A PRE-PATRICIAN SAINT OF IRELAND
BY J. B. CULLEN
ST. IBAR, patron of the town of Wexford, although one of the most remarkable and, we may add, one of the very earliest of our national saints and scholars, finds a very limited notice in the ecclesiastical literature of Ireland. This fact is rather to be regretted, since Ibar, in his day, was a living link between paganism and Christianity. For in the earlier part of his life he is said to have been a member of the Druid order, and subsequently, when he received the light of the true Faith, he devoted his profound learning and talents to the service of Christ in diffusing the knowledge of the Gospel, and effecting the conversion of his countrymen, who were enveloped in the darkness of pagan superstitions and idolatry. It is more than probable, considering the circumstances of his early life, and taking into account the date at which he began his missionary career, that his island-school at Begerin was the first of those centres of monastic life and literary activity which, later on, secured for Ireland its ancient title, 'Insula Sanctorum et Doctorum.'
It is nowadays accepted by our foremost scholars that the Christian religion was known and practised, to some extent, in Ireland previous to the coming of St. Patrick. History tells us that the tragedy of Calvary and the Resurrection and Ascension of Our Blessed Lord were related in Britain, shortly after these events occurred, by some soldiers of the Roman legions who had served in Palestine. Intercourse between the two countries, for the purposes of trade or otherwise, must have undoubtedly existed from pre-historic times, so that we may reasonably assume the reports we have alluded to were not slow in reaching Ireland.
There are, moreover, indisputable proofs that Christians were numerous in Britain in the third century, and that a regular hierarchy had been instituted by the Holy See in that country. Again, some writers say that scattered communities of ' believers ' (who were probably British settlers) were to be met with along the eastern coasts of Ireland at this period. These historical references are touched upon here in order to explain, at least, some of the reasons why it has been so often recorded that the Irish nation was well and favourably disposed to receive the knowledge of Christian revelation when the truths of the Gospel came to be unfolded to its people. How often has it not been told that the conversion of our forefathers to the Faith was effected over the whole kingdom without that violent opposition or bloodshed experienced by the first preachers of Christianity in other countries.
The little band of missionaries who were commissioned authoritatively to initiate the planting of the Faith in Ireland are usually styled the 'pre-Patrician apostles' as they preceded the advent of the National Saint of our country and in the later part of their careers laboured conjointly with him. These were SS. Ibar, Kieran, Declan, and Ailbe, whose names hold a place only second to that of St. Patrick in the history of the nation's conversion. They were, so to speak, the pioneers, who planted the outposts of the Faith in the enemy's territory, while it was reserved for another to gather the souls of the whole nation to the spiritual kingdom of Christ.
St. Ibar, the subject of our sketch, was born in the province of Ulster during the latter half of the fourth century, at a place then known as Cruintain. His father was a prince of the race of Conall Cearnach, one of the northern dynasties, while his mother belonged to a noble family of Deisi (in Bregia, now Co. Meath). It is apparent that Ibar's family held an honoured position among the royal houses of Ireland at the time, since some of its members were connected by kinship and marriage with the ruling chieftainages of the country. In this connexion we may remark that Mella, the sister of our Saint, espoused Hua-Carbmiac, King of Hy-Kensellagh whose kingdom comprised the entire of the present Co. Wexford, with a considerable portion of Wicklow and Carlow. He is sometimes styled King of Leinster, since his territory seems to have had a sort of titular pre-eminence in the tribal divisions of the south-eastern province.
Of the early life of Ibar little is known beyond the fact that he was a student in one of the principal Druid colleges which were then the chief centres of education and culture in this country. Druidism, if we may use the word, prevailed among nearly all the Celtic peoples in pagan times . But, it may be said to be especially peculiar to Ireland which is stated by many writers to have been the principal abode of the cult and its place of origin. The Druids were regarded by the people as authorities in every branch of Celtic learning. They were not, however, as popularly thought, exclusively an order of priesthood. Their profession rather implied an organization of scholars and teachers, who were experts in law, matters of religion, astronomy, philosophy, history, medicine, and moral and physical science. In fact, their colleges corresponded somewhat with the idea of a university in our day. As Caesar tells us, the candidate for the order had to attend one of these schools, and there pass twenty years under instruction before he became a qualified Druid. The functions of this erudite body when Christianity superseded paganism finally passed over to the greater schools of religious education and learning which became the glory of ancient Ireland.
But to resume the main thread of our narrative. Comparing dates, Ibar must have attained the age of manhood at the period when the death-knell of Druidism and pagan superstition sounded throughout Gaul, mainly under the influence of the preaching and miracles of the great St. Martin of Tours and the labours of his followers. When the report of these proceedings reached Ireland, Ibar, we are told, left his country and crossed over to Celtic Armorica (now Brittany) in order to ascertain for himself the causes of the change that was rapidly subverting the old forms of the pagan religion. The expedition of Ibar may, perhaps, have been undertaken also for the attainment of secular knowledge, since some ancient writers tell us that after his visit to Gaul he journeyed on to Athens then the seat of Grecian refinement and literary fame. Here he astonished the scholars and professors of the university with whom he came in contact by his versatility in the knowledge of the Greek tongue. Later on he visited Rome, where drinking, as it were, at the fountains of Pagan and Christian tradition the light of faith broke in upon his soul, and he resolved, from conviction, to abandon the superstitious beliefs of his forefathers, and embrace the religion of the one true God.
Desirous of acquiring a still deeper knowledge of the truths of Christianity and of studying the systems of the religious life, Ibar prolonged his sojourn in the Eternal City, and eventually resolved to enter on the sacred ministry of the Gospel. With this object in view, on leaving Rome he proceeded to Lerins an island in the Mediterranean, where the famous monastery of St. Honoratus flourished at the time. This home of the religious life was remarkable throughout the South of Europe for the asceticism, but no less for the profound learning, of its monks. It produced some of the most distinguished scholars of the fifth century. Some of the Fathers of the early Irish Church spent a time there, and [afterwards established, in great part, the rule of Lerins in the monasteries founded by themselves in their native country. While at Lerins, Ibar said to have met St. Kieran (Saigher) and also St. Patrick. From the Acts of the former saint we learn that whilst he was commissioned by St. Patrick to proceed to Ireland and found a monastery at a certain place, ' in the middle of the island,' which would be miraculously indicated to him by God, and where he would himself meet him after ' thirty years.' This legend serves to point approximately to the date at which the mission of the ' pre-Patrician apostles ' commenced in this country.
When Ibar was returning from Lerins to his native land, he was accompanied by some companions, who formed the first community of religious, established by him, in the West, on one of the Islands of Arran. It is hardly necessary to recall that this group of islands afterwards became a fruitful nursery of Irish saints. The stay of our Saint in the West would seem not to have extended over a very prolonged period, since we find he had removed his monastery to the south-eastern coast early in the fifth century. At this time Hua-Carbmaic was dynast of Hy-Kinsellagh, and, as we have previously noted, had married the sister of Ibar. The latter circumstance would probably account for his obtaining a grant of the island in the estuary of Wexford Harbour, on which he founded the monastic school of Begerin - ever since associated with his name and miracles. The fame of this seat of learning became so widespread that its students, in the life-time of its founder, are said to have numbered three thousand! This extraordinary influx of students could perhaps be accounted for from the proximity and intercourse this part of Ireland had with the Celtic countries of Wales and Armorica. The inhabitants of both were allied by race and kindredship with the people of this country whilst all spoke the same language.
Doubtless the celebrity of the school of Begerin Island was, to a great extent, due to the reputation for learning its founder enjoyed on account of his connexion with the pre-Christian schools of Ireland in his early life, and of the varied knowledge he attained during his sojourn in the classic cities of Athens and Rome. Notwithstanding the arduous duties imposed upon him as president of the school and abbot of the monastery of Begerin, St. Ibar performed an amount of missionary work. The number of churches he founded bear evidence of this. From his relation with the ruling family of Hy-Kinsellagh, and from local tradition, it may be safely assumed that his apostolic labours extended, more or less, over a great part of the area which now forms the County of Wexford.
As with so many of the early saints of Ireland, numerous miracles, prophecies, and legends are associated with the memories of St. Ibar. Among the rest we are told that on one occasion the Saint was summoned to the death-bed of the Queen, his sister, who, in the pains of child birth, lay at the last extremities. Inspired by God, the Saint assured her of her safe delivery, foretelling the future greatness and sanctity of her child, who was afterwards known in history as Magnus Abbanus the great St. Abban. This incident leads us to conclude that the King and his household were among the first converts of St. Ibar in Hy-Kinsellagh a fact that here, as elsewhere, facilitated the conversion of the chieftains and the tribes of that territory. In this connexion we may mention that the National Apostle never preached in the kingdom of Hy-Kinsellagh, since the Faith was already planted there, through the zeal of St. Ibar and other missionaries who assisted in his apostolate.
About the same period of which we write a number of holy men (all brothers) crossed over to Ireland from the opposite coast of Wales and erected for themselves little hermitages or cells along the seaboard of the peninsular portion of Wexford, lying between Waterford Harbour and the Atlantic (on the east side). They were the sons of a Christian Prince of Brecknockshire (of Irish descent), who brought up his children in such a degree of holiness and virtue that the names of most of them are enrolled in the sacred calendars of Ireland's saints.
The example and teaching of those hermit-priests were the heaven-directed means of establishing Christianity in this isolated district, where they laboured and died. Religious connexions of a most intimate kind were for centuries afterwards kept up between the Christians of Wales and Ireland and it may be interesting to recall that these early missionaries of South Wexford were maternal uncles of the great St. David, patron of Wales.
Abban, the nephew of our Saint, as we are told in his Latin life, was placed in the monastery of Begerin when he was but twelve years old. In after years he succeeded his venerable relative in the abbacy, and became one of the most remarkable missionaries of his time. Here we may remark that it is in the voluminous Life of St. Abban, compiled from various sources by Colgan, that the most important notices of St. Ibar are found.
Pilgrimages to Rome, which are so frequently mentioned in the lives of our early saints, although involving much hardship and attended with manifold dangers, seem to have been thought but slightly of in the Ages of Faith. Our Saint, it is related, desiring once again to visit the Eternal City which was doubly dear to him as the place where he received the gift of faith and had spent so many years requested his monks to chose a substitute to administer the affairs of the monastery in his absence. Abban, though still a very young religious, was unanimously chosen. He was filled with trouble when the selection of his brethren was made known to him. Pleading his unworthiness to undertake the position, he eagerly besought that he might be released from the arduous charge. Moreover, he now further revealed that he had long desired to visit Rome, and had determined to seek the permission to accompany his uncle on his intended pilgrimage. However, to his utter disappointment, Ibar steadfastly refused to release him from the appointment so unanimously made, or to consent to his wish of accompanying him on his journey. When the day of the Abbot's departure arrived and the monks and students accompanied him to the little creek whence he was to embark, Abban made a last appeal that his petition might be granted, but it was of no avail. He then withdrew, having bid farewell to his beloved master, weeping bitterly. Ibar's heart was at last touched, and, calling him back, exclaimed, ' Come hither, my son, and rest thy head within the folds of my mantle.' The sorrow-stricken monk at once complied, and as the Abbot placed his own cowl upon his head poor Abban fell fast asleep. While the tears flowed down his cheeks, Ibar gently laid the sleeping form upon the beach; and bidding those present to disperse in silence, entering the little craft that awaited him, bid the crew set sail. When the lonely sleeper awoke, the favouring wind had borne the vessel almost out of sight. Arising, Abban descried the distant bark, and forthwith casting himself on his knees, cried out : 'O Lord God Almighty! give ear to the prayer of Thy servant. Remember Thou didst lead Thy chosen people through the waters of the Red Sea; Thou to Whom all created things are subject, and with Whom no word is impossible, do with me as Thou wilt. Confiding in Thy mercies and in Thy name, I will enter on the paths of the ocean.' Saying those words Abban fearlessly stepped from the beach, and proceeded onward in the direction whither the pilgrim's bark had sailed, upheld and protected by the power of God! When he uttered his petition, the annalist tells us, the pilgrim's vessel was suddenly becalmed in the midst of the ocean! Ibar, who perceived the mysterious figure approaching from afar, filled with divine intuition, exclaimed to those on board:'Brethren, you are privileged to witness a great miracle of God. Behold the person of our brother Abban . . . upheld and sustained by the hands of angels!'
Needless to say, the prayer of the trusting monk was heard - the pilgrims reached Rome safely, and having performed the wished-for devotions at the shrines of the Apostles, returned to their beloved monastery on the island of Lough Garman. This legend is introduced here in order to show the wonderful attraction Rome had for our early saints. The bond of unity formed, in those far-off times, between Ireland and the Apostolic See was never severed down to the present day.
Despite the responsibilities, as previously noted, that devolved upon Ibar as abbot of a monastery whose community is said to have numbered a hundred and fifty monks as well as principal of a vast school, this remarkable saint founded churches in many parts.
No town existed at this period on the shores of Lough Garman for Wexford dates its foundation only from the Danish occupation of the locality in the ninth century. But on the site of that town our Saint erected one of his early oratories. The present parish church (Protestant), built on the ancient site, bears his name, in its latinized form, St. Iberius. A few miles south of Wexford is the village of St. Ivor's, whose ruined fane bespeaks a building of great antiquity. In Meath also St. Ibar spent some time in apostolic labours. It will be remembered, as we have already told, that he was connected, on his mother's side, with one of the principal tribes of this district. Here his name is perpetuated in the village called Ballivor. Again, in the olden territory of Leix we find traces of his missionary wanderings, since it is recorded he 'converted and baptized the twelve sons of Barr' chieftain of one of the local clans. In the Life of St. Brigid St. Ibaris is mentioned as being 'spiritual instructor of her community.' However, it is with the Barony of Forth, South Wexford, that the sanctity and traditions of St. Ibar are more than elsewhere prominently identified.
The Book of Leinster contains a curious but interesting entry in Latin giving a list of Irish saints who in their characters and work for God resembled scriptural saints and Fathers of the Early Church. This list comprises thirty-three names, the first of which is 'Bishop Ibar of Begerin ' (who is likened unto) 'John the Baptist the Precursor of Christ.' The inference clearly indicates that Ibar was the forerunner of the National Apostle of Ireland. This illustrious saint and scholar attained an abnormal length of years, as it is recorded, by many authorities, that his death occurred April 23, A.D. 500. His remains were interred in the cemetery of Begerin Island, which became a resort of pilgrims for centuries.
After his death his monastery and school continued to flourish for almost 400 years. It was one of the first of the religious settlements along the east coast of Ireland that suffered from the incursions of the Danes. Its library, which was famous, being largely added to by its second abbot, St. Abban, who thrice visited Rome, and further augmented by his successor St. Coemghen, was totally destroyed by the Vandals. In the annals of Ireland referring to this period of its history, under the year 819, the plundering and destruction of the monastery of Begerin Island is recorded. For ages, however, the place continued to be regarded as a very sacred spot by the people of the surrounding districts, who were accustomed to make frequent pilgrimages to the grave of its holy founder. In the Norman period it was apparently occupied by the Canons Regular, who erected a church, the ruins of which may still be seen.
Begerin is no longer an island. When the sloblands of Wexford Harbour were reclaimed more than half a century ago, the island, which contained some twenty-three acres, became part of the mainland. St. Abban, the second abbot of Begerin, was the founder of the Magnum monasterium of Ros-mic-Treon, on the Barrow, which was the nucleus of the Norman town of Ross. Somewhat south of Begerin an old church and holy well are dedicated to St. Coemghen, third abbot (who was brother of St. Kevin of Glendalough), popularly called Ard-Cavan. In another part of South Wexford there is also an ancient church bearing the name of the same saint Kill-Kavan. It is situated near the estuary of Bannow.
Considering its connexion with the earliest period of Christianity in Ireland and its history as a religious foundation, Begerin deserves to be regarded as one of the most interesting of the shrines of sanctity and learning that, as we have said, won for ancient Erin the proud title, ' the Island of Saints and Scholars.'
Whilst St. Aidan is Patron of the See of Ferns, it was Ibar and his contemporaries that sowed the spiritual seed from which those who continued his apostolate reaped the abundant harvests of over fifteen hundred years.
J. B. CULLEN.
The Irish Ecclesiastical Record Volume XVIII, 1921, 374-383.
Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2015. All rights reserved.
Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2015. All rights reserved.