Monday 27 January 2014

Saint Naile (Natalis), 27 January

The Martyrology of Donegal records for today:


'NAILE, of Inbher-Naile in Tir-Baghuine, in Cinel-Conaill; and afterwards Abbot of Cill-Naile and Daimhinis in Feara-Manach. He was a son of Aenghus, (son of Nadfraech, son of Core, son of Lughaidh,) who was king of Munster; and Eithne, daughter of Crimhthann Cosgrach, was his mother, according to his own Life.

It was to him God gave water from the hard stony rock, when great thirst had seized him and Maedhog of Fearna, with the monks of both; when he made a distant cast of his crozier at the hard stony rock, so that a stream of pure spring water gushed therefrom; just as this spring is now to be seen at Cill-Naile, according to Naile's own Life, chap. 10. The Life of Colum Cille, chap. 90, states that Naile came into the presence of Colum Cille for the first time, at the Inbher, and that Colum Cille and Naile blessed the place, and that it is from Naile the church has been thenceforth named.'

A translation of an Irish Life of this saint, the Betha Naile, is available through the CELT project. It begins, as is common in the lives of many of the Irish saints, with a description of the unusual events surrounding the birth of the saint:

Now to this Eithne appeared a strange and wondrous vision. (She dreamed) that she was pregnant, and her delivery imminent, and that of this pregnancy a sturdy dog-whelp was born, which was washed in milk, so that therefrom every quarter and nook in Ireland was filled with milk and lactage.

So then they passed the time of their reign right prosperously, without trouble or lack; and the queen became pregnant, and of her pregnancy was born a notable birth of a son. And when they were minded to take him to be baptised, an angel appeared on the horn of the altar in the presence of them all, and said to them in a loud clear voice: 'Let the name of Naile be given to the young child; for verily this golden candle shall be holy, and everyone will believe on the fair patron saint.'

The saint demonstrates his virtues even in childhood:

So then the young child was nurtured after this, and assuredly every word he uttered was full of grace from the royal angel. And at the end of his seven years the steadfast patron saint was assuredly a doctor in the seven liberal sciences owing to his persevering study. And then the angel ordered the weighty clerk to go to Colum Cille in order that a mother church complete might be consecrated for the young child, and a place in which he might make his abode with his clergy and with his sacred bells.

The encounter of the great Saint Colum Cille with the child prodigy is presented as a meeting of equals:

And Naile set out on this holy errand (or holy instruction) with his retinue of clerks in attendance. Now Colum Cille, son of Feidlimid, son of Fergus Cennfada (long-head), son of Conall Gulban, son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, was then at fresh-featured Inber Naile, reciting his psalms, and chanting his 'Beati' and devoutly praising the Creator, with the clerks of Leth Cuinn (Conn's half, i.e. northern Ireland) about him, when they saw the slow-stepping bell-hallowed troop approaching them, and a young fresh modest tree in the centre of the clerks to instruct them fairly, and a thousand reverend angels haunting them unfailingly.

And when Colum Cille and his clerks looked on Naile with his noble troop, they fell on their knees before him. And when Naile saw this honour paid to him by the crimson-penned primate of the sweet pater-nosters, he hastily sank on his knees to the ground out of reverence to the lofty patron saint. And they eagerly kissed each other three times, to wit, Colum Cille and Naile; and the clerks also joined in welcoming him;

The young Naile then devotes himself to the monastic life:

So then Naile spent part of his life in Inber Naile modestly, piously, devotedly, in mighty works, and he fashioned there a church for labour, and an oratory for hard devotion, wherein to nobly recite his psalm-reading, and to mightily praise his Lord; so that the relation of the mighty works of the saint was a destruction to the great sin and to the misbelief of high Erin.

until another great monastic saint, Molaise of Devenish, County Fermanagh, is looking for a successor:

So then it was at this time and hour that Molaise of Devenish came as venerable high legate, with twelve saints of his household round about him in place of the apostles. Thereupon a dangerous sudden illness seized Molaise on the spot, and he was commending himself to God and the good saints without ceasing. And the clerks said: 'To whom dost thou leave thy place, O great patron saint? or who will act as a divine son to instruct us duly, to blot out our sins, and direct our theology?'

For Molaise, the choice is obvious, but should there be any question, all doubts will be resolved by a miracle:

'To whom in sooth should I leave it?' said Molaise, 'save to the steadfast ready-witted tree, and the godly devout candle, even to my disciple and good brother, to wit, Naile the nobly intelligent; and if ye believe not that the clerk has been duly chosen by me and by God, this sweet-voiced intact bell which is under my head will leap into the bosom of the man for whom the place is fitting.'

So then after this mutual discourse, his soul departed from his body, and his soul was carried without doubt to fill up the nine orders of angels. And as they were preparing his funeral rites, and the saints were in bright attendance on him, then came Naile to the place where he (Molaise) was. And while they were there, the sweet-voiced fair wonder-working bell leaped from (under) the head of Molaise in presence of the clerks, and settled on the breast of the holy clerk;

Before long, word of the sanctity of Naile reaches another saint:

Now when Maedoc heard of the many and various miracles of this saint, Naile, and that he was a proper worthy saint in the place of Molaise, he sent messengers to him to confirm the close compact, and to establish the fair faith which had been between Molaise and Maedoc. And this was the definite special place agreed on by the pure patron saints, to wit, the rich bright-gleaming Disert na Topar (Hermitage of the Springs), which is now called Cell Naile (Naile's Church) of the noble judgements , and which had assuredly a further name, Cluain Caem (the Fair Mead) till Dathernoc (Ternoc) occupied the princely place.

Ternoc, however, rather foolishly offends Saint Naile:

So then Naile came with his numerous clergy, and Maedoc with his monks to keep this tryst to the fair church with its wonder-working bell. And Naile took his seat with his numerous clergy on the summit of the high hill, with his back against a pillar-stone above the place. And a mighty thirst seized him on the spot; and he called Flannan, son of Fiachna, son of Fergus, to him, and bade him to go without long delay to ask speedily for a drink. And Flannan went on this errand, and asked a drink of Ternoc for his lord. And Ternoc refused and denied the request, and spoke to this effect: 'As I have produced water by my miracles and mighty works, so the head of the faith and devotion of Leth Cuinn shall do the like.'

and receives the reward for his hubris:

And Flannan departed in great perturbation at this answer, and made his report to his master. And Naile was furiously angry at this response, and this is how he was, with his ever-wonder-working staff erect in his right hand; and he hurled the finely carved staff across three full ploughlands (?), so that it went speedily under the fixed stones of the land. And Naile said furiously: 'Follow my staff, O Flannan, and take with thee my stone-red cup of polished form, and wherever the staff shall enter the ground seek there for water for our patron saints.'

And Flannan set out on this commission, and unhesitatingly took the cup; and this is how he found the staff, stuck in a huge infrangible rock, and a pure-cold stream of blue water burst forth instantly and spontaneously after it. And he dipped the cup into the fair water, and lifted the staff out of the solid earth, and proceeded untiringly to Naile, and related the miracles to the clerks and gave a drink of the good water to Naile.

Ternoc decides that now might be a good time to show a little contrition:

So then when Ternoc saw these weighty miracles, and Naile furiously punishing him, the patron saint proceeded on his knees from the sunny fountain where he was, to the hill where Naile was with his clerks, and thus addressed him: 'O divine loving tree of fair behaviour, O steadfast pious blazing candle, O royal gracious saint, do not deprive me of heaven through thy great miracles.' Naile answered without bitterness in these words and said: 'I do not deprive thee of heaven, O holy clerk; but I will deprive thee of this place, where thou didst obstinately refuse to us patron-saints (a drink of) cold water. And I leave to thee that to whatever district thou shalt move, and in whatever place thou shalt occupy a church, where its priest shall be preaching, and its good clerks continually praying to God, wolves will be burrowing in thy cemetery, and foxes routing in it with their snouts.'

and the pair enter into an extraordinary contest of curses:

And Ternoc answered these heavy sayings, and spake thus: 'I leave (to thee) to have no sheep in thy fair church.' Naile replied and said: 'I leave thee jealousy of the keepers of the sheep for their fair fleeces.' 'I leave,' said Ternoc, 'fleas to plague you afresh, and mice to ravage you speedily.' Naile answered and said: 'I relegate the fleas to the dense fens, and the mice to the wide woods.' And Ternoc spake and said: 'I leave the bloom of (only) one night on your rushes.' And Naile said: 'I leave rushes up to the door-posts in the high place; and I leave excellences in the smoothe church, to wit, to be one of the three hearths of most hospitable service in the land of mild miracles, Breifne; to wit, the hearth of my holy church, the great wonder-working hearth of Maedoc, and the ever grace-endowed hearth of Bricin.'

There can, of course, be only one winner:

So then after the confirming of their covenant by Maedoc of the sweet speech and Naile of the fresh form, and after the hasty departure of Ternoc, Naile remained behind ordering the fair church, and levelling its cemetery, and strengthening its oratories, and ennobling its altars, and making ready its monuments, and consolidating its crosses, and cleansing the side of its fountains, so that thereafter it was a church angelic, golden-belled, heavenly, noble, of sacred beauty, divine, charitable, intelligent, hallowed.

In the remaining part of the Beatha Naile, Saint Columcille makes a reappearance, battling a sea monster and causing 'Senach the ancient smith' to make a wondrous bell for Naile. Saint Naile, however, remains a dangerous man to cross, as the unfortunate organizers of a feast discover. They leave our saint off the guest list and he is not at all pleased:

And the dispenser of the glittering feast was black-browed Murchad of whom are the family of Murchad...And it chanced that Naile and his company of clerks were not remembered. And it occurred to Luan and to Murchad that Naile and his clerks had been carelessly forgotten. And when Naile heard that he had been forgotten in the matter of this good feast, the steadfast, cautious, wise, true-judging tree, and the pious, loving, humane spirit was angry and furious; for he did not think that even a small portion of his tax or tribute would be maintained to his bells or his clerks after him, if it were violated so early as this.

A third party, Tigernach, offers himself as an honest broker between the outraged Naile and the now fearful Luan and Murchad. He begins by assuring Naile that the true culprit is Murchad, but Naile's wrath is not easily appeased:

And Naile said without delay: 'I curse that Murchad with his descendants; defect of carving on his carving, and on himself, and on his families after him.' And Luan said right promptly: 'The decision of Tigernach shall be accepted right promptly by myself, and by my family after me.' And Naile said that he would accept the judgement of Tigernach in the matter. And this was the judgement which Tigernach pronounced to Naile in this cause: a tithe of the banquet and a tithe of all hospitality outside his chief place from himself (i.e. Luan), and from his family after him, to Naile, and to his chief relics after him. And as part of the same agreements, protection for the red hand (i.e. murderer) to his asylum and to his bellhalidoms.

The manuscript ends at this point.

This account of a saint cursing his enemies and displaying a concern for the reputation and holdings of his monastery is perhaps rather shocking to the modern reader. Modern scholarship has established a context into which such episodes can be placed and is something which I intend to address in a future post. If nothing else though this aspect of hagiography acts as something of a corrective to the cuddly image of our native saints so often presented in popular works on 'Celtic spirituality'.  Saint Naile continues to be commemorated in both the northern counties of Donegal and Fermanagh, and perhaps that is just as well!

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