at Inis Cathaigh. A young Monk named Donan went in a canoe one day with two young boys of the monastery to a rock to gather shellfish. Whilst they were busy searching for the shellfish their boat drifted away; the tide rose over the rock and the two boys were drowned. Donan swimming ashore, told the sad news to Seanan. When the parents of the children heard of their death they came at once to Seanan wailing and crying aloud, Give us back our children”. The holy old man, sad at heart and unable to bear the sight of these broken-hearted mothers, said to Donan, Go and tell these boys in the name of Jesus Christ to come to us." Donan obeyed, and through the infinite goodness of God the two boys came to life and stood smiling before them. The parents wonderstruck at the miracle, said to them, " Would you rather live where you have been than here below with us?” They answered, We would think this world a prison even if we had all its riches in comparison with the lovely spot where we have been, and we beseech God to allow us to enjoy that happiness again.” Their parents hearing these words were glad, and yielded to their wishes. The children got holy Communion and slept gently in the Lord, and their bodies were buried at the entrance of the graveyard of the monastery.

The holy Virgin Cannera saw with the eyes of her soul a vision one night whilst praying earnestly to God. She saw all the Irish monasteries and pillars of fire going up towards heaven from them, and the brightest shone over the monastery of Seanan. An angel stood before her, and said, " The flames of fire that you behold are the souls of the Saints burning with the love of God. The greatest is the grace shining more fully in the Brethren of Seanan.” Cannera was glad at heart, and longed to go there
to see these holy men. She prayed to God to bestow that happiness upon her.
She went the following morning to the shore of the river Sionan and gazed wistfully at the island of Cathaigh. An angel suddenly appeared and took her bodily across to it. But when Seanan saw her he rebuked her for coming there. He said to her, '”We will not allow you or any other woman to stay in this island.”  She answered, '' If you believe that Christ can receive my soul, why do you reject me in body?”  He said, I believe it firmly, but we do not allow any woman to set foot here. Be it so, and may God bless you: go back to the world and be not a stumbling-block to us.” She answered, '' I hope that the Lord will first take my soul from my flesh before making me go hence” She died, and gave up her soul, and her funeral rites were celebrated by the Brethren.

Saint Ciaran of Cluain-mac-Nois, and Saint Breanan came to visit Seanan at Inis Cathaigh, They chose him for spiritual guide.  Food was sent to the monastery by Nectan Cennfhoda of Hy- Figeinte (Limerick). He came soon afterwards, and Seanan blessed him, and said, ”You and your children shall be always Rulers over a Kingdom.” Seanan struck the ground with his staff, and a spring of water  at once burst forth and still flows.

An angel made known to the holy Abbot that his last day on earth was coming, ''Seanan, servant of God, you are called to heaven.” He was glad to hear the good tidings, and thanked God with his whole heart. He fell sick soon afterwards on the mainland, and died like one falling asleep, March 1st, in the year 544. His Monks bore his body to his island home. They kept it unburied until his fellow-Bishops and Abbots and others round about, who grieved for his death, should be able to come, and give back earth to earth. The Monks, meanwhile, watched and prayed, said the Divine Office, and sang solemn Masses for eight days, and during that time the sky glowed with unearthly brightness.

The Bishops and Priests of Hy-Figeinte (Limerick), and many other holy men came to Inis Cathaigh, and his body was laid in the earth in the chief Church of the island. A great crowd of people gathered together there when the body of the Saint was borne to the tomb. Joy was mingled with sadness, and tears with words of gladness. God worked many miracles through his merits, and the people of Tuath-mhumha and of Figeinte took him for their spiritual Patron and Protector.

His feast day was kept March 8th, but it is now kept March 13th. It is still kept, however, March 8th, in the Diocese of Limerick.


Rev. Albert Barry, Lives of Irish Saints (Dublin, n.d.)

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