Thursday 8 January 2015

Saint Ercnat, January 8

On January 8 the Irish calendars record the name of a female saint, Ercnat ( Ercnat, Eargnat, Earcnad, Ergnata) known primarily from the hagiography of Saint Patrick. There she is depicted as one of the high-born female converts who receives the veil from the national apostle himself. Her father, Daire (Darius), is the local chieftain who grants the site of what later becomes the ecclesiastical capital of Armagh to Saint Patrick. Furthermore, Ercnat fulfills a designated role within the 'household of Saint Patrick', as one of his three embroideresses, according to the list found in the Tripartite Life.  The calendar entry in the Martyrology of Oengus records her as 'Ercnat, chosen to the inheritance' while the Martyrology of Donegal reads:

           8. A. SEXTO IDUS JANUARII. 8.
EARGNAT, Virgin, of Dun-da-en in Dal-Araidhe.
In the entry for Saint Ergnat in Volume I of his Lives of the Irish Saints Canon O'Hanlon depicts Ercnat as a pious nun whose admiration for the beautiful voice of another member of the Patrician household, Benen, the psalmist, leads to a case of unrequited love with potentially disastrous spiritual consequences. Fortunately, both the psalm-singer and his master are able to save Ercnat from herself:
...This noble lady flourished in the very dawn of Christianity in our island, and about the year of Christ, 460. The places of her veneration are called Clauin-da-en or Dun-da-en, in the Feevah or wood of Dalaradia, and also in the Church of Tamlacht-bo. The parish of Duneane is situated in the diocese of Connor. Its church was an ancient one, standing within Lisnaclosky townland. We, find in the Martyrology of Donegal, as having a feast on this day, Eargnat, Virgin, of Dun-da-en, in Dal-Araidhe. This holy penitent's acts have been written by Colgan. Her place is now called Duneane, in the county of Antrim. There is a St. Herenat, Virgin, of this same locality, entered at the 30th of October. It appears most probable, they are identical; in which case, this virgin had a double festival in the year. One of the Irish saints introduced to us this day, in the Felire of St. Aengus, is the present St. Ercnait. The etymology of Dun-da-en, contracted to Duneane, has been interpreted to signify "the fort of the two birds." The four towns  of Duneane on one of which the Protestant church stands are surrounded by that part of Lord O'Neill's property, known as " the estate of Feevah." From the Irish Apostle's Lives, it would seem, that Ercnata was the daughter of Darius, and that she flourished as a contemporary of St. Patrick. Darius, surnamed Derga, was the son of Finchod, son to Eugene, son to Niell. This latter seems to have been the distinguished founder, from whom the family and territory of Hy-Niellain, near Armagh, derived origin. Colgan thinks the charming and celebrated locality, known as Drumsailech belonged to him, and that afterwards it was made over to the great Irish Apostle, St. Patrick, to found the noble city of Armagh, the Ecclesiastical Metropolis of Ireland. Among the noble ladies, who received the veil from St. Patrick, St. Ercnata or Ergnata is enumerated. Her love of God was earnest and sedulous. Her pure-mindedness and observance of charitable and pious works served to single her out from among other pious women, to make and keep in repair, as also to wash, the sacred vestments. These offices accorded with the tastes and zeal of St. Ergnat, while nothing on her part was left undone to promote that splendour and decency becoming the Divine Mysteries. At these she attended with rapt devotion. But her love for sacred music furnished an opportunity to the enemy of her soul to excite a momentary feeling, which soon developed into a strong temptation. Her admiration for the exquisite voice of St. Benignus, who sang sacred music with great pathos, presented a dangerous occasion of sin. Thus, even the holiest mortals may have reason to fear the unguardedness of a spiritual friendship, contracted through the purest motives. But, the Almighty saves from the blast of temptation those who fondly love Him, and so was the holy virgin Ergnat rescued from a temporal and spiritual death, through the instrumentality of St. Patrick  and St. Benignus. Rendered more cautious by her escape from a great danger,and increasing her labours with sole trust in the sustaining grace of God, she bewailed with abundance of tears in after-life the frailty of a short time. As a penitent, she afterwards obtained that Divine aid, which caused her perfectly to regard only the love of God and to despise that towards created beings. Her closing years were rendered illustrious by signs and miracles. About the middle of the fifth century she is thought to have flourished; but the exact year when or place where she died does not appear to have been discovered. She was buried at Tamlachta-Bo.  Probably her death took place about the close of the fifth century. Our hagiographers assign two different festivals to honour her. One of these occurred on the 8th of January, and the other on the 30th of October. The first denotes the day of her natalis; the other feast probably marks some particular event during her life, or a translation of her relics after death. In the Lives of the Saints, nothing engages more our human sympathies than a fall from grace and a subsequent return to its Divine Author; while our own trembling hopes of salvation are encouraged, when so many feeble mortals have bravely resisted the assaults of Satan and escaped from his wiles. The remote occasions of guilt are to be dreaded, since the fires of deceitful passion are seldom wholly extinguished. Sometimes transforming himself into an angel of light, the devil designs our destruction the more dangerously, because his approaches are insidious. He does not desire to sound the note of alarm, when his unseen snares are drawn closely around us.

The Martyrology of Donegal gives some further detail on how Ercnat was saved from her inappropriate doomed love, in its entry for the feast of Saint Benen on November 9:

The holy Benen was benign, was devout; he was a virgin without ever defiling his virginity; for when he was psalm-singer at Ard-Macha along with his master, St. Patrick, Earcnat, daughter of Daire, loved him, and she was seized with a disease, so that she died suddenly; and Benen brought consecrated water to her from Patrick, and he shook it upon her, and she arose alive and well, and she loved him spiritually afterwards, and she subsequently went to Patrick and confessed all her sins to him, and she offered her virginity afterwards to God, so that she went to heaven; and the name of God, of Patrick, and of Benen, was magnified through it.

Archbishop John Healy, shares Canon O'Hanlon's relief that Ercnat's love for Benen was transformed from the earthly into the spiritual, commenting:

It is a very touching and romantic story, which has caught the fancy of our poets and chroniclers, and, as the scribe in the Martyrology declares, gave glory to Patrick and to Benen after God: but none the less is the holy maiden's name glorified also, whose young heart was touched by human love, which, in the spirit of God, was purified and elevated to the highest sphere of sinless spiritual love in Christ. It has often happened since.
Most Rev. J. Healy, The Life and Writings of St. Patrick, (Dublin, 1905),  p. 578.

Modern scholar, Pádraig Ó Riain in his 2011 Dictionary of Irish Saints notes 'Earcnad (Latin Archanta/ Ergnata) of Dál nAraidhe, who was associated with the Antrim parishes of Doagh Grange  (29 October) and Duneane (8 January)' but does so within the entry for yet another member of Saint Patrick's household, 'Bishop Earc, his judge'. Earc of Slane , feast day November 2 was an important early saint who may have been commemorated in the form of various namesakes, for example at 27 October as Earc of Donaghmore. Ó Riain therefore suggests that our saint Ercnat could be this same Saint Earc 'in female guise'. 

Note: This post on Saint Ercnat, first published on January 8 2105 has been revised and republished on January 8, 2022.

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