Monday, 19 February 2018

How Saint Odhrán saved Saint Patrick's Life

February 19 is the feast of Saint Odhrán (Odran, Odhran, Oran) whom tradition records as the faithful chariot driver to Saint Patrick. The vignette below recounts how he was faithful to his saintly master until the end:


St. Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland, was taken captive in his youth by King Niall, in one of his raids into Gaul. He served seven years in bondage as a swineherd, with Milcho, a chief who lived in the County Antrim. Having escaped to Gaul, he had a vision in which he heard the voice of the Irish crying out: "We entreat thee, holy youth, to come and walk still among us". Patrick was deeply affected by this vision, and he was subsequently commissioned, to his great joy, by Pope Celestine, to bear the faith of Christ to the pagan Irish. His mission was miraculously successful. He won the entire nation to the doctrines of Christ without a drop of blood having been shed through persecution, a fact unexampled in the history of Christianity.

But there was one martyr during his mission. A certain idolater named Failge, a great adversary of Christ, resolved to kill the saint, who had destroyed the idols to which he was bound. Odran, Patrick's driver or charioteer, having discovered the danger, requested his master to change places with him in the chariot, pretending that he was greatly fatigued. The saint, always happy to exercise his humility, gladly acquiesced. Ere long they arrived at the spot where the assassin lay in ambush, and as they were passing, the wretch rushed forward, and mistaking the driver for the servant, pierced Odran with a spear. The saint now understood Odran's motive, and his grief was great over his pious and devoted disciple. The vengeance of God fell on the murderer, for he died on the same day. St. Odran is ''the only Irish martyr on record that suffered in Ireland by the hands of an Irishman."

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Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Birth and Baptism of Saint Mogue


Saint Killian, on a day of the days missed his oxen which he pastured at Fenagh in Cavan, and set off in quest of them. He came up with them on the edge of Templeport lake, standing without a stir, and looking steadfastly at the island which lay in the middle of the sheet of water. The ferryman's house was near the spot, and he asked the wife if anything remarkable had happened in the island during the night. She said that a strange woman had got herself ferried across to it, and had been delivered of a fine man child. Moreover the bedpost which she had grasped in her pains had sent roots into the ground; and from its top had sprung branches in full leaf and flower, and gone through the roof. "Where's your husband and the boat?" said the saint. "At the farther side of the lake," said she. "Bring out something, on which you may go across to the island for the infant, that I may baptise him." "There is nothing on which I could sit or stand but the hearthstone, and sure that would not do." "Well, try it." "But sure I couldn't lift it." "Make the attempt." She did so, and the flag was no heavier than a thin dry board. The saint placed it on the water, bade the woman get on it, and spread out her shawl to catch the breeze. She obeyed, and had a delightful sail to the island.

There she received the child from Eithne its mother, brought it to the saint, and he baptised it by the name of Mogue. The woman then re-conveyed it to the island to its mother, and in time he became a priest, spent some time with St. David in Wales, and during the later years of his life governed the Bishopric of Ferns in Wexford. The miraculous hearthstone afterwards conveyed many a corpse to its place of interment in the island.

Patrick Kennedy, The Fireside Stories of Ireland, (Dublin, 1870), 127-128.

Note: For a full account of the life of Saint Mogue see a paper by Bishop P.F. Moran here.

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Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Saint Iarlaithe of Tuam, December 26

December 26 is one of the feasts of a great saint of the west - Iarlaithe (Jarlath) of Tuam. The Martyrology of Donegal makes mention of his reputation for ascetic spiritual practices as well as for prophecy. The entry ends with an intriguing reference to 'three heretical bishops':

IARLAITHE, Bishop, of Tuaim-da-Ualann, in Connacht. He was of the race of Conmac, son of Fergus, son of Ross, son of Rudhraighe, from whom the Clanna-Rudhraighe are called; and Mongfinn, daughter of Ciordubhan, of the Cinel Cinnenn, was his mother. He used to perform three hundred genuflexions every night, and three hundred genuflexions every day, as Cuimin, of Coindeire, states. Thus he says :

" The noble Iarlaithe loves,
A cleric who practised not penury,
Three hundred genuflexions each night,
Three hundred genuflexions each day."

It was Iarlaithe that predicted every bishop that would come after him at Tuaim. And he predicted that Mael would come after the three heretical bishops who were in his city, &c. This is the quatrain which speaks of the Mael, viz. : 
"The Mael the first powerful man."
Below is an account of his life from an Anglican diocesan historian:

Iarlaithe son of Loga was of the Conmaicne amongst whom he worked and lived. His mother was Mongfinn daughter of Ciarduban of the family of Ceneann a clan of the Conmaicne. It is supposed that his father lived near Tuam. Benen son of Lugni educated and ordained him. Like other great missionary saints he was under Enda for a time. His first establishment was at Cloonfush near Tuam, where he formed a monastery about A.D. 500. His removal to Tuaim Da Gualann is said to have been made by Brendan's advice. Exposition of the Scriptures was the strong point of his school. He seems to have dealt especially with the countries of the Sodans and the Corcamoga which lay close to Tuam. Clergy came from all parts to work under him. Considering that the great work of Brendan's life was the establishment of monasteries at Annaghdown and at Clonfert, and that these seem to have been the earliest and were certainly the most important ecclesiastical centres in early times, it may be said that those parts of the county of Galway were evangelised and taught from St. Iarlath's school.

He died in his 81st year, on the 26th December or 11th February, the year unknown; Colgan thought it was not long before A.D. 540. The 6th June his festival day must have been the date of the translation of his relics, when long after his death his bones were taken up and enshrined. They were kept in the Church of the Shrine at Tuam, adjoining the Cathedral Church. It has now disappeared, but in the 16th century the Tempull na Scrine was the parish church for the eastern part of the present parish of Tuam. The western part was the parish of Tuam, having Tempull Iarlaithe as its church.

The countries of the Conmaicne Cinel Dubain and of the Sodhans and of the Corcamogha may be taken as the foundation of the diocese of Tuam, to which the Deanery of Athenry was added in later times, with many other tracts. The names of Benen and Iarlaithe alone stand out in this tract of country. Those of their fellow-workers have not survived, nor are any events of importance recorded regarding the period subsequent to them for a couple of hundred years, and then only a few names.

H.T. Knox, Notes on the Early History of the Dioceses of Tuam Killala and Achonry (Dublin, 1904), 63.

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Thursday, 21 December 2017

Saint Columbanus and The First Christmas Tree

Henry van Dyke, The First Christmas Tree (1897)

I was somewhat amused to find the following article from a 1913 Australian newspaper attributing the origins of the Christmas tree to our own Saint Columbanus and his missionary labours among the Germanic peoples of early seventh-century Europe. Now I have certainly heard that the Christmas tree was introduced to these islands from Germany, but in the nineteenth century by Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The writer below, however, confidently asserts that 'careful research' disproves a Germanic origin for the Christmas tree and that its origin is traced to an Irishman - Saint Columbanus. That may come as news to the English who claim that their own great missionary saint among the Germanic tribes, Saint Boniface, holds the honours. I have to admit that it comes as news to me too,  I doubt very much that any individual can claim to be the originator of the Christmas tree or that its origins can be traced in an unbroken line back to pre-Christian practices. I suspect Saint Columbanus might just say 'Bah, humbug!'.



Familiar us is the Christmas tree to us, and as dearly-beloved as it is to the people of the civilised world, it is surprising how very few there are who know of its origin, or its introduction into the celebration of the most beautiful and impressive festival of the year, legends there are in plenty, but few of them seem founded upon a basis of fact. Most of them, have been handed down - with the customary "warping from the original story"- from generation to generation. The use of the fir tree in the celebration of Christmas is usually believed to have originated in Germany. Careful research proves this to have been a fallacy. As are so many of the ancient customs and institutions, its origin as a Christmas adjunct is traced to an Irishman.

It was Saint Columbanus, who engaged in converting the pagans of Germany and Switzerland to Christianity, found them so firmly impressed with the sacredness of trees -especially the fir- that he conceived the idea of endowing them with an illustrative Christian meaning. To these people, the tree was an object of worship from which no amount of reasoning would convert them, and because of this, Saint Columbanus and his fellow missionaries found it an especially favourable symbol for their use.

As far back as the seventh century the fir tree, because of its evergreen verdure, was known in Christmas [Christian?] writings and pictures as a symbol of eternal life, while a legend, dating from the same period, represents an old man bearing a lighted tree, who entered every home at Christmas time and granted a single wish to each of the inmates.  The evolution of this beneficent old personage with his beautiful fir into our own Santa Claus and his gift-laden tree is easily traced.

THE CHRISTMAS TREE. (1913, December 24). Northern Star (Lismore, NSW: 1876 - 1954), p. 10. Retrieved December 20, 2017, from

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Monday, 18 December 2017

Saint Adamnan of Iona and the Genealogy of Christ

St Matthew from the Book of Durrow
J.O. Westwood (1868)

As we approach the feast of Christmas we will be hearing the genealogy of Christ among the readings for the season. This is an aspect of the scriptures which scholar Thomas O'Loughlin has discussed in his book 'Journeys on the Edges - The Celtic Tradition' (part of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series). In the excerpt below, he examines how the great abbot of Iona and biographer of St Colum Cille, Adomnan, would, unlike people today, have found this type of information compelling and of genuine interest:

'Today when we hear scriptural passages in the liturgy, either about the tribal wars in Kings or any of the descriptions of tombs in which a patriarch was buried - or worse when we hear any of the genealogical passages - we may become exasperated that 'such stuff' is greeted as the Word of God. But to Adomnan these were among the parts of the Scriptures that spoke most directly to him and his people. He knew tribal warfare at first hand - it was endemic in his society and he expended much effort in trying to mitigate its suffering. And, just as the scriptural writers assumed that God took sides in this so that 'his people' either triumphed or were punished for their sins by defeat, he assumed that God could take sides and manifest his will in these matters. Conscious that he was Irish and a member of a family that could be related to a common ancestor, all the genealogical material in Scripture was inherently interesting to Adomnan. He knew himself as a member of the Cenel Conaill - the ruling family in the northern part of Ireland - which was also the family of Columba and the five other abbots before him, and we can still construct his family tree! His own culture shared many of the values of those who originally compiled that material, and just as biblical writers created genealogies to forge alliances between groups, so Adomnan looked to those lists of ancestors to find his people's relationships to the rest of humanity. By tracing an ancestry back to the Flood the Irish became part of the whole history of God's providence, and then it was simply a matter of location that they were among the last peoples to hear the gospel.'

(Thomas O'Loughlin, Journeys on the Edges (London, 2000), 52-53.

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Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The Scholars of Clonard: A poem of Sedulius Scottus

Below is the translation of a poem on the Scholars of Clonard attributed to the prolific ninth-century Irish poet, Sedulius Scottus. Sedulius made his career abroad in the courts of continental Europe, but like all good Irishmen, he never forgot where he came from. In this poem he pays tribute to the tradition of learning established at the monastic school of Clonard and to three of its scholars in particular - Vinnau/Finnian the sixth-century founder, Ailerán the Wise, a seventh-century scholar and Fergus, a scholar of the ninth century who also features in some of the author's other poems.

Look on the marble columns surpassing the stars,
which the sand of the saint-bearing land supports here
happy, famous Ailerán, Vinnau, Fergus,
shining lights made by gift-carrying God.
O He sent a great present of Scotia [i.e.Ireland],
rich relics which Pictonia [i.e. Poitiers] wishes to be its own,
whence comes Titan and where night established the stars
and where midday is hot with blazing hours
[i.e. the east and the west and the south].

David Howlett, ed. and trans., The Celtic Latin Tradition of Biblical Style (Dublin, 1995), 129.

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Friday, 8 December 2017

The Hymn of Saint Cuchumneus in Praise of the Blessed Virgin

Below is a hymn in honour of the Mother of God attributed to Saint Cuchumneus (Cuchuimne), whose repose is recorded in the Irish Annals in the 740s. Hymns like this gave a certain measure of discomfort to the 19th-century Protestant scholars who translated the Irish Liber Hymnorum as they were convinced that the 'Celtic Church' shared their own 'reformed' outlook. It was to counter such views that Catholic scholars of the period presented their own image of the Irish church as essentially Catholic, a viewpoint with no more doughty a champion than Patrick Francis, Cardinal Moran. In an essay on Devotion to the Blessed Virgin he published the text of this hymn and a translation in the style of the hymnography of his own times. There have since been other and better translations and perhaps I can publish one of these on another occasion. For now, here is both the Latin original and the translation of the hymn Cantemus in omni die from Dr Moran's collection of essays on the early Irish church:

St. Cuchumneus, a contemporary of Adamnan, towards the close of the sixth century, composed a Latin hymn in honour of the Mother of God, which soon became celebrated, and had a place assigned to it amongst the liturgical hymns of our Church. The German hymnologist, Mone, discovered three MSS. of this hymn, one belonging to the ninth, the others to the eighth century. Colgan, too, had an ancient copy of it in his possession, and it is also contained in the celebrated Liber Hymnorum, from which we now present it to the reader:

Hymnus S. Cuchumnei in laudem B. Virginis.

1. "Cantemus in omni die concinentes varie,
Conclamantes Deo dignum hymnum sanctae Mariae.

2. “Bis per chorum hinc et inde collaudamus Mariam,
Ut vox pulset omnem aurem per laudem vicariam.

3. "Maria de tribu Juda, summi mater Domini,
Opportunam dedit curam aegrotanti homini.

4. "Gabriel advexit verbum sinu Patris paterno,
Quod conceptum et susceptum in utero materno.

5. "Haec est summa, haec est sancta, virgo venerabilis,
Quae ex fide non lecessit sed extitit stabilis.

6. "Huic matri nec inventa ante nec post similis
Nec de prole fuit plane humanae originis.

7. "Per mulierem et lignum mundus prius periit,
Per mulieris virtutem, ad salutem rediit.

8. "Maria mater miranda patrem suum edidit,
Per quem aqua late lotus totus mundus credidit.

9. "Haec concepit margaritam, non sunt vana somnia,
Pro qua sane Christiani vendunt sua omnia.

10. "Tunicam per totum textam Christo mater fecerat,
Quae peracta Christi morte, sorte statim steterat.

11. "Induamus arma lucis loricam et galeam,
Ut simus Deo perfecti, suscepti per Mariana.

12. "Amen, amen, adjuramus merita puerperae,
Ut non possit flamma pyrae nos dirae decerpere.

13. "Christi nomen invocemus angelis sub testibus,
Ut fruamur et scribamur litteris coelestibus.

"Cantemus in omni", etc.


Hymn of Saint Cuchumneus

1. "In alternate measure chanting, daily sing we Mary's praise,
And, in strains of glad rejoicing, to the Lord our voices raise.

2. "With a two-fold choir repeating Mary's never dying fame,
Let each ear the praises gather, which our grateful tongues proclaim.

3. "Judah's ever-glorious daughter chosen mother of the Lord-
Who, to weak and fallen manhood all its ancient worth restored.

4. "From the everlasting Father, Gabriel brought the glad decree,
That, the Word Divine conceiving, she should set poor sinners free.

5. "Of all virgins pure, the purest ever stainless, ever bright
Still from grace to grace advancing fairest daughter of the light.

6. "Wondrous title who shall tell it? whilst the Word divine she bore,
Though in mother's name rejoicing, virgin purer than before!

7. "By a woman's disobedience, eating the forbidden tree,
Was the world betray 'd and ruin'd was by woman's aid set free.

8. "In mysterious mode a mother, Mary did her God conceive,
By whose grace, through saving waters, man did heav'nly truth receive.

9. "By no empty dreams deluded, for the pearl which Mary bore,
Men, all earthly wealth resigning, still are rich for evermore.

10. " For her Son a seamless tunic Mary's careful hand did weave;
O'er that tunic fiercely gambling, sinners Mary's heart did grieve.

11. "Clad in helmet of salvation clad in breast-plate shining bright
May the hand of Mary guide us to the realms of endless light.

12. "Amen, amen, loudly cry we may she, when the fight is won,
O'er avenging fires triumphing, lead us safely to her Son.

13. " Holy angels gathering round us, lo, His saving name we greet,
Writ in books of life eternal, may we still that name repeat!

" In alternate measure chanting", etc.

[We are indebted for this translation to the kindness of Rev. Mr. Potter, All Hallows' College.]

…. Each strophe of the above hymn of St. Cuchumneus proclaims some prerogative of the holy Virgin. She is "the Mother of the great Lord," "the greatest, the holy venerable Virgin;" "none, throughout all time, is found like unto her," … She it is that gives a healing remedy for the wounds of man; and as the world was once ruined by Eve and the forbidden tree, so through the virtue of this new Eve is it restored to the blessings of Heaven. Hers it was to weave the seamless garment of Christ, emblem of the Church's unity; - and hers is it now to present us to God, and protect us from all the attacks of the evil one.

Rev. Dr. P. F. Moran, Essays on the Origin, Doctrines and Discipline of the Early Irish Church, (Dublin, 1864), 225-228.

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