Thursday 21 March 2024

A Week on the Isles of Arran

March  21 is the feast  of Saint Enda of Aran, one of the founding fathers of Irish monasticism.  His island home became more accessible during the Victorian era with the provision of a bi-weekly steamer service from Galway.  Last year I posted the moving account of episcopal visitor Bishop George Conroy of Ardagh, published after his sudden death in 1877. It is available on the blog here. Twenty years later a female traveller, Laura Grey, boarded the 'well-appointed steamer' at Galway and arrived three hours later on Aran of the Saints. I first encountered Laura Grey in connection with my blog on the Irish martyrs, as The Irish Rosary periodical had published one of her papers on Dominican martyr of Cashel, Father Richard Barry. That paper can be read here. I am very keen to find out more about this lady, she clearly had a link to the Dominican order (was she perhaps a tertiary?) and I wondered if 'Laura Grey' was a pseudonym. She would seem to have been a lady of some means too as four years before her excursion to Aran she had published an account of her visit to the Dominican Abbey of Our Lady of Thanks at Youghal, which is available to read at my other site here. She begins her article on Aran with a description of the island and its inhabitants. It's interesting from a social history point of view in that first she describes how the modern world is encroaching on Aran and secondly she testifies to the developing tourist industry, describing how 'the visitor can engage neat apartments in one or two cottages on the large island. The tariff is most moderate and the food excellent'. Fascinating though this is, I have chosen to omit the first part of the paper in order to concentrate on what Laura Grey has to tell us about Saint Enda and  his saintly students. The volume is available, however,  from the Internet Archive where the paper may be read in full:


Laura Grey.

Midway, where the Atlantic Ocean lashes on one side the coast of Clare, and on the other the rocky headlands of Connemara, the Isles of Arran lie. Arranmore, or the great island; Innismaan, or the middle island, and Innishere, or the eastern or southern island. Although all three islands bristle with Christian and pagan antiquities, the tourist will naturally turn towards Arranmore, the largest of the group, and ask its past history...

But the writer must hasten on to contemplate these islands in the fifth century, when St. Enda first landed and steered his currach into Killeaney Bay, where he lived, labored, and died, leaving behind him a school of anchorites that earned for Arran the Celtic epithet, “Arran-na-Naomh,” Arran of the Saints. 


St. Enda (pronounced Enna), the patron of Arran, came of royal Irish blood, being the son of Conall Derg, king of Oriel. His father’s territory extended from Lough Erne in Fermanagh, to the sea at Dundalk. Conall Derg beame a convert to the Christian faith preached by St. Patrick, and during the saint’s lifetime renounced his kingdom and became a recluse.

His son, Enda, succeeded to the crown, and like most youths of the time, indulged in the rough pastimes of his father’s court. He went hawking and hunting, and making warlike raids on the neighboring chieftains who invaded his domains.

He had two sisters, one named Darenia, married to AEngus, king of Munster, whom St. Patrick baptized, and another named Fanchea, who at an early age left her home to join a religious Community near the present town of Enniskillen, in the County Fermanagh.

On one occasion, Enda set forth with his clansmen to chastise a refractory chief, and passed by his sister’s oratory en route. Looking over the low stone wall which bordered the enclosure, he beheld Fanchea and her novices at prayer. One of them was a most beautiful maiden, and Enda secretly longed to carry her off to be his wife. He bided his opportunity, and when the heat of the battle was over, he retraced his steps towards his sister’s retreat, and demanded the maiden in marriage.

Fanchea forbade him to approach near her, saying his hands were stained with human blood, and he was unworthy to enter the sacred enclosure. Enda in defence, urged that it was his duty to defend himself against the inroads of his enemies, and concluded in these words:

“I have not killed any man with my own hands, nor yet have I sinned with women.”

Fanchea, perceiving it became useless to bandy words with her warrior-brother, called the maiden aside, and addressed her thus:

"My sister, a choice is given you to-day. Wilt thou love the Spouse whom I love, or rather a carnal spouse?”

“ I will always love thy Spouse,” replied the maiden.

Fanchea told her to lie down on her couch, and cast a veil over her face. Then calling Enda into the cell, she removed the veil, and brother and sister saw the girl was dead.

Enda burst into lamentations, whilst Fanchea stood by and spoke to him of the shortness of life and the certainty of death. Her words bore fruit. The prince rose from his knees, swept aside his tears, and vowed he would renounce his kingdom, and become a recluse.

Before embracing his new vocation he built a high rampart of earth round his sister’s cloister, to prevent outsiders from invading her privacy, and then he set forth to save his own soul, and those of others. The remains of this rampart may still be traced.

After divers rambles through his native land, Britain, and even Rome, Enda returned to Ireland, and sought for some remote spot where he might live and die.

His brother-in-law, Aengus, hearing of his desire, offered him the Isles of Arran, over which he ruled as king. Enda gladly accepted, and in the year 484 crossed over from Garomna island on the Galway coast, and cast his lot on the rugged shores which were to be the scene of his many triumphs and labors. Into Killeaney Bay, since called after him ( Kill, a church, Enny of Enda), he steered his currach.

By the wild waves he takes his last rest under a leac, or flag, which is usually covered by the shifting sand. One hundred and twenty-seven saints sleep around him in the same churchyard, guarding the oratory of their spiritual father, who dwelt “in his prison of hard, narrow stone ” for more than sixty years. Tradition points to a curious rock on the sea-shore, and tells us that St. Enda’s currach was turned into stone on his landing. The miracle foreshadowed to the saint that his boat had taken her last voyage, and that he was destined never to quit the isles of Arran.

And so it came to pass, for although the islands were frequently visited by Irish saints, the founder of Arran remained true to his home in the ocean. Early in St. Enda’s history, we find St. Brendan, the navigator, visiting Arran previous to his departure on the Western Main to discover America.

St. Finian of Clonard, next passed the way, and paused to take counsel from the saintly hermit whose fame for sanctity was rapidly lighting up the West.

Even the great Columbcill “ of the fiery soul,” heard of Enda, and hastened to join the ranks of his disciples.

He ground the corn and herded the sheep, unconscious of the bloody field of Cuil-Dreimhe which was to be expiated by him in after years by a lifetime of penance on Iona.

At St. Enda’s command he left Arran, lamenting over his departure in the words which Aubrey de Vere has translated from Irish Odes

"Farewell to Arran Isle; 
farewell  I steer for Hy— my heart is sore; 
The breakers burst, the billows swell, 
Twixt Arran Isle and Alba’s shore.”

During St. Columbcille’s sojourn in Arran, St. Ciaran, “ the carpenter’s son,” visited the islands. For three years he lived amongst the anchorites, built his church, blessed the sparkling well which bears his name, and finally set sail for Clonmacnoise on the banks of the Shannon, where he was to found his monastery. Amongst its many ancient churches, Arran holds none quainter or more devotional than St. Ciaran’s.

Overhanging the bay, which still retains the saint’s name, the four roofless walls stand. The altar is there at which he celebrated Mass, and his narrow cell, which communicated with the church through a window overlooking the altar. Window, church, and cell are intact, and attract the devotion of the Catholic, and the curiosity of the tourist.

One morning our saint came to St. Enda, and related to him a dream which he had dreamt the night before. He beheld a gigantic oak tree which overshadowed a broad plain, and touched the ground with its numerous branches. Panting for a reply, the youthful Ciaran watched the tears gather in the eyes of the aged Enda, and a gloomy foreboding seized him that his hour of departure from Arran was nigh. After a moment of silent prayer, St. Enda read the dream. He told his companion that the oak symbolized himself (St. Ciaran), whose name would cover the plains by the Shannon with glory, like the overweighted oak-tree which was bowed to the ground with its load of foliage. “ Thou must leave Arran, my son,” pursued the patriarch.  Into yonder creek thou shalt steer thy currach, and God will direct thy footsteps into the interior of the country, where a winding river flows. There shalt thy name draw many souls into God’s vineyard, and the shadow of thy virtues will overcast the plains, like the oak thou hast seen in thy dream.”

Waving his hand towards the Connemara coast opposite Arran, St. Enda pointed out the bay now called Kilkerran, and Ciaran knew he should make ready to cross the strait which separated him from the mainland. St. Enda and his anchorites congregated on the shore to bid him farewell, and we are told that the Founder of Arran laid his hand on the bowed head of Ciaran, and blessed him and the monasteries he should build. It was to be the last meeting on earth of the two saints — the aged and the young.

St. Ciaran’s career was destined to be brief and glorious, and he was to precede St. Enda to the tomb by many years. He was aged twenty-seven at the time he left Arran, and six years ahead would find him dying of the pestilence at Clonmacnoise, with St. Kevin of Glendalough holding before his fading sight the Holy Viaticum.

St. Kevin and St. Ciaran had met at Arran, and cemented a friendship which never died out. A brother of the first-named saint, also named Keevin , is buried on the middle island of Arran. 

Most of the Irish saints visited the islands at some period of their lives. St. Carthagh of Lismore, St. Yarlath of Tuam, and a host of others could be named had we space to prolong our researches into the Christian past of Arran. The three islands bristle with remains of their saintly footsteps.

The church of the “four beautiful saints’ may be quoted, where four flat slabs marked the graves of four hermits, who lived a life of common prayer, officiated at the same adjacent little church, and were laid side by side when they died.

Kilronan, the chief village on Arran Mor, derives its name from St. Ronan, whose grave is still shown. He was a disciple of St. Enda’s, but nothing more is known of him.

About forty years ago the tomb of another saint was discovered, named Brecan. His little church formerly stood surrounded by six other churches, which earned for the group the title of the “ Seven Churches.” Only one of the seven remains, Tempull a Phuill, to tell where the others flourished.

We find another disciple of St. Enda’s, St. Colman McDuagh, utilizing an old fort of the Firbolgs, and converting the deserted stronghold into cells for his Community. Round about the pagan fort a cluster of other churches grew up, and the place is known under the name of Kilmurvey.

Close to the seashore, between the village of Kilronan and the church of the four beauties, tradition points to a cluster of ruins said to have been once the abode of religious women who lived under St. Enda’s direction. A female saint, whose name the writer forgets, is buried on the middle island.

St. Enda’s days, and those of his followers, were filled with prayer and manual labor. The hours fled by, diversified by prayer, tilling the ground, and the study of the Scriptures.

Each Community had its own church, where the brethren assembled for public devotions, and each Brother took his meals in the common refectory, and cooked them in the common kitchen. They lived like the first Christians, having all things equally divided. Thus their peaceful lives sped on, undisturbed by any noise from without, except the wild roar of the Atlantic Ocean.

St. Enda himself never tasted meat, though he allowed his disciples to kill a sheep on great festival days for themselves and their visitors. Each monk slept in bee-hive cell, or cloghaun, and wore the same garments during the hours of repose, as he had done in the daytime. The pallet was of straw, or the bare ground, and a rug was the covering by night.

The Community sowed the arid soil with wheat, rye, and oats, or fished round the coast to secure their frugal meals. In this manner they supported themselves by the sweat of their brows. When the crops had been gathered into the rude barns, they were ground by a quern, or kneaded into meal and baked for general consumption.

St. Enda divided the islands into ten portions, and placed a superior over each Community, who was bound in his turn to acknowledge the Saint of Arran as superior.

At stated times, St. Enda made a visitation of his insular territory, and saw that his rule of life was enforced in its primitive vigor.

He died at the advanced age of one hundred years, in the year 540. He was buried in his oratory close to the sea, called after his grave, Teglach Enda, meaning tomb of Enda. From his last resting-place the present village of Killeaney takes its name, being derived from the Irish words Kill Enda, Church of Enda.

Part II. of our sketch of the Arran isles has come to a close. Dr. Healy, the present Catholic Bishop of Clonfert, in his admirable work on “Ireland’s Ancient Schools and Scholars,’' pays a well-earned tribute to Arran, and the saints who dwelt there.

A perusal of his book induced the present writer to take ship from Galway in the August of 1896, and visit these far Western islands. She trusts others may follow her example, and if this sketch of Arran stimulates them to do so, she has had her reward.

THE ROSARY MAGAZINE, Volume 11, August, 1897, 147-155.


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Sunday 17 March 2024

Saint Patrick's Day

Research for this blog has led me to read a great deal of amateur poetry published in the popular religious press of the Victorian era. Whilst much of it is of no great literary merit, I am nevertheless interested in the sentiments expressed as they indicate attitudes towards the Irish saints held at the time. What struck me about the offering below, published in the American monthly The Pilgrim of Our Lady of Martyrs in 1899, was that although the poem is entitled Saint Patrick's Day, our national patron is curiously not the main protagonist. Instead the author, known only as M. L. M., starts off by praising the Irish saints collectively and the fame they have brought to the insula sanctorum. I am not sure where the number 500 for the saints has originated, since that can be multiplied by three, but I like how s/he then goes on to see the innumerable Irish  martyrs and confessors clustering around them.  The final verse reminds us this piece was written in the days of the national revival as the poet addresses Ireland itself as a 'brave motherland' and asks the Irish saints to hasten the dawning of freedom: 


HAIL, Saints of Ireland, peerless band!
A brighter crown than that which gleams
Upon St. Patrick's brow.
Five hundred names are flashing there
Of heroes, faith-renowned;
Thro’ them thy fame, O Isle of Saints,
Has circled earth around.

But who may count those other lights
That cluster round each star —
The Martyrs and Confessors brave
Through centuries of war?
Unknown to earth their humble names;
But well do angels know,
And chant them in the strains that blend
Their Church with ours below.

Mother of many nations! Thou
To God hast brought them forth;
No King, or Caesar's patronage,
Has helped that second birth.
The Irish priest worked in the strength
Born of St. Patrick's sod —
His title held from Rome, his wealth,
A boundless trust in God.

Like Mary in rude Bethlehem,
Thy glory is unseen;
Like Mary, too, on Calvary,
Thy tears have made thee Queen.
Brave Mother-land, full long thou'st borne
The Cross, with patient pain!
O Saints of Erin, speed from God
The dawn of Freedom's reign!

M. L. M.

The Pilgrim Of Our Lady Of Martyrs Vol. XV, 1899, 114

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Wednesday 13 March 2024

Saint Gerald: Legends of a Great Saint of County Mayo

March 13 is the feast of Saint Gerald of Mayo, an English saint who came to Ireland as a result of the controversy surrounding the dating of Easter. I have previously posted about the circumstances in which he came to be at Mayo of the Saxons here. Below is a 1928 newspaper account of Saint Gerald which looks at his career in Ireland drawing on the fourteenth-century Life of the saint produced by the Augustinian canons who were his later successors at Mayo Abbey. It begins in a rather disjointed way with an account of a powerful local druid being vanquished. Perhaps this is just a legend added for a bit of extra local colour as one assumes the champions of paganism had been seen off long before the time of Saint Gerald, who is not mentioned directly in the tale. Author P. L. O'Madden is correct to point out in his postscript that some of the events contained within the Life of Saint Gerald cannot be reconciled with other historical sources. Today, almost a century after he was writing, the difference between hagiography and history has been clearly established. That said, however, there are some enjoyable hagiographical tropes here as Saint Gerald parts the sea, performs healings, participates in a royal synod with Saint Fechin of Fore and tackles the spectre of the dreaded buidhe Conaill plague which took the lives of so many of the Irish saints, including that of Saint Fechin himself. I particularly enjoyed the description of how Saint Gerald's monastic cowl grew large enough to encompass all of the people who sought his help, cowls were often listed among the most powerful relics of monastic saints as they were something the saint had actually worn next to his own body: 


Legends of a Great Saint of County Mayo

By P. L. O'Madden

 In that district there dwelt at that time a famous druid who had many disciples. He had his abode nigh to the monastery of the saints, claiming a hereditary right in the place, known to this day as Druid Hill.

The disciples of the man of God, with great fervour of spirit, impelled therein, made a large fire. The druid on seeing the smoke, said to his disciples "I know by my magical powers that that fire now burning will never be extinguished if it be not put out at once"; and going forth he donned his armour and mounted his charger to extinguish the fire forthwith.

But it was the will of God that his horse's feet remained immoveably fixed in the ground, and the druid himself became glued to his horse so that he was unable to move. The amazed magician seeing the Divine Goodnews prevail over his magical arts, thus addressed his followers:

"Hearken to me, my friends, and know that the prayers of these men of God have conquered my druidic arts, therefore I implore ye to petition those Christians to release me from this dreadful torment, and I promise that myself and my posterity shall be their servants henceforth forever. Having thus avowed, both himself and his horse are miraculously released, but there remain to this day the indelible traces in the rock.

 St. Gerald divided his disciples into three groups: one party to be deputed to England to collect the necessary requirements for the labouring brotherhood; a second group to be employed in building a wall to enclose the monastery establishment, and after that to build a church and monastery; a third division he assigned to sing the Divine Office, and to pray for the Christian people.

With such regulations inspired by Heaven, under the zealous pastor the flock of Christ advanced daily in fervour and virtue. 

When all had been accomplished there came a party of robbers, numbering nine, and seized some oxen from the monastery lands. When St Gerald heard this he had them pursued, and discovered them in a certain island wherein they were accustomed to hide their booty, God, who dried up the Red Sea for his servant Moses, caused the water to disappear so as to open a passage for his servant.

The robbers, on witnessing this miracle, prostrated themselves before the servant of God, repented of their crime, and avowed themselves to him and his successors forever.

At that time two kings reigned jointly in Ireland, namely Diarmaid and Blathmac, and they issued an edict that the people - clergy and laity- should assemble at Tara,  for there was then a great famine in the land. The population had become so great that there was not sufficient to feed them all. It was ordered that all, clergy and laity should fast and pray that God might remove by a pestilence some of the people so that the rest might be able to live. And when they assembled, and a difference of opinion manifested itself them, they elected the two illustrious abbots, St. Gerald and St. Fechin, to arbitrate on the matter at issue. But even the saints could not agree. St. Gerald maintained that it was not just to ask God to remove some of the people by a plague, for he is all powerful and able to feed the many out of a small supply, as he did the Israelites in the desert with manna, and the  five thousand with five loaves and a few fishes. St. Fechin, however, maintained the justice of the petition, for the famine was occasioned by  the surplus population; and when the popular party prevailed in seeking pestilence, behold an angel of the Lord appeared to a certain holy man saying: "Why do you not seek food from the source of all bounty. He will not refuse you, for it is not more difficult for God to multiply food than men. But, because, contrary to his will, you seek the death of the lower order of people, by a just dispensation of Heaven the elder will die." And so it befell. For the anger of God was made manifest, in that the two reigning kings and also the kings of Ulster and Munster with many others died of the plague  called in Irish "Buidh Conaill" so many died of this pestilence that there scarcely remained a third of the population.

Afterwards St. Gerald came in a district called Corran, where he found a vast number of inhabitants stricken with the plague. The famous chief Etran was stricken also. Seeing the holy man St. Gerald in their midst, the people hastened to him, firmly believing he had power to free them from the dread visitation. They cried out to the man of God, saying: "Have pity on us and heal us of our infirmities, which press so heavily on us; we shall surely perish unless you come to our assistance." And the holy man bade the chief Etran hasten with his son and came under his cowl. At the same time the people also hastened to do likewise. But the modest dimensions of the garment were not sufficient to cover them all, but so great was the efficacy of the saint's prayers that the cowl (or cloak) grew large enough to cover the multitude, and all were cured of their infirmities.

Afterwards St. Gerald went forth in the monastery of Eltheria. He learned there of the death of his beloved sister Sigretia, who, together with a hundred nuns of the convent and fifty of his disciples, had perished in the plague. He went forth to Mayo, accompanied by his disciple, and there the saint remained to the end in the love of God and his neighbour. The holy abbot, Adamnan, having made the visitation of all Ireland, came at length to St. Gerald at Mayo to enjoy the sweet society of his friend.

Not long afterwards St Gerald, having performed countless miracles, and founded many monasteries, rested at peace at Mayo Abbey, on the 13th day of March (tertio idea Martii) A.D. 732.

P.S. - The Chronology of these legends of St. Gerald is very confused. It is to be remembered that these records were not written down for many centuries - some five or six at all events - afterwards. And while many of the traditions herein related are corroborated by the 'Irish Annals' it is impossible to reconcile others with  the known facts of Irish history.

Catholic Advocate, Thursday 23 February 1928, page 42.


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