Saturday, 11 November 2017

Holiday Customs in Ireland: Saint Martin's Day

November 11 is the feast of Saint Martin of Tours,  a saint much venerated in the Early Irish Church. I have previously given a summary of this devotion here, and now we can turn to having a look at some of the rather strange 'bloodletting' customs associated with the feast, in an extract from an 1889 paper on holiday customs in Ireland. As the author says, Irish practices are but part of a European-wide tradition, living in a city I have no personal experience of any of what he describes but it is certainly interesting. There appear to be two central parts to what takes place, one being the sacrifice of blood and the other being a taboo on wheels or anything else being allowed to turn on this day. Curiously, there is an attempt to suggest that Saint Martin was a miller or that he was a martyr, broken on the wheel à la Saint Catherine of Alexandria, to explain this taboo. Hagiography, however, does not depict Saint Martin as either a miller or a martyr but rather as a Roman soldier who sacrificed his cloak to help a beggarman, only to find that he was helping Christ.

The Holiday Customs of Ireland. 
By James Mooney.
(Read before the American Philosophical Society, May 3, 1889.)


We come now to Saint Martin's day, a festival which for some reason seems to be connected with animal sacrifice throughout Christian Europe. Among the ancient Greeks, this day was the beginning of the Vinalia or feast of Bacchus, which lasted four days and was a season of public carousing, being considered the time for trying the new wine, but there is no mention of sacrifices. In modern Europe also it is-or was-a time for testing the new wine and for feasting, drinking and public sports, but, in addition to this, we find among all the northern nations traces of sacrifice, which may have come down from the old Teutonic and Keltic religions. With the more practical moderns, this rite has generally degenerated into a simple provision of the winter's meat. On the continent, the animal commonly selected to die on this occasion is a goose, a preference for which the Norse assign a legendary reason. In England, the goose is killed on Saint Michael's day, September 29, while Saint Martin's day is considered about the proper time to kill beef and hogs for winter, whence it comes that a beef is called a marten in the north of England. In Gaelic Ireland, a beef cow is called a márt (marth). In England, it is said that on this night water is changed to wine, a belief transferred in Ireland to Twelfth-night, while in both countries it is held that on this day "No beam doth swinge, nor wheel go round."

Saint Martin, who has been styled the second apostle of France, came of a noble family in Pannonia, now included under the government of Hungary. By his father, he was designated for the military profession, but this life was distasteful to him, and he became a religieux, being finally appointed bishop of Tours. He died, surrounded by his clerical companions, about the year 397. In the history of his life, even as related in Butler's "Lives of the Saints," a work which deals largely in the marvelous, we find nothing to account for the strange legends and practices connected with his name, and the conclusion seems irresistible that these belong proper connected earlier pagan god or hero. Can it be that under the name of Saint Martin, the modern peasant is honoring Mars, the ancient god of war? The bloody rites which so distinguish this day from all others might well bear out such an assumption.

In Ireland, the poorer people sacrifice a goose or a rooster, while the wealthier farmers and graziers offer a sheep. When a rooster is to be the victim an effort is made to procure a black one, and in some districts it must be a coilleach Martain, or March cock, i. e., one hatched in March from an egg laid in the same month. Strangely enough, a rooster is never sacrificed in some parts of Kerry, where the people dislike to kill one under any circumstances. The doomed animal is previously "named for Saint Martin," that is, dedicated for a sacrifice in his honor on Saint Martin's day, and the vow is sealed by "drawing blood" from it. In the case of a sheep, this is done by cutting a piece from its ear. A weakly sheep is sometimes thus consecrated, and so well tended in consequence that it may become the best in the flock, but no money would tempt the owner to sell it for any other purpose, although there is no objection to selling the wool. The animal is killed on the day preceding the festival, and the flesh is eaten on Saint Martin's and succeeding days until consumed, a portion being also given to the poor in honor of the saint. The chief object in killing the animal is not to feast upon its flesh, but to "draw blood" for the saint, and it is believed that if any fail to draw blood for Saint Martin, he will draw blood from them.

In illustration of this belief, there is a story told in Connemara to the effect that a man once named a sheep for Saint Martin, but as the day approached the animal was in such fine condition that his avaricious wife was constantly urging him to sell it instead. Afraid to break his vow, and equally unwilling to incur his wife's displeasure, he secretly killed a fowl and smeared the bed with the blood. Then getting into bed and covering himself up as if sick, he persuaded the woman that the saint was drawing blood from him in punishment of the contemplated impiety, until such fear seized her heart that she was as anxious as himself to see the sheep killed.

In Kerry, they tell a story of a man who had been always mindful to draw blood for Saint Martin, but who, for some reason, was at last banished from his native land. One night, in his new home, he was going along a road all alone when he suddenly rememberd that it was Saint Martin's eve, and there came over him a feeling of deep regret that he could not be at home to draw blood on the occasion. At that moment a horseman rode up from behind and inquired where he was going. On being told, the stranger said that he was going the same way and invited the man to ride behind him on the horse. He consented and mounted behind the other.  Soon the night grew so dark that he could not distinguish objects about him, until, at last, the stranger set him down at the end of his journey, and, sure, where did he find himself but at his own door at home in Ireland. "It was supposed from this," added the old man who told the story, "that the horseman was Saint Martin."

Like the other festivals, Saint Martin's day is considered to begin at midnight and to last until the following midnight. The blood must be drawn before the "day" begins-usually on the eve as it is a common saying that the saint will take it before, but not after. A part of the blood is soaked up with tow or cotton and preserved for use in connection with certain prayers in the cure of various ailments. In parts of Galway the blood is not preserved but is sprinkled about the house and upon the people, and a bloody cross is marked upon the forehead of each member of the family. Those who are too poor even to afford a rooster sometimes gash one of their own fingers for this purpose.

The following detailed account of the practice as it exists today on the west coast, together with the reason assigned for the usage, is given by Lady Wilde, and applies equally well to other districts where the primitive customs are still kept alive: "There is an old superstition still observed by the people, that blood must be spilt on St. Martin's day; so a goose is killed, or a black cock, and the blood is sprinkled over the floor and on the threshold. And some of the flesh is given to the first beggar that comes by, in the name and in honor of St. Martin.

"In the Arran isles, St. Martin's day is observed with particular solemnity, and it was held necessary, from ancient times, to spill blood on the ground in honor of the saint. For this purpose a cock was sacrificed; but if such could not be procured, people have been known to cut their finger in order to draw blood, and let it fall upon the earth. The custom arose in this way: St. Martin, having given away all his goods to the poor, was often in want of food, and one day he entered a widow's house and begged for something to eat. The widow was poor, and having no food in the house, she sacrificed her young child, boiled it, and set it before the saint for supper. Having eaten and taken his departure, the woman went over to the cradle to weep for her lost child; when, lo! there he was, lying whole and well, in a beautiful sleep, as if no evil had ever happened to him; and to commemorate this miracle and from gratitude to the saint, a sacrifice of some living thing is made yearly in his honor. The blood is poured or sprinkled on the ground, and along the door-posts, and both within and without the threshold, and at the four corners of each room in the house.

" For this symbol of purification by blood the rich farmers sacrifice a sheep; while the poorer people kill a black cock or a white hen, and sprinkle the blood according to ancient usage. Afterwards the whole family dine upon the sacrificed victim. In some places it was the custom for the master of the house to draw a cross on the arm of each member of the family, and mark it out in blood."

 Another legend makes it his own son whom Saint Martin, like Abraham of old, was about to sacrifice out of love to God, because in his great poverty he had nothing else to offer him. Although he loved the boy more than life, he killed him late one night, and then lay down, intending to complete the sacrifice at daybreak. On opening his eyes in the morning, he was surprised to see a sheep hanging up in front of him, all skinned and dressed. Full of wonder he went over to his son's bed, and there he found the boy sleeping quietly and in perfect health, with not even a mark to show where his father had driven the knife. The saint gratefully offered up the sheep as a sacrifice to God in the place of his son, and thus the custom originated in remembrance of the miracle.

Saint Martin is stated to have been a miller, and his festival is said to commemorate the day on which he was "drawn on the wheel," an expression which seems to hint at martyrdom and the rack, although there is no authority for believing that he was either a miller or a martyr. In accordance with this tradition, it is held that no wheel should turn, or anything go round, on this day; no yarn may be spun, no mill may grind and no cart may be driven on the highway. Even a stocking should not be knitted, because in so doing it is necessary to turn it round upon the band, and the boatman will not put out from shore on this day, because in starting it is customary to turn the boat round on the water. So strong is this feeling that even in the city of Limerick the large factories sometimes find it difficult to procure a working force on the eleventh of November.

Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2016. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

The Seven Bishops of Cluain Caa, October 3

On October 3 we find another of the groups of saints who are a feature of the Irish calendars - The Seven Bishops of Cluain Caa. The Martyrology of Donegal records:

THE SEVEN BISHOPS, of Cluain Cua. We find seven bishops, the children of one father, of the race of Fiacha Suighdhe, son of Feidhlimidh Reachtmhar, son of Tuathal Teachtmhar, as we have said at the 21st of July.

A Footnote from the editor adds:

Cluain Cua. The more recent hand adds, Cluana Cáa rectius, more correctly, of  Cluain-caa. This is the reading in the Mart. Taml., and Marian.

The entry for July 21 reproduces the genealogical details ascribed above to the bishops commemorated on October 3:
THE SEVEN BISHOPS, of Tamhnach Buadha, [Bishop Tedda, of Tamhnach,] and we find seven bishops, the sons of one father, and their names and history among the race of Fiacha Suighdhe, son of Feidhlimidh Reachtmhar, son of Tuathal Teachtmhar.
I turned next to the twelfth-century Martyrology of Marianus O'Gorman to see if he could shed any further light on these bishops or the locality of Cluain Caa. They form the last verse of his entry for the day:
The bishops of Cluain Caa,
their day I will mention.
with a footnote reading 'seven bishops of Cluain Caa'.

In consulting the index of places attached to the calendar I found that, according to the nineteenth-century scholar and translator W.M. Hennessy, Cluain Caa was located in Queen's County, i.e. County Laois:
Cluain Caa, Oct. 3, wrongly spelt Cluain cua, Progs. R.I.A. Irish MS. series i. 100, 101, where Hennessy locates it in Queen's co.
I also confirmed the entry in the earlier Martyrology of Tallaght:
Secht n-epscoip Clúana Caa.
So it would seem that the calendars concur in having a feast of seven bishops from Cluain Caa celebrated on October 3.  Only the Martyrology of Donegal supplies the genealogical detail and suggests that they are siblings. It is also only this calendar which seeks to link them to the group of bishops commemorated at Tamnach Buada on July 21. The Martyrology of Gorman notes only 'austere bishops from Tamnach' at this date and does not cross-reference this episcopal grouping with that commemorated on October 3.

Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2017. All rights reserved.

Friday, 29 September 2017

The Hymn of Saint Colman in Praise of Archangel Michael

September 29 is the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, a saint with a long history of devotion in Ireland. Below is a hymn in praise of the Archangel from the Irish Liber Hymnorum, where it is attributed to Colman, son of Murchu. Archbishop John Healy tells us something of the author and supplies a translation of the text:

In A.D. 730 flourished Colman, son of Murchu, Abbot of Moville, who is regarded as the author of a Latin hymn of singular beauty preserved in the famous work known as the Liber Hymnorum now in Trinity College, Dublin. "Colman, son of Murchu," is described as the author of the hymn, and hence Dr. Todd very justly regards him as identical with the Abbot of Moville. The following is an English translation made for the learned Father O'Laverty, author of the History of the Diocese of Down and Connor, by the late lamented Denis Florence McCarthy, a poet whose own pure heart could well interpret the soaring aspirations of a saintly soul: —


"No wild bird rising from the wave, no omen from the land or sea,
Oh Blessed Trinity, shall shake my fixed trust in thee.
No name to God, or demon given, no synonym of sin or shame,
Shall make me cease to supplicate the Archangel Michael's name,
That be, by God the leader led, may meet my soul that awful day
When from this body and this life it trembling takes its way.
Lest the demoniac power of him, who is at once the foot of pride
And prince of darkness, force it then from the true path aside.
May Michael the Archangel turn that hour which else were dark and sad
To one, when angels will rejoice and all the just be glad.
Him I beseech that he avert from me the fiend's malignant face,
And lead me to the realm of rest in God's own dwelling place.
May holy Michael day and night, be knowing well my need, be nigh,
To place me in the fellowship of the good saints on high
May holy Michael, an approved assistant when all else may fail,
Plead for me, sinner that I am, in thought and act so frail,
May holy Michael in his strength my parting soul from harm defend,
Till circled by the myriad saints in heaven its flight doth end;
For me may holy Gabriel pray — for me may holy Raphael plead —
For me may all the angelic choirs for ever intercede.
May the great King's eternal halls receive me freed from stain and sin,
That I the joys of Paradise may share with Christ therein.
Glory for aye be given to God — for aye to Father and to Son—
For aye unto the Holy Ghost with them in council one.

V. "May the most holy St. Michael
The prince of angels defend us,
Whom to conduct our souls heavenward
God from the highest doth send us.''

Insula Sanctorum et Doctorum or Ireland's Ancient Schools and Scholars by the Most Rev. John Healy (6th edition, Dublin, 1912), 255-256.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Saint Adamnan, September 23

September 23 is the feast of Saint Adamnan, a saint who made his mark in more than one field of endeavour in the world of the seventh century. In this 1882 article below, the future Archbishop of Tuam, John Healy, has pleasure in bringing us details of Adamnan's multi-faceted career:


In the year 1845, Dr. Ferdinand Keller was poking with a German's pertinacity, through the shelves of the Town Library of Schaffhausen in Switzerland. In a corner of the room he found a high book chest filled with all kinds of old MSS. without title or number of any kind, and at the very bottom of the heap he came upon a dark brown parchment manuscript bound in moth-eaten beech wood, covered with calf skin, carefully clasped in front, and very neatly and curiously sewed at the back. It was a goodly quarto of 68 leaves, with double columns, written on dark coloured goat skin parchment in large heavy drawn letters of the character known as minuscular. Everything about the MSS. showed great antiquity the cover, the parchment, the lettering, and the ornamentation. Dr. Keller at first thought he had come upon a hitherto undiscovered treasure ; but in this he was mistaken. He only recovered a lost treasure and secured its preservation for the learned world. On examination, the MS. turned out to be the oldest and most authentic copy of Adamnan's Life of Saint Columba, made in Iona either during the lifetime of Adamnan himself, or certainly within a few years after his death.

There can be little doubt that this is the identical MS. discovered by Stephen White in the Monastery of Richenau, and published, with some variations, both by Colgan and the Bollandists. How then did it come to pass that it was found in the old book chest of Schaffhausen Library? The celebrated Benedictine Monastery of Richenau Augia Dives, or the Rich Meadow was situated on a pleasant fertile island in the Lake of Constance, an expansion of the Upper Rhine. The Monastery was suppressed in 1798, but it seems that before its suppression most of its literary treasures were carried off, and thus it came to pass that the old Irish MS. was transferred to the neighbouring Town of Schaffhausen, also on the Rhine, where it was consigned to the bottom of the old book chest until the German scholar brought the hidden treasure again to light. The Monastery of Richenau in the ninth century appears to have had many Irish inmates, and this is not unnatural, for the great Irish Monastery of St. Gall was within a few miles of the shore of Lake Constance, and considerable intercourse would naturally take place between the two houses. Walafridus Strabo, Abbot of Richenau, from 842 to 849, had been previously Dean of St. Gall, and in his writings shows an intimate knowledge of many things connected with Ireland which he could have learned only from Irishmen. We know, too, from other sources, that crowds of Irishmen came to France and Germany in the beginning of the ninth century, and that many of them brought their books from their schools at home along with them, as Dungal brought the books which he bequeathed to the Monastery of Bobbio. It is thus easy to understand how some of the monks of Iona, driven from home by the Norsemen, who so often plundered the island about the beginning of the ninth century, would migrate to some friendly monastery on the Continent carrying their literary treasure along with them.

There can, however, be no doubt that the Schaffhausen MS. of St. Columba's Life was written in the Island of Hy by one of the Family, so early as the beginning of the eighth century. The character is of that peculiar kind of which we have almost contemporary specimens in the Book of Kells, and the Book of Durrow, and which is now universally acknowledged to be purely Irish ; the ornamentation of the chapters, and of the capital letters, is Irish ; the orthography is Irish, and what is stranger than all, the Lord's Prayer is written in Greek on the last page of the MS., and in Greek, of which we have other specimens remaining in old Irish MSS. with the same peculiar spelling, in the same semi-uncial character, without accents, and without breathings a fact which of itself indisputably proves that the Greek tongue was taught and written in the Irish School of Hy 1170 years ago.

The Colophon, or superscription, in rubric, at folio 136, at the end of the life, records, according to the usual custom, the name of the scribe : "Whoever reads these books on the virtues of St. Columba, let him pray to the Lord for me Dorbbeneus, that after death I may possess eternal life."

In 713, Tighernach records the death of Dorbene, Abbot of Hy, the very year of his election to that high office. There can be no doubt this Dorbene was the writer of the Schaffhausen MS.; there is no mention of any other of the same name in our annals except of one Dorbene, whose son Failan is said to have died in 724. This Dorbene was, as Dr. Reeves thinks, a layman, and, if his son died in 724, he himself in the course of nature must have lived and died before Adamnan. But the abbot who died in 713, would have outlived Adamnan only nine years, and in all probability had been for many years scribe of the monastery, and may have written the book at the dictation of Adamnan himself.

And now, who was Adamnan? Unfortunately we know very little of his early youth. He gives us to understand, at least by implication, that he was born at or near Drumhome, in the barony of Tirhugh, and Co. Donegal. The Church of Drumhome was founded by St. Columba, but St. Adamnan is the patron; and this fact, too, indicates his connection with the locality. There, also, he seems to have spent his earlier years ; for it was there, he says, " in my youth, that a very old man called Ferreol, a servant of Christ, who is buried in Drumhome, told me " of a glorious vision which he saw, when fishing in the valley of the Finn, on the night of Columba's death. Scarcely any traces of the old Church of Drumhome now remain; but it was once nobly endowed by the O'Donnells. Even so late as 1609, an Inquisition tells us that " there are in the said parish of Drumhome, four quarters of church land, three quarters of Columbkille's land, each quarter containing six townlands, then in the possession of Lewis O'Cleary, the head of that family which the Four Masters have made illustrious for ever. The old church was finely situated near the shore of the Bay of Donegal, not far from Ballintra, in hearing of the sea, and in view of the bold range of mountains, where the sons of Conall Gulban so long and so nobly defended their ancient freedom.

Adamnan's father, Ronan, was sixth in descent from that same Conall Gulban, and thus belonged to the royal blood of Tirconell ; his mother was Ronnat, a daughter of Tirenna, the territory that in ancient times extended from Lough Foyle to Lough Swilly. Thus Adamnan was of the same family as St. Columba himself; for Columba was grandson of Fergus, son of Conall Gulban, and Adamnan was sixth in descent from the same Fergus. He was born in 624, according to the best authorities, just twenty-seven years after Columba's death, and, as we may fairly assume, was in his youth placed under the care of the monks of Drumhome, in whose old churchyard he himself tells us many of the monks of Columba await a happy resurrection. How long the boy remained in his native Tirhugh, feeding his spirit on the glorious vision of its waves and mountains, we cannot now ascertain. It was at that time the custom for scholars, even of the noblest birth, to visit the great monastic schools of the country, and all the more celebrated masters were surrounded by crowds of eager students, who lived on their wits, and lodged as best as they could, generally in little huts of their own contrivance. A curious story is told of St. Adamnan himself in his youth, which amusingly illustrates what may be called the University life of the time.

Finnachta, afterwards Monarch of Ireland, from 675 to 695, and Adamnan's greatest friend, although of the blood royal, was at first very poor. He had a house and wife, but only one ox and one cow. Now the King of Feara Ros (Carrickmacross) strayed in the neighbourhood of Finnachta's hut, his wife, too, was with him and a crowd of retainers ; but they could not find their way home, for the night came on dark, cold, and stormy, so they were forced to take refuge in the hut. Small as it was, the size of the house was greater than its wealth. Finnachta, however, "struck the ox on the head and the cow on the head," and feasted all the king's people sumptuously, so that no one was hungry.

Then the King and Queen of Feara Ross gave large herds of cattle to the generous Finnachta, and made him a great man. Shortly after this time, Finnachta, not yet king, however, was one day coming with a large troop of horse to his sister's house, and as they rode along, they overtook " Adamnan, then a young school-boy, travelling the same road, with a vessel full of milk on his back. Anxious to get out of the way, Adamnan stumbled and fell, spilling all the milk, and breaking the jar to pieces." The cavalcade rather enjoyed the fun, and rode away; but Adamnan pursued them closely, and said : "0, good men, I have reason to be sad, for there are three good school-boys in one house, and they have us as two messengers for there is always one going about seeking food for the five and it came to my turn to-day. The gathering I made is scattered, and, what I grieve for far more, the borrowed vessel has been broken, and I have no means to pay for it." But Finnachta declared he would make it all right, and he kept his word. He not only paid for the vessel, but he brought the scholars clerics they are called to his own house, and their teacher along with them, he fitted up the ale-house for their reception, and gave them such abounding good cheer, that the professor, exhilarated by the ale, or filled with the spirit of prophecy, as the annals say, declared that Finnachta would one day become the King of all Ireland, "and Adamnan shall be the head of the wisdom of Erin, and shall become 'soul's friend' or confessor, to the king."

When Adamnan was duly trained in the wisdom of the Irish schools at home, his thoughts naturally turned to Iona. For that remote islet, surrounded by the stormy waters and under the misty skies of the Hebrides, had long been the religious home of his race and family. It was founded by the great Columba, with twelve companions of his own kith and kin. It was now thronged by crowds of pilgrims and scholars, most of whom still came from the Columbian houses in Donegal, Sligo, and Meath. It was the head and centre of the Columbian Order; and almost all its Abbots hitherto, and for long after, came of the royal race of Fergus, son of Conall Gulban. At this very time, when Adamnan was about twenty-five years old, a cousin of his own, Seghine, fifth Abbot of Hy, ruled the entire Order. So with the south wind blowing fair, we may suppose the young scholar launched his curach on the Foyle, and sweeping past the hills of Inishowen, he would in about twelve hours see Columba's holy island slowly rising from the waves. As his bark approached he would eagerly note all the features of the island the central ridge, the low moory shores, and narrow strait about a mile wide separating it from the Ross of Mull, on the mainland. With a heart swelling with emotion, he must have stepped on the shore of Port Ronain, and then kneeling prostrate before the Abbot in his wooden cell, he begged to be admitted to the habit of the Order. And we may be sure the venerable Seghine received with open arms the strong-limbed, fairhaired boy, who was sprung of his own ancient line, and born in his own Tirhugh.

Adamnan began his noviciate about 650, and after thirty years' service in the brotherhood, was himself raised to the Abbatial Chair, in 679. We know little of his life during this period, except that it was eminent for virtue and learning. We have undoubted proofs of his success in sacred studies, not only in the works that remain, but also from the testimony of his contemporaries. He was, says Venerable Bede, a virtuous and learned man preeminently skilled in Sacred Scripture: "Erat enim vir bonus et sapiens, et scientia Scripturarum nobilissime instructus." This is high testimony from a high authority. Father H. Ward felt himself justified in saying that Adamnan was thoroughly educated in all the knowledge of his time, liberal, sacred, and ascetical; that he was also skilled in the Greek and Hebrew languages, as well as in the arts, laws, and history written in his native tongue: "Edoctus est omnes liberales, sacras, et asceticas disciplinas, linguas etiam Hebraicam et Graecam; et quicquid patria lingua (in qua tune pleraeque scientiae et Dryadum quae non fuerant damnata dogmata), scriptum est vel artium vel legum vel historiarum."

Yet this learned monk was not above giving his assistance in the manual labour of the monastery. He tells us in his life of St. Columba, how on a certain occasion he and a number of other monks cut down as many oak trees in one of the neighbouring islands, probably Arran, as loaded twelve boats, in order to procure material to repair the monastery; and how, when detained by an adverse wind, St. Columba heard their prayer, and procured for them a favourable breeze to waft them home. This fact, incidentally mentioned, proves that most of the monastic cells were made of oaken boards, which were covered in with a roof of reeds. St. Columba's own hut is represented as tabulis suffultum, and we know from other sources that as a protection against the weather these cells were harundine tecta. It is in this respect that the "Vita Columbae " is so valuable, because it gives us incidentally not only a graphic picture of the simple and pious lives of the Family of Hy, but also of their food, their clothing, their monastery, and their entire social arrangements.

Although St. Adamnan ruled the monastery of Hy from 679 to his death in 704, he paid several visits to Ireland, and exercised a large influence both on its ecclesiastical and civil polity. This was due partly to his high character for learning and holiness, partly to his position as Supreme Head of the Columbian Houses, and in great measure also to his influence with Finnachta, the High King from 675 to 695. It is not easy to ascertain the exact date of these visits nor the work done on each occasion, but the substantial facts are certain.

In the year 684 one of the generals of the Northumbrian King Ecgfrid, made a descent on Magh-Bregh, that is the eastern plain of Meath along the sea shore. They pillaged and slaughtered in the usual fashion, and furthermore carried off many captives male and female. This attack was wholly unprovoked, and as Bede testifies brought down upon the Northumbrian prince the signal chastisement of heaven. In the following year, rashly advancing against the Pictish King Brude, Ecgfrid was slain and his army routed at a place called Dun Nechtain. Thereupon Aldfrid his brother returned from Ireland, where he had been for many years an exile, and succeeded to the throne. Aldfrid during the years he spent in Ireland became intimate with Adamnan; our annalists call him the alumnus, or foster son of Adamnan. Now, that he was raised to the throne, the latter took occasion to pay him a visit, in order to obtain by his friendly offices the release of the captives. Miraculously crossing the Solway Frith, whose rushing tide "the best steed in Saxon land ridden by the best rider could not hope to escape," he came to the Northumbrian Court, at Bamborough, and seems to have been received with open arms by his alumnus, who at once consented to restore the captives, sixty in all, whom shortly after Adamnan brought home to Ireland. But this visit to the English court had other important consequences. When he saw, says Bede, during his stay in our province (probably at Easter) the canonical rites of our church, and was prudently admonished that they who were placed on a little corner at the end of the world should not persevere in their peculiar Paschal observance against the practice of the universal church, he changed his mind and willingly adopted our custom. On the same occasion he visited the monastery of Jarrow where the monks greatly admired the humility and modesty of his demeanour, but were somewhat scandalized at his Irish frontal tonsure from ear to ear, then known as the tonsure of Simon Magus.

Onhis return to Hy, Adamnan tried to induce his monks to adopt the Roman Paschal observance, but they were so much attached to the practice sanctioned by their great and holy founder that even Adamnan failed to bring about a change, it was not until 716, twelve years after his death, that they finally consented to adopt the Dionysian cycle of nineteen years in fixing Easter Day.

He was more successful in Ireland. On his return thither with the captives in 686, a Synod seems to have been held for the purpose of bringing about this change, to which he himself alludes in his life of St. Columba. Neither the time nor place of the Synod can be exactly ascertained; it is not unlikely, however, that it took place on the Hill of Tara at the " Rath of the Synods," where tradition still marks out the place of " Adamnan's Tent " and " Adamnan's Cross." Others think it was held a much later date in 696 or 697, when " Adamnan's Canon" was published, to which we shall refer later on. It is certain, however, that Adamnan exerted his great influence thenceforward to introduce the new Paschal observance into Ireland, although he did not perhaps finally succeed until towards the end of his life.

On this occasion Adamnan's visit was not of long duration, but he paid a second visit to Ireland in 692 fourteen years after the death of his predecessor Failbhe, as the Annals say. This time it was a political question that attracted him from Hy. For forty reigns the men of Leinster had been paying the cow-tax, known as the Borumean tribute, to the princes of the Hy Neill race, to which race Adamnan himself belonged. Finnachta, however, the present High King and the old friend of Adamnan, remitted this tribute at the prayer of St. Moling, whom our Annalists represent as having recourse to a curious equivocation to effect his purpose. The king, at the prayer of the saint, consented to remit payment of the tax for "the day and night." "All time," said the Saint, when the king had pledged his royal word to this remission, "is day and night; thou canst never reimpose this tax." In vain the monarch protested that he had no such intention, the Saint kept him to his word, promising him heaven if he kept it, and the reverse if he did not. When Adamnan heard how weakly the king had yielded the ancient rights of the great Hy Neill race, he was somewhat wrathful, and at once sought out the monarch, and asked to see him. The king was playing chess, and told Adamnan's messenger, who asked an interview for the Saint, that he must wait until the game was finished; then he played a second, and was going to play a third, when the Saint threatened him with reading a psalm that would not only shorten his life but exclude him from heaven. Thereupon he came quick enough, and at once Adamnan said, " Is this true that thou hast remitted the Borumha for day and night." "It is true," said the king. " Then it is the same as to remit it for ever", said the Saint, and he "scolded " him in somewhat vigorous language, and made a song on him on the spot, calling him a foolish, white-haired, toothless king, and using several other epithets the reverse of complimentary.

Of course all this is the work of a northern bard, who puts into the mouth of Adamnan language which he would use himself; nevertheless, there is a substratum of truth in the story highly coloured as it is by poetic fiction, in the end, however, the writer adds : "Afterwards Finnachta placed his head on the bosom of Adamnan, and Adamnan forgave him for the remission of the Borumha." Shortly after, however, Adamnan was again angry with the king, and foretold "that his life would be short, and that he would fall by fratricide." The Irish life gives the true cause of the anger and the prediction: it was because Finnachta would not exempt from taxes the lands of Columbkille, as he exempted the lands of Patrick, Finnian, and Ciaran. This not unnaturally incensed the Saint against the ungrateful king, whose throne he had helped to maintain. The prediction was soon verified; Finnachta fell by the hand of a cousin in 697.

It was on his return to Hy after this second visit that Adamnan seems to have written the life of Columbkille. Shortly after he paid a third visit to Ireland in 697, and apparently spent the remaining seven years of his life in this country. It was in that year, most probably, was held the Synod of Tara in which the Cain, or Canon, of Adamnan, was promulgated. According to a story in the Leabhar Breac there are four great Laws, or "Canons," in Ireland. The Canon of Patrick, not to kill the clergy; the Canon of the nun Dari, not to kill the cows ; the Canon of Adamnan, not to kill women ; and the Sunday Canon, not to travel on that day. The origin of the Canon of Adamnan was this. He was once travelling through Meath, carrying his mother on his back, when he saw two armies in conflict, and a woman of one party dragging a woman of the other party with an iron reaping hook fixed in her breast. At this cruel and revolting sight Adamnan's mother insisted that her son should promise her to make a law for the people that women should in future be exempted from all battles and hostings. Adamnan promised, and kept his word in 696 according to the Ulster Annals "dedit legem innocentium populis." That is he procured the passing of a law exempting women and children -innocentes  - from any share in the actual conflict or its usual consequences, captivity or death. This fact is substantially true, though considerably embellished in the details. And Ireland owes the great Abbot a lasting debt of gratitude for procuring the enactment of this law, which was afterwards re-enacted in 727 when the relics of Adamnan were removed from Iona to Ireland and "the law renewed." There are several other Canons probably enacted at a Synod at Armagh about the same time, but this is far the most important of them all.

The life of St. Gerald of Mayo represents Adamnan as governing the monastery of that place, originally founded by the Saxons, for seven years. Tradition also connects the Saint with the Church of Skreen in the Co. Sligo, of which he is the Patron, and was in all probability the Founder. As head of the Columbian Order it was his duty, from time to time, to visit the Columbian Churches in Ireland, of which there were very many, especially in Sligo and Donegal. He may thus have spent a considerable time in Mayo of the Saxons, although the life of St. Gerald is very unsatisfactory evidence of the fact.

We cannot stay to notice the alleged "Cursing" of Irgalach by Adamnan. The story is intrinsically improbable and unsustained by respectable authority. In the last year of his life, 704, he returned to Iona. Although the Monks would not consent to give up St. Columba's Easter, he loved them dearly and wished to bless them before he died. After his noble life he might well rest in peace with the kindred dust of all the saints of Conall Gulban's line that sleep in the Holy Island.

A century later, however, as we have seen, the sacred relics were transferred to Ireland, but it is not known for certain where they were laid.

Adamnan's two most important works are his " Vita Sancti Columbi," and his Book, " De Locis Sanctis."

The Life of St. Columba has been pronounced by Pinkerton to be "the most complete piece of such biography that all Europe can boast of, not only at so early a period, but even through the whole middle ages." Adamnan himself declares that he wrote the book at the earnest request of the Brothers; and that he states nothing except what was already written in the records of the monastery, or what he himself heard from the elder monks, many of whom saw the blessed Columba, and were themselves witnesses of his wonderful works. The entire narrative,which is written in fairly good Latin, furnishes ample proof of the truth of this statement. Hence the great value of this Life, not only as an authentic record of the virtues and miracles of St. Columba, but also as a faithful picture of the religious life of those early times by a contemporary writer, so well qualified to sketch it, and who does so, quite unconsciously. The manuscript in the Library of Schafihausen is of equal authority with the autograph of the saint, if, indeed, it were not actually written at his dictation, so that the most sceptical cannot question the authenticity of this venerable record. The Life was printed from this codex by Colgan in 1647, and by the Bollandists at a later date. But the edition published in 1837 by Dr. W. Reeves, for the Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society, is by far the most valuable. The notes and appendices to this admirable volume render it a perfect mine of wealth for the student of Irish history. The Life was translated into English, and published with short notes by Gill & Son, Dublin, 1878.

Venerable Bede gives us a very full account of the treatise de Locis Sanctis, in the 16th and 17th chapters of the fifth Book of his Ecclesiastical History. It is, he says, a book most useful to the reader (in that age). The author Adamnan received his information about the holy places from Arcuulfus, a Bishop from Gaul, who had himself visited Jerusalem, Constantinople, Alexandria, and all the islands of the sea. When returning home a tempest drove his vessel to the west parts of Britain, where he met Adamnan, probably in Hy, to whom he narrated all the noteworthy scenes he had gone through. Adamnan at once reduced the narrative to writing for the information of his own countrymen. He presented the work to his friend King Aldfrid, through whose liberality copies were multiplied for the benefit of the young, if such be the meaning of Bede's phrase : "Per ejus largitionem etiam minoribus
ad legendum contraditus." Bede himself was greatly pleased with the book, from which he inserts several extracts in his own History, concerning Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Mount Olivet, and other places in Palestine. It was published at Ingoldstadt in 1619.

A Life of St. Patrick and various poems have been attributed to Adamnan, bat there is no evidence to prove that they are genuine. The same may be said of the Vision of Adamnan," a kind of moral discourse in Irish, which purports to relate a wonderful vision of joys of heaven and of the torments of hell as seen and narrated by the saint. The work is certainly very ancient, but contains many things that go far to disprove its own authenticity.

When we consider the life and writings of this great man, as well as the large influence which he exercised on Irish affairs during the latter half of the seventh century, few will be disposed to question his right to take a high place amongst the saints and scholars of the West. He has been justly described in the prologue to the "Vision" as "the noble sage of the Western world." We have already quoted Bede's high testimony to his virtue and learning. The Four Masters emphatically endorse that testimony, and add that "he was tearful, penitent, fond of prayer, diligent and ascetic ;" and that he was moreover " learned in the clear understanding of the Holy Scriptures of God."


Irish Ecclesiastical Record 3rd series, Vol 3 (1882), 408-419.

Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2017 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Saint Anci, September 19

Canon O'Hanlon flags up an obscure entry in some of the Irish calendars at September 19 for a saint Anci. The name first appears in the Martyrology of Tallaght and then later in the Martyrology of Donegal. It is missing however from the Martyrology of Oengus and from the Martyrology of Gorman.

St. Anci or Ainchi.

 In the published and Book of Leinster copies of the Martyrology of Tallagh, we find the simple entry, Anci, without further designation, and at the 19th of September. The Martyrology of Donegal has Ainchi, at the 19th of September. We cannot find any further account of him.

Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2017. All rights reserved.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Saint Gema of Riacc Innse, September 18

The name of an obscure Irish female saint is found in some of the Irish calendars at September 18. As Canon O'Hanlon explains below, the name of Gema of Riacc Innse is found in the Martyrology of Tallaght and in the Martyrology of Gorman. Her name is absent though from the Martyrology of Oengus and from the Martyrology of Donegal:

St. Gema, Virgin, of Riacc Innse. 

We find a festival registered in the Martyrology of Tallagh, at the 18th of September, in honour of Gema, Virgin, of Riacc Innse.  In the Martyrology of Marianus O'Gorman, at the same date, the entry of Gemma is found. Her place and period seem to be unknown.

Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2017. All rights reserved.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

'His Cross is our saving herb...'

September 14 is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and to mark the feast below is a short excerpt from an Irish bardic poem translated by Irish Jesuit, Father Lambert Mc Kenna (1870-1956):

His Cross is our saving herb, our flower of blessing, our bond of perfect peace; it is the daily protection of Eve's race, the seal of our covenant, the roof above us.

L. McKenna, Some Irish Bardic Poems, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review Vol. 24, No. 94 (June 1935), pp. 313-318.

Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2017. All rights reserved.