Monday 28 March 2022

The Saints and Animals

The theme of 'saints and beasts' is a common one in hagiography where the interaction between holy men and women and the animal creation form some of the best-known and well-loved episodes in the Lives of the saints. Although stories of Irish saints and animals form a staple of anthologies of 'Celtic Christianity', this tradition is not exclusive to Ireland. It origins are found in eastern Christianity among the Desert Fathers where a raven brings food to Saint Anthony and Saint Paul of Thebes and where the Great Martyrs such as Saint George and Saint Margaret of Antioch battle dragons and other fierce beasts. The tradition translated very readily to western Europe and below is an extract from a paper on 'The Saints and Animals' published in 1909 in the Paulist periodical The Catholic World by Irish writer Katharine Tynan (1859-1931). In her essay she combines some of the most famous Irish stories, such as that of Saint Kevin and the blackbird, with lesser-known stories of Saint Adamnan and Saint Beanus:

A very distinguished Irishwoman, now dead, said to me many years ago that the old Irish saints were always preaching by their example the love of animals, and that fact proved to her mind that the preaching was no less needed in their day than in ours. But I am inclined to believe that the Irish saints, like the saints of other countries, loved animals just because they were the elect souls of the world. In those days gentleness betook itself to hermitages and cloisters, leaving the rough and the violent to carry on the world. In their hermitages these simple and saintly souls made companions of the animals, and came to love them, simplicity leaning to simplicity. Indeed one imagines that in our own days there may be many such instances in monastic life of friendship between men and animals as are recorded in the Acta Sanctorum. One who knows anything of monasteries will know how the cloistered monk keeps a heart like a child...
...The lives of the saints contain the most delicious innocencies of the friendship and affection between them and the animals. Every one knows St. Francis of Assisi and his little brothers and sisters. Not so many know St. Jerome and his lion, St. Anthony the hermit and his hog, St. Benedict and his raven, St. Macarius and his hyena, St. Kieran and his badger, St. Rose of Lima and her gnats. Indeed the Acta Sanctorum contain records of friendship between the saints and the most unlikely creatures, even to snakes and vipers.

In the Irish hagiology we find our father, St. Patrick, carrying a fawn in his breast after he had saved the little creature and its mother from death.
While St. Kevin prayed in his cell that looks upon the dark waters of Glendalough, he stretched his hand through the window-space, and a blackbird immediately laid an egg in his hand and sat upon it. The saint forbore to disturb the sitting mother till the little bird was hatched, keeping his hand so stretched forth till that was accomplished.

Another Irish saint, St. Kieran of Upper Ossory, worked his first miracle as a child when he saw a hawk swoop on and carry off a little bird. St. Kieran at this time did not know the true God, being the child of pagans, but he was moved to cry out to Him, and the hawk came back and laid the dead bird at his feet. Then Kieran said: "Arise and be made whole;" and so it was done, and the bird lived and gave praise to God.
The life of St. Kieran, in the Gaelic, says with delicious naivete :
"When first Ciaran came to that place (i.e. the wood where he built his monastery) he sat down in the shade of a tree. A fierce wild hog sprang up at the other side of the tree and as it eyed Ciaran it fled, but returned again as a gentle servant to Ciaran. That hog was the first disciple and first monk Ciaran had in that place. It used to go to the wood to cut rods for thatch, and bring them between its teeth to assist (the building of) the cell. At the time, then, there was no one at all along with Ciaran, for he came alone from his disciples to that hermitage. There came after that to Ciaran irrational brutes from every part of the wilds in which they were located, such as the fox, the badger, the wolf, and the doe, and they were submissive to Ciaran; and they humbled themselves to his teaching as monks, and used do all he bade them.
"On a day that the fox came, which was very ravenous, crafty, and malicious, to Ciaran's brogues, he stole them, and, shunning the community, went direct to his own den, and therein coveted to eat the brogues. When this was manifested to Ciaran he despatched another monk of his family, to wit, the badger, to head the fox and bring him to the same spot. The badger came to the fox's den and found him eating the shoes (or brogues), for he had eaten the ears and thongs off; and the badger coerced him to come with him to the monastery. They came about eventide to Ciaran, and the brogues with them. Ciaran said to the fox ' O brother, why hast thou done that thievery which was not becoming a monk to do? And you had no occasion to do that; for we have water that is non-noxious in common, and food in like manner, and if thy nature constrained that thou shouldst prefer to use flesh, God would make it of the bark of the trees round thee.' Then the fox asked Ciaran for remission of his sins, and to lay upon him the obligations of the Penance Sentence; and it was so done, and the fox did not eat food without leave from Ciaran, and thenceforward he was righteous like the others."

Here is a story of a less well-known Irish saint, St. Gobnet the little patroness of Ballyvourney, after whom so many County Cork girls are called, and which is Englished "Abby." She was the daughter of a sea-king, who was a shrine robber. She had no sisters, and used to keep to the ship with her father and his men. Once she was ashore in a wood and God sent his angel to her to tell her to fly from her father and give her life to Him. She was willing to do that, but she knew no place of security. The angel came again, and told her to go on and give no rest to her soles until she would find nine white deer asleep. She went on and she came to a place and found three. She fondled them a while and went on to Kilgobnet, where she found six. Here she stayed a long time until they were all good friends. Then she left her heart with them and went on to Ballyvourney. There, as God willed it, she found the nine, and she made her dwelling with them, and they became her sisters, and she died in their midst and is there buried.

We read of St. Bridget that the ducks from the lake came at her voice and flew into her arms, and that the saint gently caressed them against her breast. And again when she was a child, and in much terror of a very fierce stepmother, she was left to tend a dish of meat that was cooking for her father and his friends. But a dog which had just become the mother of puppies came and begged to be fed; and Bridget's heart was so compassionate that she could not refrain from feeding the dog with the meat her stepmother had given her in charge, although she anticipated nothing but a savage punishment. But when the time came to set the dish on the table, lo! and behold, the meat had increased instead of diminishing, and was of a most excellent flavor. So did God reward her charity to the hungry dog.

Here is a delightful story of St. Adamnan, Bishop of Iona: 
"A Brother, by name Molua, grandson of Brennus, came to the Saint while he was writing, and said to him: 'Please bless this weapon in my hand.' So he raised his holy hand a little and blessed it, making the sign of the cross with his pen, his face meanwhile being turned towards the book upon which he was writing. As the aforesaid Brother was on the point of departing with the weapon which had been blessed, the Saint inquired: What kind of a weapon have I blessed for the Brother? Diarmid, his faithful servant, replied: ''A dagger for cutting the throats of oxen and bulls.' But the Saint said in response: 'I trust in my God that the weapon which I blessed will injure neither man nor beast.' And the Saint's words proved true that very hour. For after the same Brother had left the monastery enclosure and wanted to kill an ox, he made the attempt with three strong blows and a vigorous thrust, but could not pierce its skin. And when the monks became acquainted with it, they melted the metal of the same dagger by the heat of the fire and anointed with it all the iron weapons of the monastery ; and they were thereafter unable to inflict a wound on any flesh, in consequence of the abiding power of the Saint's blessing."
I need not refer here to the better known stories, such as the story of St. Columba and the gull and the same saint and the horse. But an extract from Giraldus Cambrensis shows how a nineteenth century thought for animals in England was anticipated by the Ulstermen of his day. 

"In a remote district of Ulster are certain hills, on which cranes and other birds build their nests freely during the proper season. The inhabitants of that place allow not only men but even cattle and birds to be quiet and undisturbed, out of reverence for the holy Beanus, whose Church makes the spot famous. That renowned Saint, in a wonderful and strange manner, used to take care not only of birds but of their eggs.

"In the south of Momonia, between the hill of Brendan and the open sea which washes the coast of Spain and Ireland, is a large district which is shut in on one side by a river full of fish, and on the other by a small stream. And, out of reverence for the holy Brendan and other Saints of that locality, this affords a wonderful place of refuge, not only for men and cattle, but also for wild beasts, whether these are strangers or those which inhabit the district. Consequently stags, wild boars, hares, and other wild beasts, when they perceive that they can by no means escape from the dogs pursuing them, make their way as quickly as they can from remote parts to that spot. And when they have crossed the stream, they are at once safe from all danger; for the dogs in hunting are there brought to a standstill and unable to follow any further."

So much for the Irish saints. But their brethren of other lands were not behind them; and it may be said that there was no creature exempt from their pity and protection....

Katharine Tynan, The Saints and Animals, The Catholic World, Vol. LXXXVII (September, 1908), 803-816.

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Monday 21 March 2022

A Famous Irish School and its Founder


 March 21 is the feast of the great monastic founder and teacher, Saint Enda of Aran. An account of his life by Father Albert Barry can be found on the blog here. Below is an account by another nineteenth-century priest, Father William Ganly, who took time out from his duties as a parish priest in County Galway to contribute a number of scholarly articles on the Early Irish Church and its saints to the Catholic press. In 1889 The Catholic World, an American publication of the Paulist Fathers, printed his paper on Saint Enda and the monastic school he founded.  Father Ganly's pride in Saint Enda and his achievements is obvious. He places the saint firmly within the history of early monasticism and sees the traditions begun in the deserts of the Thebaid flowering in an island setting of the Atlantic Ocean. Indeed, Saint Enda outdoes his Eastern monastic progenitors as he 'lived a life of penitence which for rigor was unsurpassed even by the anchorites of the Egyptian desert'. We get a chance too to meet some of Aran's famous alumni who include some well-known Irish saints. For Saint Enda is also presented here as founder of 'one of the great Celtic universities of the golden era of Irish history'. The article comes to a bittersweet conclusion as the author ponders that lost golden age amid the ruins and the wild Atlantic scenery of 'Arran of the Saints':  


ON the eastern shore of Arranmore, in a picturesque valley, sheltered on one side by a range of dark hills and washed on the other by an inlet of Galway Bay, is the primitive little fishing village of Killany. The place commands a view of a magnificent sheet of water, diversified by islands, capes, and headlands, and outlined in the distance by the Twelve Pins of Benbola, which stand like a cluster of pyramids in bold relief against the sky. Beyond this, however, a more melancholy locality could scarcely be imagined. It seems the very home of desolation. The only sound that breaks the monotony of the scene is the querulous whistling of some solitary curlew wending his flight from shore to shore, or the plaintive murmuring of the ocean, dashing itself fretfully against the huge cliffs which loom in the distance. And yet this desolate hamlet was for many centuries a renowned centre of monastic life and intellectual activity.

Let us go back to the year of our Lord 480, and stand beneath the round tower, which, as we are informed, even then kept guard, like some tutelary giant, over the destinies of this lonely valley. A group of buildings of various forms and dimensions lies beneath our gaze. Around an oblong edifice, which is evidently a church, are clustered several other structures varying in size from the narrow cell, intended for a single occupant, to the public hall, destined for the accommodation of the whole community. Encircling the entire collection is a wall of solid masonry whose sameness is only broken by a single gateway, surmounted by a carved cross. Prompted by curiosity, we descend from our point of observation and ask for admittance. The door is opened by a white-robed janitor, who greets us with a cordial benedicite. On entering we find ourselves in a new world. It is a veritable bee-hive of industry and activity. Transcribers, illuminators, carvers, workers in silver and iron, mechanics of various kinds, are all deeply absorbed in their occupations. Here a group, in tunics and cucullas, are engaged in discussing some of the great scholastic problems which have been endless sources of dissension in the past as they are in the present. There a tonsured priest lectures to an attentive class, the dress and faces of many of his auditors denoting their foreign origin. As we pass along, the sounds of psalmody, now soft as the evening breeze, now loud as the murmuring of the ocean, break upon our ears. Have we visited a land of enchantment? Have we witnessed a fairy scene? We have travelled back over the centuries, and conjured up before our imagination what was once a reality. We have seen one of the great Celtic universities of the golden era of Irish history. We have visited the school of "Arran of the Saints."

Saint Honoratus, the great monastic patriarch of Southern Europe, went to his reward (428) a little over half a century before St. Enda arrived in Arran (480). When tracing the walls of his hermitage at Lerins, so like, in many respects, its sister island in the Atlantic, the former never dreamt of the vast edifice which, in the designs of Divine Providence, was to spring up from this humble beginning. Neither could the latter, even in his most sanguine moments, have foreseen the luxuriant harvest that was destined to issue from the little seed he had prayerfully planted on the bleak hillsides of Arran.

The early days of the school of Arran were not, however, without those trials and difficulties which make beginnings proverbially weak, and which have been ever the lot of the saints. The old lives of Saint Enda for several have been written as well as the traditions still existing in Arran are filled with legendary anecdotes which detail with great minuteness the encounters of the holy abbot with a certain pagan chieftain named Corban, who at that time held possession of the island. Extravagant and improbable as many of these narratives undoubtedly are, they should not be altogether rejected. Various circumstances, such as the names of places, the traditions still extant, and local associations, all seem to indicate that these legends are but the echoes of authentic miracles which have become obscured by the lapse of centuries.

It was near the alleged scene of one of these legends that St. Enda first celebrated Mass on the island. This spot now known as Killany he selected as the site of his monastery. In due time a little damliagh, or stone church; the prointeach, or refectory; the aregall, or kitchen; the abbot's house, and a cluster of cone-roofed cells were erected. Towards the maintenance of this establishment one-half of the island was set apart. The remaining portion was divided into ten equal parts, on each of which was erected a monastery governed by its proper superior. St. Enda ruled over all. Under him was elected a second in rank, who had the right of succeeding the abbot after his death. The first of these coadjutor abbots is said to have been St. Benedict, brother of the famous Kieran of Saige, patron of the diocese of Ossory, who himself is said to have been one of the many great men who came to St. Enda to learn wisdom and holiness.

The other traces of the internal government of the Arran community which have been handed down to us are of but little importance. Enda ordained that those among the monks who happened to be bishops should have a separate place of burial. All others were to be interred in the common place of sepulture. This regulation seems to have given umbrage to a portion of the community. Eight of the old monks who had accompanied St. Enda to Arran expressed their dissatisfaction. They further found fault with what they deemed the unequal partition of Arran made by St. Enda. To put an end to any doubts which might exist as to his right of governing, the abbot ordered a triduum of fasting and prayer. When this was twice repeated, an angel, we are told, appeared and presented Saint Enda with a chasuble and a Book of the Four Gospels gifts which were understood by all to signify that to him was entrusted the two-fold duty of teaching and governing.

These meagre details throw but little or no light on a question which, in recent years, has given rise to much discussion among archaeologists. What was the rule followed by St. Enda and the monasteries of the early Irish church? To what system of monastic legislation is due the credit of having conferred so many benefits on civilization, and of having given so many citizens to heaven? The well-known antiquarian, Sir James Ware, who, like Ussher and Todd, devoted his energies to the fruitless task of endeavoring to identify modern Protestantism with the teachings and practices of the early Irish church, assures us that the community founded by St. Enda was a branch of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine. It is now, however, almost universally admitted by the best Irish scholars that this institute was unknown in Ireland until introduced for the first time by St. Malachy in the twelfth century. The rule exclusively followed by the monks of the early Irish church was that brought into the country by St. Patrick. This code was only a modification of the monastic system brought originally into Western Europe by St. Athanasius when exiled to Treves by Constantine the Great, in the year 336. It was a rivulet from the great stream which had its origin among the sands of the Thebaid and spread its fertilizing waters towards the regions of the north. Whatever doubt may exist as to the particular form of the monastic code adopted by the Abbot of Arran for the government of his young community, we are certain from the glimpses afforded us that it was based on the great fundamental principles of prayer, labor, obedience, and mortification of the senses. Fasting and abstinence of the most rigorous kind were strictly enjoined upon all. Meat was never used. All kinds of spirituous liquors were absolutely unknown. Bread, meal moistened with water, fish, herbs, and pulse were the only articles of food consumed by the members of the community. The exactness with which the rule of fasting was enforced is illustrated by an anecdote which we find related in Colgan's Life of St. Enda. To test the fidelity of his monks Enda is said to have subjected them every evening to the following curious ordeal. On the waters of Killany Bay was placed a curroch, or canoe, destitute of the usual covering of skins. Every monk was obliged to go into this curroch. If the water entered and nothing but a miracle could have prevented it it was judged as a sign that the occupant had in some manner violated the rule. On a certain occasion all the monks except the cook had gone safely through the trial. Poor Gigias - for that was his name - no sooner entered than the boat sank, and he escaped only with a severe wetting.

"What hast thou done, O Gigias?" asked the abbot.
Gigias confessed that, overcome by hunger, he had taken some of Kieran's dinner and added it to his own.
"There is no room for a thief here," was the reply. So Gigias was obliged to go.

The monastery of Arran was a veritable bee-hive of industry. Labor was imposed on all as a kind of penitential duty. Those skilled in agriculture were appointed to the unremunerative task of endeavoring to snatch a scanty crop from the inhospitable soil; some ground the corn, while others launched forth in their skin-covered barks to reap the harvests of the deep. Copyists, composers, illuminators, and workers in vellum were employed in the scriptorium; lecturers and catechists gave instructions in the schools. In the meantime the prayers of the community were unceasing. The monks succeeded each other in the choir. They stood around the altar and chanted aloud the praises of God in the words of the royal Prophet.

The soul and centre of this angelical world was St. Enda. He was a model of all virtues, but above all shone his admirable sweetness of disposition and his self-denial. In selecting Arran as the place of his abode he was actuated by no other motives than a desire to hide himself from the eyes of the world, and sanctify his own soul and the souls of his brethren. By a wise dispensation of Providence, however, history has torn away the veil behind which he sought to conceal himself, and the former chieftain stands revealed to us in all the greatness of his soul and in all the beauty of his sanctity. Saint Cummian of Conor, who was born half a century (589) after the death (540) of St. Enda, and who is so well known for his famous letter on the Easter controversy, has left us a poem in which he pictures the holy Abbot of Arran living in a cell of flinty stone and practising austerities of such rigor as to seem almost incredible. Near the church of St. Benan, overlooking the village of Killany, is still pointed out a rude building called the bed of St. Enda. In the words of Froude, who gives the result of a visit to Arran in his Short Studies, "it is such a place as sheep would huddle under in a storm, and shiver in the cold and wet which would pierce through the chinks of the walls." "Enda," says St. Cummian, "loved victory (over self) with sweetness, he loved a prison of hard stone to bring the people to God." This victory over self had only been obtained after a severe struggle. Enda was by nature passionate and impulsive. An anecdote illustrative of his fiery disposition is found in his life. Immediately after assuming the monastic garb he was on a certain occasion engaged in conversation with his sister Fanchea, who loved him most tenderly and who exercised a powerful influence on his life. Their conference was rudely broken by warlike shouts. A neighboring clan, the hereditary foes of the family of Enda, had invaded an adjacent territory and were returning home with their booty, when they were intercepted and attacked by the warriors of Oriel. A bloody battle ensued. Forgetful of his new vocation and filled with the old warlike ardor, Enda seized a weapon and was about placing himself at the head of his clansmen, when his sister interposed and exclaimed: "Enda, my brother, place your hand on your head and remember thou hast taken the crown of Christ." The rebuke was effectual. Enda relinquished his battle-axe and returned to his prayers.

During the interval which had elapsed between this event and his arrival in Arran so thoroughly had he overcome his natural disposition that, like St. Francis of Sales, sweetness and gentleness became his most prominent virtues. In the long range of monastic biography no more charming picture has been presented to us than the paternal kindness with which the holy Abbot of Arran treated the monks under his care. He was a father to all. He shared the sorrows of his brethren, dispelled their doubts, and when despondent he inspired them with a share of the invincible courage which glowed in his own great soul. Among the many anecdotes related in his life is one in which we are told that the monks of Arran, who from the circumstances of their abode became skilful and adventurous navigators, complained that owing to a huge rock which blocked up the entrance to the harbor they were often in danger of shipwreck. The abbot went to the spot, made the sign of the cross on the boulder with his abbatial staff, and prayed that God might do the rest. That night an angel bearing a flaming sword was seen descending from heaven, and, striking the rock like a flash of lightning, it crumbled into atoms.

The fame of the austerities practised by these athletes of penitence spread like an odor of sanctity over all Western Europe. The tide of empire had moved westward, and the wonders of the Thebaid were revived in the Atlantic Ocean. The trackless deep became a highway, and the barren hillsides and gloomy valleys of this desolate island swarmed with human beings. There Saxon and Celt forgot their ancient race hatreds; the Iberian and the Gaul, the Frank and the Teuton might be heard conversing in the common language of all - the Latin of old Rome.

Space will allow us only to cast a glance, in passing, at a few among the crowd who composed that holy company. Foremost among them we find Columkille, the Dove of the Cells, whose hermitage, clothed in a mantle of sweet-brier and wild roses, is still pointed out in a lonely spot by the sea-shore. On his departure from Arran he composed a poem, which has been handed down to posterity, and which is one of the most exquisite relics of ancient Irish literature we possess. Aubrey de Vere - one of Ireland's truest poets - in his English version has transmitted the touching pathos and tenderness of the original with so much fidelity that we are tempted to quote the following stanzas:

"Farewell to Aran Isle, farewell!
I steer for Hy; my heart is sore:
 The breakers burst, the billows swell
'Twixt Aran Isle and Alba's shore.

"O Aran, sun of all the West!
My heart is thine! As sweet to close
Our dying eyes in thee as rest
Where Peter and where Paul repose.

"O Aran, sun of all the West!
My heart in thee its grave hath found;
He walks in regions of the blest
The man that hears thy church bell sound."

Next come the founders of the great schools of Moville and Clonard the two Finnians. Saint Finnian of Clonard was a man of such vast learning that, after his return from Arran, he became a kind of consulting theologian for all Ireland. His namesake of Moville was even still more famous. Filled with love and veneration for the Apostolic See, he set out from Arran on a pilgrimage to Rome, and after a long sojourn in the Holy City he returned to Ireland laden with gifts from the reigning pope. He afterwards made several other journeys to Rome, and brought back a vast store of relics, the penitential canons, known as the Canons of St. Finnian, and a copy of St. Jerome's translation of the Holy Scriptures, until then unknown in Ireland. He founded the monastery of Moville in the year 540 and afterwards returned to Italy, where he was elected Bishop of Lucca, in Tuscany, and is to this day venerated in that country under the name of Fridian or Frigidian. He died in 589.

The great Saint Kieran of Clonmacnois, whom Alcuin calls the glory of the Irish race, was also a pupil of the school of Arran. Having come to the island in his youth, and being endowed with a vigorous constitution, he was appointed to the task of grinding all the corn of the community. For seven years he discharged this duty. Visions of his future greatness broke in upon his humble labors. He dreamt, at one time, that he saw a great tree laden with leaves and fruit growing on the banks of the Shannon. It spread out its branches far and near until it covered with its shade the whole of Erin. He related the vision to his abbot, who interpreted it as follows: "The tree," he said, "thou art thyself, for thou shalt be great before God and men, and shalt bring forth sweetest fruits of good works. Proceed, then, at once, and, in obedience to the will of God, build thou there a monastery."

Saint Kieran prepared himself for the work allotted to him. Having been ordained priest, and having said his first Mass at Killany, he took an affectionate farewell of his brethren. The parting was most affecting. Walking between Saint Enda and Saint Finnian of Moville, and escorted by the entire community, he proceeded to the place of embarkation. No words were spoken, but tears flowed in abundance. Long and wistfully did the monks gaze after the bark which bore their beloved brother away from their island home. When returning to his cell, Saint Enda, sobbing with grief, said: "O my brethren! good reason have we to weep, for this day has our island lost the flower and strength of religious observance." St. Kieran died at Clonmacnois in the year 549, having governed the monastery only a short time.

Among the many others who were trained to holiness in this great nursery of saints were Saint Kevin of Glendalough, whom the poet Moore has touched with his poetic wand; St. Jarlath, patron and founder of the See of Tuam; St. Carthage of Lismore; Saint Benignus of Armagh; Saint Colman MacDuagh and St. Mac-Creiche, both natives of Clare; St. Loran Kerr; St. Caradoc; St. Kybi; Saint Papeus, and Saint Brecan, son of Euchu Ball-dearg, prince of the proud Dalcassian race.

It was a gathering at once democratic and cosmopolitan. Prince and peasant, plebeian and patrician worked and prayed side by side. Children of races as divergent as the poles, but united by the catholicity of a common faith, lived together in harmony.

Among the many objects of interest to be seen in this wonderful island is a sculptured cross bearing the inscription "VII Romani," or the Seven Romans. We ask in vain who they were. This solitary monument cast on the shore of time, a relic of the shipwreck of ages is the only evidence of their existence we possess. And yet we know that these strangers were only a few among the countless numbers who came from afar to drink copious draughts of wisdom and holiness from the fountains which flowed in perennial streams in Arran of the Saints.

In this, as well as in the other great centres of monastic life throughout Ireland, there was an intellectual development unknown among the monks of the Egyptian desert. The prodigies of penance practised by the eremites of the Thebaid found a parallel in Arran, but to these were added the charm that mental culture always gives the actions of mankind. The study of the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the fathers of the church were the great foundation stones on which the Irish scholastic system was erected. In Ireland itself but few relics of her ancient literature, with the exception of legendary narratives, have escaped the vandalism of Dane and Saxon. The libraries of Europe, however, possess ample evidences of the literary eminence to which national feeling lays claim. These records consist chiefly of books of the Gospels, the New and the Old Testament, with glosses on the margin, and distinct commentaries, such as that of St. Columbanus, which bear ample testimony to the depth and fulness of knowledge possessed by the authors. Augustin Magraidin, in his life of Saint Enda, tells us that a book of the Gospels, richly bound and illuminated, was in his time (he died in 1405) still preserved in the monastery of Arran. Among the original works said to have been composed in this island is a poem entitled the "Voyage of the Children of Ua Corra," which tells us of seven brothers who set out in a skin-covered bark, on a pilgrimage of discovery into the depths of the Atlantic, where they met with as many adventures as the heroes of the Odyssey. The study of the Greek and Latin classics formed a portion of the educational course in the Irish schools. From the frequency with which we meet with copies of Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, Lactantius, Plato, and Aristotle these authors would appear to have been special favorites among the Irish monks.

Nor were the fine arts neglected. Besides the art of illuminating, which attained a degree of perfection never since surpassed, metallurgy, sculpture, and architecture were also successfully cultivated. The relics of antiquity still to be found in Arran, such as portions of a round tower, exquisitely carved crosses, incised inscriptions, finely formed arches and cut-stone mullions and lintels, are all eloquent witnesses of the artistic skill of the monks of the early Irish church. From the circumstances of their abode, it will not be considered strange if the science of navigation had a special attraction for Saint Enda and his insular community. They loved the sea. Its solemn voice filled them with joy, for it seemed to them to be for ever chanting a hymn of praise to its great Creator. As they launched fearlessly out upon its waters they mingled their psalms with the cries of the sea-birds, and thus animate and inanimate nature united in adoration of the Almighty. Among the saints who were friends and contemporaries of Saint Enda was the famous navigator, Saint Brendan. Many claim for this holy man, and not without a certain amount of probability, the first discovery of America. Before setting out on his voyage he paid a visit to the Abbot of Arran, to ask his prayers and to be guided by his counsel. As one of Erin's poetic sons -the lamented Denis Florence MacCarthy- has immortalized this pilgrimage in verse, we shall here be excused for quoting a few verses:

"Hearing how the blessed Enda lived apart,
Amid the sacred cares of Ara-Mhor;
And how beneath his eye, spread like a chart,
Lay all the isles of that remotest shore;
And how he had collected in his mind
All that was known of the old sea,
I left the hill of miracles behind
And sailed from out the shallow, sandy Leigh.

"Again I sailed and crossed the stormy sound
That lies beneath Binn-Arte's rocky height,
And there upon the shore the saint I found
Waiting my coming through the tardy night.
He led me to his home beside the wave,
Where, with his monks, the pious father dwelled,
And to my listening ear he freely gave
The sacred knowledge that his bosom held.

"When I proclaimed the project that I nursed,
How 'twas for this that I his blessing sought,
An irrepressible cry of joy outburst
From his pure lips, that blessed me for the thought.
He said that he, too, had in visions strayed
O'er the untracked ocean's bellowing foam;
Bid me have hope, that God would give me aid,
And bring me safe back to my native home."

It was in the midst of these hallowed associations that Saint Enda went to his reward in the year 544, having for over sixty years lived a life of penitence which for rigor was unsurpassed even by the anchorites of the Egyptian desert. His remains were laid to rest in the cemetery of the little mortuary chapel which he himself had built, and which still exists, as if its founder had imparted to it a share of his own immortality.

As one stands over the grave of St. Enda, with the ocean spreading out before him, and the cliffs of Moher looming in the distance, all the associations of the place rush upon him and fill him with emotion. The spirit of the angelic life practised there fourteen hundred years ago comes back upon him in all its beauty. He sees once more the sea covered with craft filled with pilgrims eagerly flocking to this desolate island. He hears the accents of the Celt and the Roman mingling with the rougher cadences of the Saxon and the Cymbri. He listens to the voices of human adoration chanting in concert with the mysterious music of the ocean; and he feels that land and sea, arch and altar, while echoing the praises of the great Creator, also become eloquent of Ireland's glory.


Clifden, Co. Galway.

The Catholic World, Volume LXIX (1889), 464-473.

Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2022. All rights reserved.

Thursday 10 March 2022

How to Learn Irish

To mark the annual Seachtain na Gaeilge celebration of our national language and culture below is a rather extraordinary article on the subject of how to learn Irish. Published in early 1858 in the Boston Catholic newspaper, the Pilot, author C. M. O'Keefe begins by making a reasonable proposition that a good way to learn the Irish language is through the use of a prayer book. He then goes on to remind us of all our saints and martyrs whose native tongue was Irish and claims that 'we have colonized Heaven'. An even more extraordinary claim is that the angels who visited the seventeenth-century English astrologer William Lilly spoke with an Irish accent! This, we are assured, is perfectly reasonable given that 'the Irish are so numerous in Heaven that the inhabitants have contracted our accent.' Here on earth there have been some good collections of Irish prayers published in recent years, including the 2008 volume edited by Donla uí Bhraonáin, Paidreacha na Gaelige, which includes a wonderful selection of Paidreacha chuig Naoimh na hÉireann, Prayers to the Saints of Ireland:

How to Learn Irish.

In 1847, Smith O’Brien was learning Irish from a primer. Adverse fortune tore the primer out of his hand, and plunged him into a felon’s cell. With his eyes, naturally, full of tears, cheeks pale, and heart throbbing—distracted by contending emotions —he could not apply his agonizing mind to the “Sgeul beag," which Finachty has written for Irish learners, —No! But in this very frame of mind he could, and would apply himself attentively to a prayer book. This is the use of learning to read a prayer book. You read it when nothing else can be read. We are all like children who fly, appalled, to the bosom of their parent from the scowling darkness and hoarse storms of gathering adversity. And seldom is the journey of life undusked and unchequered by such storms. I have known several instances—hundreds I might say—in which men —like Lucien Bounaparte, toyed a while with the Irish language, and then flung it by, never more to open the book in which they had been reading; because such a book was of no use whatever, except as a “Reading made easy.” If the time which is frittered away upon unprofitable books were given to a prayer book, the knowledge acquired during three months would be never lost, it would be used, and used again, used ten thousand times, during, perhaps, sixty years. And the older you grow the more you will use your prayer book. Not so with other books; calamity does not compel you to open novels; the iron scourge of adversity does not force you to read them with tears. Of all books a prayer book is most easily read, because you can get a teacher everywhere. Every hag in Erin knows the Lord’s prayer, creed, &etc. With your eye on your prayer book, and your ear on her utterances, you must be very stupid indeed if you do not learn some words. These words will never be lost; you will repeat them, I trust, every day of your life, and several times every Sunday. In the halls of heaven Irish is not an unknown tongue. There is many a saint in glory that spoke no other. If we address in their own tongue Holy Brigid, Holy Columbkille, our prayers may perhaps be acceptable. The Saints may turn from the heights of their glory and look down upon us, poor banished sons of Eve, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. — There is many a martyr there to whom the Gaelic was familiar. There is Patrick himself, and whole armies of his shining disciples. We Irish have a strong faction in America—a strong party in Scotland—a strong faction in Australia— a strong faction in England, but we are stronger in Heaven than any where on earth. This may appear ludicrous, but it is literally the fact. We have colonized Heaven. Lilly asserted that the angels who visited him, spoke with a strong Irish accent. This you will see in “D’Israeli's Curiosities of Literature.” Now, why should he say they spoke with an Irish rather than a Spanish or German accent ? We can easily account for it. The Irish are so numerous in Heaven that the inhabitants have contracted our accent. Seriously: no language is so expressive of piety and adoration as the language of the Gaels.— If we should speak in German to horses, in English to birds, in Italian to the ladies—we should speak in Irish to the glorified saints. Therefore every Irishman should learn to read an Irish prayer book, and in addition to this it should be the first book he should learn to read, because you can always meet with people who can teach you Irish prayers.— 

There is a second way of learning Irish and that is singing it. “Sorrow,” says the Spanish proverb, “flies appalled from the voice of song.” If prayer be our refuge in adversity, song is our enjoyment in serener moments.— When the flowers of pleasure spring up under our footsteps, and the joyous sunshine glows radiantly over our heads, we cease to pray, and inevitably sing—the carol of gladness bursts from the lips of success. Our lyric literature is the most voluminous in the world. No nation in the world can or could ever compare with us as song-writers. Nothing can be more mean, poor, tame and contemptible than the songs of Scotland, when compared with those of Ireland. The scholar who learns to read and sing ten or twenty of these songs will certainly have a large stock of words in his memory. This is the way in which the ancient philosophers of Ireland learned first, and taught afterwards, not merely philology, but all physical science. Magnum ibi numerum versuum ediscere dicuntur, says Caesar. By ediscere he means to learn thoroughly; to study accurately, or to commit to memory. This idea, common in schools, is not new. It is two thousand years old, if not more, as we learn from Caesar. The ancient sages of the Gael did not, like some modern philosophers in America, first publish songs, and then ridicule and scoff at all singing. This blunder was reserved for modern times. The Exiles, I trust, will not be deterred by the clumsy raillery of a stupid clerk, from clubs in every city, and singing in chorus Irish words to the immortal airs of Ireland. Irish songs and Irish airs shall, I trust, be sung, simultaneously, on the banks of the Ohio, the Hudson, and the Mississippi.

"The stranger shall hear their lament o’er his plains.”

Yes! shall hear it! and this in spite of the blundering— “the slavish, the cold heart’s derision,” which would mock at singing while publishing songs! In this way scholars learn arithmetic in our national schools. In this way the Welsh, have restored their language, and revived their literature, and in this way the Irish must restore and revive their literature and language.
C. M. O’K.
Pilot, Volume 21, Number 9, 27 February 1858

Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2022. All rights reserved.

Tuesday 8 March 2022

The Legend of Iniscathy

March 8 is the feast of Saint Senan (Seanán) of Scattery Island (Inis Cathaigh, Iniscathy), an important monastic saint of County Clare. I have previously posted an account of his life by Redemptorist Father Albert Barry here, but below is an earlier account which appeared in the first issue of Duffy's Hibernian Magazine, in July, 1860. I was interested to see the anonymous author tell us that in entitling his article 'The Legend of Iniscathy' he was 'using the word “legend” in its primitive and strict sense of one of those chronicles of the lives of saints read (legenda) in former times at matins, and in the monastic refectories'. He draws heavily on the hagiography of Saint Senan whilst attempting to offer an explanation for its supernatural elements in order to make it more palatable for the rational Victorian reader. The nature of hagiography was not fully understood at this time, especially that the writers of Lives of the saints were not writing history. The account finishes with an overview of the later history of Iniscathy from the Annals and a description of the scenery and ruins, accessible to the visitor by the daily steamer service. For tourism as we know it today also has its roots in the Victorian era:


For a century or more after the introduction of Christianity into Ireland, the social state of this country presents itself to us under an aspect singularly curious and interesting. In many a nook and corner paganism still lingered; for, either it was hard to eradicate it out of some coarse-grained natures; or like those more subtile and philosophic principles which lay buried under the farrago of Greek and Roman mythology, it was not sufficiently absurd to vanish in every case at the first dawn of truth; or, it was associated with so many proud traditions of the Celtic race, that some clung to it still for the sake of the warriors of old, who knew no better way. On the other hand, we all know how rapid, and, as it were, spontaneous, was the growth of Christianity in this island; how quickly it developed the religious feelings of the people ; how abundant were its fruits in this Irish soil; how glorious and refulgent was the lustre with which the light of faith shone out in the face of Europe from this ultimate limit of the then known world! The utmost perfection of the gospel was carried into practice by thousands of the people; monastic institutes of the most rigid rules sprung into existence throughout the length and breadth of the land; and monastic schools in which knowledge, in its most simple beauty, and such as never was heard of in the groves of Academus, was taught by the shorn-headed and the mortified. All this was not the slow work of time, but the immediate result of St. Patrick’s preaching; so that it would seem that the great heart of the Irish race was opened all at once to the doctrines which he taught, and as if the holiest effects which these doctrines were ever to have on this side of heaven were there and then to be attained. Yet, as we have said, side by side with these wonderful things, the ancient superstition of the druids still survived ; though it had sunk into such profound obscurity, and its records become so obliterated from our political annals, that we should scarcely be aware of its protracted continuance, were it not for those most important sources of our history—the acts of the primitive Irish saints—some of which bear internal evidence of having been written when paganism still held its ground in Ireland, or at least record directly the traditions of that period. Hence, in the manners of that remote age we find lights and shadows strangely contrasted, and, as similar qualities are wont to do in physical nature, producing the wildest and most picturesque effects. Let the following narrative, which we glean from some of those venerable documents just alluded to, serve as an example:— 

In that part of north Munster, anciently called Corcabaiscin, which, washed on the south by the river Shannon, extended from the estuary of the Fergus westward to the ocean, and was bounded on the north by the territory of Corcomroe in the north of the present county of Clare, there lived at the time to which we have been referring, a Christian couple named Ercan end Comgalla. It is just possible that the former was old enough to have been one of the multitude who crossed the Shannon in their currachs from Corcabaiscin, when St. Patrick was preaching on the opposite shore in Hy Figeinte, and when, after receiving baptism at the hands of that apostle, they entreated him in vain to visit their country, but only succeeded in obtaining his blessing on it from the summit of Mullagh Findine, now the well-known hill of Knoc Patrick, near Foynes. If Ercan were among the number on that occasion he heard some prophetic words in which he was deeply interested, but of which he could then little anticipate the purport. 

Ercan and Comgalla, who resided at Magh-lagha or Mullagha, at no great distance from the present port of Kilrush, had a son named Senan, who, from his earliest years, gave earnest of that wonderful sanctity for which he afterwards became celebrated. Many marvellous circumstances are related of him from his boyhood; but although the accounts which we have of these and many similar things rest upon authorities of an antiquity long anterior to the age of historical criticism, we would argue rashly if we submitted them to the same standard with common-place occurrences, and forgot that they refer to a period at which all the necessity of vindicating the truth of religion by the manifestation of miraculous power still existed, and when the holiness known to have been attained by some favoured individuals was in itself, compared with our present experience, a thing of supernatural character. 

Senan’s father, like the other leading persons who then inhabited that district, belonged to the distinguished race of Conary the Second, monarch of Ireland in the second century, whose son, Cairbre Baschain (the brother of that Cairbre Riada who founded the illustrious tribe of Dalriada of Antrim and Scotland gave his name to the territory: but Ercan was only a subject, and was compelled to send his son to the hostings of his chief. This was sorely against the inclinations of the youthful Senan, whose tastes were far from being military. On one occasion he was obliged to accompany the chief in an expedition into the neighbouring territory of Corcomroe; but instead of joining in the work of pillage, which he knew to be unjust, he concealed himself under a stack of wheat, where he fell asleep, and was discovered by some of the enemy after his own party had retired. According to another account, it was after the total rout and slaughter of the men of Corcabaiscin, on this occasion, that young Senan in his flight sought shelter under the corn; but be that as it may, the attention of the foe was attracted to his place of retreat by a lambent flame, which seemed to them to envelop the stack without consuming it. They then discovered the sleeping youth, who at once acknowledged that he belonged to the hostile party; but his ingenuous manner, as well as the wonderful circumstance just mentioned, convinced the men that he was some friend of heaven, and rude and enraged though they were, they allowed him to go in peace. 

Sometime after this, Senan was driving cattle home from the west, and after a long journey had reached, late in the evening, the shore of a large creek, which he could have passed at low water, but over which the tide then flowed. He applied for a night’s resting-place for himself and his cattle, at the only habitation within sight; but the master was absent, and the servants refused any hospitality, so that, late as it was, Senan drove his cattle to the sea-shore to await the ebbing of the tide. Unexpectedly, however, he found the sands dry, and having crossed in safety with his herd to the opposite side, he looked back and saw the waves again rolling over the vast tract of sand on which he had walked. He also saw in the distance an enemy approaching the inhospitable dwelling of Dunmaghair, where he had asked in vain for lodging, and despoil it before his eyes. This fresh testimony of heaven’s intervention in his favour appeared to him irresistible. He resolved henceforth to renounce the world, and planting his spear in the earth, he attached a stick to it in the form of a cross, and kneeling before the sacred emblem, offered the remainder of his life to God, and implored the divine blessing on his resolution. Accordingly, having delivered the cattle to his parents, he left his home, and repaired to a certain holy abbot named Cassidan, a native of Kerrycuirke, (the present barony of Kerricurrihy, between the mouth of Cork harbour and Kinsale) but who appears to have then resided in a western part of Corcabaiscin called Iorras. Senan having received the monastic habit from Cassidan, prosecuted his studies, in the next place, in the great school of St. Naal, or Natalis, who is said to have been a son of the king Aengus, whom St. Patrick baptised at Cashel, and from whom it is probable that Killenaule, in Tipperary, took its name. 

One of Senan’s duties at the Monastery of St. Natalis, was to take charge of the mill in which the corn for the use of the monks was ground. He was in the habit of watching all night alone, and some pagan rob- bers in the neighbourhood becoming aware of this fact, thought they had a good opportunity to attack and plunder the mill, and to slay the solitary monk if he made any resistance. Accordingly they came one night to carry out their design, but on looking through a chink in the door, they observed two young men inside ; one being our monk, who was engaged in study, and the other a stranger, who occupied himself in the work of the mill. The robbers hesitated whether they should break in while these two persons were watching ; and one of them having suggested that the stranger had, no doubt, come to grind corn for himself, they resolved to tarry until he departed. All night long they watched, but finding in the morning that Senan was alone, they rightly concluded that the mysterious stranger was a being not of this world; they were thereupon converted, and at Senan’s intercession were admitted into the monastery, where they became, in process of time, most exemplary religious. Many other marvels are related of Senan during his sojourn with the abbot Natalis; but at length, in obedience to the command of that holy man, who saw that he was destined for something greater than a simple monk, he travelled for the pur- pose of preparing himself to undertake a more important charge. In his peregrinations he visited Rome and Tours, and on his way home spent some time in Britain with the celebrated St. David of Menavia, between whom and him an intimate friendship sprung up. From the fact that St. David presented him with a staff, or crosier, it may be conjectured that Senan had already been consecrated bishop. On arriving in Ireland he landed at Ardnemeth, now the Great Island, near Cork, and proceeding thence, after a short stay, he erected his first church at Iniscarra, on the river Lee, a few miles west of Cork. While he was here a ship arrived bearing fifty Roman monks, or, at least, fifty religious from some Roman province, who came to Ireland to follow a more rigid discipline, and to study the Scriptures; for even thus early the fame of Ireland for sanctity and learning became so wide spread, that religious men and students had already begun to flock to her shores from distant countries. These fifty foreigners were divided into five bands of ten each, and distributed among as many religious establishments; one band proceeding to the monastery of St. Finnian, another to that of St. Brendan, a third to that of St. Barry, a fourth to that of St. Kieran, while Senan himself kindly received the fifth under his own care. At Iniscarra Senan was persecuted by the local chieftain, named Lugad, who insisted upon unjust exactions to which Senan refused to submit; but the dispute having been arranged through the interference of two young noblemen of the chieftain’s followers, who took up the cause’ of the religious, Senan, leaving some of his disciples at that place, proceeded to carry out the work of his mission elsewhere. He founded monasteries in succession in the islands of Inisluinghe; Inismor, supposed by some to be Deer-Island, at the mouth of the Fergus; Iniskeeragh, which Colgan says was in Ibrickan; Inisconla, in the Fergus, and finally, in Iniscathy, or as it is now generally called, Scattery Island, lying near the mouth of the Shannon, in view of his own native Mullagha. Traces of those old foundations are to be found in most of these places, but in Iniscathy we have several of these venerable remains in a most perfect state of preservation. 

 According to the old legend, there was no human habitation on Iniscathy until Senan fixed his abode there; a horrible monster—possibly one of the great antediluvian reptiles, as has been suggested in relation to these traditionary monsters of Irish story—having up to that time rendered the island uninhabitable; but as soon as the holy man had expelled the monster by his prayers, the toparch of Hy-Figeinte, claimed the island as his right, and ordered the monks to be ejected from it. This toparch, by name Mactail, was still a pagan, and a cruel tyrant, as his actions would show. He commanded two brothers of Senan’s to carry his unjust orders into execution, but one of these men who attempted to drag Senan by force from the island, having died by the judgment of heaven, and the other being stricken with horror for the service imposed upon him, Mactail next employed his Druid to execute his orders, and finally came himself, raging with great fury, and blasphemously declaring that he cared no more for Senan and his God, than he did for a shorn sheep. In effect, the following day, while Mactail was still intent on his cruel purpose, his horses took fright at a shorn sheep, which rushed under their feet, and the chariot being overturned, the miserable tyrant was killed upon the spot. 

St. Brendan, the famous navigator, and founder of Clonfert, and St. Kieran, the illustrious founder of Clonmacnoise, visited Senan in Iniscathy. He was their senior in years, and they chose him as their guide in the road of sanctity. Itis related of Kieran, that when coming to the island he met a mendicant, to whom he gave his religious habit, having no other alms to offer, and thus proceeded almost naked himself to the shore. Senan, prophetically aware of the circumstance, sent some of his disciples with a broken curragh, the only boat in the island, to convey Kieran from the mainland, while he himself proceeded to the shore to await his visitor with a new tunic or habit, to replace the one which had been so charitably surrendered. While St. Kieran remained at Iniscathy, he filled the office of providore for strangers. 

It is related that at another time a holy virgin named Brigid, of the Dalcassian tribe, and who presided over a community of nuns in Inis-fidhe, or the woody island, now Feenish, at the mouth of the Fergus, prepared a vestment for Senan, and that having no means of conveying it to him, she packed it up in some hay, and placing it in a wicker basket, entrusted it to the returning tide, by which it was deposited on the shore of Iniscathy, and thus it came safely to the hands of the holy abbot, for whom it was intended. 

The rule which Senan framed, excluding women from the island of Iniscathy, and the rigid strictness with which he enforced it, as in the case of St. Cannera, have been made familiar to the world by Moore and other poets. This latter circumstance is thus related in the old authority before us:—St Cannera or Kinnera, a most devout virgin, and handmaid of Christ, born in the territory of Bantry, in the southern extremity of Ireland, and related to the mother of St. Senan, had a vision in which she imagined that she saw flames ascend towards heaven from all the churches or monasteries of Ireland, but that one of these columns of heavenly fire was higher than all the rest, and this she understood to proceed from the monastery of St. Senan on Iniscathy. She felt that her own end was approaching, and desiring to die in so sacred a place, she set out in search of her kinsman’s monastery. One version represents her as conveyed to the island by an angel, and another as walking upon the water; but this miracle notwithstanding, Senan met her on the shore, and prohibited her from entering the island, having first requested her to go to the house of his mother, her own relative, on the mainland. St. Cannera earnestly entreated permission to remain on Iniscathy. She argued that Christ died for women as well as men, and that neither He nor His disciples rejected the society of women; but Senan opposed to all her arguments the rigid rule which he had judged suitable for the austere discipline of his community, and rejected her prayer. She then said that all she required was to receive the Holy Communion on the island, and to obtain a spot of earth upon its shore, in which her remains might be deposited after death. The former of these petitions it was impossible for Senan to refuse, but as soon as the Holy Sacrament was administered to her she expired, and then her second wish was also accomplished: for a grave was dug about high-water mark, and her body was committed to the venerated earth; and although the place is now washed by the tide, the grave of St. Cannera has not been effaced, but is pointed out traditionally to the present day. 

After a life spent in prayer and the practice of the most severe austerity, St. Senan felt his death approaching. While he was returning from a visit to his old master Cassidan, he turned aside to the Church of Killeochaille, not identified, where he had founded a convent of nuns, and expired there on the 1st of March. The following day his remains were removed to Iniscathy, whither the bishops, abbots, and others of the clergy came from Limerick and the surrounding country, as did also many of the neighbouring chieftains and leading men; and his obsequies were continued until the 8th, on which day his festival occurs in the Irish calendar. From that time, as St. Patrick prophetically told on the height of Findine, he has been venerated as a patron in the country lying at both sides of the Lower Shannon, but particularly in that part of the county of Limerick anciently called Hy-Conail-Gavra (the modern baronies of Upper and Lower Conilloe), of which he is the joint patron, with the holy virgin St. Ita, of Kileedy. 

 Such is a brief outline of what we have here designated “The Legend of Iniscathy,” using the word “legend” in its primitive and strict sense of one of those chronicles of the lives of saints read (legenda) in former times at matins, and in the monastic refectories, and which generally terminated with a “protest,” intimating that every thing mentioned therein of a supernatural character, and which had not been duly investigated and approved of by the Church, was to be received only on the credit of the historical authority on which it rested—a rule which is perfectly well understood by Catholics about all such narratives. We need only say that the acts of St. Senan, which were translated from the Irish into Latin by Colgan, and which we have followed, were evidently written while Iniscathy was still a bishop’s see, that is, sometime before the year 1188, or about seven hundred years ago, but how much older they are—and we know they are some hundred years more—it would be difficult now to determine. As to the precise date of the events recorded of St. Senan, we only know that he died about the year 544. St. Odran, his relative, succeeded him as bishop and abbot, and in after times we sometimes find his comharbs or successors styled bishops, and sometimes only abbots. The name of Iniscathy frequently occurs in the Irish Annals. Thus we find that in 792 Olcovar, son of Flann, the airchennach or herenach, that is, the lay administrator of Iniscathy, died. In 816 the island was plundered by the Danes, who massacred the clergy, and defaced the monument of St. Senan. In 861 Aidan, abbot of Iniscathy, died; in 942 died the war-like Flahertach, who had been first Abbot of Iniscathy, then minister to Cormac MacCuileanain, the bishop-king of Cashel, whom he urged into the unfortunate war which ended in Cormac’s death at the battle of Ballaghmoon, in 903; and finally, who, after many years spent in penance in Iniscathy, became himself king of Munster. In 963 the abbot Gevenagh, son of Cathal, died; in 972 Iniscathy was plundered by Magnus, son of Aralt (Harold) and the Lagmanns, a tribe of Danes from the Inse Gall, or Western Isles of Scotland; and as Imhar (Ivor), lord of the foreigners of Luimneach (Limerick), ‘was on this occasion carried off from the island in violation of (the sanctuary of) Senan;” it has been conjectured that the aforesaid Ivor was at that time a Christian, while the Danes from the Hebrides were still pagans. In 975 the great Brian, son of Kennedy, recovered Iniscathy from the Northmen, on whom he inflicted signal vengeance on the occasion. He landed on the island with a chosen force of his Dalcassians, vanquished Imhar and his sons, Amlave and Dubhgenn, and slew eight hundred of the enemy, whose bones whitened the surface of the island for centuries after; still the Irish Annals mention this attack upon the Danes by the future victor of Clontarf as a violation of the holy island. In 994 Colla, abbot and wise-man or doctor of Iniscathy, died; in 1050 O’Scula, the herenach of the island, died; in 1081 the death of St. Senan’s comharba, O’Bric, is recorded: in 1119 the Annals say that “Dermot O’Leanna, successor of Senan of Iniscathy, a paragon of penance, died; in 1179 Iniscathy was devastated by William Hoel, an English knight; and in 1188 is recorded the death of the last bishop of the island, Hugh O’Beachan; about which latter year it is supposed that Iniscathy was united to the see of Limerick; or, as Usher thought, was divided between the sees of Limerick, Killaloe, and Ardfert. Its name is mentioned on a few subsequent occasions; and by Queen Elizabeth the island was granted in 1583 to the corporation of Limerick, whose property it still continues to be. We believe that the Catholic bishop of Limerick still continues to appoint one of the curates at Kilrush in right of his jurisdiction over the neighbouring island of Iniscathy.

If we had no more than the general assurance that so many beautiful and most ancient traditions were associated with a particular locality, it would still be interesting to trace out the details by the aid of conjecture, and every circumstance helping, even remotely, to identify the scenes would be deemed valuable; but here we are not left in that kind of uncertainty, Thanks to the religious respect with which the relics of our ecclesiastical antiquity are generally regarded by the rural population, and the little spirit of innovation which was abroad in those times when such respect could have afforded no safety against destruction, vast numbers of primitive Christian remains are still preserved in most parts of Ireland, and in few places, within so small a compass, are they so numerous, perfect, or interesting as in Iniscathy. Here we still have in admirable preservation the ancient Cathedral, which must have been already venerable for its antiquity seven hundred years ago, when Iniscathy ceased to be a bishop’s see. We are perfectly justified in presuming that within these walls the abbot Flahertach presided at the sacred functions in the beginning of the tenth century. The beautifully sculptured key-stone of the east window, representing a mitred head, said to be that of St. Senan himself, exhibits marks of injury that were probably inflicted by the heathen Vikings so long ago as the year 816. The low, square, massive doorway in the west gable belongs to the seventh or eighth century, and was only recently discovered and reopened, having been closed many centuries ago, when an entrance in the pointed style was made in the southern side-wall, near the same end; and in the wall near the aforesaid ancient square door-way an inscribed stone has been discovered which may have belonged to a still more ancient edifice. This church, though perfectly simple, was grand and beautiful in its proportions for the age and place to which it belonged, and the remains of most of the other seven churches which the island contained, are still in a more or less perfect state of preservation. The most interesting of these to the pilgrim is the small building, known as St. Senan’s bed or grave; for it was within its narrow precinct, according to tradition, that the ashes of the holy man were deposited. Near this building a very ancient tomb-stone has been lately uncovered, having a curious incised cross in the early Irish interlaced style, and an Irish inscription which, Professor Curry translates:—"A prayer for Moenach the tutor of Moghron,”—but who either of these ancient personages was it would be vain now to inquire. There can indeed be no doubt that several of the remains on the island date even from the sixth century, when St. Senan himself was still alive. 

Rising majestically from the principal group of ruins, stands the round-tower, one of the finest in Ireland, with its cone-shaped cap still perfect. It stands due west of the old cathedral, the distance from the primitive square doorway of which to the cyclopean doorway of the tower is seventy-eight feet. One of the peculiarities of the round-tower is that its entrance was on a level with the ground, and not at some elevation above it, as was generally the case in those singular monastic strongholds. The tower, which is 117 feet in height, was at some distant period rent by lightning throughout a great part of its length, and would probably have, ere this, fallen a prey to the elements but for a Catholic curate of Kilrush, the Rev. Mr. Moran, if we rightly recollect, who raised a subscription for the purpose, and caused the rent to be repaired some years since. At the eastern extremity of the island is the lower part of a castle, the walls being still high enough to afford a habitation to a poor boat-man and his family; and near this some large masses of masonry below high-water mark indicate the site of one of the seven churches; the sea, having at this, and several other points, encroached considerably on the soil of the island, the arable surface of which at present is about a hundred acres. The blessed well, which supplies the islanders abundantly with fresh water, and which is said to owe its origin miraculously to St. Senan, is near the round tower, and at the head of the steps which lead down to it is a very rude and ancient cross, the carving on which is nearly effaced. 

The most elevated part of the island is that called Ard-na-n-Aingel, or the Angel’s Height, where it was said that St. Senan, conveyed by an angel, first set foot on Iniscathy. This point is occupied by a group of greatly dilapidated ruins, and the view from it is on all sides magnificent. In the west the horizon of the Atlantic is visible between the steep headland of Kilkedrane point beyond Carrigaholt, on the right, and the high coast of Kerry on the left; while between, and all round, is spread the majestic bosom of the mighty Shannon, along which the eye ranges for several miles to the east, taking in St. Patrick’s Hill in the remote distance. But the most picturesque view is that of the Kerry coast, with the fine ruins of Carrigafoyle Castle and Lislaghtin Abbey close to the water’s edge. The ancient territory of the O’Conor-Kerry, Iraghticonor, lies before us; and the outline is finely varied by the Hill of Knockanure, which separates us from Ballybunnian on the S.W., and by the distant heights of the ancient Slieve Luachra in the S.E. All about lie scenes which invite the artist’s pencil, or the study of the antiquary, or the veneration of the pilgrim; nor are these scenes difficult of access, for the steamers which now ply daily between Limerick, or Foynes and Kilrush pier, close at hand, afford every facility to the tourist on the Lower Shannon. Our object for the present, however, was only to direct attention to St. Senan’s ancient island, with its wonderful story and its venerable remains. 

The Legend of Iniscathy, Duffy's Hibernian Magazine, Vol 1, Issue 1, (July, 1860), 36-40. 



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Monday 7 March 2022

Saint Mettán of Túaim Átha, March 7

On March 7 the Irish calendars record the name of Saint Mettán, yet another of Ireland's enigmatic female saints. As Canon O'Hanlon explains in Volume III of his Lives of the Irish Saints it is not known when or where this holy virgin flourished. All of the calendars record her name at this date and associate the locality of Tuaim-Atha with her. The index of places appended to the Martyrology of Gorman suggests that Túaim Átha might be Tooma, a townland in the barony of Mohill, County Leitrim and that the name Mettán is a diminutive possibly derived from meta 'timid':
Article V. St. Metan or Meattan,Virgin, of Tuaim-atha. 
The entry, Metan o Thuaim athi, appears in the Martyrology of Tallagh, at the 7th of March. Marianus O'Gorman has a like notice, while the Bollandists allude to the circumstance, that her place and history are unknown. The Martyrology of Donegal mentions, likewise, Meattan, Virgin of Tuaim-atha, as having a festival on this day. The word, Tuaim, usually Anglicised, Toom, enters into the composition of many local denominations, in Ireland. 
Note: This post was first published in 2014 and revised in 2022.

Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2022. All rights reserved.

Sunday 6 March 2022

Saint Cairpre Crom of Clonmacnoise, March 6

On March 6 the Irish calendars commemorate a 9th-century successor to Saint Ciarán at Clonmacnoise, Cairpre Crom. Described as a bishop, he features in a curious piece of apocryphal literature in which by his prayers and those of his community he rescues the soul of an Irish king's son from purgatory. Canon O'Hanlon in Volume III of his Lives of the Irish Saints cites the evidence for the saint's feast day on the various calendars and recounts the story of Cairpre Crom and the suffering soul of Maelsechlainn:

Article III. — St. Cairpre or Corpre Crom, Bishop of Clonmacnoise, King's County. [Ninth Century.]

The days of this holy man were cast, in a dangerous period; for, the Danish and Norwegian invasions were then rife, over many districts, in Ireland. Yet, the heirship of sanctity did not depart from our island, and the present bishop was renowned, in his time. From various sources, Colgan and the Bollandists have legendary Acts of this St. Corpre, at the 6th of March, on which day we find him noted, as Carpre cruim [no Cruinn], in the Martyrology of Tallagh. The designation Crom, meaning "crooked," or "curved," had probably some relation to a personal deformity. Bishop Challoner commemorates him, at this date. So Marianus O'Gorman and Cathal Maguire, likewise, record his feast. We find entered, on this day, in the Martyrology of Donegal, Cairpre Crom, who was son of Feradhach, son to Lughaidh, son of Dalian, son to Bresal, son of Maine Mor, from whom descend the Ui Maine, of the race of Colla da chroich. This saint belonged to the posterity of Heremon. It is probable, he was born, in the earlier part of the ninth century, and that he belonged to the community, at Clonmacnoise. He succeeded to the Blessed Moeldarius, or Maelodhar, Bishop of this place, who died in the year 886. Cairpre Crom is styled. Bishop of Cluain-mic Nois, and head of the religion of the greater part of Erinn, in his time. Hence, we may infer the great eminence, as an ecclesiastic, he attained. The legend of Coirpre Crom, Bishop of Clonmacnoise, who died A.D. 899, and of Melaghlan or Malachy, Monarch of Ireland, who died A.D. 860, is contained in the Leabhar Breac, which belongs to the Royal Irish Academy. In the O'Longan Manuscripts, R.I.A., Dublin, there is an ancient prose legend, regarding St. Ciarain of Cluain Mac Nois and Cairbre Crom. This is likewise contained in Scholia, affixed to the Festilogy of St. Aengus. From this, Colgan infers the Acts of St. Carpre were formerly extant, and that this fragment may be deemed an excerpt, which the O'Clerys have thus abridged. It is stated, that to Corpre was shown the spirit of Maelsechlainn, son of Maelruanaidh, King of Erinn, according to an old legend. To their account, the O'Clerys append the following observation: A.D. 1022, on the 4th of the Nones of September,  Maelsechlainn died. On a certain day, when Cairpre was praying alone in his church, after vespers, he saw a coal-black figure, coming towards him, so that it stood in his presence. The bishop asked who he was when the apparition answered, that it was Maelsechlainn, son of Maelruanaidh, and he told him every kind of pain which he was suffering in Purgatory, with other particulars, besides the cause why himself and. his spiritual director had been thus punished. Then we are told, that the bishop undertook to make intercession for the king; and, he ordered certain priests to pray for the priest, to bring him from pains. The bishop announced, that he should himself pray for the king. They did so, respectively, and to the end of the half year. As Cairpre was at prayer, towards the end of that period, he saw the king coming towards him, and half-speckled; when, he returned thanks to the bishop, for what had been done for him. The king then implored him to do the same, until the end of another half-year. The clerics obeyed this request, while they fasted and prayed fervently, giving frequent alms, to the end of another half-year. Then the king came in a bright form towards Cairpre, and returned thanks to the holy bishop, for what he had done. The monarch told him, that he should go to heaven, on that day, and that the priest should enter it on the next day. Cairpre asked why the king should go before the priest. The king said, it was owing to the excellence of the bishop's prayers, and to the superiority of his over the priests' intercession. This was in allusion to twelve priests, who were at Chiain Mic Nois, at that time. Then, the king, giving thanks to and blessing the bishop, ascended into heaven, in his presence.

Among other things related, in the year 894, St. Cairbre Crom, with a Synod of Seniors, assisted at a convocation, held at Inis-Aingin, now Hare Island, in Lough Ree, on the River Shannon. At this time, the place itself was invaded, by the people of Connaught. A man was mortally wounded there, and the shrine of Ciaran was profaned. This bishop died A.D. 899, according to the "Annals of the Four Masters." An eloquent and a distinguished bishop of the Church, alluding to the words of a venerated and learned ecclesiastic, has remarked, when we hear of those marvellous things, concerning miracles and visions, the Catholic does not believe, that he is bound to accept them all, since those reported miracles have to be examined, upon the very same laws of evidence, by which any other facts are examined. Thus, in the legend of the present holy prelate, an old tradition is here set down, but solely as a curious illustration of our Irish mediaeval folk-lore implored.

Note: This post was first published in 2013 but has been revised in 2022.

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