The theme of 'saints and beasts' is a common one in hagiography where the interaction between holy men and women and the animal creation form some of the best-known and well-loved episodes in the Lives of the saints. Although stories of Irish saints and animals form a staple of anthologies of 'Celtic Christianity', this tradition is not exclusive to Ireland. It origins are found in eastern Christianity among the Desert Fathers where a raven brings food to Saint Anthony and Saint Paul of Thebes and where the Great Martyrs such as Saint George and Saint Margaret of Antioch battle dragons and other fierce beasts. The tradition translated very readily to western Europe and below is an extract from a paper on 'The Saints and Animals' published in 1909 in the Paulist periodical The Catholic World by Irish writer Katharine Tynan (1859-1931). In her essay she combines some of the most famous Irish stories, such as that of Saint Kevin and the blackbird, with lesser-known stories of Saint Adamnan and Saint Beanus:
A very distinguished Irishwoman, now dead, said to me many years ago that the old Irish saints were always preaching by their example the love of animals, and that fact proved to her mind that the preaching was no less needed in their day than in ours. But I am inclined to believe that the Irish saints, like the saints of other countries, loved animals just because they were the elect souls of the world. In those days gentleness betook itself to hermitages and cloisters, leaving the rough and the violent to carry on the world. In their hermitages these simple and saintly souls made companions of the animals, and came to love them, simplicity leaning to simplicity. Indeed one imagines that in our own days there may be many such instances in monastic life of friendship between men and animals as are recorded in the Acta Sanctorum. One who knows anything of monasteries will know how the cloistered monk keeps a heart like a child......The lives of the saints contain the most delicious innocencies of the friendship and affection between them and the animals. Every one knows St. Francis of Assisi and his little brothers and sisters. Not so many know St. Jerome and his lion, St. Anthony the hermit and his hog, St. Benedict and his raven, St. Macarius and his hyena, St. Kieran and his badger, St. Rose of Lima and her gnats. Indeed the Acta Sanctorum contain records of friendship between the saints and the most unlikely creatures, even to snakes and vipers.
In the Irish hagiology we find our father, St. Patrick, carrying a fawn in his breast after he had saved the little creature and its mother from death.While St. Kevin prayed in his cell that looks upon the dark waters of Glendalough, he stretched his hand through the window-space, and a blackbird immediately laid an egg in his hand and sat upon it. The saint forbore to disturb the sitting mother till the little bird was hatched, keeping his hand so stretched forth till that was accomplished.
Another Irish saint, St. Kieran of Upper Ossory, worked his first miracle as a child when he saw a hawk swoop on and carry off a little bird. St. Kieran at this time did not know the true God, being the child of pagans, but he was moved to cry out to Him, and the hawk came back and laid the dead bird at his feet. Then Kieran said: "Arise and be made whole;" and so it was done, and the bird lived and gave praise to God.The life of St. Kieran, in the Gaelic, says with delicious naivete :
"When first Ciaran came to that place (i.e. the wood where he built his monastery) he sat down in the shade of a tree. A fierce wild hog sprang up at the other side of the tree and as it eyed Ciaran it fled, but returned again as a gentle servant to Ciaran. That hog was the first disciple and first monk Ciaran had in that place. It used to go to the wood to cut rods for thatch, and bring them between its teeth to assist (the building of) the cell. At the time, then, there was no one at all along with Ciaran, for he came alone from his disciples to that hermitage. There came after that to Ciaran irrational brutes from every part of the wilds in which they were located, such as the fox, the badger, the wolf, and the doe, and they were submissive to Ciaran; and they humbled themselves to his teaching as monks, and used do all he bade them."On a day that the fox came, which was very ravenous, crafty, and malicious, to Ciaran's brogues, he stole them, and, shunning the community, went direct to his own den, and therein coveted to eat the brogues. When this was manifested to Ciaran he despatched another monk of his family, to wit, the badger, to head the fox and bring him to the same spot. The badger came to the fox's den and found him eating the shoes (or brogues), for he had eaten the ears and thongs off; and the badger coerced him to come with him to the monastery. They came about eventide to Ciaran, and the brogues with them. Ciaran said to the fox ' O brother, why hast thou done that thievery which was not becoming a monk to do? And you had no occasion to do that; for we have water that is non-noxious in common, and food in like manner, and if thy nature constrained that thou shouldst prefer to use flesh, God would make it of the bark of the trees round thee.' Then the fox asked Ciaran for remission of his sins, and to lay upon him the obligations of the Penance Sentence; and it was so done, and the fox did not eat food without leave from Ciaran, and thenceforward he was righteous like the others."
Here is a story of a less well-known Irish saint, St. Gobnet the little patroness of Ballyvourney, after whom so many County Cork girls are called, and which is Englished "Abby." She was the daughter of a sea-king, who was a shrine robber. She had no sisters, and used to keep to the ship with her father and his men. Once she was ashore in a wood and God sent his angel to her to tell her to fly from her father and give her life to Him. She was willing to do that, but she knew no place of security. The angel came again, and told her to go on and give no rest to her soles until she would find nine white deer asleep. She went on and she came to a place and found three. She fondled them a while and went on to Kilgobnet, where she found six. Here she stayed a long time until they were all good friends. Then she left her heart with them and went on to Ballyvourney. There, as God willed it, she found the nine, and she made her dwelling with them, and they became her sisters, and she died in their midst and is there buried.
We read of St. Bridget that the ducks from the lake came at her voice and flew into her arms, and that the saint gently caressed them against her breast. And again when she was a child, and in much terror of a very fierce stepmother, she was left to tend a dish of meat that was cooking for her father and his friends. But a dog which had just become the mother of puppies came and begged to be fed; and Bridget's heart was so compassionate that she could not refrain from feeding the dog with the meat her stepmother had given her in charge, although she anticipated nothing but a savage punishment. But when the time came to set the dish on the table, lo! and behold, the meat had increased instead of diminishing, and was of a most excellent flavor. So did God reward her charity to the hungry dog.Here is a delightful story of St. Adamnan, Bishop of Iona:"A Brother, by name Molua, grandson of Brennus, came to the Saint while he was writing, and said to him: 'Please bless this weapon in my hand.' So he raised his holy hand a little and blessed it, making the sign of the cross with his pen, his face meanwhile being turned towards the book upon which he was writing. As the aforesaid Brother was on the point of departing with the weapon which had been blessed, the Saint inquired: What kind of a weapon have I blessed for the Brother? Diarmid, his faithful servant, replied: ''A dagger for cutting the throats of oxen and bulls.' But the Saint said in response: 'I trust in my God that the weapon which I blessed will injure neither man nor beast.' And the Saint's words proved true that very hour. For after the same Brother had left the monastery enclosure and wanted to kill an ox, he made the attempt with three strong blows and a vigorous thrust, but could not pierce its skin. And when the monks became acquainted with it, they melted the metal of the same dagger by the heat of the fire and anointed with it all the iron weapons of the monastery ; and they were thereafter unable to inflict a wound on any flesh, in consequence of the abiding power of the Saint's blessing."
I need not refer here to the better known stories, such as the story of St. Columba and the gull and the same saint and the horse. But an extract from Giraldus Cambrensis shows how a nineteenth century thought for animals in England was anticipated by the Ulstermen of his day.
"In a remote district of Ulster are certain hills, on which cranes and other birds build their nests freely during the proper season. The inhabitants of that place allow not only men but even cattle and birds to be quiet and undisturbed, out of reverence for the holy Beanus, whose Church makes the spot famous. That renowned Saint, in a wonderful and strange manner, used to take care not only of birds but of their eggs.
"In the south of Momonia, between the hill of Brendan and the open sea which washes the coast of Spain and Ireland, is a large district which is shut in on one side by a river full of fish, and on the other by a small stream. And, out of reverence for the holy Brendan and other Saints of that locality, this affords a wonderful place of refuge, not only for men and cattle, but also for wild beasts, whether these are strangers or those which inhabit the district. Consequently stags, wild boars, hares, and other wild beasts, when they perceive that they can by no means escape from the dogs pursuing them, make their way as quickly as they can from remote parts to that spot. And when they have crossed the stream, they are at once safe from all danger; for the dogs in hunting are there brought to a standstill and unable to follow any further."So much for the Irish saints. But their brethren of other lands were not behind them; and it may be said that there was no creature exempt from their pity and protection....
Katharine Tynan, The Saints and Animals, The Catholic World, Vol. LXXXVII (September, 1908), 803-816.
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