January 15 is the feast of Saint Ita of Killeedy. In 2006 County Waterford man, James Dunphy, published a book called St Ita: the Forgotten Princess. He brought together a collection of episodes from the saint's Life, the Vita Santae Ytae, interspersed with folklore, poems, prayers and photographs from a variety of locations identified with the saint. Among the stories Mr Dunphy collected is this one on pages 185-7 concerning the building of Gortroe Church, County Cork, from a lady born in 1907 and named in honour of Saint Ita:
Early one morning, Hannah O'Neill, grandmother of Ita O'Neill, had a dream, a vision about St. Ita. Many centuries ago, their ancestor and his people had lost their lives in a battle in Gortroe defending the young Ita from the 'Mad Prince'. Now, Ita, the Warrior Princess, wanted a church and school built on the site of the battlefield.
In the morning before rising, Hannah O'Neill made her husband promise he would do all in his power to carry out the saint's wishes and make them known to the people of Clonpriest and the surrounding area. Everybody agreed that as a people they should give it their best effort. Where was the money to come from, now that times were poor? God and St. Ita would provide when the time came, they said. So be it.
..it was decided they they should go to Lord Ponsonby and ask him for a site. He was amenable towards the proposal and not only did he provide a site, he donated some money to start the effort going. It was suggested that anybody with relations in America should contact them and ask them to raise funds for their church too.
Most had relations in Boston, so some of the emigrants went to the Bishop there to ask for permission to raise funds. One such emigrant was Sean O'Donnacadha from Killbarrymeaden. He came from a parish and townland where St Ita was well known and had a job as a foreman in a construction company.
After two years or more, he had a significant amount of money raised, but now his troubles began. He had many begging letters from churches in Boston and his own county Waterford. His sister and her husband told him he should send money home to his mother and orphan daughter. He even got threats to hand over the money to some undesirables. The honourable man that he was, he refused to bow to any of the requests to him and sent the money home with a trustworthy man from Gortroe whose father had died.
When the work began, help came from all quarters. All the farmers gave a horse and cart and there were several stonemasons among the locals. ..John O'Neill was foreman and he devoted all his time to building St. Ita's church. It was finished in 1907, eight years after the Virgin Ita appeared to Hannah O'Neill. A beautiful stained glass window which was donated by Hannah and her husband John depicts our saint Ita and there is also an inspiring picture of St. Ita measuring 6ft by 4ft, which was presented by a young girl, Kate O'Neill. It cost the magnificent sum of five pounds at that time.
There is a photograph of this painting and it indeed looks most impressive, depicting the saint much as Saint Brigid appears in iconography of the period - as an abbess with her staff, holding a church in her hand. Nonagenarian Ita O'Neill, born in the same year as the church was completed, was looking forward to celebrating its centenary and I very much hope that she did.
What struck me about this account was that although these events took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they read like something straight out of the pages of medieval hagiography. All of the classic elements seemed to be there - the sense of place and link to the saint, her will revealed through a dream/vision and difficulties in fulfilling the saint's wishes overcome by the fidelity of the humble parishioners to the task they had undertaken. I found the sense of continuity with the medieval past in this modern narrative quite compelling.
Below are the details of the book from Amazon's US site:
St. Ita: The Forgotten Princess is the result of inspiration James Dunphy received after the death of a dear friend some years ago. In the intervening time, he has spent many months in researching the story of this unique Saint, who was born a Princess, became a Holy Woman and Warrior and who was the cause of the conversion of many to Christianity. Her battles with the Druids; her ministry to the people of Munster and Leinster in the southern half of Ireland and the story of her own spirituality, form the basis of this fascinating story about a woman and Saint who is sometimes forgotten in this modern age, but reminders of whom appear regularly in churches and placenames around Ireland and in the lands where our Missionaries laboured for centuries.
Time and again, Princess Ita, daughter of King Kennfoelad and Queen Necta, born on the banks of the River Suir, and with Divine help, proved too powerful for the forces of darkness which opposed the introduction of Christianity to Ireland.
The story of St. Ita, her sister Eannaigh and her association with her fellow Saints of the time, Declan, Brendan, Mochoemog and Finnan is a fascinating one and guarantees that St. Ita will never be forgotten in her native place.
Paperback: 222 pages
Publisher: Trafford Publishing (January 27, 2006)
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