November 10 is the feast of Saint Áed Mac Bricc and below is a paper on his life and the locality associated with him by the nineteenth-century scholarly Anglican cleric, George T. Stokes. As I remarked in my post for the saint last year, Rahugh in County Westmeath is only one of a number of places associated with this fascinating saint, but the Reverend Stokes gives a full account of the church there based on an excursion with the Antiquarian Society of which he was a member.
ST. HUGH OF RAHUE: HIS CHURCH, HIS LIFE, AND HIS TIMES.
BY THE REV. PROFESSOR STOKES, D.D., M.R.I.A.
THE great advantages connected with our one-day Excursions throughout the country were admirably illustrated for me by the examination last summer (August, 1896) of the ancient parish church of Rahue, belonging to the saint whose life and times I propose now to describe. St. Hugh, or St. Aedh, was one of the really primitive saints of Ireland, a friend and associate of St. Columba, and the apostle of Westmeath, the central county of Ireland. Westmeath is, from an archaeological and historical point of view, one of the most interesting districts of Ireland. East Meath has, indeed, more striking monuments in Tara, New Grange, and Telltown, but Westmeath surpasses it in the number of its archaeological remains. There is scarcely a field in parts of Westmeath where a rath of some sort is not found; while Sir Henry Piers' "History of Westmeath," written 200 years ago, Dean Swift's poems on his Westmeath visits, Colgan's" Acta Sanctorum," and the Ordnance Survey Letters, four very different kinds of authorities, will show what a fruitful field for the investigator Westmeath offers. I shall take the subject in the following order, merely prefacing that the subject has been already touched upon by Dr. Reeves, our own Dr. Joyce, and by the Very Rev. A. Cogan, in his account of the Diocese of Meath. I shall inquire who St. Hugh of Rahue was, and then treat of the church and parish which bear his name; and I think we shall find, in both, interesting matter, illustrating how fruitful local study might be made by our Members resident in country districts.
Where, then, some one may ask, is Rahue? It is, I answer, a district in the county Westmeath, about 4 miles from Tullamore, on the Tyrrell's Pass road. It is the very next parish to Durrow, and as such necessarily came much in contact with St. Columba's celebrated religious community. Its present name is Rahue, which is simply a contraction of Rath-Hugh, which Ussher, in his " Account of Meath Diocese," makes Rathewe. The name bears its origin plain upon its face, and throws us back upon the ancient worthy whose personality still dominates the minds and memories of the people who live there, just as much as that of St. Columba dominates Durrow and Kells, Derry and Iona. Who, then, was St. Hugh, whose name is still embodied in the designation of this Central Ireland parish ? He was one of the genuine sixth-century Celtic saints of the Second Order, who helped much to propagate Christianity when a large portion of Ireland was still pagan. His birth was noble. He belonged to a branch of the royal family of that day descended from Conn of the Hundred Battles, who was famous in the second century. St. Hugh was a direct descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who reigned in Ireland towards the conclusion of the fourth century, from whom, as I have elsewhere shown, Queen Victoria herself is also descended. St. Columba was also drawn from the same stock. He was great-great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages by one of his younger sons; while St. Hugh was that monarch's great-great-grandson by his eldest son, Fiachach. His father's name was Breacc or Bric, whence, in vulgar phrase, the Donegal people speak of him now as Hugh Mac Brackan, or Bishop Hugh Breakey, a form under which we should find it somewhat difficult to recognise our ancient missionary saint. O'Clery and Colgan place his birthplace in Killare, a well-known spot near the Hill of Usnach and the town of Ballymore, in Westmeath ; but for reasons, which I shall state hereafter, I think he was born in Rahue. His mother was a Munster woman, born in Tipperary, in the barony of Upper or Lower Ormond, a district which, at its nearest point, is not more than ten or fifteen miles distant from Rahue.
Just as it is with St. Columba, his cousin, so was it with St. Hugh. Prophecies gathered round his birth clearly modelled after Scripture fashion. A man of God, a prophet, came by his father's house one day, and foretold to a little maid that her mistress would shortly bring forth a son, who, if he were born at the morning hour, would be great in the sight of God and of man. The maid reported this speech to her mistress, and she being evidently a strong-willed and determined lady, decided that the prophet's conditions should be fulfilled. She sat down upon a large stone lying near, and though the pangs with which nature perpetually avenges the transgression of our first mother, Eve, were upon her, she avowed her determination that the child should not be born till the appointed time arrived. The ancient Life in Colgan then tells us how, at his birth, the baby's head struck upon the stone whereon his mother had been sitting, and formed a hollow depression, the exact size of his head, and further informs us that the water which collects in this little hole still avails for the cure of all kinds of diseases. Now I will ask you to bear this miraculous story in mind, as I shall have hereafter to refer specially to it.
His Life then tells us how originally he was not destined for the clerical life. He was reared up among his mother's people in northern Tipperary. It was only when his father died that he returned into Meath to claim his share in the paternal estate, of which his brothers sought to deprive him. He had lived up to this a very pure and steady life ; but he at once showed that he had an Irishman's nature and temper, and was quite able to take care of himself after the fashion of his times. He went back to Rahue, his birthplace, determined to get his rights, and in order to secure his purpose the more effectually, he seized the daughter of a wealthy man living in his father's neighbourhood, and carried her off to Tipperary, as many a man, following his example, has since done, trusting that the injured and outraged family would compel his brothers to surrender his share for the sake of their own daughter. His plan of campaign was well laid, but he omitted to take cognizance of his conscience, and of the power of the Church. On his road from Rahue to the North Riding of Tipperary, he had to pass by a monastery called Rathliphthen, where a notable saint, named Illandus, lived. This Illandus was a cousin of his own, being a descendant of Laeghaire, the King of Tara, whom St. Patrick converted. He had founded his monastery in the great forest of Fercall, over which he presided as bishop. St. Hugh, with his fair captive, stopped there for rest and refreshment, somewhere, I would suppose, in the neighbourhood of the modern Frankford, where afterwards stood the Molloy foundation of Kilcormack Abbey. St. Illandus heard a report of St. Hugh's action, and was scandalised at his cousin's conduct. He sent for him, expostulated with him, and was successful in calling him back from the dangerous paths on which he was entering. St. Hugh sent the young lady back to her friends, renounced the world, and entered the establishment of St. Illandus.
His Life, which can be read in Colgan, then tells of nothing else save his miracles and good works. He founded a monastery in the North Riding of Tipperary called Enach Midbrenin, a name and spot which I cannot identify. Some of his miracles are strange enough. One of them must have been rather inconvenient for his neighbours. There was a lake in North Tipperary in which there was a crannog, or fortified island, held by a band of robbers, who plundered all the adjoining country. They could not be got rid of in any way. So the troubled people resorted to the saint, who prayed, and one fine night lake, island, robbers, and all were removed miraculously across the Shannon into Connaught; so that evidently a thousand years before Cromwell, banishment into Connaught was regarded as a fate specially reserved for troublesome customers.
St. Hugh's activity as a missionary was very great. The royal family descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, and from Laeghaire, or Leary, of Tara, seem to have been principal agents in the conversion of Ireland. Large numbers of them devoted themselves to the work amongst their countrymen, and their high social position ensured their success. The Celts, with their strong notions of loyalty to their princes, followed them therefore, en masse, into the bosom of the Christian Church. We are told, in Colgan's "Life of St. Aid," of the labours of St. Hugh among the islands of Lough Ree. He visited St. Rioch's Abbey, on Inisbofin, now in ruins; the monastery of St. Henanus, a celebrated hermit, at Drumrainey, near Ballymore-Loughseudy, converting great multitudes throughout the county Westmeath, and specially among his own clansmen and relations, the Mac Geoghegans of Moycashel. He went north, too.
The Westmeath and Cavan lakes form a regular chain, by which an active oarsman can even still reach the waters of Lough Erne, and, in those early days, when the light and portable currach was in common use, must have proved a much-used highway from the central to the north-western parts of Ireland. Now-a-days, when everyone is looking out for a new and untried route to follow and explore, I might suggest that some should make the attempt to follow St. Hugh's footsteps, and proceed by the route I have indicated, from Mullingar to Ballyshannon. For a trip right through the hills and lakes of Westmeath, Cavan, Leitrim, and Fermanagh, during weather such as we have enjoyed this summer would, I should think, prove an experience simply charming.
But to return to St. Hugh. St. Molaise was a very distinguished character in the sixth century. He was the founder of Inismurray, where his memory and image are still reverenced under the name of Father Molash. He was the founder also of the monastic establishment on Devenish Island, in Lough Erne, and he was the spiritual adviser and guide of the great St. Columba himself. St. Hugh also came to Lough Erne to seek his advice, and just as, by St. Molaise's advice, St. Columba is said to have gone on his missionary expedition to Scotland, so by the same holy man's advice St. Hugh may have gone off to Slieve Liag, where there remains to this day his oratory and holy well, on the very highest summit of that wild sea-cliff. As St. Molaise died in 563, this proves that St. Hugh's activity must have been contemporaneous with that of St. Columba. He may, however, have been an older man, as St. Aed, or St. Hugh, died in the year 589, the very year St. Columbanus left the Hibernian Bangor for Gaul, and eight years before St. Columba, who departed this life, as I need scarcely remind you, on June 10th, 597.
This long story has been told simply as an introduction to the narrative of what I found at his church of Rahue, in Westmeath, which forms an extraordinary illustration of the truth, the accuracy, and the permanent character of Celtic tradition, as well as of the vast importance of the personal visitation of our ancient sacred places, and of investigation and inquiry conducted on the very spot. But let me not frighten you lest I should go on for ever. My story will not be a long one, though my preface was very prolonged.
On August 1st, I went to Rahue with a party of friends, one or two of whom were Members of our own Society. We first climbed a very fine moat surrounded by a double line of circumvallations, and capped by a crown of aged hawthorn-trees, the descendants of those with which it once was fortified. This moat, which is a very lofty one, is situated in the townland of Kiltobber, or ''Church of the Well," and may have been the residence of St. Hugh's father. It is distant little more than a quarter of a mile from his ancient church. We then visited the church and churchyard, which are situated beside Rahue House, whose owner, Mr. Newburn, acted as a very intelligent guide, and communicated to us all the traditions of the neighbourhood. The church is a primitive oblong, about 60 feet long and 20 feet wide. The churchyard is in a state of the most terrible confusion, the tombstones lying two or three deep within a circular cashel. I am sure there must be in that churchyard some rare treasures of ancient Celtic tombstones, going back a thousand years, if the confused mass were only intelligently investigated. St. Hugh's holy well still flowing, still used, and still reverenced is situated about 250 yards east of the church; while last of all, and most interesting of all, through the kind assistance of Mr. Newburn, we lighted upon the very stone of which the ancient Life, in Colgan, speaks as that on which St. Hugh was born, about 200 yards south-west of the churchyard. It is an immense block of stone, lying in a ditch in the same field as the holy well. It is called, by the peasantry, St. Hugh's tombstone. It has a large Celtic circle and cross incised upon its face. The arms of the cross extend beyond the circle. But the most curious thing about it is this; in the very centre of the circle there is a hole, the size of the crown of a human head, with a smaller hole beside it on the right, into which the elbow is to be inserted. The local living tradition is just as Colgan reports, that if the head of a person, afflicted with headache, be placed in the larger hole, the body supported meanwhile by the right arm, the disease will be cured by St. Hugh's power. This is evidently not the gravestone, but the birthstone, of St. Hugh, which Colgan placed in the cemetery of Killare, in the same county, Westmeath. But, then, we must remember that Colgan was a Donegal man, and might easily make a mistake between the barony of Moycashel, which was, till 1641, or 1650, the property of St. Hugh's own family, the Mac Geoghegans, and the barony of Rathconrath, which was beyond their limits.
It is well worth while, however, to go and pay a visit to Rahue to see this ancient sixth-century cross, just like one of those in Glen-Columcille, erected by St. Columba, for the purpose of teaching the rude pagans the primary lessons of the faith. Surely, as I have just said, nothing can prove better the abiding and trustworthy character of Celtic tradition than thus to find, in the year 1896, precisely the same traditions, and the same objects, as those which Colgan reported 250 years ago, and which the ancient Life he printed described 900 years ago, still existing in exactly the same shape, and that among people who never had heard of Colgan, and have had no other instructors save oral tradition. But, perhaps, the strangest point of all remains untold. Reading over, the other day, that charming work published by one of our own Members, Joyce's " Irish Names," and consulting it, as I always do on the subject of our Celtic topography, I came across a notice of Rahue, which directed me to a Paper by Dr. Reeves, on the "Hymn of St. Aid, or St. Hugh." You will find the Paper in the Proceedings, Royal Irish Academy, vol. vii., p. 92. This hymn once belonged to the famous Irish Monastery of Reichenau, on Lake Constance, and was published some forty years ago by Francis Joseph Mone, Director of the State Archives at Carlsruhe. This hymn was written in the eighth century, say about 750, by an Irish monk in that monastery, and it celebrates the power of St. Hugh, or St. Aid, in the very same matter of headaches, just in the same way as the ancient Life in Colgan, and the living tradition of the Rahue people celebrate it down to this day.
Rahue was of interest to me for another reason, and that, too, of a historical character. I knew that it had been, in modern times, the seat of a colony of Cromwell's Ironsides, all of them extreme Puritans. They belonged almost entirely to the Anabaptist sect, the most violent and determined of the English Republican party. I knew that this colony was there early in the last century, and I wished to find out if any traces of it still survived. I was not disappointed in this respect again. I found, a little beyond the ancient church of St. Hugh, the ruins of an ancient Baptist chapel. In St. Hugh's graveyard I found inscriptions in abundance, with those Scriptural names Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, and Sarah in which the Puritans delighted. The Rector of Tullamore, too, told me how he had baptized some of the last descendants of these Cromwellian colonists, and then, in the Record Office, I solved the riddle which always puzzled me, which was this What led this Anabaptist colony from England over to the centre of Ireland? I knew, indeed, that a similar colony of Baptists had settled not very far away in and around Cloughjordan, in the North Riding of Tipperary, and that their Baptist chapel had only become extinct early in this century; but then I also knew that the North Riding of Tipperary, and the Golden Vale, were largely settled by Cromwellian officers and soldiers.
This was not, however, the case with Westmeath. The documents in the Record Office solved the difficulty. Major William Low was the son of a Dublin citizen named John Low, whose tomb, dated 1638, stands in the churchyard of Chapelizod. Major William Low was a fierce Republican, obtained the rank of Major in Cromwell's army, and was an ardent Anabaptist. He was one of those officers who were rewarded with grants of estates in various parts of the country. His share fell in Westmeath. He obtained the property of the Mac Geoghegans in Rahue and its neighbourhood, where he built a mansion-house, now in ruins, which he called Newtown Loe. If you take up that curious book, Lyons' "Grand Juries of "Westmeath," you will find the Low family occupying a high position on the Grand Jury all through the last century. Now in Major William Low's will, dated 1678, the original of which is in the Record Office, you will find that he there leaves the sum of £4 per annum, charged on his real estate, for the support of a "baptized minister," to preach at Newtown to the colony of English Anabaptists which he settled in Rahugh and its neighbourhood.
Rahue, then, I conclude, played no unimportant part in ancient times towards making Celtic Ireland what it once was religiously; and the same Rahue and its history gives us a glimpse into a stirring though bloody period, which largely contributed towards the Ireland of to-day, with its manifold questions social and political, economic and religious.
The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume 26 (1896), 325-335.
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