Thursday 13 June 2024

Saint Kevin of Glendalough, June 3

Míl Críst i crích nÉrenn,
ard na-ainm tar tuind tretan,
Cóemgen cáid cáin cathair,
i nGlinn dá lind lethan.
A soldier of Christ into the border of Erin,
a high name over the sea’s wave:
Coemgen the chaste, fair warrior,
in the Glen of two broad loughs. 
Thus does the Martyrology of Oengus record the feast of Saint Coemgen (Coemghen, Caoimhghin, Kevin) of Glendalough on June 3rd. Whilst Saint Oengus has devoted his entire quatrain for the day to Saint Kevin, the prose Martyrology of Tallaght simply records Caemgin ab Glinne da Locha, Kevin,  abbot of Glendalough. Saint Marianus O'Gorman starts his entries for the day with just the saint's name Caemgen, but the entry in the seventeenth-century Martyrology of Donegal incorporates many of the traditions which had grown up around Saint Kevin in the intervening centuries. It also references the saint's genealogy which places Saint Kevin among the people of the Dál Messin Corb, who controlled the Leinster kingship in the fifth century.
Despite being one of the most well-known and well-loved of Irish saints, remarkably little historical information has survived about Saint Kevin. In his classic study of the sources for early Irish Christianity, J.F. Kenny wrote: 


Glenn-dá-locho,"Valley of two lakes" (Glendalough), a lonely and picturesque valley in the midst of the mountains of Wicklow, contains some of the most noteworthy monuments of pre-Norman ecclesiastical architecture in Ireland. These, and the many references in the annals and elsewhere indicate that Glendalough was an important centre of Irish religious life from the sixth to the twelfth century.
The reputed founder of the monastery of Glendalough was Coemgen, or Coemghen (anglice Kevin), who was, we are told, of the royal race of Leinster. He retired to the glen to lead a hermit's life, and the disciples who gathered around him formed the monastery. The death of Coemgen is entered in the Annals of Ulster under 618 and 622, but the record is doubtful. He is given an age of one hundred and twenty or one hundred and thirty years, which may be a misunderstood chronological datum.
There are five versions of the Life of Coemgen. The first, in Latin, is quite extensive. The second is much shorter, being an abbreviated text prepared at a late date for lectionary or homiletic use in some monastery. The Irish texts are late, and are not closely related to the Latin. 

Plummer's conclusions regarding these documents may be summarised as follows: Version iii is an incomplete and somewhat careless summary of an earlier Life; Version iv is a composite production, based in part on material similar to that used by iii; Version v is derived mainly, but not entirely, from iv. The date of the first version seems to be the tenth or eleventh century.
J F Kenny, The Sources for the Early History of Ireland: Ecclesiastical (1929), 403-4.
The three Irish Lives of Coemgen translated by the Rev. Charles Plummer in his Bethada Náem Nérenn collection are available to read through the Internet Archive here. His edition of the Latin text of the Vita Sancti Coemgeni can also be found there. All of the surviving Lives portray Saint Kevin as a strict ascetic in the tradition of the Desert Fathers who relishes solitude, subsists on herbs and follows a strict programme of ascetical practices, praying whilst up to his waist in the waters of the lough, praying crois-fhigill, 'cross-vigil', where the arms are outspread in imitation of Christ's position on the cross and sleeping in a cave. Scholar A.P. Smyth also notes:
The hagiographical lore relating to Kevin living in the tree-tops and praying in the trees owes something to the motif of the wild man in early Irish literature, as well as to the stylite movement among ascetics in Syria  and elsewhere in the Near East. 

A.P. Smyth, 'Kings, Saints and Sagas' in K. Hannigan and W. Nolan eds., Wicklow - History and Society - Interdisciplinary Essays on the History of an Irish County (Dublin, 1994), 52.
Given these connections to the traditions of the Desert Fathers, it is perhaps no surprise to see that on the twelfth-century List of Parallel Saints, which equates Irish saints with those of the Universal Church, Saint Kevin is given as the equivalent of Saint Paul the Hermit. This third-century Egyptian saint, hailed as the first hermit, actually made his way onto the Irish calendars at January 25 as well as having a cameo role in the Navigatio of Saint Brendan. I have previously written about this here.  Saint Kevin's ascetical reputation is also reflected in the hymn of Saint Cuimin of Connor on the characteristic virtues of the Irish saints. In telling us what Saint Kevin loved he wrote: 
Caoimhghin loved a narrow cell,
It was a work of mortification and religion,
In which perpetually to stand,
It was a great shelter against demons.
The temptation of a hermit by a demon in female form is also a topos found in the traditions of the Desert Fathers. The Latin Life depicts Saint Kevin as repelling the unwanted advances of his temptress by arming himself with the sign of the cross and then striking her with bundles of nettles, after which, in true hagiographical fashion, she sees the error of her ways and commits to a life of sanctity.
In time however, the solitary ascetic of the Upper Lake attracted a community around him and moved to the Lower Valley to found his monastic civitas. As is usual in hagiography, the establishment of any new monastic site requires some supernatural intervention. Canon O'Hanlon, in Volume V of his Lives of the Irish Saints, narrates the story of how Saint Kevin was persuaded to make this move, according to the Latin Life:
An Angel of the Lord came to St. Kevin and said: "O saint of God, the Lord hath sent me with a message, that you may be induced to go to a place he hath appointed for you, eastwards from the lesser Lake. There you shall be among your brethren, and it shall be the place of your resurrection."
Saint Kevin, however, is initially reluctant to move saying:
"If it would not displease the Lord,  I should wish to remain to the day of my death in this place, where I have toiled for Christ." 
So the angel adds a further inducement:
The Angel answered: "If  you, with your  monks, go to that place  indicated,  many sons of light shall  be always in it and after your time, the monks shall have a sufficiency of earthly possessions, and many thousands of happy souls shall arise with you, from that place, to the kingdom of Heaven."

 After further reassurance about the future fame and prosperity that Glendalough will enjoy and with his objections to the stoniness of the new proposed site dealt with by the angel, Saint Kevin and his heavenly advisor 'walked upon the waters of the Lake, towards a locality indicated'. Then:

Not long afterwards, the same Angel appeared to St. Kevin. He said: "In the name of our Lord Jesus  Christ, arise with thy monks, and go to that place, which the Lord  hath ordained for thy resurrection." After pronouncing these words, the Angel departed.

The move to the Lower Lough does not signify any lessening of Saint Kevin's commitment to the ascetical life, as this verse from the Metrical Irish Life, the second in Plummer's list, confirms:

Coemgen was among stones
On the border of the lake on a bare bed,
With his slender side on a stone,
In his glen without a booth over him. 
He may no longer have been sleeping in the original 'Kevin's Bed' cave site on the Upper Lough, but the new site still saw the saint committed to a hard and stony resting place and still at the mercy of the elements. None of the Lives date to the lifetime of the saint but instead reflect the realities of succeeding centuries when Glendalough had expanded to become an important site of both pilgrimage and burial. The moving away from the original sites on the Upper Lough associated with Saint Kevin is dealt with in this later hagiography by having the saint persuaded by an angel that this relocation is God's will. It may well be though that in the discussions between Saint Kevin and the angel we can discern an echo of the actual discussions that would have taken place within the community at Glendalough about the expansion of their monastic 'city'. When exactly the move from the Upper Lough to the Lower took place is not known, but Smyth suggests that it may have been in the eighth century.
Saint Kevin died in 622 and his ultimate resting place is still debated. In between the original site at the Upper Lough and that of the monastic city on the Lower lies the church of Reefert, Ríg Ferta, 'the Cemetery of the Kings'. Saint Oengus the Martyrologist in the Prologue to his calendar of the saints declares 'the cemetery of the west of the world is multitudinous Glendalough'. Reefert is one possible location for Saint Kevin's tomb, although his remains may well have been translated from their original burial place and enshrined with great ceremony in the monastic church at a later period. The Annals of Ulster record at the year 790 the comotatio of the relics of Saint Kevin. This term refers to the taking of relics on circuit, most likely to other churches associated with Glendalough and would support the likelihood that the founder's relics were housed in a richly-decorated shrine for public veneration. 
In the centuries following Saint Kevin's death Glendalough became an important centre of pilgrimage, his Latin Life claiming that it was one of the four main pilgrimage sites in Ireland. His monastery found a place in a Litany of Irish saints preserved in the twelfth-century Book of Leinster and published in the 1925 collection Irish Litanies also translated by the Rev. Charles Plummer. Litany I invokes 'Forty saints in Glen da Loch with Coemgen, noble priest'. In our own times Saint Kevin has become something of a poster boy for the 'Celtic Christianity' movement which attributes to our native holy men and women a special relationship with nature and the animal creation. Whilst I do not share this movement's interpretation of our native saints, nevertheless the animal stories associated with Saint Kevin are perhaps specially appropriate, since they too owe their origins to the Desert Fathers. I have looked at a couple of the legends involving birds and the founder of Glendalough here.  Finally, since there is no translation of the Vita Sancti Coemgeni available, I have posted some selections from Canon O'Hanlon's reading of it here.  This is how he describes the ending of Saint Kevin's Life:
When St. Kevin had consoled his monks and imparted his benediction, his thoughts were solely devoted to preparation for his departure from that place, so endeared to him by religious associations; and, he now turned his mind, on the abiding home he sought for in Heaven. He then received Christ's most Sacred Body and Blood, from the hands of St. Mocherog. His monks stood around, in tears and lamentations, when their venerable superior breathed his last. Having lived, in this world, according to common report, for the extraordinary and lengthened period of one hundred and twenty years, he departed to join choirs of Angels and Archangels, in the Heavenly Jerusalem. The Third of June Nones is the date assigned for his death; and on the 3rd of June, accordingly, his festival is celebrated.
Rev J. O'Hanlon, Lives of the Irish Saints, Vol. VI (Dublin, 1875),  p.71.

Note: This post, first published in 2024, replaces the former blog entry on Saint Kevin from 2014.

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