The 'Twelve Apostles of Ireland' is a collective title given in Irish hagiography to a group of Irish saints who were all said to have been students at the monastic school of Clonard, under the tutelage of Saint Finnian. A list of the Twelve is preserved in various sources, for the reputation of Saint Finnian as 'tutor of the saints of Ireland ' was firmly established and hagiographers sought to portray their subjects as having been numbered among his pupils. The individuals listed among the Twelve can vary from one place to another, this, for example is the list given in the scholiast notes to the Martyrology of Oengus:
Ireland's Twelve Apostles: Two Finnians, two chaste Columbs, Ciaran, Cainnech, fair Comgall, two Brennains, Ruadan with beauty, Ninnid, Mo-bi, son of Natfrech, i.e. Molaise.
One immediate objection that can be raised is that the list actually adds up to a baker's dozen, but presumably this is because the master, Finnian of Clonard, is numbered here along with his disciples. A striking feature of the list is that there are three homonymous groups. Finnian of Moville joins his namesake of Clonard, the two chaste Columbs comprise one of the most famous holders of the name, Colum Cille (Columba) of Iona and the perhaps less well-known Colum of Terryglass, whilst the two Brennains are Brendan of Birr and his more famous namesake, Brendan, the Navigator, of Clonfert. Although the Martyrology of Oengus does not record it here, other versions also name two Ciarans, with the elder Ciaran of Saighir joining the younger Ciaran of Clonmacnoise. Those named singly also present a mix of the relatively well-known with the relatively obscure, among the former would certainly be Cainnech (Kenneth) of Kilkenny and Comgall of Bangor, with Ruadan of Lorrha and Mobi of Glasnevin possibly a little less well-known, and the two Fermanagh lakeland saints Ninnid of Inismacsaint and Molaise of Devenish, perhaps the most obscure of the twelve, at least as far as the modern reader is concerned.
The noting of this list occurs at the Feast of the Dispersion of the Apostles on July 15, a context which suggests that the writers were quite deliberately echoing the sacred number of Our Lord's disciples. In the early 1860s one Irish writer, Father Anthony Cogan, quoted the seventeenth-century clerical writer John Lynch who presented this motif as something distinctive to Irish missions:
Those holy emigrations of the Irish were distinguished by a peculiarity never, or but very seldom, found among other nations. As soon as it became known that any eminent monk had resolved to undertake one of those sacred expeditions, twelve men of the same order placed themselves under his command, and were selected to accompany him; a custom probably introduced by St. Patrick, who had been ably supported by twelve chosen associates in converting the Irish from the darkness of paganism to the light of the true faith. St. Rioch, nephew to St. Patrick, and walking in his footsteps, was attended in his sacred missions to foreign tribes and regions by twelve colleagues of his own order; and when St. Rupert, who had been baptized by a nephew of St. Patrick, apostle of Ireland, departed to draw down the fertilising dews of true religion on pagan Bavaria, twelve faithful companions shared the perils and labours of his journey and mission. St. Finnian, bishop of Clonard, selected twelve from the thronged college of his disciples, to devote them in a special manner to establish and animate the principles of the Christian religion among the Irish, and hence they were styled by posterity the twelve apostles of Ireland. St. Columba was accompanied in his apostolic mission to Albany by twelve monks. Twelve followed St. Finbar in his pilgrimage beyond the seas, and twelve St. Maidoc, bishop of Ferns, in one of his foreign missions. St. Colman Fin was never seen without his college of twelve disciples. When the ceaseless irruptions of foreign enemies, or the negligence of the bishops, had well nigh extinguished the virtue of religion in Gaul, and left nothing but the Christian Faith when the medicine of penance and the love of mortification were found nowhere, or but with a few, 'then', says Jonas, 'St. Columbanus descended on Gaul, supported by twelve associates, to arouse her from her torpor, and enlighten her sons with the beams of the most exalted piety. Twelve disciples followed St. Eloquius from Ireland to illumine the Belgians with the rays of faith; twelve accompanied St. Willibrod from Ireland to Germany; the pilgrimage and labours of St. Farrannan in Belgium were shared by twelve faithful brothers of the cowl; and the same number were fellow-exiles with St. Macallan. Perhaps the reason why the Irish clung with such invincible attachment to this custom, was the number of the apostles chosen by our Saviour, and the same number of disciples appointed by the Apostolic See to accompany Palladius to Ireland.
Writers of Dean Cogan's generation were inclined to treat hagiography uncritically and in his treatment of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, another nineteenth-century writer, Archbishop John Healy, presented a similarly romantic picture of Saint Finnian's famous pupils. His list omits Saint Comgall in favour of Saint Senan of Iniscathy and Finnian of Moville gives way to the elder Ciaran, known as the 'firstborn of the saints of Ireland', whose own hagiography claimed him as one of the pre-Patrician saints, thus making him a very mature student indeed:
To Clonard came all the men who were afterwards famous as "The Twelve Apostles of Erin." Thither came the venerable Ciaran of Saigher, a companion of St. Patrick, to bow his hoary head in reverence to the wisdom of the younger sage; and that other Ciaran, the Son of the Carpenter, who in after years founded the famous monastic school of Clonmacnoise in the fair meadows by the Shannon's shore. Thither, too, came Brendan of Birr, "the prophet," as he was called, and his still more famous namesake, Brendan of Clonfert, St. Ita's foster son, the daring navigator, who first tried to cross the Atlantic to preach the Gospel, and revealed to Europe the mysteries of the far off Western Isles. There, too, was young Columba, who learned at the feet of Finnian those lessons of wisdom and discipline that he carried with him to Iona, which in its turn became for many centuries a torch to irradiate the spiritual gloom of Picts, and Scots, and Saxons. And there was that other Columba of Tir-da- glass, and Mobhi-Clairenach of Glasnevin, and Rodan, the founder of Lorrha near Lough Derg, and Lasserian, the son of Nadfraech, and Canice of Aghaboe, and Senanus from Inniscathy, and Ninnidh the Pious from the far off shores of Lough Erne. It is said, too, that St. Enda of the Aran Islands and Sinellus of Cleenish, and many other distinguished saints spent some time at Clonard, but they are not, like those mentioned above, reckoned amongst "the Twelve Apostles of Erin."
Insula Sanctorum et Doctorum or Ireland's Ancient Schools and Scholars by the Most Rev. John Healy (6th edition, Dublin, 1912), 201.
I hope to be able to return to Ireland's Twelve Apostles in future posts as I have done some research into the hagiographical accounts of the schooldays of Clonard's saintly past pupils in order to better understand this theme.
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