Monday 9 November 2015

Saint Benen of Armagh, November 9

November 9 is the feast of Saint Benen (Benignus), a saint listed in the household of Saint Patrick as the chanter or psalm-singer. Last year I presented an account of his life by Archbishop John Healy  along with a contrasting modern scholarly view here. Below is another traditional account of the saint, taken from what seems to have been a series on the Irish saints in the Irish Rosary magazine, one of a number of Catholic periodicals which flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is interesting to see the author bewail the lack of knowledge of our native saints among the people of his time and his decision to concentrate on the lesser-known ones among them. I only wish there were more issues of this magazine available online as I would have been keen to see which other saints were covered in the series. For now, however, we can enjoy a portrait of Saint Benen or Benignus as a man of learning in both the ecclesiastical and the secular sphere.

The Saints of Erin

St. Benignus


I was much struck by the remark of "Sagart Cluain" in a recent number of The Irish Rosary, that "there is one department of the Irish revival which is being somewhat neglected and yet is of paramount importance, I mean the revival of devotion to our saints." Now there are many of our Irish saints of whom very little is known to the average Irish Catholic, and hence I purpose to give an account of some of the most prominent of the holy men and women who devoted themselves to God in such vast numbers that they won for the island the glorious title of the "Island of Saints and Scholars."

I shall pass over the names of our three greatest saints — Patrick, Bridget, and Columbkille — for their record is well known and is often referred to in sermons and newspaper articles. It is otherwise, however, with most of our other saints. Hence the necessity of briefly re-telling the story of their lives in a magazine which reaches the hands of so many Catholics of Irish birth or descent as The Rosary Magazine.

The story of St. Patrick's first meeting with St. Benignus is a very beautiful one, and is charmingly told in Dr. Healy's book, "The Island of Saints and Scholars."

When the great apostle first came to preach the Gospel in Ireland he coasted northward, seeking a suitable spot to land, and, amongst other places, put in for a little while at the stream now called the Nanny Water, a little south of Drogheda. He there visited the house of a certain man of noble birth named Sescnen whom after due instruction he baptised, together with his wife and family. "Amongst the children there was one, a fair and gentle boy, to whom the saint, on account of the sweetness and meekness of his disposition, gave in baptism the appropriate name of Benignus. Shortly after the baptism, Patrick, wearied out with his labors by sea and land, fell asleep where he sat, as it would seem on the green sward before the house of Sescnen. Then the loving child, robed in his baptismal whiteness, gathered together bunches of fragrant flowers and sweet-smelling herbs and strewed them gently over the head and face of the weary saint; the child then sat at his feet and pressed Patrick's tired limbs close to his own pure heart and kissed them tenderly. The saint's companions were in the act of chiding the boy lest he might disturb Patrick, who thereupon awaking and perceiving what took place thanked the tender-hearted child for his kindness, and said to those standing by: 'Leave him so, he shall be the heir of my kingdom,' by which he meant, says the author of the Tripartite Life,' to signify that God had destined Benignus to succeed Patrick in the primatial chair as ruler of the Irish Church."

After this the child and the saint were inseparable. In all his wanderings he was accompanied by the youth, whom he himself took care to instruct in all divine and human knowledge to fit him for his great destiny.

St. Benignus, or Benen, had a very pleasing voice and possessed an extensive acquaintance with the chants of the Church, hence he was called St. Patrick's "Psalmist." He was, according to the "Tripartite Life," "adolescens facie decorus, vultu modestus moribus integer, nomine uti et in re, Benignus." Hence it came about that Ercuat, the beautiful daughter of King Daire, fell deeply in love with him. Though as yet unbaptised she was, it seems, chiefly attracted by his sweet voice chanting in the choir. The incident and its result is thus related by Aubrey de Vere in his beautiful "Legends of St. Patrick:”

"The best and fairest, Ercnat by name.
Had loved Benignus in her Pagan years.
He knew it not; full sweet to her his voice
Chanting in choir. One day through grief of
The maiden lay as dead; Benignus shook
Dews from the font above her, and she woke
With heart emancipate that out-soared the
Lost in the blue-heavens. She loved the
Spouse of Souls."

This daughter of King Daire was one of the very first of our Irish maidens who received the veil from the hands of the great apostle. She spent the remainder of her holy life, along with several companions, making vestments for the priests, and altar-cloths for the use of the cathedral.

When St. Patrick founded the churches and schools of Armagh (which he did about 450 A. D.) he chose as his coadjutor Benignus, his young and faithful disciple. Dr. Healy says it is generally stated that the latter died on the 9th of November, 468. "A short time before his death he is said to have resigned his primatial coadjutorship, for St. Patrick was still alive, at least according to the much more general and more probable opinion which places his death in 492, at the great age of one hundred and twenty years."

That celebrated Irish work called "Leabhar na gCeart," or "Book of Rights," has been generally attributed to St. Benen, or Benignus, though Dr. Healy is of opinion that there seems to be good reason for doubting if he was really its author, at least in its present form. O'Curry in his "Lectures on the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish," says it contains a great portion of the law which in ancient Erin settled the relations between the several classes of society, and especially the relations between the local authorities and the central and provincial kings. "It gives," says the Introduction to the edition published by the Celtic Society, Dublin, 1847 (quoted by O'Curry), "an account of the rights of the monarchs of all Ireland and the revenues payable to them by the principal kings of the several provinces, and of the stipends paid by the monarchs to the inferior kings for their services. It also treats of the rights of each of the provincial kings, and the revenue payable to them from the inferior kings of the districts or tribes subsidiary to them, and of the stipends paid by the superior to the provincial kings for their services."

Professor O'Curry adds that this book was also called the "Law of Benen," and the inscription on the book itself certainly attributes its authorship to the same learned and holy man — "The beginning of the 'Book of Rights’ which relates to the revenues and subsidies of Ireland, as ordered by Benen, son of Sescnen, Psalmist of Patrick, as is related in the 'Book of Glendaloch.'"

Whoever wrote the book — and it is at least probable that St. Benen furnished the first rough draft, though it was no doubt revised and extended subsequently — it is by all antiquarians acknowledged to be an exceedingly valuable authority on the entire internal organization of Ireland in these remote times.

But though there is some doubt as to St. Benignus being the author of "Leabhar na gCeart," there is none at all as to his share in composing the "Senchus Mor," that vast work which a competent authority has declared to be "the greatest monument in existence of the learning and civilization of the ancient Gaedhlic race in Erin."

As is well known to all students of Irish history, one of St. Patrick's greatest undertakings was the purification from paganism and the amending and extension of the great body of laws known as the "Brehon Code." His labors in this respect claim special attention, for the Brehon Code prevailed in the greater part of Ireland down to the year A.D. 1600, and even still its influence is felt in the feelings and habits of the people. To carry out this stupendous task the national apostle appointed a commission of nine, consisting of three kings, three bishops and three men of science, or, as O'Curry calls them, "lay philosophers." The three kings were Laeghaire, the Ard-Ri, or High King, Core, king of Munster and Daire, king of Ulster. The latter is supposed to have granted Armagh to St. Patrick as a site for his church and schools. His daughter, as already mentioned, fell in love with St. Benignus, but being cured of her earthly affection was received into the Church and took the veil from the hands of St. Patrick.

The three holy bishops were St. Patrick himself, St. Benignus, or Benen, and St. Cairnech, and the three men of science, "lay philosophers" or "antiquaries," as the Four Masters style them, were "Dubhthach Mac Uahugair, Chief Poet and Brehon of Erin, Rossa, a doctor of the Berla Feini, or legal dialect, which was very abstruse, and Fergus, a poet who represented the most learned and influential class in the country." The first meeting was in A.D. 438, and Dr. Healy says that "Benignus, being young and carefully trained by St. Patrick, and also learned in the Irish tongue, in all probability acted as secretary to the Commission, and drafted with his own hands the laws that were sanctioned by the Seniors."

The learned Bishop of Clonfert speaks with great authority on these matters, for he was one of the Commission appointed by the government for the publication of the Brehon laws. He, therefore, had peculiar sources of information, and being an eminent antiquarian and competent Irish scholar, he was able to make good use of his opportunities. In his great book, the "Island of Saints and Scholars," he has given a most interesting account of the labors of the conference.

He begins by explaining that the Brehon Code, which St. Patrick found in existence here when he came to our shores, owed its existence mainly to three sources: First, to decisions of the ancient judges given in accordance with the principles of natural justice, and handed down by tradition; secondly, to the enactments of the Triennial Parliaments, known as the great Feis of Tara; and thirdly, to the customary laws which grew up in the course of ages and regulated the social relations of the people. "This great code naturally contained many provisions that regulated the druidical rights, privileges, and worship, all of which had to be expunged. The Irish, too, were a passionate and war-like race who rarely forgave injuries or insults until they were atoned for according to the strict law of retaliation, which was by no means in accordance with the mild and forgiving spirit of the Gospel. In so far as the Brehon Code was founded on this principle it was necessary for St. Patrick to abolish or amend its provisions. Moreover, the new Church claimed its own rights and privileges, for which it was important to secure formal legal sanction and to have embodied in the great Code of the Nation. This was of itself a difficult and important task."

The "Senchus Mor" itself explains what led to the revision of the Brehon Code, and the explanation is very interesting. As is well known, the only life that was lost for the faith during St. Patrick's mission in Ireland was that of his charioteer, Odhran. He was killed by a miscreant who wanted to take the life of the saint and who mistook the servant for the master.

It was the duty of the chief Brehon Dubhthach (Subicic), who was one of the first to accept Patrick's teaching at Tara, to pronounce judgment on the criminal. The occasion was, it is said, made use of by St. Patrick and Dubhthach (or Duffy, as the name has been Anglicised) to convene an assembly of the men of Erin at Tara. Here the Chief Brehon explained all that Patrick had done since his arrival in Ireland, and how he had overcome Laeghaire and the Druids by his miracles and preaching.

"Then," continues the volume, "all the men of Erin bowed down in obedience to the will of God and St. Patrick. It was then that all the professors of the sciences in Erin were assembled and each of them exhibited his art before Patrick in the presence of every chief in Erin. It was then, too, that Dubhthach was ordered to exhibit the judgments and all the poetry of Erin and every law which prevailed among the men of Erin through the law of nature and the law of the seers and in the judgment of the island of Erin and in the poets."

According to O'Donovan, St. Benen was also the original author of the famous chronicle called the "Psalter of Cashel." This great work is generally ascribed to Cormac Mac Cullenan, who lived more than three hundred years later. It is ascribed, on the other hand, by Connell Macgeoghan, the translator of the "Annals of Clonmacnoise," to no less a person than Brian Boroimhe (or Boru). O'Donovan reconciles these conflicting statements by saying that Benignus probably began the work, that Cormac Mac Cullenan revised and enlarged it and made it applicable to his own times, and that Brian Boroimhe subsequently "re-edited" it in like manner.

Dr. Healy adopts this view, and gives a very interesting account of how the book came at first to be written. It seems that St. Benignus was of Munster origin, though born in Meath. St. Patrick, knowing his worth, sent him to preach especially in those districts which he was himself unable to visit. Hence Benignus, we are told, went through Kerry and Corcomroe in his missionary labors; but particularly devoted himself to southwestern Connaught, and built his chief church at Kilbannon, near Tuam. He also specially built that province, the natives of which still affectionately revere the memory of the gentle saint with the sweet voice and winning, gracious ways.

“Now when the Munstermen heard of the preference and the blessings which Benignus gave to Galway, they were jealous and complained that he slighted his own kindred. So to please them Benignus went down to Caiseal (Cashel) and remained there from Shrovetide to Easter, composing in his own sweet numbers a learned book which would immortalize the province of his kinsmen and be useful, moreover, both to her princes and to her people."

Such was St. Benignus, Primate of Armagh, whose feast day is given as November 8th in the "Martyrology of Donegal." The subsequent history of Armagh does not concern us here. Suffice it to say that the heirs of St. Patrick and St. Benignus were worthy of their glorious predecessors. The school was long one of the most celebrated in the world. Hither flocked crowds of students from all parts of Europe, and so many came from the land of the Saxons that a certain section of the town was entirely set aside for their residence and designated by a name that we would now translate "the English quarter." Here they were received with true Irish hospitality, obtaining, according to the testimony of one of their own contemporary writers — Venerable Bede — support, education, and books, free.

Here, too, was transcribed the "Book of Armagh," that splendid volume whose beautiful penmanship and illuminations have excited the wonder and delight of all who have beheld it. It was copied in A.D. 807 from a still older work, and contains besides the oldest and most authentic "Life of St. Patrick and his Confessions," a complete copy of the New Testament and the life of St. Martin of Tours. Though written throughout in Irish, many of the Gospel headings are in Greek characters, says Dr. Healy, and the last entry of all is a colophon of four Latin lines, but written in Greek characters, showing that even at this early date a knowledge of Greek was general in the Irish schools.

This latter fact and the learned labors of St. Benignus himself are some of the things we ought to remember when we hear, as we often do nowadays, people who claim to be educated repeating the old shibboleth that not only is there no literature worth mentioning in the Irish language, but that the ancient Irish were a semi-savage race whose whole energies were given up to petty tribal wars and dissensions, and who were altogether devoid of culture.

The Rosary magazine, Volume 26 (1905), 263-267.

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