Saturday 6 December 2014

The Kildare Monastic Trail

Abarta Audioguides have made a copy of their Kildare Monastic Trail available to download free of charge:

We are absolutely delighted to announce the release of our latest audioguide: The Kildare Monastic Trail

This free to download audioguide helps you to explore the atmospheric ancient monasteries of County Kildare. The guide consists of 10 tracks and features sites like Castledermot, Old Kilcullen, Moone, Oughterard and more. Narrated by Kildare actor Liam Quinlivan, it tells of the history, archaeology, heritage and folklore of these fascinating sites and gives panel by panel descriptions of the spectacular high crosses at places like Moone and Castledermot.

The guide is free to download as a MP3 audioguide from our website:

Or download directly to your smartphone or tablet with our free app version (for Android and Apple). The app version is packed with images and comes with a map to help you navigate your way around the trail:

This audioguide was produced by Abarta Audioguides in conjunction with Kildare County Council and with the kind support of The Heritage Council. We would like to thank Sharon Greene of Castledermot Local History Group, Noel Dunne National Roads Authority archaeologist, Mario Corrigan of Kildare Library Service and Kildare Heritage Officer Bridget Loughlin for all of their advice, support and information during the production of this guide.

This audioguide is an action of the County Kildare Heritage Plan.

Friday 31 October 2014

Saint Faolán of Fosses and Devotion to Saint Brigid

October 31 is the feast of Saint Faolán, one of the many Irish missionary saints who laboured in Europe. He is also one of the Irish saints who helped to spread the cult of Ireland's patroness on the Continent. Roísín Ní Mheara has given a fascinating account of devotion to Saint Brigid of Kildare in the Meuse/Maas valley region in which Saint Faolán laboured. His monastery at Fosses was dedicated to Saint Brigid and today their names are still intertwined in this area:
In the cryptal chamber of Saint-Feuillen, old effigies of St Brigid and St Gertrud guard the place where Faolán's remains first reposed. And the particular devotion paid by the saint to his Irish patroness again bears evidence in a small church that tops a hill beside the town, to which the rue Saint-Brigette leads us. Said to have been erected by Faolán and his monks, it has a Celtic cross inserted in the outer wall of the sanctuary, believed to be the altar stone of the original seventh-century church, brought hither from Ireland! Be that as it may, Faolán is certainly responsible for implanting the very lively cult of St Brigid into this part of Belgium - a cult still practised at this ancient place. People gather here to celebrate her Feastday, bringing twigs bound together to form a cros Bríde, as in Ireland. After being blessed, these crosses are hung up in cow-sheds to protect the cattle for another year. Also reminiscent of the charitable aspect of the cult of St Brígid is the large hospital-cum-Old Folks Home beside the church on the hill, superseding, it is said, the original almshouse of the Irish missionaries. The nuns in charge of the hospital also have the keys to the church of Saint-Brigette.

Devotion to St Faolán, fanning out in all directions from Fosses, is marked with churches and chapels in his honour. Since rivers are often destined to be the carriers of man's history, it was the proximity of the river Meuse - Maas in Germanic tongues - that played a part in spreading Faolán's cult and reputation.

...The Meuse Valley's preoccupation with the cult of Faolán affected that of St Brígid. As a protectress of cattle her fame progressed through the land and across the river into the diocese of Cologne. An important Roman road linked Gallia Belgica with the Rhinelands via Maastricht, soon to be complemented by a Carolingian trade-route linking the North Sea port of Brugge with the seat of Charlemagne at Aachen (Aix) and continuing on to Cologne, the famed 'City of Holy Martyrs' - where St Brígid of Ireland, although no martyr, installed herself with a parish of her own in the city's core.

In the cathedral of Aachen, Brígid shares a stained glass window with Faolán, whose own adjacent church, that had served the community since the fifteenth century, has been rebuilt after destruction in World War Two. (The connection between Brígid and Faolán was carried as far as Spain, where their effigies adorn an early church in Navarre).

Roísín Ní Mheara, Early Irish Saints in Europe - Their Sites and their Stories (Seanchas Ard Mhacha, 2001), 70.

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Wednesday 22 October 2014

Bringing Brigid to Italy: Saint Donatus of Fiesole

October 22 is the feast of Saint Donatus of Fiesole, an Irishman who became a bishop in Italy and who promoted the cult of Saint Brigid in his adopted homeland. An account of his life can be found at my other site here. Donatus was among the hagiographers of Ireland's patroness and a translation of the prologue to his Life of Saint Brigid can be found here with a commentary here. You will notice that in the prologue the saint refers to Ireland as Scotia, but this was commonplace in the early Middle Ages and it was only later that the term was applied exclusively to the land we now call Scotland. The prologue extols the virtues of Ireland and its people, but more so the virtues of its patroness, which are as innumerable as the grains of sand on the shore. I find Saint Donatus a most engaging figure and his story deserves to be remembered in his own country.  As an old Life of the saint puts it: 'let Hibernia rejoice, which sent forth such a teacher; let Fiesole and the whole province of Tuscany be glad'.

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Tuesday 9 September 2014

Alto et ineffabile: Saint Colum Cille in praise of Saint Ciarán of Clonmacnoise

September 9 is the feast of Saint Ciarán of Clonmacnoise.   Below is the text of a Latin hymn in his honour, attributed to Saint Colum Cille, and translated by Peter Davidson:

Latin Text

Hymnus S. Columbae in Laudem S. Ciarani.

Alto et ineffabile apostolorum coeti
celestis Hierusolimae sublimioris speculi
sedente tribunalibus solis modo micantibus
Quiaranus sanctus sacerdos insignis nuntius

Inaltatus est manibus angelorum celestibus
Consummatis felicibus sanctitatum generibus
quem tu Christe apostolum mundo misisti hominem
gloriosum in omnibus nouissimis temporibus

English Translation

Born of the soaring apostolic company
(glass of Jerusalem exalted ineffably)
raised on thrones as sunlight lustrous,
came Ciaran, priest and messenger glorious;

Borne to the sky by angel infantry
Fulfilling thus his folded family,
Christ’s herald, shining apostle of grace
Sent to Ireland in these last, sad days.

Peter Davidson, ‘The hymn of saint Columba in praise of saint Ciaran: an English translation’ in M.Richter and J-M. Picard, eds., Ogma – Essays in honour of Próinséas Ní Chatháin (Dublin, 2002), 320.

The hymn Alto et ineffabile is published as number 27 in the Irish Liber Hymnorum and the editors offer this introduction to it:

The Hymn Alto et ineffabili.

In the Life of St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise (c. 26), as quoted by Colgan, we read: "Unus ex praecipuis Hiberniae est et merito numeratur Apostolis iuxta quod de ipso cecinit eius condiscipulus et coapostolus sanctissimus Columba in hymno quodam quem in eius composuit laudem dicens:

Quantum Christe O apostolum mundo misisti hominem
Lucerna huius insulae lucens lucerna mirabilis, etc."'

The first line of this couplet is almost identical with line 8 of the piece Alto et ineffabili, which suggests that this may be the hymn in question. It is mentioned again in the manuscript (wrongly) called the Book of Kilkenny in Marsh's Library at Dublin, where at fol. 148aa we read: " Et fecit sanctus Columba ympnum sancto Kiarano," a hymn which Ciaran's successor at Clonmacnoise called clarus et laudabilis. Columba, the story goes, asked in return for some earth from St. Ciaran's grave, with which he calmed the stormy water on his way back to Iona.'

This St. Ciaran, who is to be carefully distinguished from St. Ciaran of Saighir, was the founder of the great monastery of Clonmacnoise, and in its Annals the year of his death is given as 547. He is counted one of "the twelve Apostles of Ireland," and in the Martyrology of Donegal at Septr. 9) he is compared to the Apostle St. John. He was known in his life time as Ciaran mac an t-saor, or "Son of the Carpenter"; and was a friend of St. Kevin, as of St. Columba. His memory still survives in the place called " Temple Kieran," about four miles from Navan. In Cornwall the name of Ciaran (of Saighir) has become corrupted to Piran, to whom there were many churches dedicated.

J.H. Bernard and R Atkinson (eds.) The Irish Liber Hymnorum Vol 2, Translations and Notes (London, 1898), 218-220.

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Friday 15 August 2014

Who is Patrick? – Answers from the Saint Patrick's Confessio HyperStack

A useful review of the Royal Irish Academy's Confessio Hyperstack from a German academic:

Who is Patrick? – Answers from the Saint Patrick's Confessio HyperStack

Franz Fischer

University of Cologne

Cologne Center for eHumanities

Universitatsstr. 22, D-50923 Koln


Not everyone realizes that there are two Latin works, still surviving, that can definitely be attributed to Saint Patrick’s own authorship.

On 14th September 2011 the Royal Irish Academy published his writings in a freely accessible form on line, both in the original Latin and in a variety of modern languages (including Irish). Designed to be of interest to the general public as well as to academic researchers, the Saint Patrick’s Confessio Hypertext Stack includes such features as digital images of the medieval manuscripts involved, a specially commissioned historical reconstruction that evocatively describes life in pre-Viking Ireland, articles, audio presentations, and some ten thousand internal and external digital links that make it truly a resource to be explored.

Read the paper in full here.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

Such was Columba

He was at the same time full of contradictions and contrasts at once tender and irritable, rude and courteous, ironical and compassionate, caressing and imperious, grateful and revengeful led by pity as well as by wrath, ever moved by generous passions, and among all passions fired to the very end of his life by two which his countrymen under stand the best, the love of poetry and the love of country. Little inclined to melancholy when he had once surmounted the great sorrow of his life, which was his exile; little disposed even, save to wards the end, to contemplation or solitude, but trained by prayer and austerities to triumphs of evangelical exposition; despising rest, untiring in mental and manual toil; born for eloquence, and gifted with a voice so penetrating and sonorous that it was thought of afterwards as one of the most miraculous gifts that he had received of God; frank and loyal, original and powerful in his words as in his actions in cloister and mission and parliament, on land and on sea, in Ireland as in Scotland, always swayed by the love of God and of his neighbour, whom it was his will and pleasure to serve with an impassioned uprightness. Such was Columba.

Count de Montalembert, Saint Columba: apostle of Caledonia, (New York, 1868), 136-137.

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Monday 16 June 2014

Saint Colum Cille and the Beggar

Vignettes from the Lives of the Irish Saints: Saint Colum Cille and the Beggar

One of those rarely beautiful and instructive incidents, common to the lives of many saints, is recorded as having happened at Derry. The Saint fed a hundred poor men daily, but his steward, or dispenser, did not quite appreciate the liberality of his master. He had a fixed time for giving the dole of food, and any one who came late was peremptorily dismissed. A poor man came one day late, and was, as usual, sent away. The next day he came in time, but was told there was nothing for him. For many days he came, but each time he met with some repulse. He then sent a message to Columba, to tell him that he advised him for the future to put no limit to his charity while he had alms to give, except what God set on the number of those who came for it. Columba was struck by the message, and came down to the gate of the monastery, not waiting even to put on his cloak. He hastened after the beggar; but when he had gone some distance he found not the poor man, but Christ, who had taken the form of a beggar. Then, as he fell down and adored his Lord, he obtained from him a royal alms — new lights, new graces, new and yet more wonderful powers of miracle and prophecy. In the precise language of the chronicle, "He saw both the secrets of Holy Scripture, things happening at a distant place or time, and even what was passing in a man's thoughts; and he came to know about beasts and birds, and their affections, and their language, and of what great value it was to have pity on the poor, when that virtue was joined on to other virtues." And so it came to pass that when St. Brendan came to visit him with a hundred men there was food for all, and the very lakes were filled with fish for his service.

M. F. Cusack, The Lives of Saint Columba and Saint Brigit (Dublin and London, 1877), 109.

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Sunday 15 June 2014

A Portrait of Saint Colum Cille

BEFORE we follow him to his monastic foundations in Ireland, or on his missionary journeys through Scotland, it may be well to see what manner of man he was personally. Venerable Bede and the ancient Irish manuscripts leave no room for conjecture regarding his physical appearance. He was tall and muscular, angelic of face, somewhat reddish haired, with a loud resonant voice that could on occasions be heard very far off and was withal musical as an angel's. Naturally hot and fiery in his temperament, he so completely overcame himself by his fastings, prayers, and vigils as to successfully verify his baptismal name of "The Dove." Restless and studious by turns, he was at once the deepest student and the most extensive publisher of the Sacred Text, the most energetic missionary and enlightened statesman of his day. Adamnan says "he never could spend even the space of one hour without study or prayer, or writing, or some other holy or useful occupation. So incessantly was he engaged, night and day, in the un wearied exercise of fasting and watching, that the burden of each of these austerities would seem beyond the power of all human endurance, and still in all these he was beloved by the brethren, for a holy joyousness ever beaming on his countenance revealed the joy and gladness with which the Holy Ghost filled his inmost soul."

Saturday 14 June 2014

The Monastic Life of Saint Colum Cille

In the midst of the new community Columba inhabited, instead of a cell, a sort of hut built of planks, and placed upon the most elevated spot within the monastic enclosure. Up to the age of seventy-six he slept there upon the hard floor, with no pillow but a stone. This hut was at once his study and his oratory. It was there that he gave himself up to those prolonged prayers which excited the admiration and almost the alarm of his disciples. It was there that he returned after sharing the outdoor labour of his monks, like the least among them, to consecrate the rest of his time to the study of Holy Scripture and the transcription of the sacred text. The work of transcription remained until his last day the occupation of his old age as it had been the passion of his youth; it had such an attraction for him, and seemed to him so essential to a knowledge of the truth, that, as we have already said, three hundred copies of the Holy Gospels, copied by his own hand, have been attributed to him.

Count de Montalembert, Saint Columba: apostle of Caledonia, (New York, 1868)

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Friday 13 June 2014

Saint Colum Cille on the Angels' Hill

Vignettes from the Lives of the Irish Saints: Colum Cille on the Angels' Hill

"Let no one follow me to-day," Columba said one morning with unusual severity to the assembled community: "I would be alone in the little plain to the west of the isle." He was obeyed; but a brother, more curious and less obedient than the rest, followed him far off, and saw him, erect and motionless, with his hands and his eyes raised to heaven, standing on a sandy hillock, where he was soon surrounded by a crowd of angels, who came to bear him company and to talk with him. The hillock has to this day retained the name of Cnocan Aingel the Angels' Hill. And the citizens of the celestial country, as they were called at Iona, came often to console and strengthen their future companion during the long winter nights which he passed in prayer in some retired corner, voluntarily exposed to all the torments of sleeplessness and cold.

Count de Montalembert, Saint Columba: apostle of Caledonia, (New York, 1868), 126-127.

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Thursday 12 June 2014

Saint Colum Cille has a Narrow Escape

Vignettes from the Lives of the Irish Saints: Colum Cille has a Narrow Escape

In his just wrath against the spoilers of the poor and the persecutors of the Church, he drew back before no danger, not even before the assassin's dagger. Among the rievers who infested Scottish Caledonia, making armed incursions into their neighbours lands, and carrying on that system of pillage which, up to the eighteenth century, continued to characterise the existence of the Scottish clans, he had distinguished the sons of Donnell, who belonged to a branch of the family which ruled the Dalriadian colony. Columba did not hesitate to excommunicate them. Exasperated by this sentence, one of these powerful ill-doers, named or surnamed Lamm-Dess (Right-hand), took advantage of a visit which the great abbot paid to a distant island, and undertook to murder him in his sleep. But Finn-Lugh, one of the saint's companions, having had some suspicion or instinctive presentiment of danger, and desiring to save his father's life by the sacrifice of his own, borrowed Columba's cowl, and wrapped himself in it. The assassin struck him whom he found clothed in the well-known costume of the abbot, and then fled. But the sacred vestment proved impenetrable armour to the generous disciple, who was not even wounded. Columba, when informed of the event, said nothing at the moment. But a year after, when he had returned to Iona, the abbot said to his community, " A year ago Lamm-Dess did his best to murder my dear Finn-Lugh in my place; now at this moment it is he who is being killed." And, in fact, the news shortly arrived that the assassin had just died under the sword of a warrior, who struck the fatal blow while invoking the name of Columba, in a fight which brought the depredations of these rievers to an end.

Count de Montalembert, Saint Columba: apostle of Caledonia, (New York, 1868), 117-118.

Content Copyright © Trias Thaumaturga 2012-2015. All rights reserved.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

The Teaching of Saint Colum Cille on Hospitality

Vignettes from the Lives of the Irish Saints: Colum Cille's Teaching on Hospitality

It is also recorded that he took pleasure in the society of laymen during his journeys, and lived among them with a free and delightful familiarity. This is one of the most attractive and instructive phases of his history. He continually asked and received the hospitality not only of the rich, but also of the poor; and sometimes, indeed, received a more cordial reception from the poor than from the rich. To those who refused him a shelter he predicted prompt punishment. " That miser," he said, " who despises Christ in the person of a traveller, shall see his wealth diminish from day to day and come to nothing; he will come to beggary, and his son shall go from door to door holding out his hand, which shall never be more than half filled." When the poor received him under their roof, he inquired with his ordinary thoughtfulness into their resources, their necessities, all their little possessions. At that period a man seems to have been considered very poor in Scotland who had only five cows. This was all the fortune of a Lochaber peasant in whose house Columba, who continually traversed this district when going to visit the king of the Picts, passed a night, and found a very cordial welcome notwithstanding the poverty of the house. Next morning he had the five little cows brought into his presence and blessed them, predicting to his host that he should soon have five hundred, and that the blessing of the grateful missionary should go down to his children and grandchildren a prophecy which was faithfully fulfilled.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Colum Cille: a safe fort

He is the protection of a few, he is the protection of many,
safe is every one in peril to whom he is a fort;
he is a safe fort, it is a fair advantage
to be under the protection of Colum Cille.

Fergus Kelly, ed.and trans., A Poem in Praise of Colum Cille, Ériu, Vol. 24 (1973), 11.

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Monday 9 June 2014

An Irish Saint: Colum Cille

June 9 is the feast day of the tertiary patron of Ireland: Saint Colum Cille. Below is an 1867 article from an American journal, The Catholic World, which brings together a wide range of traditional views of this great saint, combining as it does episodes from both the classic hagiographical account by Saint Adamnán and from the later Life by Manus O'Donnell, written in 1532: 


IT is consoling in these gloomy days to think of the time when Ireland was the Island of Saints, and gloried in the patronage of St. Patrick, St. Bridget, and St. Columbkill.

It is to a foreigner that we owe the biography of St. Columbkill named "Columba" from the Dove of Peace, and "kill," from the many cells or monasteries that he founded. He was descended, says Montalembert, from one of those noble races in Ireland whose origin is lost in the night of ages the Nialls or O'Donnells of Tir-connel, who were monarchs of Ireland from the sixth to the twelfth century. The child was instructed in religion by the priest who had baptized him, and the legends tell of angels who watched over him from his birth ; and they say that he asked familiarly of his guardian angel if all the angels were as bright and young as himself. From the house of the priest he was sent to the monastery of St. Frinan at CIonard, where he studied and laboured like the rest, and, though a prince, he ground the corn they ate. One of his companions, afterward a saint, was angry at the influence which Columba naturally possessed over the rest; but an angel appeared to him, and showed him the hatchet of his father, the carpenter, bidding him remember that he had only left his tools, but that Columba left a throne to enter the monastery. Clonard, says Montalembert, was vast as the monastic cities of the Thebais, and 3000 Irish students learnt there from the "Master of Saints." Among the crowds who came to learn was an aged  bard, who was a Christian. He asked St. Frinan to teach him, in return for his verse, the art of cultivating the soil. Columba was a poet, and studied with the bard. One day a young girl, pursued by a robber, was murdered at their feet, and Columba foretold his death, and was renowned through the island as a saint. He was ordained a priest in 546, and became, when scarcely twenty-five, the founder of monasteries, of which thirty-seven are reckoned in Ireland alone. The most ancient of these was in the forest of Durrow, or the Field of Oaks, where a cross and well yet bear the name of Columba.

It stood in Clenmalire, now in King's county; and the noble monastery, as Bede calls it, became the mother of many others; so that Dermach as well as Hy became nurseries for the hundred monasteries founded by Columba. It has been said that St. Patrick had kindled such a flame of devotion that the saints were not satisfied with monastic life without retiring to the solitude of the surrounding forests, and there, under the canopy of the vast oaks, which had for ages possessed the wilderness, they found a more silent and solemn cloister. Such had been the monastery of St. Bridget at Kildare, and such was Durrow ; and in the forest of Calgachus, in his native country, Columba built Derry, in a deep bay on the sea which separates Ireland from Scotland. There he dwelt, and he would not permit one of the oaks to be felled unless it was injured by age or storms, and then it was used as fuel for the stranger or the poor. Here he wrote poems, of which, says Montalembert, only the echo has reached us. The following verses might be written by his disciples, but they are in the most ancient Irish dialect, and perhaps convey the thoughts, it not the words, of Columba :

" Had I all countries where the Scottish tribes
Have made their dwelling, I would choose a cell
In my own beauteous Derry, which I love
For its unbroken peace and sanctity.

There, seated on each leaf of those old oaks,
I see a white-winged angel of the sky.
forests dear ! home and cell beloved !
thou Eternal in the highest heaven !
From hands profane my monasteries shield,
My Derry and my Durrow, Raphoe sweet,
Drumhorne in forests prolific, Swords, and Kells,
Where sea-birds scream and flutter o'er the sea,
Sweet Derry, when my boat rows near the shore,
All is repose and most delicious rest."

There are traces of the saint in these beloved foundations: among the ruins of Swords are still seen the chapel of St. Columba, and a round tower and holy well, but not the missal written by himself and given to the church. We have the rule he wrote for the monasteries, but it is said to have been borrowed from the oriental monasteries.

He founded Kells in 550, and dedicated it to the Blessed Virgin. St. Columba's devotion was not confined to his own monasteries; he loved that founded not long before by St. Endacus in Arran, the Isle of Saints:

"Arran, thou art like sunshine, and my heart
Yearns on thee in thine Ocean of the West;
To hear thy bells would be a life of bliss ;
And, if thy soil might be my last abode,
I should not envy those who sleep secure
Beside St. Peter and St. Paul. My light,
My sunny Arran ! all my heart's desire
Lies in the Western Ocean and in thee! "

There are eleven Irish and three Latin poems said to be written by St. Columba, and one of these is in praise of St. Bridget, who was living when he was born. Columba was not only a poet himself, but the friend of the bardic order, who held from Druidic times so high a rank in society, and who frequented monasteries as well as palaces. Columba received even the wandering bards of the highways into his monasteries, and especially in one which he founded in Loch Key, which was afterward the Cistercian House of Boyle. He employed them to write the annals of the monastery, and to sing to the harp before the community. He loved books as well as poetry ; and his passion was transcribing manuscripts which he collected in his travels, and he is said to have made with his own  hand three hundred copies of the gospels or psalter. One of these remains. It is a copy of St. Jerome's translation of the four evangelists, and an inscription testifies that he wrote it in twelve days. He was once refused by an aged hermit the sight of his books, and the legend says that, in consequence of his anger, the books became illegible at the hermit's death. The anger of Columba about another manuscript led to more important consequences his own conversion from a literary monk to an ascetic missionary. While he visited his old master, St. Finnian, he shut himself up by night in the church to make a secret copy of the psalter. His light was seen, and the abbot claimed possession of the copy. Columba appealed to his kinsman, the supreme monarch Dermot, who was the friend of monks; for, when an exile, he had found a refuge in the monastery of St. Kieran, the schoolfellow of Columba, which they both had built in an islet of the Shannon, and which became Clonmacnoise. Dermot decided that the copy belonged to the abbot. Columba was indignant. The murder of a prince of Connaught, whom he had protected, increased his anger against Dermot, and he foretold his ruin. His own life was in danger, he fled toward Tirconnel, and the monks of Monasterboys told him that his path was beset.

He escaped alone, and passed through the mountains, singing as he went his song of confidence; and, as tradition says, these verses will protect all who repeat them on their journeys:

" I am alone upon the mountain, my God !
King of the sun ! direct my steps, and guard
My fearless head among a thousand spears ;
Safer than on an islet in a lake
I walk with thee ; my life is thine to give
Or to withhold, and none but thou canst add
Or take an hour from its appointed time.
What are the guards? they cannot guard from death.
I will forget my poor and peaceful cell,
And cast myself on the world's charity ;
For he who gives will be repaid, and he
Who hoards will lose his treasure, God of life.
Woe be to him who sins! The unseen world
Will come when all he sees has passed away.
The Druids trust to oaks and songs of birds :
My trust is in the God who made me man,
And will not let me perish in the night.
Him only do I serve, the Son of God,
The Son of Mary Holy Trinity,
The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, with him
Is my inheritance; my cell
Is with the monks of Kells and Holy Moen."

Columba reached his country, and stirred up his clan, the Hy Nialls of the north, against Dermot, and the Hy Nialls of the south ; and with the aid of the king of Connaught, whose son had been slain, Dermot was defeated, and fled to Tara. The victory was attributed to the prayers and fasts of Columba, and the manuscript which had caused this civil war became a national relic with the O'Donnells. It was a Latin psalter, and was enclosed in a portable altar, and carried by a priest into all these battles, and has been miraculously preserved to the present times.

But in the midst of his triumphs, Columba himself was conquered. He felt the pangs of remorse, and suffered the reproaches of the religious. He was summoned to a synod at Tailtan, and condemned, when absent, for having shed Christian blood. But Columba had always shared the contests of his clan, and, though a monk, was still a prince of the O'Donnells. He went to the synod which had condemned him unheard, to dispute their decision.

When Columba entered, the abbot Brendan, founder of Birr, rose up and gave him the kiss of peace. All wondered, but the abbot said : "If you had seen, as I did, the fiery column and the angels who preceded him, you would have done the same. Columba is destined by God to be the guide of a nation to heaven." The excommunication was reversed, and the sentence of Columba was, that he should convert as many heathens as he had caused Christians to die in battle. Columba was safe, but not at rest ; he went from desert to desert, and from monastery to monastery, to seek some holy teacher of penance. One hermit reproached him as the cause of war.

“It was Diarmid," he replied.

“You are a monk," said the hermit, “and should be patient."

" But," said Columba, " it is hard for an injured man to repress his just anger."

He went to Abban, founder of many monasteries, one of which was called the Cell of Tears. This meek soldier of Christ had often parted warriors in battle and gone unarmed to meet a pagan brigand, whom he converted to be a Christian and a monk. Columba asked him to pray for those whose death he had caused, and Abban told him their souls were saved. He then sought St. Molaisse, who was renowned for his study of the Holy Scriptures, and whose monastery is yet traced in the isle of Inishimurray, on the coast of Sligo. The stern solitary renewed the sentence of the synod, and added that of exile for life from his too beloved country. Columba obeyed. He told his warlike kinsmen, the Nialls of Tirconnell, that an angel had bidden him go into exile, on account of those whom they had slain on his account.

None of them opposed the sentence, and twelve disciples determined to follow him. One was Moehouna, prince of Ulster. Columba refused at first the voluntary sacrifice, but yielded at last; and the devoted band left Ireland for ever.

It was in 563 that Columba left Ireland. Some say that he had offended King Diarmid by the severity with which he reproved vice. This is not the reason given by Adamnan, who succeeded him in his monastery of Hy, and left a collection of records, written at the end of the seventh century, which reveals the intention of the heroic apostle ; and, as it contains facts related by competent witnesses, this precious relic of antiquity is more valuable than a well-arranged biography. It must have been from the traditions of his monastery that he describes the saint, who was by nature so warlike and impatient, as retaining a tender and passionate love for his country, and a sympathy with all his national habits, while he quitted Erin, in expiation of the crime to which that love had led him. Columba did more than this ; he sacrificed his poetic tastes and learned pursuits to convert not only the half-Christian Dalirads, who had early left Erin for Scotland, but more especially the heathen Picts of the North, the descendants of the brave opponents of Agricola under Galgacus, who were not of his own Milesian race.

St. Columbkill was forty-two when he left his country in a wicker coracle covered with leather, in which he trusted himself with his twelve disciples, confiding solely in God, to brave the tempests and the enormous waves of the sea which parts the two countries, with only the light of faith and the strength of prayers to guide them through the rocks and whirlpools which beset the misty archipelago of isles lying below the mountains and deep bays, or fiords, of Lochaber.  Adamnan describes his Irish tonsure, which showed an Eastern rather than a Roman teaching ; the top of his head shaven, and his hair hanging down his back ; his majestic countenance, whose  pride was softened only by religion ; his princely features, whose severity was mingled with a cast of irony ; and his voice, whose tone commanded while it penetrated the heart, so that it is considered to have been one of the most miraculous of his gifts. Thus he braved the future, trusting in the simplicity of charity for safety in a savage land and savage tribes, to whom he brought the knowledge of truth and morals and the hope of heaven. His fiery temper, and the courage that fitted him for a soldier, and the genius which marked him for a poet or an orator, were devoted to the conversion of hostile chiefs ; and the violence of his own feelings enabled him better to influence the people, while it was softened by the great sorrow of his life, the exile from his country. With a heart yearning for Erin and its noble clans, he reached the desolate island of Oronsay ; and, ascending the highest part of the rock, he saw in the south the distant mountains of Dalreida. He rejected the consolation, and left the island for Iona. Then, finding that he could not from its highest point see the country he had abandoned, he fixed there his place of exile, and a heap of stones yet marks the spot where he discovered that the sacrifice was complete, and it is still called the Farewell to Ireland.

The island of Hy is low though rocky, and not a tree nor bush can live there; for not only do the winds sweep over it, but the very spray of the Atlantic moistens it with salt showers. It lies amid the islets on the coast of Morven, already celebrated by Ossian ; Staffa and its basaltic columns are on the north, and Mull with its lofty mountains on the south. Barren islands lie on every side, separated by deep channels ; and so narrow are the bays which run up between the mountains of the mainland that the water becomes a lake and the land a peninsula. Forests then clothed their sides; and the clouds, which almost always hang on their summits, fall and rise above the precipices and waterfalls of that lofty coast, peopled by unrecorded emigrants from Erin, whence Ossian had gone to Tara, and Fingal had made war and peace with the kindred tribes of Inisfail.

It was within sight of this repulsive field of labour, where his penance was to convert souls, that Columba and his missionaries founded a monastery destined to be the centre of religion and civilization to Europe. The first building was of twisted boughs inlaced with ivy, and it was many years before they cut down oaks in the forest of Morven to make the wooden edifices in use till the twelfth century. Thus Columba prepared for the future, but he had not forgotten the past. He felt the bitterness of exile, and wrote verses, in which lie prefers "death in Erin to exile in Albania ;" and then, in a plaintive but resigned tone, he sings:

" Alas ! no more I float upon thy lakes
Or dance upon the billows of thy gulfs,
Sweet Erin ; nor with Comgall at my side
Hear the strange music of the wild swan's cry !
Alas that crime has exiled me, and blood
Blood shed in battle stains my guilty hand !
My guilty foot may not with Cormac tread
The cloisters of my Durrow, which I love ;
My guilty ears may never hear the wind
Sound in its oaks, nor hear the blackbird's song,
Nor cuckoo, and my eyes may never see
The land so loved but for its hated kings.
'Tis sweet to dance along the white-topped waves,
And watch them break in foam on Erin's strand ;
And fast my bark would fly if once its prow
To Erin turned and to my native oaks ;
But the great ocean may not bear my bark
Save to Albania, land of ravens dire.
My foot is on the deck, my bleeding heart
Aches as I think of Erin, and my eyes
Turn ever thither ; but while life endures
So runs my vow these eyes will never see
The noble race of Erin ; and the tear
Fills my dim eyes when looking o'er the sea
Where Erin lies loved Erin, where the birds
Sing such sweet music, and the chant of clerks
Makes melody like theirs. O happy land !
Thy youths are gentle, thine old men are wise,
Thy princes noble, and thy daughters fair.
Young voyager, my sorrows with thee bear
To Comgall of ' eternal life,' and take
My blessing and my prayer, a sevenfold part,
To Erin ; to Albania all the rest.
My heart is broken in my breast ; if death
Should come, it is for too much love of Gaels."

Time never effaced this passionate regret, and, as the legend says, when he was aged, he foretold that a wearied bird would be cast on Iona, and he bade his monks feed it till it could return to Ireland. But these regrets strengthened instead of dissipating his missionary ardour ; and, while his natural disposition was unchanged, he became the model of penitents and ascetics and the most energetic of abbots. He received strangers and converted sinners. He established a rule for his monks, and dwelt himself like a hermit, lying on the bare ground upon a bed of planks. There he prayed and fasted, and there he continued to transcribe the sacred text, and to study the Holy Scriptures, so that three hundred copies of the gospel were written by his hand. Crowds of pilgrims visited him there, and many did penance ; but one in particular received from him the same penance he was performing himself, an exile to the isle of Tiree and a banishment from the sight of Columba.

St. Columba was among his kindred in Lochaber. The Scots were a Dalradian colony, allies of the O Neills ; and he was the kinsman of their king, Connall, and from him he obtained a grant of the island of Iona, and he laboured among these half-formed Christians. Then, as if he would break even this last tie to Erin, he became the apostle of the Picts, by descent Scythians, by habits savages and heathens. Unconquered by Romans or Christians, they dwelt in glens, inaccessible except by water, and deserved, like their ancestors, the description of Tacitus, as dwelling at the extremity of the earth and of liberty ; and to them he devoted the remaining thirty-four years of his life. He crossed the mountains which divide the Scots from the Picts and readied the chain of lakes which extends from sea to sea. He was the first to launch his fragile boat upon Loch Ness, and he penetrated to the fortress of their king, Brude, which occupied a rock north of Inverness. The king closed the doors of his fortress ; but Columba made the sign of the cross, the doors rolled back on the bolts, and Columba entered as a victor. The king trembled in the midst of his council, and rose to meet the missionary ; he spoke to him with respect, and became his friend, though it is not said that he became a Christian. But the Druids were his enemies. They were not idolaters, but worshipped the hidden powers of nature, the sun and stars, and believed the waters and springs had the powers which were attributed by the Druids of Gaul and Britain to oaks and forests. Columba drank their sacred water in defiance, and they tried to hinder him when he went out of the castle to sing vespers. He chanted the psalm "Eructavit cor meum ;" and they were silenced.

St. Columba preached and worked miracles among the Picts, and, though he spoke by an interpreter, he made converts. One day on the banks of Loch Ness he cried: " Let us make haste to meet the angels, who are come down from heaven and await us beside the death-bed of a Pict, who has kept the natural law, that we may baptize him before he dies." He was then aged himself, but he outstripped his companions, and reached Glen Urquhart, where the old man expected him, heard him, was baptized, and died in peace. And once, preaching in Skye, he cried out, " You will see arrive an aged chief, a Pict, who has kept faithfully the natural law; he will come here to be baptized and to die;" and so it was. He once healed a Druid by miracle ; but he attempted to arouse the powers of nature against the saint, and, as he foretold, a contrary wind opposed the departure of Columba. But he bade the sailors spread the sail against the wind, and sailed down the Loch Ness in safety. Nor did he end his labours till he had planted churches and monasteries throughout these wild valleys and islands.

In 574, Connall was succeeded by Aidan on the throne of the Scots, and he desired to be consecrated by the abbot of Iona. Columba refused till he was commanded by an angel to perform the sacred ceremony at Iona the first time it had been done in the West.

Montalembert observes that among the Celts the monastic was superior to the episcopal office, and therefore the abbot consecrated the first of the Scottish kings on a stone called the Stone of Destiny, which was ultimately carried to Westminster Abbey by Edward I, and is now the pedestal of the English throne. The Dalriads in Scotland were subject to the Irish kings, and it was to free them from their tribute that Columba was sent to Erin, which he thought never to see again. The new king went also, and they met the monarch and chiefs at Drumheath. Aed or Hugue II. was now reigning, and he it was who had given to his cousin Columba the site of Derry. Columba and St. Colman obtained the independence of Scotland; and afterward St. Columba attended another assembly, which was to decide the existence of the Bardic order.

There were three kinds of bards: the Fileas, who sung of religion and war ; the Brehons, who versified the laws ; and the Sennachies, who preserved the history and genealogy of the ancient races, and decided on boundaries. These last frequented courts and even battle-fields, and their influence was now so much feared that the monarch proposed to abolish or to massacre the bards. They were, in truth, a Druidic order, but they became Christians, though they were independent of all but their own laws. Columba was a poet even to his old age, and he saved the bards from the anger of the king by proposing to regulate and diminish, instead of destroying, the order. His eloquence prevailed, and thenceforth the bards and monks were united in spirit. Fergall, their blind chief, sung to Columba his hymn of gratitude; and Baithan, one of his monks, admonished his abbot for his self-complacence. This Baithan was declared by Fririan, his brother monk, to be superior to any one on this side of the Alps for the knowledge of the Scriptures and the sciences. ''I do not compare him to Columba," said he ; for he is like the patriarchs and prophets and apostles ; he is a sage of sages, a king among  kings, a hermit, a monk, and also a poor man among the poor."

Columba made afterward, several visits to his monasteries in Ireland, working miracles as he went; as when he went from Durrow to Clonmacnoise, and healed a dumb boy, who became St. Ernan. He was received there by the religious, who walked in procession to meet him, chanting hymns. He had not only a jurisdiction over all his monasteries, but a preternatural knowledge of all that went on there ; and he once interrupted his labours at Iona to pray with his monks for the safety of some workmen at Durrow, and for softening the heart of its abbot, who was too severe on his monks.

Columba was by nature impetuous and vindictive, and was still an O Neill in party spirit. Often in the monastery of Iona he would pray for victory to his clan in battle, or he would pray for the men of his race or the kinsmen of his mother; and once, when aged, he bade them sound the bell of the monastery, (a little square bell, such as now hung round the necks of cattle,) and sound it quickly. The religious hastened around him, and he bade them pray for Aidan, his Dalriad kinsman, then in battle ; and they prayed till he said, " Aidan has conquered."

Adamnan tells us of his own sanctity. One day he retired alone to a distant part of the island, and he was seen with his hands and eyes lifted up to heaven, and surrounded by angels, and the place was named  “The Mount of Angels.'' As he grew older, he increased his austerity. He plunged himself into frozen water; and, seeing a poor woman gathering bitter herbs to eat, he forbade that any other food should be brought to him. He used to pray alone in the little isle of Himba, and his hut was lighted up by night from heaven, while he sang hymns in a tongue unknown to his hearers.

Having been there three days and three nights without food, he came out rejoicing that he had discovered the mysterious sense of several passages of Scripture. He returned to die at Iona, and was already surrounded by a halo of glory; so that, when he prayed in the church at night, the brightness blinded the beholders.

One day in his cell his attendants saw him in heavenly joy, and then in deep sadness, and they asked the cause.

''It is thirty years," he said, "since I began my pilgrimage in Caledonia ; and I have long prayed that I might be released this year. I saw the angels come for me, and I rejoiced; but they stood still down yonder on that rock, as if they could not come near me ; for the prayers of many churches have prevailed, and I grieve that I must live four more years."

At the time appointed he was drawn on a car by oxen to take leave of the monks who were working in the fields. Another day he blessed the granary of the monastery, and foretold his death. This was on Saturday, and he said it would be the Sabbath of his repose. As he returned he met the old horse which carried the milk to the monastery, and the horse laid his head upon the shoulder of his master, as if to take leave of him, and the saint caressed and blessed him. Then, looking down from a hill on the monastery and isle, he stretched out his hands to bless it, and prophesied its future sanctity. Then he entered his cell, and was transcribing the thirty-third psalm, where he came to the words, " Those who seek the Lord shall want no good thing;" and he said, " Here I must end; Baithan will write the rest." .He went into the church for the vigil of Sunday, and, returning, he sat down on his bed of stone, and sent a message to his monks, and exhorted them to charity. After that he spoke no more.

Hardly had the midnight bell rung for matins when he ran first to the church, and knelt before the altar. It was dark, and one monk followed him, and placed his venerable head upon his knees. When the community came with lights, they found their abbot dying. He received the last, sacraments, and opened his eyes, and raised his right hand in silence, to bless his monks. His hand fell, and he expired, he lay calm, and with the gentle sweetness of a man asleep in a heavenly vision. That very night two holy persons in Ireland beheld Iona enveloped in light; and then miracles began to be done while his body lay in the little church of Iona.

In the ninth century, when pirates ravaged the coasts, the body of the saint was removed to Down, and laid between those of St. Patrick and St. Bridget. The pirates were punished by sudden death. The Norman, Strongbow, died of a wound after destroying the churches of Columba and the saints, and De Lacy perished at Durrow while he built a castle against the monastery.

The Catholic World, Volume 5 (1867), 664-670.

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Sunday 8 June 2014

The Death of Saint Columba

The biographer of St. Columba of Iona, who died in 597, aged seventy-seven, after thirty-four years of missionary work, says that on feeling the hand of death he was, at his own request, carried out of doors in order to visit the working brethren; and then he announced to them his departure, and blessed them and the island and its inhabitants. On the following Saturday he told his friends that that would be the last day of his life. He begged them to take him out, that he might bless the barn, and the crops of corn which were the supplies of their food. On going back to the monastery, the old white pack-horse that used to carry the milk-pails came up to the Saint, laid its head on his bosom and "uttered plaintive cries, like a human being. The attendant began to drive away the beast; but the Saint forbade him, saying: "Let it alone: let it pour out its bitter grief. Lo, thou who hast a rational soul canst know nothing of my departure — only expect what I have just told you; but to this brute beast, devoid of reason, the Creator Himself hath evidently in some way made known that its master is going to leave it." And saying this he blessed the poor work-horse, which turned away from him in sadness. The Saint then ascended a hillock overhanging the monastery, and stood musing and looking round; and said that, small as that place was, it would be held in after-times in great honor by kings and foreign rulers and saints of other churches.

On returning to the monastery, he sat in his cell and transcribed part of the thirty-third psalm. The rest of the night he lay on the bare ground, with a stone for his pillow. He discoursed to the brethren on the blessing of peace, harmony and charity among themselves. When the bell rang at midnight a heavenly light was noticed to surround him, and the brethren knew that his soul was departing; and, after giving them his benediction, he calmly breathed his last. The matin hymns being finished, his sacred body was carried to the church, the brethren chanting psalms; and, being wrapped in fine, clean linen, was buried after three days and nights. A violent storm had been raging all this time, preventing any person, crossing the sound; but after the burial the storm ceased and all was calm.

The Ave Maria, A Catholic Family Magazine Devoted to the Honor of the Blessed Virgin, (Volume 43, 1896), 284.

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Monday 24 March 2014

Saint Patrick and the Irish - an unbroken bond

We conclude this octave of posts in honour of Saint Patrick as we began, with a quotation from Father Robert Mc Nally, S.J.:

The greatest single tribute to this venerable saint, who personally impressed his people to a degree perhaps unequaled by any other national apostle, is the unbroken bond that still unites him to his people. One thousand five hundred years after his death, St. Patrick is still cherished by the Irish both at home and abroad with a reverence scarcely excelled by that given to any other saint of antiquity. Perhaps the ultimate explanation of this firm adhesion of the Irish race to St. Patrick is found in his prayer:

May God never permit it to happen to me that I should lose His people which He purchased in the utmost parts of the world. I pray to God to give me perseverance and to deign that I be a faithful witness to Him to the end of my life for my God.

Robert E. McNally, S.J., 'St. Patrick: 461-1961' in America, March 18, 1961.

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Sunday 23 March 2014

Hymn to Saint Patrick

Last year I reproduced some hymns in honour of Saint Brigid taken from a compilation for children by the (in)famous 'Nun of Kenmare', Mary Frances Cusack. I turned back to this volume to see how Saint Patrick was featured and again found the same mixture of historic sources combined with contemporary compositions. Saint Patrick, however, is much less well-represented in this hymn book than either of our other two national patrons and I found this surprising. For our primary patron is allotted only two hymns, one ancient and the other modern, whereas Saint Brigid has six in her honour and Saint Colum Cille five. In her translation of Saint Sechnall's hymn, Cusack struggled to retain its alphabetical character, but as the text is already available at the blog here, I instead reproduce the contemporary composition. I won't pretend it has any special merit, as with many hymns of the Victorian era there is an emphasis on the Irish as a long-suffering people who cling to their faith in spite of persecution and poverty.  The first verse contains a reference to Ireland's 'martyred hosts' which I can only assume is a reference to those who suffered for the faith during the Reformation and Penal times, for the introduction of Christianity to Ireland was a bloodless affair. Verse three alludes directly to poverty but counsels patience and acceptance on the part of the poor. As with the Hymn to Saint Brigid, in 1868, twenty years after the 'year of revolutions' of 1848,  the then Archbishop of Westminster, Henry Edward Manning, granted an indulgence for the recitation of this Hymn to Saint Patrick. The Church was offering the spirit of the Beatitudes as its prescription for coping with poverty, reminding the reader that it is the meek who will receive their reward in heaven. Indeed, the final verse specifically exhorts the reader to pray for rich men as well as poor and for priests and nuns, sentiments in sharp contrast to those contained in the outlook of contemporary European radicals. Overall, my impression is that this hymn is not concerned with the Saint Patrick of the fifth century but rather with his patronage of Ireland as it was in the author's own day.


St. Patrick, for our country pray, 
Our ever faithful land, 
Whose martyred hosts so gloriously 
Before God's great throne stand; 
Look down upon thy children here,
Look down upon our race, 
And bless, dear Saint, this little isle 
And each one's native place. 

Chorus — From foes without, from fears within. 
From every evil, every sin, 
St. Patrick, set us free. 

Oh, hear us, Patrick, while we pray, 
Thou art our own dear Saint, 
Uphold the weak, protect the young. 
Strengthen the souls that faint; 
Thou know'st how we are tempted still — 
Thou know'st how we are tried — 
Thou know'st that we are faithful too, 
Whatever ills betide. 
Chorus. — From foes without, &c., &c. 

Oh, help our poor in patient love 
To bear their suffering life, 
To think of that great victory 
Which Cometh after strife; 
Keep from them all revengeful thoughts 
Whene'er they suffer wrong- 
The meek alone are crowned in heaven. 
And heaven will come ere long. 

Chorus, — From foes without, &c., &c.  

We are thy children, blessed Saint, 
The children of thy love, 
We know how mighty is thy prayer, 
How it was heard above; 
Pray for us now, for priest and nun. 
For rich men and for poor, 
That to the end, however tried, 
Our faith may still endure. 

 Chorus, — From foes without, &c., &c.* 

 Haily Mary. 

* " We hereby grant an Indulgence of Forty Days to all who shall devoutly recite the Hymn of St Patrick, with one Hail, Mary. 


 "Archbishop of Westminster,  February 20th, l868."

Sister Mary Francis Clare, Cloister Songs and Hymns for Children (London and Dublin, 1881), 154-155.

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Saturday 22 March 2014

To Saint Patrick - a prayer from Connacht

We continue the octave of posts in honour of Saint Patrick with the text and translation of a prayer collected in the west of Ireland by Douglas Hyde:

Do Naomh Pádraig

A Pádraig atá i bParthas Mhic Dé gan locht,
A bheir sláinte le do ghrásta
Do'n té a bhíos bocht,
Tháinig mé ann do láthair-se
A's mé lag gan lúth,
Tabhair árus dom i bParthas
'n áit a bhfeicfidh mé thú.


 Patrick in the Paradise of God on high, 
 Who lookest on the poor man 
 With a gracious eye. 

 See me come before thee 
 Who am weak and bare, 
 O help me into Paradise 
 To find thee there. [1]

[1] Literally. Patrick who art in the Paradise | Of the Son of God without fault | Who givest help with thy grace | Unto him who is poor | I have come into thy presence | And I weak without activity | Give me a dwelling in Paradise | Where I shall see thee.

Douglas Hyde, ed. and trans., The Religious Songs of Connacht: A Collection of Poems, Stories, Prayers, Satires, Ranns, Charms, etc., Volume II, (Dublin and London, 1906), 228-229. 

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Friday 21 March 2014

Saint Patrick and the Miraculous Yield of Milk

Alongside the scholarly works about Saint Patrick and the devotional items published in the Victorian religious press, our national apostle also flourished in popular tradition. I'm currently reading an anthology of folklore, translated from a collection first published in Irish in 1952. The tales have a distinctly religious flavour and so the three patron saints of Ireland are well represented. I was interested by the following episode featuring Saint Patrick, as miracles involving milk are more usually Saint Brigid's domain. This one was collected in County Mayo and as the notes remind us, 'A common theme in folktales is an abundance of food being given to a poor household after a visit from a saintly person'. Particularly enjoyable is the obvious anachronism of the men sowing potatoes, centuries before this crop was introduced to Europe:

70. The Miraculous Yield of Milk

At the time Saint Patrick was going around working miracles, he came in to an old woman on a fine spring day. The old woman was very good-hearted. He asked her for something to drink and she said she had very little, that the cow was nearly dry but whatever drop she had she'd give him, and welcome. She told the servant-girl to go out and milk the cow for whatever drop she might have; and she was taking a small vessel with her.

'Bring a fine big vessel with you', said Saint Patrick.

She was very surprised at that, but she brought a can with her and the girl didn't leave the cowshed until she had filled the can from the cow. There were three or four men working there, sowing potatoes, and she called them in so that they could drink their fill of milk, more than they ever drank from a single cow in their lives before. And they were very pleased with the amount they got to drink.

Before that time, cows never gave more than the full of their horns of milk.

Seán Ó Súilleabháin, editor, Miraculous Plenty- Irish Religious Folktales and Legends, (Dublin, 2012), 166-167.

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Thursday 20 March 2014

'A Living Holocaust to the Almighty' - the Ascetical Regime of Saint Patrick

We continue the Octave of posts in honour of Saint Patrick with this account of his ascetical practices from Volume III of Canon O'Hanlon's Lives of the Irish Saints:

The course which the saint held in his devotion, as it was most admirable, so did he continue it daily, without any intermission. Every day was he wont to recite devoutly the whole Psalter, with Canticles, Hymns and St. John's Revelation; besides these, he offered two hundred other prayers. Three hundred times in the day, with genuflections, did he prostrate himself in prayer and adoration, before God; and, in singing the canonical hours, he was accustomed to bless himself a hundred times, with a sign of the Cross. Moreover, it was his custom every day to celebrate Mass, with great devotion and reverence ; neither did he omit to preach constantly to the people, nor to teach his disciples. The night-time, which he divided into three parts, was spent in a most holy and austere manner. The first part of it he employed, in reciting twice fifty Psalms, and in making two hundred genuflections ; the second part, he passed immersed in cold water, his heart, eyes and hands being directed towards Heaven, while saying the third quinquagenary of Psalms, with other prayers. The third part, he allotted to his sleep, having for his bed a bare stone, with another stone serving for a pillow. He scarcely allowed himself any rest, and he preferred, for the sake of mortification, such an uncomfortable posture. His loins were girt with a rough and coarse hair-cloth, steeped in cold water, to keep his body in due subjection, lest it should rebel against the spirit. His fasts were frequent  and long continued, while he lived on the coarsest food, and offered himself, as a living holocaust, to the Almighty. Moreover, he remained, from Shrovetide until Easter without food.

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Wednesday 19 March 2014

The Soul of Saint Patrick

Below is the text of a late nineteenth-century article on Saint Patrick, one of many to appear in the popular Catholic press of the Victorian era. This one is interesting, however, because it concentrates on the actual writings of Saint Patrick. As was pointed out in an earlier post here, it was only in the nineteenth century that Saint Patrick's letters appeared in English translation and became accessible to the general reader. The anonymous author used the poetic translation of the Belfast-born antiquary Sir Samuel Ferguson (1810-1886). Towards the end of the article he alludes to the notion of the Irish as an especially chaste people, something we owe to the teaching of our national apostle. It's all a far cry from the row over gay and lesbian participation in the big Saint Patrick's Day parades in the US this year!


The soul from Patrick's body toil-worn at last departed,
God's angels all the night sang round it unceasing.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Together they ascended to Jesus, the Son of Mary.

Hymn of Fiacc.

NOTHING so builds up the interior man as coming in contact with the soul of a Saint. Men change through the different ages. The manners of the time of St. Patrick would seem to us as grotesque as his language would be difficult. But souls are always much the same, with capacity for love and sorrow, for desires lofty as the heavens and low as the nethermost earth.

Fortunately something has remained to us of St. Patrick which lays bare the working and aspiration of his soul. Concerning the dates and events of his life there has been much dispute among the learned. But all have agreed that the two curious documents called the Confession and the Epistle to Coroticus are his genuine productions. [1] They resemble each other too much not to be from the same hand. Full of sympathy and as poetic as they are mystical, the one in its earnest humility and the other in its still more earnest remonstrance against wrong done to Christian souls, they lay open to us the inmost heart of the Saint. We say "heart," because it is not merely the workings of his mind that are set down before us, but the sincere affections of the soul. All this is done with constant reference to the religious ideas which impelled him along his difficult way of life.

The thought which seems to have impressed most deeply the soul of the Saint is that he has been guided to his present life by the Spirit of God. He comes back again and again on this thought as did St. Paul. "It is not I, but the Spirit of God that worketh in me."

Thus he says of himself to Coroticus, who was doing a great wrong to Christian converts:

Not for mine own delight: 'twas God that stirred
That strong solicitude within my heart,
That, of the hunters and the fishermen
Whom He aforetime for these latter days
Had pre-appointed, I too should be one.

And he gives as the reason of writing his Confession that it is only a fit return for the favors bestowed on him by God.

. . . And therefore now
I will not hide, nor could I, were it fit
To hide, such boons, such graces, as my Lord
Has deigned me here in my captivity.
And this my poor return: that having attained
The touch and apprehension of my God,
I should with high exalted heart, in face
Of all that lives below all skies, confess
That other God nor was, nor is nor shall be :
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
One God in Trinity of Holy name.

This thought overrules him. Telling of God's Providence which has led him step by step to his high calling, he lets drop precious details of his own history. In this leading of Providence he sees the clear reason and justification of his desertion of his own race. This he boldly brings up to Coroticus, who seems to have been an only half-Christianized kinglet inclined for his own selfish purposes to leave his Christian brethren a prey to the pagan Picts and Scots.

What! Was it then without God's promises
Or in the body only that I came
To Ireland? Who compelled me? Who me bound
In spirit that I should no more behold
Kindred or early friend ? Whence came the sense
Inspiring me with pity for the race
That once were mine own captors? I was born
Noble; my father a Decurio;
That privilege of birth I have exchanged
(I blush not for it, and I grudge it not)
For benefit of others, bartered so
In Christ and given over to a race
Extern to mine, all for the glorious hope
Ineffable of that perennial life
Which is in Jesus Christ, our Lord.

He speaks of the sorrows of his early captivity, after he was carried away to Ireland as a slave, with patience and thanksgiving; for by this way of sorrows he has been led to his present calling wherein he has been able to do something for his Lord.

. . . Before my happy humbling came,
I was as is a stone that, in deep mire,
Lies on the highway: and He came, Who can,
And in His pity thence did lift me up
And set me on the wall-top. ...
. . . Not, indeed, that I
Was worthy that my Lord His servant poor
Should so far favor, after all the toils,
The hardships heavy, and the captive years
Borne 'mongst this people; should bestow such grace
As till I came to Ireland I nor knew
Nor ever hoped.

He looks back over the commonplace unending toil of those youthful days, no longer with a sense of their wretchedness, but with thankful heart because of what God then wrought in him.

. . Herding daily here,
And often in the day saying my prayers,
Daily there more and more did grow in me
The fear of God. And holy fear and faith
Increased in me, that in a single day
I've said as many as a hundred prayers,
And in the night scarce fewer ; so that oft
In woods and on the mountain I've remained,
And risen to prayer before daylight, through snow,
Through frost, through rain, and yet I took no ill,
Nor was there in me then aught slow as now,
For then the Spirit of God within me burned.

It is touching to note the humility of the Saint who, at the very end of his glorious career, counts himself as slow in comparison with the devotion of the days when he was a boy, a wretched slave -

For then the Spirit of God within me burned.

The special call which came to him from the Divine Voice, after he had escaped from slavery and returned once more to his family and the comforts of a Roman military post, resembles not a little the voice which came by day and night to Saint Paul - Come over to Macedonia and help us. The calling of St. Patrick has been told a thousand times, but never more impressively than in his own simple words :

. . . I found myself at home
Amongst the Britons with my family,
Who all received me as they might a son,
And earnestly besought me that at length,
After these many perils I had borne,
I never more would leave them. It was there
In a night vision I beheld a man
Coming as 'twere from Ireland. Victor he.
Innumerable letters bore he : one
He gave to me to read. I read one line,
"The voices of the Irish," so it ran.
And while I read, methought I heard the cry
Of them that by the wood of Focluth dwell,
Beside the Western Ocean, saying thus,
"Come, holy youth, and walk amongst us, come!"
All with one voice. It touched me to the heart,
And I could read no more; and so awoke
Thank God at last Who, after many years,
Has given to them according to their cry !

Whenever he speaks with authority, it is always as one who has this authority from the vocation God has given to him. Thus he begins to Coroticus :

I, Patrick - I, a sinner and unlearned,
Here in Hibernia constituted Bishop,
Believe most surely that it is from God
I hold commission to be that I am,
A proselyte and pilgrim, for His love,
Here amongst savage peoples. He Who knows
All things, knows also if this be not so.

This special call seems to have been borne in upon his soul by something of that high divine action which was used in the case of St. Paul. " I will show unto him what great things he must suffer for My name's sake." The story of the voices of the Irish calling to him in his sleep is paralleled, in later times, in the life of the great Apostle of the Indies, St. Francis Xavier. In his life we read that, whilst at the University of Paris, dreaming of the literary distinction to which his family and his undoubted talent entitled him, in sleep he bore with toil and suffering an Indian upon his shoulders over rock and torrent. As is probably the case with all the supernatural vocations which somehow transcend the ordinary call to help in the saving of souls, a special grace of God seems to have wrought a peculiar union between the destined Apostle and his Master Christ. St. Patrick is everywhere conscious of this grace; and he gives us details from his own life as wonderful as those we read in the writings of the most mystical Saints. It will be noticed, too, that his uncertainty concerning the definite manner of such wonderful action of the Divinity on his soul is quite like that of St. Paul who, when carried to the third heaven, knew not "whether he were in the body or out of the body."

And, on another night, I know not, I,
God knows, if 'twas within me or without,
One prayed with words exceeding exquisite
I could not understand, till, at the close,
He spoke in this wise "He Who gave His soul
For thee is He "Who speaks." I woke with joy.
And once I saw Him praying, as it were
Within me, and I saw myself as though
Within myself, and over me, that is
Over the inner man, I heard Him pray
Strongly with urgent groans, myself the while
Amazed, and wondering who should pray in me,
Till, at the very ending of His prayer,
He showed, a Bishop. I awoke and called
To memory what His Apostle says :
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
"The Lord our Advocate doth plead for us."

This conscious indwelling of his Master Christ in the depths of his soul sustained him through many trials. Doubtless the personal love of Jesus Christ is necessary to the most ordinary practice of the Christian faith. The martyrs, as has often been said, did not die for any ideal truth, but for a Person in Whom they believed and hoped and Whom they loved more than life itself.

In the career of St. Patrick a peculiarly bitter trial seems to have come upon him, concerning which he says:

. . . Some certain of my seniors came
Against my toilsome, hard Episcopate,
And made impeachment of me for my sins.
In that day truly I was tempted sore
To fall both now and everlastingly
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
They found me, after thirty years,
To charge me with one word I had confessed
Before I was a deacon. In my grief
And pain of mind I to my dearest friend
Told what I in my boyhood, in one day,
Yea, in one hour had done: because as yet
I had not strength : I know not, Heaven knows,
If, at that time, I yet had fifteen years.

With the strange contrition which great Saints by reason of their completer light conceive concerning the slight or few sins of their youth, St. Patrick goes on humbly to attribute the sufferings of his slavery to this sin, whatever it may have been. Then, with a surprising burst of faith, he beholds the road from sin through chastisement to his present glorious calling:

I had not yet believed the living God
Even from my childhood; but remained in death
And unbelief till sore chastised I was
By hunger, nakedness, and enforced toil
Daily in Ireland - for I came not here
Self-sent until, indeed, I almost sank.
Yet these were rather boons to me, because,
So chastened by the Lord, I now am made
What once was far from me, that I should care
Or labor for the weal of others, I
Who then took no thought even for myself.

It is probable that those he calls his " seniors " did not take quite the same view of the case. Even estimable men may be lacking in the discretion of spirits, which is after all a free gift of the Holy Ghost ; and they may unconsciously be swayed by natural feelings of jealousy which prompt them to exaggerate the least fault in men who are most nearly faultless. St. Teresa quaintly remarks that if the members of your community once get the idea you are a Saint, they will expect such great things from you that in the end they will make you a martyr. But in the midst of his trouble St. Patrick felt again, and in a new manner, the abiding presence of his Master with him.

On that same day when these my elder ones
Rebuked me, in a vision of the night,
I saw a script against me, and no name
Of honor written; and the while I heard
That voice within make answer, "We are here
Ill-styled by men, stripped bare of dignity."
It was not "Thou art here ill-styled", it said,
But "We," as if the Speaker joined Himself
Incorporately with me, and the voice
Were His Who once said, Whoso toucheth thee,
Toucheth as ''twere the apple of Mine eye.

This sense of his union with Christ in working for the Irish people crops out constantly.

. . . With fear and reverence
Faithful in heart and uncomplainingly
I serve this people, to whom the charity
Of Christ assigns me, for my rest of life,
If I be worthy; that, with humble heart,
And truthful lips, I teach it, in the faith
And measure of the Holy Trinity.

With the faith of the Holy Trinity St. Patrick's mission began and ended; and the same may be said of the faithful people he left behind him.

A last thought, to show how his spirit has remained among the Christians he formed, may be taken from the Confession. In the midst of their wretchedness and poverty and forced ignorance, the Irish people have become known throughout the world for the love and practice of purity. How beautiful is the chaste generation in glory. This, too, is the great ideal of St. Patrick for his people.

Now the Irish, who in former days
Had but their idols and their rites unclean,
Nor aught knew of the Lord, have late become
The Lord's own people. And the sons of Scots
And daughters of their kings, now sons of God
Are counted, and vowed handmaidens of Christ.
And one bless'd Scotic lady nobly born,
A most fair person whom myself baptized,
Came soon thereafter making her report
Of intimation by a messenger,
Sent her from God, with His admonishment,
That virgin she should live and nearer Him.

The violation of this high ideal by Coroticus, who had exposed the Christian flock to the lawless violence of the pagans, is the burden of St. Patrick's complaint.

Lord, ravening wolves have eaten up Thy flock,
Which here in Ireland had such fair increase,
Sons of the Scots and daughters of the kings,
Now holy monks and handmaidens of Christ,
So many, past my counting.
And he reproaches the faithless chieftain:

Thou slayest and sellest into extern lands
Which know not God, my Christians, and dost cast
Christ's baptized virgin members into shame.
What hope canst thou, so acting, have in God?

This was the last message of holy love for God and man of him who described himself, humbly

A proselyte and pilgrim for His love
Here amongst savage peoples.

[1] The recent translation of Sir Samuel Ferguson, in his posthumous work The Remains of St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, is here followed with slight modifications.

THE MESSENGER VOL.VI (xxvi), 1891 184-191.

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