Tuesday 8 October 2013

The Seven Virgins of Armagh, October 8

On October 8 the Irish calendars commemorate a group of holy women within the diocese of Armagh. The entry in the Martyrology of Oengus does not specify the number of these saints but the (rather unfortunate) translation by Whitley Stokes describes them as 'a bevy of virginal girls':

A. viii. idus Octobris.

Lécsit lúth co nani
ar bithaittrib rígi
trét ingen co nógi
la paiss find Faustíni.

8. They left power with splendour
for eternal possession of the Kingdom,
a bevy of virginal girls
at the white passion of Faustinus.

The scholiasts' notes, however, introduce the idea of 'septem filiae', seven girls:

8. a bevy of girls, i.e. in Cell na nóebingen ' the Church of the holy girls' in the precinct of Armagh, i.e. septem filiae. Or maybe they are the holy virgins who are in Cell na n-ingen to the east of Armagh.

The later Martyrology of Donegal refers on this day to:

THE SEVEN HOLY VIRGINS, of the Termon of Ard-Macha.

This is but one instance of saints occurring in sevens within the Martyrology, there are, for example, commemorations of the Seven Bishops of Cluaincua on October 3 and of the Seven Sons of Stiallan, on October 27.

I assumed that the present seven virgins of Armagh are connected to the hagiography of Saint Patrick and wondered if they may be connected to this episode from the Tripartite Life:

"Once on a time there came nine daughters of the King of the Lombards, and a daughter of the King of Britain on their pilgrimage to Patrick. They stayed at the east of Armagh in the place where Coll na n-Ingen (the Maidens' Hazel) stands to-day. They sent to Patrick to ask if they might go to see him (to Armagh). Patrick said to the messengers, 'Three of the virgins will go to heaven, and do ye bury them in the place where they are — namely, at Coll na n-Ingen. Let the rest of the virgins go to Druim Fendeda (or the Champion's Ridge), and let one of them go as far as the hillock in the east.' - and this thing was done."

The reference in the Martyrology of Oengus that they 'left power with splendour for eternal possession of the Kingdom' would certainly seem to tie in with the idea of princesses becoming nuns. Although the Tripartite Life talks of nine daughters of the King of the Lombards plus a daughter of the King of Britain, Saint Patrick prophecies that three will go to heaven which would reduce their number to seven. I will have to do some further research and see if recent scholarship can cast any more light on this enigmatic group.

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