Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Forgotten Saints of Ireland


Every March 17th, we in the United States celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. It’s an excuse to wear green and to celebrate all things Irish, including green beer and whiskey. Did you know that St. Patrick wasn’t even born in Ireland? Technically, he was Scottish. If he hadn’t been kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery, he might never have set foot on the Emerald Isle that inspired him to compare the Holy Trinity to the three leaves of a shamrock.

The following is a list of the real Irish saints. They may not be as famous as Patrick, at least not in the U.S.A., but their stories are just as colorful. If we celebrated their feast days, we could be partying like Bono all year ‘round. This is your guide to finding excuses to pretend to be Irish…if you weren’t lucky enough to be born Irish.

Early February: St. Bridget (Brigid) of Kildare. Called “The Mary of the Gaels,” her chieftain father and slave mother had been baptized by St. Patrick in the 400s. Bridget founded a double abbey at Cill-Dara (Kildare), the first in Ireland. She’s credited with many miracles, including turning her bathwater into beer to appease the thirst of visiting bishops. Her feast day is February 1. Because the first of February coincides with the Celtic Pagan celebration of Imbolc, which looks forward to the fertility rites of spring, Bridget the saint is sometimes said to be a version of Brigid, the Celtic mother-goddess.

Mid-February: St. Gobnait. Also called Gobnet or Gobnata, this 6th century nun was born in County Clare, where she is said to have fled to join the nunnery to escape a family feud. She had a vision telling her to found a church at the place where she found nine white deer grazing. She became an abbess and disciple of St. Abban, who placed her in charge of a convent in County Cork. A well there bears her name, and she is remembered in local art as a skillful beekeeper. Feb. 11th is her feast day.

Mid-May: St. Dymphna. The patroness of insanity and nervous breakdowns, this seventh-century daughter of a Celtic chieftain fled home after her mother died, allegedly to escape her father, who had taken an incestuous interest in her. She fled to Antwerp, where St. Gerebernus became her confessor. Dymphna, Gerebernus and two companions founded a hermitage near Amsterdam, but her father hunted them down and killed Gerebernus and his companions. When Dymphna refused to return with him, he had her beheaded. The relics of the four martyrs were said to have caused miracles in the thirteenth century. Her feast day is May 15th.

Mid-May: St. Brendan the Navigator. Born in County Kerry around the year 485, Brendan was a monk. He then became abbot and founded many monasteries, including Clonfert. Known for his missionary voyages, legend has it he may have even reached North America. His feast day is May 16.

Early June: St. Columba. Also known as Colm or Colmcille, “Colm of the Churches,” he died in 597. Born in County Donegal, Columba founded monasteries including Kells (at which the famous Book of Kells was written and illustrated). His claim to infamy is a feud with St. Finian over St. Jerome’s psalter; Columba made the first copy in Ireland and didn’t want to give it up. It led to the battle of Cuildeimhe, in which three thousand men were killed. In shame, he left Ireland for Scotland. He did return for visits, though. On one of them, he is credited with exempting Irish women from military service. There is no record of how this went over with the local Celtic warrior women. His feast day is June 9th.

Early June: St. Kevin of Glendalough. Called Coemgen or Caoimhghin in Gaelic this 6th century hermit was of noble birth, though family machinations kept him from the position due to him. Instead he became a hermit. Later he gave up his hermitage and then founded a monastery. Kevin is said to have lived to be 120, and is a patron saint of Dublin. St. Kevin was famous for his love of nature. He is said to have fed his monastery with salmon brought to him by an otter. Once, while he was praying, a blackbird laid her egg in Kevin’s outstretched hand. He remained in that position until the egg hatched. June 3rd is his feast day.

Late September: St. Finbar. Known as Fion-Bharr, or “White Head,” this 7th century illegitimate member of the royal family of Connaught was a hermit. The pope made him a bishop in Rome, and he returned to Ireland to found the monastery in Cork. The sun did not set for two weeks after his death, according to folklore. Sept. 25th is his feast day.

Early November: St. Malachy. He was famous for his prophecies about the popes. His full name was Mael Maedoc ua Morgair, or Maolmhaodhog ua Morgair, and he was born in Armagh in 1095. He replaced the Celtic liturgy with the Roman liturgy. An archbishop, he founded Mellifont Abbey and healed the son of King David I of Scotland. He died in the arms of St. Bernard of Clairvaux in 1148. November 3rd is his feast day.

Mid-November: St. Lawrence O’Toole. Born in 1128, his Irish name was Lorcan Ua Tuathail. Augustinian archbishop of Dublin, he was born at Kildare to an alliance of two chieftains, then taken hostage by the king of Leinster. He became a monk, then bishop in 1162. He was famous for his charity toward the poor of his diocese. He was involved in the negotiations between King Henry II and Irish high king Rory O’Connor following England’s invasion of Ireland. He died in 1180, still deeply involved in international politics. November 14th is his feast day.

So the next time you feel the need for a pint of Guinness or a shot of Jameson, remember: the next Irish saint’s day may be only a few weeks away.

Resources Used:

Bunson, Matthew, Margaret Bunson, and Stephen Bunson. Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Saints (Revised). Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2003.

Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

Originally published in the March 2010 Irish News.

1 comment:

Vamchoir said...

The idea of bishops drinking alcoholic bathwater brings up such a humorous visual for me. I grew up in a very controlling ultra-conservative cult-like church where drinking coffee was considered a sin. The Catholics really know how to throw a party do they not?

I have enjoyed studying lore surrounding Bridget as a Pagan Goddess, before she became Christened as a Saint (after the person Briget).

Great read! Thanks for the very entertaining history lesson.