September 21 is the commemoration of one of the Saxon saints who came to Ireland as a student and sadly fell victim to the plague in 664. The story of Saint Edilhun (Æthelhun) is forever linked with that of his brother monk Egbert (Eghert) and is found in The Venerable Bede's History of the English Church. Bede's account describes how devastating the plague was and also how powerful a draw the monastic schools of Ireland exerted on his countrymen. The establishment to which our saint was drawn, Rath Melsigi, was previously identified with Mellifont Abbey in County Louth, although as long ago as the 1820s, Father John Lanigan pointed out that this was for no other reason than both contained the word Mel in their names and that no monastery was known there prior to the 12th century. Today Rath Melsigi is increasingly identified with Clonmelsh, County Carlow and appreciated as the intellectual and spiritual powerhouse which produced some of the greatest missionary saints of the Anglo-Saxon church, in Saint Willibrord and his companions. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín has argued that the illuminated manuscripts associated with Willibrord's monastery of Echternach may well have been written at Rath Melsigi, and it is sad to think that there is now virtually no trace of this once important foundation. There is a paper available online on Clonmelsh and Mathematics which pays tribute to the wealth of learning there in the days of the Saxon scholars. For the life of former alumnus Saint Edilhun, we can turn first to the summary given by Canon O'Hanlon and then to the account of the Venerable Bede.
ST. EDILHUN, MONK IN IRELAND.
LIKE many of his countrymen, who had desired to render themselves more educated in sacred and profane learning, as also more perfect in the science of the saints, Edilhun had known how celebrated were the schools and monasteries of our country at a time, when Christianity had just began to take root in the northern parts of Britain. This holy man was an Anglo-Saxon by birth, which appears to have taken place early in the sixth century. The English Martyrology of John Wilson, Father Henry Fitzsimon, and the Anonymous Calendar of Irish Saints, published by O'Sullivan Beare, enter St. Edilhun's feast at the 21st day of September, the date assigned for it by other hagiologists. As Wilson signifies, he did not find the name of Edilhunus in the old English Martyrology or Calendar; the Bollandists, who insert his commemoration at this date, think that he had not been anciently held up for public veneration in the Church. However, from the eulogium pronounced on him by Venerable Bede, and on trustworthy authority, there can hardly be a doubt, that Edilhun eminently deserved and received that meed of popular approbation, especially as he had a prophetic vision of his approaching death. Moreover, the virtues of Edilhunus are highly commemorated by Venerable Bede, who treats about him, in connexion with St. Egbert, whose Acts have been already given at the 24th of April, the day assigned for his festival. We need scarcely do more than refer to that record, which includes the transactions of both holy companions in friendship and expatriation. Edilhun was of noble birth, and a brother to Ethelwin, a man no less beloved by God, who also went over to Ireland for purposes of study, and who, being there well instructed, returned afterwards to his own native country. He became bishop over the province of Lindsey, and long governed that See, in a worthy and creditable manner. Both Egbert and Edilhun were fellow students in a monastery denominated Rathmelsigi by Venerable Bede, at a time when the dreadful pestilence of A.D. 664 raged throughout Ireland, and both were attacked by that disorder, under which they were grievously suffering for some time. Then Edilhun had a vision, in which his own immediate death had been revealed, and also the fact, that his companion should survive him for many long years. This he related to Egbert on awakening from his sleep, and Edilhun was called to his rest on the following night. At the 21st of September, Ferrarius has a festival for Edilhunus. That was the supposed day of his death in Ireland, when he fell a victim to the great pestilence A.D. 664.
From the Venerable Bede:
EGHERT, A HOLY MAN OF THE ENGLISH NATION, LED A MONASTIC LIFE IN IRELAND. [A.D. 664.]
IN the same year of our Lord's incarnation, 664, there happened an eclipse of the sun, on the third of May, about ten o'clock in the morning. In the same year, a sudden pestilence also depopulated the southern coasts of Britain and afterwards extending into the province of the Northumbrians, ravaged the country far and near, and destroyed a great multitude of men. To which plague the aforesaid priest Tuda fell a victim, and was honorably buried in the monastery of Pegnaleth. This pestilence did no less harm in the island of Ireland. Many of the nobility, and of the lower ranks of the English nation, were there at that time, who, in the days of the Bishops Finan and Colman, forsaking their native island, retired thither, either for the sake of Divine studies, or of a more continent life; and some of them presently devoted themselves to a monastical life, others chose rather to apply themselves to study, going about from one master's cell to another. The Scots willingly received them all, and took care to supply them with food, as also to furnish them with books to read, and their teaching, gratis.
Among these were Etheihun and Eghert, two youths of great capacity, of the English nobility. The former of whom was brother to Ethelwin, a man no less beloved by God, who also afterwards went over into Ireland to study, and having been well instructed, returned into his own country, and being made bishop in the province of Lindsey, long governed that church worthily and creditably. These two being in the monastery which in the language of the Scots is called Rathmelsigi, and having lost all their companions, who were either cut off by the mortality, or dispersed into other places, fell both desperately sick of the lame distemper, and were grievously afflicted. Of these, Egbert (as I was informed by a priest venerable for his age, and of great veracity, who declared he had heard those things from his own mouth), concluding that he was at the point of death, went out of his chamber, where the sick lay, in the morning, and sitting alone in a convenient place, began seriously to reflect upon his past actions, and, being full of compunction at the remembrance of his sins, bedewed his face with tears, and prayed fervently to God that he might not die yet, before he could make amends for the offences which he had committed in his infancy and younger years, or might further exercise himself in good works. He also made a vow that he would, for the sake of God, live in a strange place, so as never to return into the island of Britain, where he was born; that besides the canonical times of singing psalms, he would, unless prevented by corporeal infirmity, say the whole Psalter daily to the praise of God; and that he would every week fast one whole day and a night. Returning home, after his tears, prayers, and vows, he found his companion asleep, and going to bed himself, began to compose himself to rest. When he had lain quiet awhile, his comrade awaking, looked on him, and said, "Alas, Brother Eghert, what have you done? I was in hopes that we should have entered together into life everlasting; but know that what you prayed for is granted." For he had learned in a vision what the other had requested, and that his prayer was granted.
In short, Ethelhun died the next night; but Eghert shaking off his distemper, recovered and lived a long time after to grace the priestly office, which he had received, by his worthy behavior; and after much increase of virtue, according to his desire, he at length, in the year of our Lord's incarnation 729, being ninety years of age, departed to the heavenly kingdom.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Book III, Chapter XXVII.
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