Monday 23 January 2017

Companions of Saint Ursula, January 23

At January 23 Canon O'Hanlon has the first of a number of entries in his Lives of the Irish Saints relating to Saint Ursula and her companions. The story of the martyrdom of Saint Ursula was enormously popular during the later Middle Ages and it seems that Canon O'Hanlon believes there is an Irish connection, not to the saint herself, who is said to have been a British princess, but to the maidens who accompanied her and shared her fate. This particular date of commemoration is found at the city most closely associated with the martyrs, Cologne, itself the site of an Irish monastery. That said I would be far from convinced that there is any Irish link with Saint Ursula and her martyred maidens at all.  A vague claim of 'Scottish' origin does not seem a firm basis on which to proceed, given that the idea of having a link to Ireland and its saints carried a certain cachet in medieval continental Europe, where many were pleased to claim that their monastery or mission was originally founded by natives of this country. In the heat of their enthusiasm for reclaiming Ireland's glorious religious past, writers of Canon O'Hanlon's generation were also keen to press claims of Irish origins for the holy men and women associated with other countries on the basis of such 'tradition' that they were Irish or 'Scottish'. In the Middle Ages Ireland was often referred to as Scotia and its natives as Scotti, just to complicate matters even further.  O'Hanlon has noted at least eight separate commemorations associated with Saint Ursula in various volumes of his Lives of the Irish Saints so he certainly ran with this idea, but trying to disentangle what, if any, historical basis, lies behind the legend of Saint Ursula and her maidens is no easy task:

Reputed Festival of St. Ursula and of her Companions, Martyrs. [Fifth Century]

As many of these holy virgins are believed to have been Scottish or Irish, we should feel an interest in learning that their memory is said to have been celebrated at the Church of St. Cunibert, at Cologne, on this day. To their chief festival, however, we shall refer the reader for more detailed particulars regarding them.

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