Friday 11 October 2013

Saint Canice of Kilkenny, October 11

October 11 is the feast of the patron saint of Kilkenny, Saint Canice (Kenny, Kenneth). I have just finished reading an interesting paper by Professor Pádraig Ó Riain in which he argues that Saint Canice may actually be Saint Colum Cille (Columba) under another guise. Perhaps I can summarize this thesis in a future post. Below, however, is a paper by a nineteenth-century Irish priest who is untroubled by such considerations and is instead keen to bring us an account of all the traditions which established Saint Canice as a distinct individual, even if, in his connections with the north-west of Ireland and with Scotland, he does indeed echo the great Colum Cille who himself appears in the story:

Dublin Penny Journal, 1835


As the Feast of St. Kieran of Ossory, the Primogenitus Sanctorum Hiberniae, March the 5th, brings us back to the Praeparatio Evangelica, and the advent of the heavenly spring that gladdened the hearts and homes of Erin, so also, the festival of St. Canice, on the 11th of October, cannot fail to remind us of the first-fruits of that rich golden harvest which was gardened by the celestial husbandman from the virgin soil of the Island of Saints.

The commencement of the sixth century, 515 or 516, witnessed the birth of St. Canice or Kenny, at Glengiven, "the Valley of the Roe," in the barony of Keenagh, County Londonderry. His parents were so poor at the time of his birth, that a special interposition of Providence was required in order to afford the new born babe the very means of subsistence. But although destitute of worldly goods, they were rich in virtue, and of superior intelligence. His father, Lughadh Lethdearg, was a member of the bardic class, and held the post of tutor to Gael Bregach, afterwards Prince of Hy-Many. Lughadh Leithdearg appears also to have been a poet of some distinction, and it may have been from him that our saint inherited that rare gift of eloquence, which caused him to be compared by Irish writers to St. Philip, who is supposed to have been the most eloquent of the Apostles.

In a manuscript catalogue of the Irish saints, which dates from the beginning of the fifteenth century, and is preserved in the College of Salamanca, Meaula or Mealla is mentioned as the mother of St. Canice, and that her principal church is in Kilkenny. Hanmer in his Chronicle relates that in the thirteenth century, a church was erected in Kilkenny under her invocation, over against the east side of the Nore (where St. Maul's cemetery now lies). The Church of St. Maul, with four marks of silver yearly, was conferred on the Vicars Choral of St. Canice, by Bishop Barry, in 1428.

At an early age, Canice resolving to devote himself to the study of sacred truths, proceeded to the monastery of Lancarvan in Wales. This school of piety was at that time ruled by the Abbot Cadoc, surnamed the Wise a saint who had himself been trained in the paths of piety by a saint of Irish birth, St. Tathai. At Lancarvan Canice soon distinguished himself by the practice of every virtue, especially by the strict observance of holy obedience. One day whilst engaged in what was to him the delightful occupation of transcribing the Holy Scriptures, the bell of the monastery called him to other duties, and we are told that the obedient novice left the letter, at which he was engaged, half finished, and thenceforward his abbot loved Canice exceedingly.

After having received the Holy Order of the priesthood, about the year 546, Canice asked and obtained permission to proceed to Rome in order to receive the blessing of Christ's Vicar on his future missionary labours. At that time Italy was overrun with barbarians, the Goths and their leader, Atilla, and so, the pilgrimage of St. Canice must have been a work of great difficulty. But the special Providence of God preserved him in all the vicissitudes of that perilous journey, the very men who sought his life were converted, and became his devoted disciples, so that he was enabled through their instrumentality to found in the distracted land a monastery, where his own name and those of his compatriots, known as " the saintly pilgrims from Ireland," were for ages held in the greatest veneration. On his return to Ireland our saint, wishing to perfect himself still more in the knowledge and practice of virtue, spent some time in the great schools of Clonard, under St. Finnian, and Glasnevin, then governed by St. Mobius. He had for his companions, Columkille, Kieran of Clonmacnoise, Comgall, Brendan, and others of the great saints, who were styled the twelve Apostles of Erin.

St. Mobius having built a beautiful oratory of oak, of unusually large proportions, a question arose among his disciples as to their wishes regarding it. St. Kieran expressed his wish that it were filled with holy men who, by day and night would chant the praises of God. St. Comgall, wholly intent on penitential exercises, would wish it to be filled with all the pains and burdens which are the lot of men during their pilgrimage on earth, and that all might come to him as his inheritance. St. Columba would like to see it well filled with gold and silver, to be expended in the erection of churches and monasteries, and in the service of the poor. St. Canice, being asked to tell his thoughts, declared that it would be his desire to see the oratory filled with religious books and sacred texts by which men would be imbued with a knowledge of divine truths, and led to the fervent service of their Creator. St. Mobius, hearing their pious wishes, prayed that each of these holy youths would receive from heaven the special gift which he desired. The time came when Canice was called upon to leave his peaceful solitude and the sweet society of his brethren ; when the holy 'priest and perfect religious was to become himself a founder of churches, and a vessel of election to carry the light of faith to a people sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death. Following the example of his friend St. Columba, Caledonia was selected by him as the country then affording the best prospect of a rich virgin harvest of souls.

His first success was in rooting out from his native place in Derry the surviving superstitions of Druidism, and the conversion of his foster-brother, the chieftain of Dungiven, who afterwards assisted our saint in founding the great church of Drumachose, in Londonderry. His sister's son, St. Berchan, also owed his recovery from a mortal illness to the prayers of St. Canice. His name appears in our Irish Calendars as the founder and patron of Consast, in the King's County. St.Columbkille had already converted the Island of Mull to the faith, and had made repeated missionary excursions to the adjoining mainland. He now meditated an assault on Pictish Paganism in its very centre and stronghold, and took for his companions Canice and Comgall. Imagine the three holy companions setting out on that perilous voyage, seated in their little coracle or ozier boat, covered with hide, which the Celtic nations employed for their navigation. Their destination is the heart of Caledonia, "stern and wild," which the imagination of our forefathers made the dwelling-place of hunger and of the prince of demons. Their way lies through an archipelago of naked and desert islands, sowed like so many extinct volcanoes, upon the dull and sullen waters, which are sometimes washed by the Atlantic waves, swept by the Atlantic blasts, and broken by rapid currents and dangerous whirlpools. The pale sickly sun of the North only serves to point out the fogs and mists surrounding and surmounting the lofty summits, and abrupt and naked sides of the bare and desolate mountains of that sterile, icy land. After overcoming all the perils of that adventurous voyage, the holy missioners beheld, rising up before them, to the height of fully five hundred feet, the rock fortress of the Pictish King, some two miles west of the River Ness. His name was Brude ; and he is styled by Venerable Bede, " a most powerful king," who had vanquished the Scots or Dalradians in many a hard-fought battle-field : and was now enjoying his kingdom in peace, having triumphed over all his enemies. From his eyrie on the rock, this bird of prey beheld with savage eyes Columbkille, " the dove of the churches," and his two companions advancing to plant the standard of the cross on his redoubtable stronghold. Burning with indignation at their boldness in presenting themselves unbidden before him, King Brude ordered the gates of the fortress to be closed, and strongly barred against them. But our brave Irish priests had recourse to prayer ; and Comgall, having made the sign of the cross on the outer gates, they immediately fell broken to the ground ; Columba made the sign of the cross on the inner door of the enclosure, with the same effect. When the three saints stood face to face with the enraged King, he drew his sword, swearing by his ancestral gods, that he would avenge the insult offered to him ; but Canice, making the sign of the cross towards him, his hand was instantly withered. And it so remained till Brude believed in God, received Baptism from St. Columba, and the perfect restoration of his daughter to her sight, hearing, and speech, by the intercession of St. Canice. The victory of the cross was complete ; Caledonia became a portion of the vineyard of the Lord, rivalling the soil of her mother, Erin, in the fertility with which, for ages, she produced the fairest flowers and richest fruit of holiness and justice. And Iona became in a higher sense than any earthly Pharos, a spiritual lighthouse, shedding its beams of religion and culture far and wide. It was there Columba fixed his rude retreat :

" There the first symbol of his creed unfurled ;
And spread religion over a darkened world."

The amount of co-operation given by St. Canice in the glorious work of evangelizing Scotland may be judged from the number of places that retained his name, and cherished his memory in that country. Amongst these, the most remarkable was the monastery of Rig-Monadh, or the royal mound where the Cathedral of St. Andrew was afterwards erected. The Felire of St. Oengus contains in its notes of St. Canice's Feast, at 11th October, a reference to this foundation : "Achadhbo is his principal church, and he has a Eecles, i.e., a monastery at Cill-Eigmonaig in Alba." Scottish writers record that St. Canice was regarded, after St. Brigid and Columba, as " the favourite Irish saint in Scotland." He was honoured even in Iona, where a burial-ground still retains the name Kill-Chainnech. And fain would he have remained till death a voluntary exile from his native land, in order to enjoy the heavenly conversation of St. Columba, and of his holy companions, and to help them to secure that golden harvest ; but the saints of Ireland, not willing to be deprived of his example and counsels, sent messengers after him, praying him to return to his own country. They found him "living as a hermit in Britain, and Canice was then brought from his hermitage against his will." This hermitage, according to Cardinal Moran, is identified with the remains of an ancient church called Laggan-Kenny ; i.e., St. Kenny's church at Laggan, towards the east end of Loch Laggan, at the foot of a mountain, in the Grampian range.

The homeward voyage of our saint was signalized by his having miraculously saved from a watery grave the illustrious St. Fintan, of Clonenagh, styled by the old writers the Father of Irish Monks and the Benedict of Ireland. The establishment of the first Irish monastery following the rule of St. Columba and St. Canice, that of Kilkenny West, in the County of Westmeath, was inaugurated by a miracle, related by all our saint's biographers. A turbulent chieftain of Meath, Colman Beg MacDiarmaid had carried off by violence a nun, sister of St. Aedh, Bishop of Killair, in Meath, and detained her captive in an Island in the centre of an lake. The Bishop took up his position near that part of the lake in which his sister was held prisoner, and there fasted and prayed that the heart of the King might be moved. Nothing, however, appeared to produce any effect on the heart of that wicked king until St. Canice came to the assistance of his episcopal friend. The King, hearing of the saint's approach, ordered the bolts to be drawn up, and all avenues to his fortress to be closed. Vain precautions! St. Canice passed over the lake, and entered the castle or fort ; and, then, Colman Beg, struck with terror at a chariot of fire, which he saw moving towards the island, confessed his crime, delivered up the nun to her brother, and made a grant of that island to our saint. Some years after St. Canice travelling in Breffny rested at a wayside cross, at Bealach Daithe, in the parish of Lurgan, county Cavan, and performed there the devotion of None. On inquiring whose cross this was, he was informed that it was there Colman Beg MacDiarmaid had fallen in battle. "I remember," said the saint, " that I promised that prince a prayer after his death ;" and, turning to the cross, he prayed with fervour and with tears, until it was revealed to him that the soul of Colman was freed from suffering. In the 43rd and 44th chapters of The Life of St. Canice, there is an account of some incidents which occured during a civil war in Ossory, in which Feredach, the son or grandson of a Munster usurper in that territory, was slain, circiter 582, by " the sons of Connla," i. e., the true Ossorians. Colman, the son of this Feradach, notwithstanding this opposition, succeeded his father and ruled this territory till his death, in 601. He was the friend and patron of St. Canice, who settled permanently in Ossory during his reign, after the death probably of his former patron, Colman Beg, King of Meath, as the late Father Shearman remarks [Loca Patriciana, No. XL ].

The reign of Colman MacFeradach was marked by the frequent rebellions of the discontented Ossorians. In one of these tumults, Colman was closely besieged in his fortress which was probably at Kells, which they gave to the flames. St. Canice, in his church at Aghaboe, hearing of this outrage, set out to the relief of his friend ; and passing through Magh Roghni, the great centre plain of Kilkenny, per medium regni, he comes to " Dominick Moir Roighni," St. Patrick's parish, on the southern border of the town, to which subsequently his own name was annexed. The portly abbot of Domnach Moir, Pinguis princeps, whose sympathies were with the Ossorians, his own countrymen, came out from his church, and thus addressed the saint : " I know that you are hastening to set free your friend, but unavailingly ; as you shall only find his charred and mutilated corpse." St. Canice replies : " The Son of the Virgin knows that what you imagine is not true, for before you return to your church, you shall find yourself a corpse." After this interview the portly abbot returned in his chariot to his city, through another gate near at hand, the name of which was Darnleth. While the abbot was passing through the portal, the swinging gate or door fell on his head, and killed him on the spot.

In this legend we discover that Domnach Moir, St. Patrick's, Kilkenny, was at this period a place of some importance, containing an ecclesiastical establishment, surrounded with walls or " septa," with gates opening on the various roads diverging from the " civitas " or cashel, which was the nucleus of the town or villa which grew up about the Patrician church, the name of which was destined ere long to be merged, and all but lost, in a new designation. St. Canice rescued his friend Colman from the hand of his enemies; dashed through the serried lines of the assailants, under a shower of javelins and arrows, into the burning pile, rescued the King, and when he had brought him to a place of safety, he says : " Remain here awhile, for although you are alone to-day, you shall not be so to-morrow, for three men shall join you in this place, and afterwards three hundred shall come to you, and on the third day you shall be King over the whole of Ossory." After this occurred we may suppose what is described by anticipation in cap. 43, that Colman gave many towns (villas) in which St. Canice erected monasteries and churches. The chief ones amongst these were Cill Cainnech, now Kilkenny, and Aghaboe, or Agerboum in the Queen's County, the lands of which are well known as amongst the richest pastures in Ireland.

Aghaboe was during his lifetime the sanctuary most closely connected with the name of St. Canice. It was his treasure-house of graces, the favourite school in which through winter frost, through rain and storm, through summer sunshine, generation after generation of his spiritual children lived and prayed, and at last laid them down and died. Bright with dew, and enamelled with the sweetest flowers, the sunny dells, the stately trees, and rich pastures of Aghaboe formed a striking contrast to the desolate grandeur and more ascetic surroundings of Iona and its sister isles. lona and Aghaboe, however, although so distant and so dissimilar, were bound together by the golden link of a very intimate communion of saints. It is related that St. Columba and his monks were on one occasion overtaken by a violent tempest ; every wave threatened instant death. The monks cried out to their abbot to pray to God for protection, but he replied that the holy abbot Canice, alone could save them in this danger. At the very moment St. Canice, in his monastery of Aghaboe, heard by revelation the voice of Columba speaking to his heart. Starting up from the repast of which he was partaking with his religious brethren at the hour of none, he rushed to the church, exclaiming : " This is no time for food, when Columba's ship is struggling with the waves." Having entered the oratory, he prayed for some time in silence with tears. The Lord heard his prayer, the tempest instantly ceased, and the sea became quite calm. St Columba, seeing in spirit Canice hastening to the oratory, cried out, " Canice, I know that God hath heard thy prayer ; it is well for us that thou hast run with one sandal to the altar" for in his haste Canice had dropped one of his sandals. The prayers of both saints co-operated in this miracle, observes St. Adamnan; an example of the blessings which God grants through the communion of saints. So Columba said to his brethren, " God has bestowed on Canice the gift of calming every tempest." And St. Canice was invoked in the early Irish Church as the special patron of the faithful against the storms of the sea. An incident in the life of St. Canice proves the survival of Druidism in parts of Ireland up to his time. Another incident gives an account of a barbarous custom that appears to have been then very prevalent.

In the life of our saint, it is related that when Canice came to the west of Leinster he found a great assemblage of people with Cormac, the son of Diarmaid, chief of Hy Bairrche. " Then a little boy, was led forth by the people to a cruel death called Giallcherd. It consisted in this the spears of the military were fixed upright in the ground, and the hostage of those who violated their engagement was seized and flung upon them. The name of this cruel amusement, " the Gillacherd or foreign art," betrays its origin. When St. Canice perceived the horrible act which was about to be perpetrated, he prayed to have the boy set free. His entreaties were unheeded, and the innocent youth was pitched high into the air so as to fall back on the spears which were held erect to receive him. Through the prayers of St. Canice, the boy escaped the bristling points, and was saved. Terrified by his extreme danger his eyes became awry, and the name Leabdeare, or crooked eye, was affixed to his name Dolne Dolne Leabdeare. He became a disciple of St. Canice, and afterwards founded a church, around which grew up a town, which was called Killdolne Leabdeare. About fifty years after the death of St. Canice, Cuimin of Connor commemorated it in an Irish verse, of which the following is a translation :

" Canice of the mortifications loved
To be in a bleak woody desert,
Where there were none to attend on him
But only the wild deer."

As was the case with other Irish saints, there was a legend that the deer became so tame in the saint's presence that he could, whilst engaged in study, rest his book or manuscript on their antlers.

The favourite retreat of St. Canice was a solitary spot in a marshy bog called Lough-cree, situated between Roscrea and Borris-in-Ossory. There the saint erected a cell, and thither he loved to retire, in order to enjoy the sweets of silent meditation in the study of Sacred Scriptures. It became, in later times, a favourite resort for pilgrims, and it was popularly known as Monahincha, or "Insula Viventium." On this island Canice more than once passed the whole time of Lent, keeping a rigorous fast for forty days. There also he completed a beautiful copy of the Latin Gospels, adding a cantena or commentary which was highly prized throughout the Irish Church. This precious manuscript, called Class-Canneche, was still extant in the beginning of the seventeenth century, and is, according to Cardinal Moran, one of those ancient copies of the Gospels now preserved in, the library of Trinity College, Dublin.

At Aghaboe it was that our venerable abbot spent the evening of his life in prayer and penance, in the government of his monastery, the study of the Sacred Scriptures, and in spiritual conferences with the holy personages by whom he was surrounded. St. Brendan of Birr, St. Mochaomog of Liath (now Leemokeevogue), near Thurles, the holy community of Saigher, and St. Fintan of Clonenagh (Mountrath), resided within easy distance of the last earthly domicile of St. Canice at Aghaboe. The society of such holy men must have been to St. Canice a source of the sweetest consolation, a foretaste of the delights of Paradise. And when, after the labours of spring, the heats of summer, and the toil of that luxuriant harvest, our saint was summoned in this season of autumn, at the advanced age of eighty-four, to meet the Master of the vineyard, it was from the hand of his loved friend and neighbour, the fervent Fintan of the " Ivy Meadow," that he received, for the last time, that Bread of Life which was to be to him the seed of a glorious immortality. And so, after imparting his blessing to the assembled brethren, and exhorting them to perseverance in prayer and penance, he passed to his heavenly reward at Aghaboe, on the 11th October, about the year 599.


The relics of St. Canice, after having escaped the ravages of the Northmen, were enshrined in the church of the monastry of Aghaboe, in 1052. The shrine and relics of our saint were, however, ruthlessly burned, in 1346, by Diarmid MacGillapatrick, Prince of Ossory. Clyn's graphic notice of this outrage is as follows : "Item, on Friday, the 13th of May, Diarmid MacGillapatrick, the one-eyed, ever noted for treachery and treasons, making light of perjury, and aided by O'Carroll, burned the town of Aghaboe ; and venting his parricidal rage against the cemetery, the church and shrine of that most holy man, St. Canice, the abbot, consumed them, together with the bones and relics, by a most cruel fire."

In the National Museum, Kildare-street, is preserved a small ancient bronze, representing in relief the figure of an ecclesiastic, bearing in his left hand a book, and in the right a short episcopal staff or cambutta. St. Canice was of small stature, and was dubbed by his enemies, Parvulus baculatus; that is, " the little man with the staff." " This antique bronze was found in the church-yard of Aghaboe ; it would seem, from the rivet -holes remaining, to have been a portion of the ornamental work of an ancient shrine. Perhaps it is the sole remaining vestige which has survived 'the most cruel fire ' of the one-eyed MacGillapatrick." The bronze representation or figure is considered by Mr.Westwood and other eminent palaeographists to form one of the three earliest known of the short pastoral staff used by Irish prelates. The grandest surviving monument of our saint is St. Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny, which has witnessed so many vicissitudes in Irish history, and whose own history, architecture and antiquities have been so splendidly illustrated by two liberal and learned Protestants, Messrs. Prim and Graves. The Catholic deanery and parochial church of St. Canice, Kilkenny, and the beautiful church of Aghadoe, are also very creditable and well-kept temples, in which the old devotion of Ossory to her patron and protector is preserved and fostered, and his festival kept with great solemnity every year.


The Archives of the Corporation of Kilkenny preserve among their most valuable deeds and charters the original grant made by Bishop Geoffrey, of Ossory, about the year 1244, to the Friars Preachers of the Black Abbey, Kilkenny, of a supply of water from St. Canice's well for the use of the religious of the monastery. To the stipulation is added, that the circumference of the water-pipe at the well should not be larger than that of the bishop's ring; and at the end, where it enters the monastery, it should be only of such a size that it could be stopped by a man's little finger. A facsimile of this interesting concession has been printed by Gilbert in The Irish National MSS. series, vol. ii., n. lxxii. It still retains a considerable portion of the bishop's seal. A ring of copper is attached to the seal to mark the size of the bishop's ring.

The Dominican Bishop Hugh who governed the diocese from 1258 to 1260, granted to his religious brethren of the Black Abbey, the custody of St. Canice's Holy Well, which was much frequented by pilgrims and by the citizens. Lynch writes that many persons in his day continued to visit it through piety or in search of health ; and he also attests that many miraculous cures were every day effected by using this water and invoking the aid of St. Canice. There is also a beautiful tradition to the effect that any native of the "faire citie" by the Nore who drinks of the waters before leaving home for the foreign land will surely live to return to his native shore.

" For it is a tender story, and an old tradition hoary,
That in battle dread or gory, or upon the ocean's breast,
He will ne'er meet death, or never die by cold or burning fever,
Till the old land, tho' he leaves her he shall see this is the spell
Which unto the peasant's thinking, comes by simply drinking,
If his faith be all unshrinking, from St. Kenny's Holy Well."

The holy friendship between SS. Canice and Columba is proved and perpetuated in Ossory by the fact of having six old parishes placed under the patronage of St. Columbkille. Scanlan, King of Ossory, in gratitude to St. Columba, for having liberated him from the cruel treatment and imprisonment to which, as a hostage, he was subjected at the hands of Aedh MacAinmire, King of Ireland, fixed an impost of one sgrebal, that is, of three pence, on each hearth of his principality, from Bladma to the sea, which was to be paid every year to the community of St. Columba, at Durrow, in Osraidhe.

" My kin and tribes to thee shall pay
Tho' numberless they were as grass,
A sgrebal from each hearth that lies,
From Bladma's summit to the sea."

St. Columba, on his part, gave his blessing to Scanlan, his descendants and subjects, as we also read in the Ambra :

" My blessing rest on Osraidhe's sons,
And on her daughter's sage and bright ;
My blessing on her soil and sea,
For Osraidhe's King obeys my word."



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