Thursday 18 December 2014

Saint Maignenn of Kilmainham, December 18

December 18 is the feast of a County Dublin saint, Maignenn (Maignan, Magnenn) whose name is still recalled today in the placename Kilmainham. Saint Maignenn is a fascinating saint whose Vita contains many weird and wonderful episodes which rather shocked some of the 19th-century churchmen who wrote about the lives of the saints. He had, for example, a ram which used to carry his prayer books, as the Martyrology of Donegal explains in its entry for the day:


MAIGHNENN, Bishop and Abbot, of Cill-Maighnenn, near Athcliath. He was of the race of Colla-da-crioch. Sinell, daughter of Cenannan, sister of Old Senchell the saint, was his mother. He had a ram which used to carry his psalter and his prayerbook. There came a certain robber and thief, and stole the ram. Maighnenn, with his thrice nine clerics, went after the robber to his house. The robber denied having stolen the ram by oath on the relics, and on the hand of Maighnenn himself. The ram was cut up in quarters in a hole in the ground, after the robber had eaten what was in his belly. The ram spoke below in the hole. Maighnenn and his thrice nine persons looked up to heaven, and gave thanks to God for this miracle. But the robber was deprived of his eyesight, and their strength left his feet and his hands, and he said in a loud voice, "For God's sake," said he, "O Maighnenn, do not deprive me of the light of heaven for the future." When Maighnenn heard the repentance of the sinner, he prayed fervently to God for him, and he recovered his eyesight again, and he was eminent in religion as long as he lived. And the name of God and of Maighnenn was magnified by that miracle.

In his notes to Archdall's Monasticon Hibernicum, the then Bishop of Ossory P.F. Moran lamented "It is a pity that such a ridiculous fable should usurp the place of more authentic history about this holy man." Yet modern scholars would readily recognize a number of hagiographical motifs from this story of the ram and the robber. First, there is the slight done to the saint's honour by the robber, who compounds his sin by swearing his innocence not only on the relics but on the very hand of the saint himself. That cries out for punishment and it is duly delivered as his perjury is exposed by the miraculous cries of the ram. The thief is then deprived of his eyesight, and this is a motif which operates on more than one level, denoting spiritual blindness for example and recalling the encounter between Christ and the blind man in the Scriptures. Then there is the fact that this 'ridiculous fable' is actually a vehicle for conveying the mercy and sanctity of Saint Maignenn whose actions lead to a sinner being turned around and to the name of God being magnified. I think, therefore, that Bishop Moran perhaps missed the point of this hagiographical account with all of its rich symbolism - the three times nine clerics in attendance on the saint, the fact that a beast is subject to his will and the ability of Maignenn to successfully intercede for a sinner such as this - all tell me quite a lot about this holy man and in a much deeper way than 'authentic history' might have done.

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