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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