Saturday 29 November 2014

Saint Brendan of Birr, November 29

November 29 is the feastday of Saint Brendan of Birr, a sixth-century saint sometimes known as Brendan the Elder to distinguish him from his younger, nautical namesake, Brendan the Navigator. The early Martyrology of Oengus pays tribute to Saint Brendan's reputation as a prophet:

29. The royal feast of Brenann
of Birr, against whom
bursts the surface of the sea:
he was a fair diadem, noble !
the white chief of Erin's

whilst the later Martyrology of Donegal gives an example of his prophetic gifts and mentions that in the list of parallel saints, he is equated with the apostle Bartholomew:

BRENAINN, Abbot, of Biorra, A.D. 571.

He was of the race of [Corb, son of] Fergus, son of Ross, son of Rudhraighe ; and Mannsenawas the name of his mother ; and at Tamhlacht-Maoilruain both are buried. Life of Ciaran of Saighir, chap. 25. 2

A very ancient old-vellum-book, which contains the Martyrology of Maelruain of Tamhlacht, states, that this Brenainn, i.e.,Brenainn of Biorra, had a similarity in habits and life to Partholan, i.e., Bartholomeus, the Apostle. The Life of ColumCille states, chap. 8, that Brenainn had foretold that ColumCille would be born, some time before his birth. It was he that composed this quatrain for Colum Cille; Life of Colum Cille, chap. 245:

” Colum Cille our master;
A mouth that never uttered a lie;
He shall be our senior,
Although he be young.”
Here is a brief account of his life from a 19th-century ecclesiastical history of Ireland:
Birr, in the barony of Fercall. St. Brendan, senior, of " Biorra, or Birr," to distinguish him from Brendan, junior, of Clonfert, was the son of Luaisrene, and is stated to have been of an illustrious family of Munster.

He is reckoned among the relatives of St. Erc, of Slane, and the descendant of prince Corb, who resided in the Decies. Clonard was the school in which he received his education, and among the principal disciples of St. Finnian he was highly esteemed for his sanctity and supernatural gifts as a prophet. He was intimate with the Kierans, Brendan of Clonfert, and chiefly with Columbkille, to whom he rendered an important service.

St. Adamnan relates, that a certain synod, supposed to have been held in Geashill, in the King's county, had issued a sentence of excommunication, not a just one, however, against Columba, on account of some venial and excusable proceeding. On the arrival of Columba at the synod, Brendan, who saw him at a distance, rose up, saluted him with great respect, and embraced him. Some of the assistants or principals at the synod, taking Brendan apart, remonstrated with him for having shewn such attention to a person whom they had so severely censured. Brendan replied, " If you had seen what the Lord has been pleased to make manifest to me this day concerning this elect of his, whom you are dishonouring, you would never have passed that sentence: whereas the Lord does not in any manner excommunicate him in virtue of your wrong sentence, but rather exalts him still more and more." They, then asking how this could have been, were assured by Brendan, that he saw a luminous pillar advancing before this man of God, when on his way, and holy angels accompanying him through the plain. Therefore, added Brendan, I dare not treat with contempt, him whom I see preordained by God, as a guide of nations unto life. Upon which the whole proceedings were withdrawn, and the whole synod paid Columba the greatest respect and veneration.

At what precise period St. Brendan founded the monastery of Birr is not recorded. It must have been founded before the year 563, that in which St. Columba repaired to the north of Scotland. Brendan died on the 29th of November, A.D. 571. The exit of Brendan to the other life was revealed to St. Columba, then in Hy, the very moment it happened. In one of the lives of Columba it is said, that Brendan had composed some verses concerning the virtues and exemplary conduct of St. Columba, who was much esteemed by the abbot of Birr.

Rev Thomas Walsh and D P Coyningham, Ecclesiastical History of Ireland (New York, 1898) 502-503.

Archbishop John Healy relates that the revelation to Saint Colum Cille on Iona is not the only miraculous occurrence surrounding the death of Saint Brendan preserved in the sources:

St. Brendan of Birr, is to be carefully distinguished from his more celebrated namesake of Clonfert. He is sometimes called Brendan the Elder—Brendanus Senior—and like Brendan of Clonfert, came of the race of Fergus MacRoy, which produced more saints and heroes than, perhaps, any of the other Celtic tribes. The two Brendans were together at Clonard under St. Finnian, and both are ranked amongst the Twelve Apostles of Erin. St. Brendan of Birr was especially remarkable for the fulness of the prophetic spirit which he possessed; and, according to one account, it was in obedience to his counsel that St. Columba, after the battle of Cuil-Dreimhne, resolved to leave Ireland, and preach the Gospel in Alba. It is said that on the same occasion he befriended Columcille at a Synod held near Teltown in Meath, where an attempt was made by some of the 'saints' to excommunicate Columba for his alleged share in bringing about that bloody conflict.

It is certain that Brendan was highly esteemed by all his contemporaries, and when he founded his monastery at Biorra, or Riverstown, as it would be called in English, it soon grew to be a very celebrated institution. The Four Masters, at A.D. 553, tell us that 'Brendan of Birr was seen ascending a chariot into the sky this year.' This entry is not intended to signify that he died, but rather that, like St. Paul, he was taken up to heaven for a little, for his death is noticed by the same Four Masters, under date of the year A.D. 571, when they tell us that he died on the 29th of November. The real date appears to have been A.D. 573.

Insula Sanctorum et Doctorum or Ireland's Ancient Schools and Scholars by the Most Rev. John Healy (6th edition, Dublin, 1912), 522-523.

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