St. Canice or Kenny, founder of the Abbey, and patron of the parish, of Aghaboe, was born in the year 515 or 516, in Glengiven, in the region of Cianachta, in the present County of Londonderry. He was descended from the Corco-Dalann or Ui Dalainn, a tribe whose ancestor, Dalann, is traced back to Fergus (King of Ulster a little before the Christian era), son of Ross, son of Rudhraighe. The Corco-Dalann were of little consequence, and their exact location is unknown, except that they dwelt in an island called in the Saint's Life "Insula Nuligi," and which is usually identified with Inis-Doimhle or Inis-Uladh, now the Little Island, in the Suir, south-east of Waterford. Lughadh Leithdhearg, our Saint's father, was a distinguished bard, and from the wandering disposition of men of his class, it is not difficult to conceive how he left the home of his youth, in the sunny south, and settled down in the far north, under the favour and protection of the chief of Cianachta. He was there chosen tutor or foster-father of his chieftain's son, Geal Breagach (Latine Albus Mendax), who afterwards succeeded to the headship of his tribe. The mother of the Saint was Maul or Mella. She attained an eminent degree of sanctity, and the church of Thompleamoul, otherwise “Capella Sanctae Maulae seu Mellae," beside Kilkenny city, was dedicated to God under her invocation.
In early life, St. Canice was employed, in his native place, as a shepherd in charge, probably, of his chieftain's cattle ("in illo autem loco sanctus puer Kannechus pecora pascebat"); but, being a youth destined by God to promote the glory of His name, he soon abandoned that peaceful calling and placed himself under instruction in some of the schools with which the country then abounded. A curious mistake in reference to his early education, needs to be noticed here.
Most, if not all, of his biographers state that at a very early age, when only about fourteen years old, he was sent to Britain to be educated, and that he remained there till after his ordination, on attaining his thirtieth year. Such a statement seems, at first sight, improbable, and, on examination, will be found inadmissible. For St. Canice and St. Columbkille were pupils together, at Clonard, under St. Finnian, in 543, when St. Canice was only twenty-seven or twenty-eight years of age; and again, in the early part of 544, the same two saints, either with St. Kieran of Clonmacnoise and St. Comgall of Bangor, were students in the School of Glasnevin under St. Mobhi. Hence, there can be no doubt that the Saint's education was received in Ireland, and that it was only when St. Mobhi's School had to be disbanded, owing to the breaking out of a pestilence, of which St. Mobhi himself died, Oct. 12th, 544, that St. Canice, then twenty-eight or twenty-nine years old, left his native land and sought the friendly shores of Britain to perfect himself in sacred knowledge and prepare himself for his ordination to the priesthood.
"Proceeding to the monastery of Llancarvan, situated in Glamorganshire, on the banks of the Severn, he placed himself under the care of its holy Abbot, St. Cadoc, sumamed the Wise, who at this time enjoyed a wide-spread fame for sanctity and miracles. Among the exercises to which Canice applied himself, under the guidance of this holy Abbot, we find specially mentioned the transcribing of the sacred Scriptures; and it is also commemorated that, though he was remarkable for the practice of all virtues, yet he was particularly endeared to the venerable Cadoc for the promptness of his obedience. One day, we are told, whilst engaged in copying, the monastery bell summoned him to another task. The obedient Canice left half-finished the letter o at which he was engaged, in order to hasten at once to the duties to which obedience called him. ' Thenceforward,' adds the biographer, ' the abbot loved Canice exceedingly.' "
Having received the holy order of priesthood, on the completion of his thirtieth year, in 545 or 546, he set out for Rome to pay homage to the reigning Pontiff and secure his blessing at the outset of his missionary career.
On his return, probably about 550, St. Canice went to his native place, where he denounced the superstitions, and exposed the delusions, of the druids. who still lingered in secluded parts of Ireland. The reputation acquired by his first work was increased by subsequent visits to his home during his long life ; for he often passed there in his frequent voyages to Britain, especially to his friend, S. Columbkille. In the house of his sister, Columba, at Airte, near the coast beyond Glengiven, he cured St. Berchan, who afterwards founded the church of Clonsast, in the King's County. He also converted his foster-brother, Geal Breagach, the chief of Dungiven, who at first ridiculed his admonitions, but, terrified by an extraordinary illness, at length repented, and assisted in founding at Dromachose, in Londonderry, a church, where, for more than a thousand years his spiritual benefactor. St. Canice, was honoured as patron.
Animated with that wonderful missionary spirit, which characterized so many of his countrymen, the saint is next met with, in 565, in Scotland, whither he had gone to aid St. Columbkille in the conversion of that nation. With St. Comgall he accompanied St. Columbkille, in that year, on the memorable occasion of his first visit to Brude, the pagan King of the Picts.
During his sojourn in Scotland, St. Canice " erected an oratory on Tiree Island, and the ruins of an ancient church, still called — Kil-Chainnich, probably mark its site. He also erected cells in the Islands of Ibdon and Eninis (i.e.', Island of Birds), and his memory was cherished there in after times. He was honoured even in Iona, where a burial ground still retains the name Kill-Chainnech. On the mainland he built for himself a rude hermitage, at the foot of a mountain, in the Drumalban or Grampian range, and we meet at the present day, fully corresponding to this description, towards the east end of Loch Laggan, the remains of an ancient church called Laggan-Kenney, i.e., St. Kenny's Church at Laggan. He founded also a monastery, in the east end of the province of Fife, not far from where the river Eden pours its waters into the German Ocean. This place was then called Rig-monadh or the Royal Mound ; and when in after times the noble Cathedral of St. Andrew's was erected on the site thus hallowed by the Irish saint, we find that it continued for centuries to retain its Celtic name of Kilrimount, by which it is designated ji the early charters. In many other places St. Canice seems to have erected cells or oratories. Of Maiden Castle in Fife, Boece writes that in his time the remains of the great enclosed monastery, in which the religious brethren of St. Canice had lived for centuries, could easily be traced. Indeed, so many places retain his name and cherish his memory that Scottish writers have not hesitated to prononnce him, after St. Brigid and St. Columbkille "the favourite Irish Saint in Scotland."
His first Irish foundation was in all likelihood, that of Dromachose, otherwise Termonkenny, in his native Cianachta, the abbots of which are referred to as the Coarbs or " successors of Cainneach in Cianachta." His next foundation appears to have been at the place, called after him, Kilkenny West, in the County Westmeath. A turbulent King of Meath, Colman Beg MacDiarmaid, slain in the year 571, carried off by violence a nun, sister of St. Hugh MacBric, Bishop of Killair. The Bishop, according to the custom of those times, took up his position near the lake in which his sister was held prisoner on an island, and there fasted against the King, demanding redress of the grievous wrong that had been done her. St. Canice came to his assistance, but the King, hearing of his approach, ordered the boats to be drawn up and all avenues to his castle to be closed. St. Canice coming down in the night, passed over the lake and entered the castle. The King 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 and castle to St. Canice, who dwelt there and established a church. The lake (called Stagnum Rossum in the Latin Life of our Saint), if not that now called Makeegan, is probably one of those in Lough Ree, or the arm of the Shannon to this day included in the parish of Kilkenny West. Some years later, in winter, S. Canice, travelling in Breffny, rested at a cross in Ballaghanea, parish of Lurgan, Cavan, before which he performed the devotion of None. Inquiring whose cross this was, he was informed that it was here Colman Beg Mac Diarmaid had fallen in battle. ' I remember,' said St. Canice, ' that I promised him a prayer after his death,' and turning his face to the cross he prayed with tears, until the snow and the ice melted around him, and he delivered from torments the soul of Colman Beg."
The precise date of his great establishment at Aghaboe cannot be determined, but Dr. Lanigan shows that it cannot have been later than 577. According to an Irish Life of St, Finbarr, of Cork, published, with English translation, in the Cork Archaeol. Journal of April, 1893, Aghaboe was first selected, as a religious site, by that Saint, but he afterwards surrendered it to St. Canice, whom also he assisted in founding the original church and enclosing the graveyard there.
Although reference has been already made to a notable service rendered by our saint to his friend, Colman, King of Ossory, a more extended notice of the same may be given here. Colman came to the throne of Ossory in 582, in succession to his father, Fearadhach. He was one of the Corca Laighdhe or Munster Kings, who long held usurped sway in Ossory, and his reign was disturbed by violent opposition, on the part of the old natives of the territory. On one occasion he was closely besieged in his fortress, probably at Kells, Co. Kilkeimy, by the disaffected Ossorians, under the command of two of their chiefs, Maelgarbh and Maelodhar. St. Canice, in his church at Achadhbo, being made aware of his friend's plight, set out on foot (nec currum nec equum habens), southwards, to his relief.
" A certain woman living in Acuthuch Mebri, beholding Canice weary on his journey, was anxious to assist him with her chariot and horses. This, however, the devil did not want, and he brought on a great darkness which hid the horses and chariot from view. Whereupon Canice raised his hand, and by the light which it gave forth, all the plain was illuminated, and the charioteer found the horses. At the same time the Lord wrought another wonderful miracle, for Canice, being small of stature, and in consequence, unable to mount the chariot, the Lord caused the earth to rise under his feet, and the little mound thus raised by the Lord under the Saint's feet remains to this very day, in that place, in testimony of the truth [of the miracle.]
"As Canice proceeds in the chariot through Magh Roighne (per campum regni), he is met by the portly Abbot of Domhnach-mor, in [Magh] Roighne (pinguis princeps Domnich Moir Roigni), a bitter enemy of the King. Addressing the saint, with an air of assumption, he said : ' I know that you are hastening to liberate your friend, Colman, but it is to no purpose, for you will find him already slain and his body consumed by fire.' ' The Son of the Virgin knows,' replied Canice, ' that what you imagine is not true, and before you yourself return to your cell (cellam) you shall die.' And it happened accordingly; for as that portly personage, while seated in his chariot, was passing through the innermost gate of his monastery (suae civitate), the portcullis (valva quae dicitur Domlech) fell down on his head and killed him on the spot. St. Canice, hastening on in his chariot, with all possible speed arrived at King Colman's castle, which was surrounded by a great multitude [of enemies], and was already given to the flames. Then Canice entered the castle, through the flames, and, by the power of the Lord, unseen, and unknown by all, brought forth the king from his perilous position, through the crowds [of enemies] and their spears. Having led him a long distance from the castle, the saint said to him : “Stay here, and, although you are alone today, you shall not be so tomorrow ; for three men will come to you the first day, three hundred the second, and on the third day you will be again King of all Ossory.' And it happened accordingly."
King Colman was not ungrateful to his benefactor, and, hence, as the Saint's Life attests, in return for his good offices, bestowed upon him one of his principal residences or duns, (magnum de castellis propter celum Kannecho dedit.)
St. Canice exerted himself strenuously in withdrawing his countrymen from the barbarous customs handed down by their forefathers. On one occasion, whilst travelling through West Leinster, he found the people assembled, with their King, Cormac Mac Diarmaid, to enjoy the gruesome spectacle of a little boy, named Dolne, being subjected to the torture called Gialcherd. The Gialcherd consisted in casting young children high up in the air and receiving them in their fall on the points of lances held upright. On the Saint's arrival at the place of meeting, the spears were already fixed upright in the ground in preparation for the ghastly exhibition. He earnestly remonstrated with the King, and besought him to spare the little boy, but in vain ; and savage custom would have had another victim had not Almighty God, at the prayer of the Saint, miraculously saved the child who, when flung on the spears, was neither killed nor injured. However, the terror of the horrible death from which he had been thus preserved, had the effect of distorting his eyes, so that he was called thenceforward Dolne Lebdearc, i.e. Dolne of the crooked eyes. In after life he became famed for his sanctity, and founded a church, (round which grew up a town), called from him Kill-Dolne.
Desiring to be alone with God as far as possible, St. Canice frequently retired from the society of men, and even from the companionship of his own brethren, and betook himself to some remote solitude for prayer and meditation. One of his retreats, in a wood " with the angels," was known only to a little boy who used to recite the Psalms with him; but the monks watching this companion going out at night, were guided by a brilliant light which they saw preceding him, and shining with additional lustre over the spot where the saint was concealed.
His favourite retreat was the Insula Stagni Cree, Hibemice Inis Locha Cre, now called Monahincha, or the Holy Island, a mile or two beyond the bounds of Ossory, and about the same distance from Roscrea. Here he fasted forty days together; here he transcribed the Gospel, and wrote a Commentary thereon, which was preserved for centuries and was known as the Glas Chainnigh, the Catena or Commentary of St. Canice ; and here, too, he acquired the remarkable eloquence that once elicited the warmest commendations of St. Columbkille, in Iona : " Who, O Canice," said Columbkille, after hearing one of the Saint's sermons, " gave you this wonderful knowledge of the Scriptures ? " " The Son of the Holy Virgin himself," said Canice, " Who, when I was in Inis Locha Cre, near Sliabh Sinoir " [now Slieve Bloom] " in Ireland came to me, and with Him I read the Gospel, and He Himself taught me its meaning." It was owing to his eloquence that he was likened, by the old hagiographers, to St. Philip, who was traditionally honoured in the early church as the most eloquent of the Apostles. He was small of stature, as already remarked, and very bald ; and hence, those who opposed themselves to his zeal, but whom his great charity afterwards gained over to God's service, used to call him, in derision, " baculatus modlcus " and " calvus baculatus," i,e., the little man, and bald-headed man, of the [pastoral] staff.
His early biographers make no mention of the Saint's connection, while living, with any religious establishment on the site now occupied by the Round Tower and Cathedral of St. Canice's, in Kilkenny city; yet the constant tradition of Upper Ossory leaves little room for doubt that he founded and presided over a monastery there. Aghaboe was. however, his greatest foundation, and here his closing years were mostly spent. Here he could enjoy the society of St. Fintan of Clonenagh, who lived but a few miles away, and of St, Brendan of Birr and St. Mochaemhog or Pulcherius of Liath, three of the most distinguished ornaments of the monastic institute in Ireland, with all of whom he lived in the closest bonds of religious intimacy, and to whom he frequently paid visits, as their Lives attest. With such friends he had, in all the afflictions of life, a foretaste of those heavenly joys to which in the fulness of days he was at length summoned.
In the year 599 or 600, he breathed his last in his Abbey at Aghaboe. " As the day of his departure drew nigh," writes his biographer, " his whole body became infirm. He would not, however, receive the last rites from any of the monks of his own monastery (familia), saying that God would send another to administer to him the Body of Christ. Then St. Fintan [surnamed Maeldubh, of Clonenagh] came to him by God's appointment, and receiving the Holy Eucharist at his hands, he departed to the Lord."
The following notice of his death appears in the Annals of Tighearnach :
A.D., 600, "Quies Caindech, Achaigh-Bo-Cainig, qui lxxxiiii etatis suae an. quievit."
William Carrigan, The History and Antiquities of the Diocese of Ossory, Vol II, (Dublin, 1905), 26-33.
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