Thursday 5 March 2015

Saint Ciarán of Saighir, March 5

March 5 is the feastday of Saint Ciarán of Saighir, one of the 'twelve apostles of Ireland', a so-called 'pre-Patrician saint' and patron of the diocese of Ossory. Below is an extract from an address delivered to the Ossory Archaeological Society in 1874 by the then bishop of Ossory, P.F. Moran. The nineteenth century saw the foundation of many local antiquarian societies, these were both a product of and an important contributor to the romantic national revival of the time. Bishop Moran naturally begins his address with an account of his diocesan patron and the tone of his opening remarks illustrates the part which the idea of Ireland as 'insula sanctorum', played in the national revival.


[INAUGURAL ADDRESS delivered by the RIGHT REV. DR. MORAN, Bishop of Ossory, at the first Meeting of the Ossory Archaeological Society, 7th January, 1874.]


Whilst your Diocesan Archaeological Society enters to-day on its mission, which is full of hope and promise for this Diocese, you will permit me to give expression to my heartiest wish that its course may be prosperous, and that it may produce the happiest fruits not only for Ossory but for Ireland; and though I am unwilling to trespass on your attention, as many interesting subjects await your consideration, you will bear with me, I trust, whilst I endeavour to sketch in rough outline the field of your future labours, and to review, as briefly as the matter will allow, a few of the chief points which will engage your attention.

I will ask you to take for your motto the words NOSCE PATRIAM, for as love of country and love of religion are inseparably united in the Irish heart, so the sacred memories of the past, and the heroic deeds of Ireland's history, are at the same time the true glory of our country and the glory of our Church: they won for Ireland, in early ages, the bright aureola of "Insula Sanctorum," and in latter times, they merited the distinctive badge of "the Martyr Island of Holy Church."

Foremost among the subjects to engage your attention will be the lives of the patron saints of this diocese. It was thus that St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Cyprian, and so many other great ornaments of the Church applied themselves to record the lives of the holy men who went before them in the paths of faith ; and who will say that your labour will be fruitless whilst you preserve the memory of your fathers who enriched our country with the inheritance of divine faith, and left the bright examples of their piety to mark out for their children the paths to heaven? Since history, as Cicero defines it, is "Magistra vitae," surely the lives of the saints must be the noblest branch of history, for they point out the heroism of Christian life, and are the most instructive school of the Gospel virtues.

The life of our chief patron, St. Kieran, leads us back to the "Preparatio Evangelica," so to say, of our nation, and to the first dawn of the Christian faith in this country.

In the mysterious ways of Providence, the first gifts of this Celtic nation were offered to the Cross of Christ upon the shores of the sister-island. When the Roman general, Maximus, withdrew his legions from Britain in 383, to win by the sword the imperial diadem of the West, its provinces were left defenceless, and became an easy prey to Irish and Pictish adventurers. Modern research has placed it beyond the reach of controversy, that towards the close of the fourth and the commencement of the fifth century, many Irish settlements were made on the coasts of the present Cumberland and Lancashire, whilst at the same time the greater part of Wales became an Irish colony. The brave British chieftain, Cunedda, indeed, soon freed North Wales from the dominion of the intruders, but in the south the Irish continued to hold sway; and we find the son of an Irish chieftain, named Brecan (known as Brychan in the Welsh annals), whose name still remains attached to Brecknockshire, ruling there with undisputed sovereignty from 410 to about 450. St. Ninian was the apostle of these Irish colonists. They proved docile to the sweet yoke of Christ, and many famous monasteries sprung up amongst them, one of which, in after times, was known as "the Glastonbury of the Irish." Prince Brecan, of whom I have just spoken, is styled a saint in the Welsh Triads, and twenty-four of his children, or grandchildren, received the same honours. We should not be deceived by the title of " Apostle of the Picts," which from early times has been awarded to St. Ninian, as if that would restrict his labours to the inhabitants of North Britain, for we must hold in mind that the name given by British writers to the Irish settlers at this time was Gwddyl Ffichli, i.e., "the Gaelic Picts."

A close intercourse was for a time maintained between these Irish colonists and the parent country, and we must not be surprised to find frequent mention in the lives of our early saints of British families scattered through our island, and such ancient names as Bally-Breathnach, or Ballynabranna, point to places where these families made peaceable settlements amongst us. Through them, and still more through the preaching of St. Palladius, the Christian name became known among our people, and from that Celtic colony in South Wales St. Patrick was able to choose many of his associates who laboured with him in the apostolate of our nation.

I will not discuss the merits of the various theories which have been advanced regarding the chronology of St. Kieran's life. No one at the present day will seriously maintain that he lived to an age of three hundred years, or that for one hundred and fifty years he discharged the duties of the episcopate in this island. To me it seems sufficiently proved, that it was through the preaching of St. Palladius that our Saint, when he had attained the age of manhood, was awakened to the knowledge of Christian truth, and it seems equally certain that it was in the year 432 that he proceeded to Rome, and received there the saving waters of baptism. As we read in his ancient Life, "Kieran set out for Rome of Letha, for it was made known to him by heaven, that it was there he would receive divine instruction, and be promoted to the highest dignity, because Rome was the fountain of the faith." (MSS. British Museum, Egerton, 91).

This same ancient record further attests that he remained in Rome for thirty years, leading a life of heroic sanctity, and emulating in that corrupt capital of the decaying empire, the virtues and austerities of the fathers of the desert. How eventful were these thirty years for the Christian world! St. Sixtus III., and, after him, the Great St. Leo, ruled the Church of God. With what joyous acclamations was the news received in Rome, that the Council of Chalcedon had restored peace to Christendom! Terror and dismay took the place of joy, when it became known that Attila, with his countless hordes of Huns, had crossed the Rhine, and vowed the destruction of the empire. And how must the degenerate citizens have trembled, whilst the venerable Pontiff, arrayed in his sacred robes, went forth from the defenceless capital to confront their merciless enemy ! But with what triumph did they welcome him, on his return from the banks of the Ticino, when his words of peace had rolled back the tide of invasion, and saved themselves from utter ruin! It is probable that St. Kieran left Rome early in the year 461. It was in that year that Genseric, with his Vandal army, pillaged the city, and led away its noblest families into slavery, and it was only through the prayers of St. Leo that the Basilicas were honoured as inviolable sanctuaries, and that the lives of the citizens were spared.

St. Kieran received the episcopal consecration at the hands of that great Pontiff, and returning to Ireland, hastened to the territory of Eliach, where he erected for himself a cell in a dense wood, on the brink of a spring-fountain which was called Saiger. There his sanctity and miracles soon gathered a large number of disciples around him, and in the presence, and with the blessing of St. Patrick, he, in 462, laid the foundations of his great monastery, which continued for centuries a centre of learning and piety, and diffused throughout Munster and Leinster the blessings of religion. The reader of the Saint's life will be, perhaps, surprised to find recorded in it many things performed by the badger and the wolf and other wild animals. We owe to a distinguished antiquarian among our citizens the suggestion, that these were merely the names borne by some of the religious brethren of our Saint's monastery; and this suggestion is confirmed by the fact, that similar names were at the same period familiar in the monasteries of Gaul and Italy. In the letters of St. Paulinus of Nola, and other cotemporary records, we meet at every page with bishops and monks called Ursus, Aper, Lupus, and so forth, such names being chosen for humility sake by some of the brightest ornaments of the continental monasteries.

The labours of St. Kieran were not confined to Ireland. He passed several years on the western coast of Britain, and, as we learn from Blight's "Churches in West Cornwall," his memory is still cherished there. Four ancient Cornish parochial churches bear his name : these are Perran-zabuloe, or St. Piran-in-the-sand ; Perran-arworthal ; Perran-uthnoe, situated near the coast opposite St. Michael's Mount, and styled in the taxation of Pope Nicholas " Ecclesia de Lanudno;" and St. Kevern, or Pieran, which in Domesday-book is called Lanachebran. St. Kieran's holy well is also pointed out on the northern coast of Perran-zabuloe. The parish church of St. Keverne stands in the district called Meneage, which terminates at the Lizard Point, the southernmost land of England. The name Meneage is supposed to mean, in the old Cornish dialect, " the deaf stone," and the reason given for it is, that though there are several mineral veins or lodes in the district, on trial they have been found to be of no value, and hence are called deaf or useless. Tradition tells that St. Kieran inflicted on the inhabitants, as a punishment for their irreligion, that the mineral veins of the district would be un-productive, and the old proverb is still handed down, "No metal will run within the sound of St. Kieran's bell."

Penitential austerities were the characteristic virtue of St. Kieran; though the richest gifts were made to him, all were distributed among the poor. His only meal each day was at sunset, and consisted of a little barley bread and undressed herbs. His drink was from the fountain; the bare ground was his bed ; and skins and sackcloth were his only garments.

There is not in the whole range of Irish hagiology a sweeter scene than that of the Saint's death, as described in the ancient Irish documents. Knowing that the time was come for St. Kieran's repose, St. Finnian, of Clonard, hastened to be with him in his last moments; for, although our Saint in his declining years had enrolled himself among the disciples of St. Finnian, yet it was from him that St. Finnian had learned the first lessons of heavenly wisdom. Thirty bishops also came to Saigher, all of whom had been trained by St. Kieran in piety, and had received the sacerdotal ordination at his hands, These being assembled around him, he said to them: "'My brethren, pray with me to God that I may not stand alone before His judgment seat, but that His holy saints and angels may be with me ; and pray that my path unto the King may not be through darkness, and that His smile may welcome me.' And turning; to his religious; he blessed them, and bequeathed them to God and to Mochuda : he exhorted them to uphold piety, to love their monastery, and to guard themselves against the son of malediction, that their days of blessing might not be shortened." And then raising his eyes to heaven, he prophetically added: " For a time will come when evils shall prevail, and the churches shall be demolished, and the monasteries be reduced to a wilderness, and sacred truth shall be corrupted into falsehood, and holy Baptism be tinged with corruption, and each one will seek not what is his own, but what does not belong to him."

"He then went at their head into the Regies, or church of the monastery, where he was wont to celebrate, and there at the altar he offered the holy sacrifice, and having partaken of the Body and Blood of Christ, and received the last sacrament of Extreme Unction, he asked the brethren to inter his body in a secret place, which none but themselves should know, close to the spot which was hallowed by the relics of St. Martin, and where the remains of the holy men who preceded him had been laid. And now, having perfected his victory of abstinence and penance, and attained his triumph over the demons and the world, the choirs of angels came to meet the soul of Kieran, to give to him the greetings of heaven, and to conduct him to God. At midnight he breathed his last, but so many were the lights that burned around him, that night seemed changed into day. His remains were wrapped in precious linen, and for seven days hymns and canticles were chanted in thanksgiving to God for the mercy shown to him, and earth seemed to breathe the fragrance of heaven; but his soul was in bliss, in the company of St. Patrick and St. Martin and the other saints of God."

Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume X (1874), 141-160 at 141-146.

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