Wednesday 8 May 2024

Saint Comgall of Bangor, May 10


May 10 is the feast of Saint Comgall of Bangor, founder of the great monastic school at Bangor, County Down. An account of Saint Comgall and his monastic school by Archbishop John Healy is also available at the blog here, but below is a reminder of his career from a post first published at my previous blog in 2009:

Into the other world's realm of peace,
wherein is every temple's noise,
may the hostful one convey us,
Comgall the gifted, of Bangor.

 Thus does the Martyrology of Oengus record the feast of Saint Comgall, in its entry for May 10. The later Martyrology of Donegal also pays this master of the ascetic life a handsome tribute:


COMHGALL, Abbot of Bennchor-Uladh. He is of the race of Irial, son of Conall Cearnach. A man full of the grace of God and of His love was this man. A man who fostered and educated very many other saints, as he kindled and lighted up an unquenchable fire of the love of God in their hearts, and in their minds, as is evident in the old books of Erin. Cuimin, of Condoire, says that it was every Sunday only that Comhgall used to eat food. Thus, he says, in the poem which begins “Patrick of the fort of Macha loves, & etc:

“Comhgall, head of Uladh, loves,
Noble is every name that he named,
A blessing on the body of the sage,
Every Sunday he used to eat.”

The Life of Ciaran, of Cluain, states, that the order of Comhgall was one of the eight orders that were in Erin.

A very old vellum book, which is already referred to at Brighit (1st of February), states, that Comhgall, of Bennchor, had a similarity in habits and life to James the Apostle, &c.

He sat ten days and three months and fifty years in the abbacy. His whole age was ninety years, A.D. 600.

Canon O'Hanlon records that there are a number of surviving Vitae of the saint in manuscripts in Irish, English and Belgian libraries. He summarized a variety of sources in his lengthy account of Saint Comgall in Volume V of his Lives of the Irish Saints, from which the following has been distilled:

Although of humble parentage, yet, it seems that St. Comgall descended from the race of Irial, son to Conall Cearnach. His father Sethna was a soldier attached to the Prince of Dailnariade. He was a descendant from Aradius, the founder of that renowned family. Following the family pedigree, he was ninth in descent from Fiacha Araidhe. According to some accounts, St. Comgall was born, A.D. 506, 510, or 511; others have A.D. 513 ; while some writers place his birth, at A.D. 516, or 517. His birth occurred, in a northern part of the province of Ulster in a region known as Dailnaraidhe, or Dalaradia.. in the territory of Magheramorne in the eastern part of Antrim County. At a time, when his father was advanced in years, this birth is stated to have occurred. Being an only son, Comgall was much loved by his parents, from the very moment of his birth. The boy's parents dedicated him to God's service, thus imitating the action of Anna, with regard to Samuel, and from the very moment of his birth, he seemed to grow in grace and wisdom. One day, while our saint reposed near a heap of stones, and in a field where he laboured, a deep slumber ensued. Then his mother, who came to the place, saw a pillar of fire, resting on the boy, and extending towards Heaven. She was alarmed at this portent, and knew not what she should do; she feared to approach, and yet she felt very unwilling to leave her son. While waiting to learn the result, her child awoke, his face emitting an extraordinary brilliancy. Then, Comgall said to his anxious guardian, " Fear not, mother, for I am in no manner injured, by this celestial fire. Yet, take care, you do not relate this vision to any person, during these days". This command his mother observed, for a time; but, she related what she had seen, at a subsequent period. Another time, Comgall is related, to have said to his father, while they were walking, through a field, "Father, we should leave this land with its cares." His father, not agreeing in such opinion, the boy said, " Do you, dear father, cultivate this little farm, but I will go and seek from the Lord another portion of land, larger and more productive." It is said, that St. Comgall was required as a substitute for his father, who was already old, in a war, which the Dailnaraidian prince was about to wage against his enemies. Although, unwilling to engage in warfare, our saint took up arms, to satisfy the desire of his parents ; but, willing to save his servant's hands and eyes from participating in scenes of bloodshed, so distasteful to the young conscript, the Almighty effected peace between both parties, thus preserving the soul and body of his chosen one from every danger.

When St. Comgall resolved on abandoning the secular habit, and on assuming that of an ecclesiastic, he received the rudiments of learning from a cleric, who lived in a country house. However, the life of this tutor did not tend to edification. The pupil undertook to correct the irregularities of his master, in the following symbolical manner. While the professor spent one of his nights in the commission of sin, Comgall betook himself to prayer, and practised other pious exercises he then met his teacher, on the following day, with a garment purposely soiled. On being reproved for this want of cleanliness, he returned the following reply: "Is it more dangerous, master, to have our garment soiled, than our soul? That defilement of soul and body, in which you spent last night, is worse than the condition of this habit." Although it silenced, this reproof, however, did not correct the vices of his master ; and, hence, our saint resolved on leaving him, and those scenes of his early youth. Comgall wished to place himself under the direction of a most holy instructor. Having directed his course toward Leix territory, in a northern part of the southern Leinster province, he there found an asylum, in the celebrated monastery of Clonenagh... There, St. Fintan ruled over that monastery, at the foot of the Slebh Bloom Mountain range. Having placed himself under direction of St. Fintan, Comgall entered upon a course of penance and labour. But, the devil tempted him strongly, to regret the choice he had made, in embracing this course of life, and in leaving his own part of the country. However, he related this temptation to St. Fintan, and the latter prayed for his disciple, who at that time stood near a cross, on the western side of Clonenagh monastery. Tears fell down his cheeks, and while intent on prayer, suddenly a light from Heaven surrounded him. Comgall's heart was filled with spiritual joy, and from that time forward, he felt no recurrence of his former temptation.

He spent a considerable time in Clonenagh. At length, St. Fintan required our saint to revisit his own part of the country, that he might found religious cells, or houses, and preside over their inmates. St. Comgall remained without sacred orders for many years, he being unwilling through humility to receive them. Having obtained St. Fintan's benediction and prayers, with some companions, he set out on a visit to St. Kieran of Clonmacnoise. With him, it is said, Comgall remained for some time, and while there, he was greatly distinguished for his sanctity. Afterwards, St. Comgall directed his course homewards, where he was ordained a deacon, with the advice of numerous clerics, by St. Lugid, whose identity has not been discovered. After some interval, our saint, having been advanced to the sacerdotal grade, went around his own part of the country. Everywhere he preached the Gospel among the people. Wishing to lead a life of greater perfection, St. Comgall became the inhabitant of an Island, in Lough Erne, where he led a most austere life. Placing themselves under his direction, certain monks endeavoured to emulate his austerities. But, in this effort, seven of them died, through the effects of cold and hunger. Hearing of such circumstance, other religious men entreated our saint, to relax his excessive rigours, towards himself and those monks under his charge. Yet, while he permitted his monks to live, after the manner of other religious, Comgall refused to indulge personally in like relaxations, thus continuing his usual austerities. After remaining for some time in this place, the holy Abbot felt a desire to pass over into Britain, with the intention of remaining there ; but, the earnest entreaties of St. Lugidus, from whom he had received ordination, with those recommendations, given by other holy saints, induced him to abandon this design. Thus he remained in Ireland, to continue that great work of monastic propagandism, on which his thoughts had been earnestly engaged.

Those pious persons brought St. Comgall forth, from the place of his retreat, that he might commence a work, for which he seemed specially destined. The pious servant of God began to found cells and monasteries, in different parts of the country. Especially did he regard that beautiful site, where the Inver-Beg, or the "Little River Beg," falls into Belfast Lough, at its opening towards the sea. On its banks did St. Comgall resolve to found his great establishment, which in after times became so renowned as the monastery of Bennchor. This was the place, now known as the town of Bangor, situated at the indentation of a bay, bearing the same name. In a short time, so great a number of monks flocked to his establishment, that they could not find accommodation in this monastery. Our saint thereupon was obliged to build other houses, not only in the northern province, but, even in other provinces of Ireland. Many thousand monks are said to have lived, under his rule and discipline. Of all these houses, however, Bangor monastery was the most celebrated, and the largest ; and here, in course of time, a city grew around this hive of religious wisdom and sanctity.According to some accounts, St. Comgall commenced the foundation of a monastic institute and church, at this place, in the year 551 or 552; others have it, at 554, 559, and 561. Here, for fifty years, the holy superior ruled over his large community, with great sanctity, and keeping a most perfect monastic discipline. He wrought many miracles, and some of these are given, in different Acts, as published by the Bollandists...

As the time of our saint's death approached, he was afflicted with much suffering. He specially laboured under a total deafness. He also endured much pain, from retention of urine. In such a state of suffering he continued, from the commencement of winter to the time of Pentecost, in the year following. Some were of opinion, that God thus afflicted him, on account of the intolerable and austere rule, he had imposed on his monks. Others said, that these pains were unwillingly endured by him now, owing to the excessive and insensate rigour he had formerly imposed on himself, by choice; and again, other conjectures of a different kind were hazarded. In the meantime, St. Meldan, an Abbot, who was descended from the Scots' nation, was sent from Heaven, to a certain holy monk, named Colman. Meldan spoke to him as follows, and while he was asleep: "Not for the reasons men assign are so many pains inflicted on St Comgall, however real their causes, but for his love of Christ has he suffered, that he may receive an increase of merit. For, as he innocently suffers pain with men, so in the sight of Angels shall he rejoice, being crowned with many unfading joys and rewards. As the last days of our saint were evidently fast approaching, the monks frequently requested him, to receive Holy Eucharist, and other necessary sacraments. Comgall replied to these requests: " I shall receive the Holy Sacrament from the hands of no person, until St. Fiachra's arrival. He is an Abbot of the Leinster province, who is sent to me, by God." At this time, the Angel of the Lord visited St. Fiachra, whose monastery was situated on the banks of the River Barrow, and this holy Abbot was sent to our saint, then suffering great pain, to administer to him the Body and Blood of Christ. According to other accounts, our saint received the Holy Viaticum from St. Fiachra, Abbot of Clonard. Having arrived at Bangor, he immediately administered Holy Communion to the venerable Abbot, who had now attained the eightieth—or according to some accounts the ninetieth—year of his age. According to other accounts, he was then in the eighty-fifth year. Then, Fiachra asked St. Comgall for some relics. This request the holy Abbot's disciples promised should be complied with; when, in the presence of many venerable men, St. Comgall yielded up his spirit to the great Creator. His demise occurred, on the sixth of the May Ides, about the year 600 or 601. The Rev. Dr. Reeves places his death, at A.D. 602. Yet, do we find a different account in the "Chronicum Scotorum," under A.D. 602 ; in which year, it is stated, that he rested on the 6th of the Ides of May, in the fiftieth year, third month, and tenth day, of his government, as also, in the ninety-first year of his age. In the first of St. Comgall's Lives, as published by the Bollandists, he is said to have died, in the eightieth year of his age.

With much honour, he was interred in his own renowned monastery at Bangor. Sometime having elapsed, after St. Comgall's death,the St. Fiachra, already named, came to the monastery of Bangor. The remains of Comgall having been disentombed with much reverence, Fiachra removed an arm of our saint, which he brought with him, proceeding on towards the province of Leinster. While pursuing his journey through this province, he stopped at the castle of a chief, who was named Aedus. He requested the saint, to baptize one of his children. Fiachra opened his wallet, to remove a book containing the Baptismal rite. Immediately, the arm of St. Comgall was raised towards Heaven. After Fiachra's fasting and prayer, offered on bended knees, it then descended, and disappeared beneath the earth. For three days, the soil was searched, by digging over this spot; but, the relic could not be discovered. On seeing this, the chieftain Aedus gave in perpetuity a donation of his castle and lands; and here, St. Fiachra built a large monastery, in honour of St. Comgall, and of the Most Holy Trinity. On the plundering of Bangor, by the Danes, in the year of our Lord 822, the oratory there was broken, and the relics of St. Comgall were shaken from the shrine, in which they had been preserved. They were afterwards removed to Antrim.

The ancient office for St. Comgall's feast was one of Nine Lessons, as we find entered, in the Antiphonary of the Culdees, belonging to the Armagh Metropolitan Church, where the calendar list occurs, at the vi. Of the May Ides. There is an office, with Proper Lessons, and set down as a Duplex Majus, in Bishop De Burgo's "Officia Propria Sanctorum Hiberniae."

In all our ancient calendars, we find notices of St. Comgall set down for the 10th of May... In Scotland, the Abbot St. Comgall was held in great veneration, on the 10th of May, as we find recorded, in the Martyrology of Aberdeen, and his merits have been extolled with high eulogy. This was the case, especially at the monastery of Drumcongal, which doubtless derived its denomination from him. The churches of Dercongal, or Holywood, and of Durris, were dedicated to this saint. His feast is also entered in the Kalendars of Drummond, de Nova Farina, of Aberdeen, and of Dempster.


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