Saturday, 20 December 2014

Saint Ursan of St Ursitz, December 20

On December 20 we commemorate an Irish saint who travelled to Europe with Saint Columbanus and laboured among the Alemanni in the Swiss Jura - Ursan 'The Bear Man'. Below is an account of his life by Roísín Ní Mheara:

Ursan or Ursin as he came to be known, is an Irish monk with a book and a heraldic lily as his attribute. A saint of the great Burgundian abbey of Luxeuil, he belongs to the group that joined Columban on an arduous Alemannic mission which led them into the utmost eastern limits of Frankish suzerainty, the far end of Lake Constance. Changes at the Merovingian court with a new hostile ruler brought the campaign to an abortive end. The brotherhood dispersed. Columban headed south for Italy... Ursan with a comrade named Fromont, of whom we know little, retraced his steps down the river Rhine towards Basel. They reached the abandoned Roman post of Verena, now Zurzach, and took course up the Aare tributary to the lake of Biel in Helvetia, where there are traces of a brief sojourn, before launching out into the forests of the Swiss Jura, then a no man's land for the taking.

A prehistoric route led from Biel up through a gorge of the river Birs, and over it the pair must have trudged into the wilds until they reached the coast of Mount Terri. For them the prospect from the height would have been tantalising – Alsace with its fruitful plains to the north and further west, beyond the Vosges mountains. Burgundy with their home monastery Luxeuil. Was that perhaps their aim? Did fatigue overcome them here? We can only guess. Certain is, that in Ursan's immediate vicinity lay a deep and tortuous river gorge, cutting deeply into the rock of the primeval forest surrounding him, and in its density fugitives of German Alemannic stock were putting up a fight for survival. The plight of these pagans was to be Ursan's destiny. Here where the river Doubs (dubh indeed, the Celts had christened it well) blocked by Mount Terri, makes a hairpin turn our peregrinus decided to cast his lot. As a result, by the Middle Ages a sedate little town had emerged in the dark valley, dutifully walled with a bridge over the Doubs, its inhabitants grouped round the monastery of St.Ursitz, the site or seat of Ursan. The town in the French idiom answers to Saint-Ursanne.

Above on the plateau of Mount Terri where two tired disciples of Columban stopped and decided to part, it all began. Fromont travelled on to find a place of his own liking. This is today the little town of Bonfol, with its parish church under his patronage.

Ursan, the Bear Man

In the meantime Ursan was causing quite a flurry in the Doubs valley by making himself at home in a cave on the slope of Mount Terri beside a fresh mountain spring. Known to be the habitat of a brown bear, the hillside was considered off-limits for humans. But it became apparent that the poor hermit remained unmolested by the bear, who even ceded his den for him to sleep in. Soon curiousity got the better of fear and up Mount Terri the Alemanni clambered in growing numbers to pay their respect to the ‘Bear Man’ as they called their guest. Indeed the nickname is all hagiography has to offer in the way of identification (latinized ‘Usinicus’, ‘Ursinicus’). The name Urs being widespread we will call him Ursan.

Was it the hermit’s gentle manner or the message of cheer he bought? Some salutary charisma must account for his popularity for huts were set up in the small clearing before the cave, the source became a spring of spiritual refreshment and the nucleus of a Christian cell was born. The site being limited, Ursan was persuaded to descend into the valley and space was made on the riverside to accommodate those who considered themselves his followers. With a sanctuary dedicated to St. Peter, after Ursan’s home church in Luxeuil, the rudiments of a religious settlement were provided. The Rule observed was naturally that of Columban – the principal Order of the Western Church.

Ursan did not confine himself to preaching, He built an asylum for the many immigrants he found weakened and bowed down with the hardships of those Dark Ages... Tradition recalls the pack animals Ursan kept for the benefit of mountain dwellers. We hear too of his iron handbell, an instrument of Irish make – an innovation!- later to become an honoured relic. Deeply mourned when he died around the year 620, the Alemanni buried their ‘Bear Man’ in his oratory, and for a long time afterwards his eremitic community adhered to the precepts he had laid down for them. This is known from the records of St. Wandregisel (Wandrille). As a young Frank nobleman Wandregeisel, impressed by the example of Ursan, spent some time in the Doubs hermitage after the saint’s demise, an experience that changed the course of his life. He became a strong advocate of Columban’s teaching, founding many important monasteries in France, such as Fontanelle at the mouth of the Seine. He did not forget Ursan either, for it was Wandregeisel who, with wealth at his disposal, transformed the shacks of the initial hermitage into a monastery of stature fit to house the remains of a saint.

…Entering, church splendour awaits the visitor in a mixture of period elements and trappings that blend surreptitiously. A golden crown above the high altar with its oil painting depicting the glorification of Ursan signalizes the presence of his remains under the mensa in a medieval sarcophagus, hidden behind a costly silk antependium. Large effigies of the apostles Peter and Paul guard his sanctuary… Earlier on, the founder’s tomb was kept in a spacious crypt built by the Augustinians in the twelfth century under the apse for pilgrims to file through.

Grateful to the canton of Jura for crediting the work of our lonely evangelist, we may complete our tour with a visit to the ‘Eremitage Saint-Ursanne’, a Gothic scenario with the Bear Man sculptured reclining pensively with his missal in a cave opening, much to the astonishment of a wooden bear planted before him!

Let us hope that ‘La Fontaine de Saint Ursanne’, the source on the slope of Mount Terri, still serving the town with its pure drinking water, will never run dry, figuring as it does the spirit of Columban, that turned a dark Swiss mountain hideaway into a beacon of light burning still.

Roísín Ní Mheara, Early Irish Saints in Europe - Their Sites and their Stories (Seanchas Ard Mhacha, 2001), 145-149.

Friday, 19 December 2014

The Life of the Holy Virgin Samthann

December 19 is the feast of Saint Samthann of Clonbroney and last year's post on her life can be found here. The Life of Samthann is known mainly from an early 14th-century manuscript, Rawlinson B.485. Richard Sharpe, who has studied the various collections of Irish saints' Lives argues that the 'Oxford group' in which the Life of Samthann is included may have originated in the Longford/Westmeath region. Saint Samthann's monastery of Clonbroney was in County Longford, so this may explain why her Life forms part of that collection. Unusually among the monastic saints, Samthann was not the founder of her community and I looked at the circumstances in which the leadership of Clonbroney was passed to her in last year's post. Furthermore, the Life does not include an account of her birth and early years, as one usually finds in other saints' Lives. Dorothy Africa, who has published a translation of the Life of Saint Samthann, comments on some of the text's other unusual features, the first of which we will now turn to:
Except for the omission of an account of her early life, the Life of St. Samthann follows the general pattern of Irish saint’s Lives. It has, however several distinctive features worthy of comment. Few saints Lives display such an opening sequence as this one, with the protagonist entering her own life sound asleep and hurtling within a few sentences into full dramatic action. It is common, however, in the Lives of women saints for the saint to struggle heroically to avoid a marriage forced upon her by parents and kin. Fosterage was a common practice in Ireland for children of both sexes. Usually a woman’s own family, not her foster father, would make arrangements for her marriage, but if they were distant, as appears to be the case here, responsibility might pass to a fosterer.
Dorothy Africa, trans., Life of the Holy Virgin Samthann, in T. Head, ed., Medieval Hagiography - An Anthology (Routledge, 2001), 99.

So, here is that dramatic beginning to the Life of Saint Samthann, taken from a translation made by two Irish priests, Fathers Diamuid O'Laoghaire and Peter O'Dwyer:

Samthann's father's name was Diamramus, and her mother's Columba. As she matured her foster-father, Cridan, king of the Ui Coirpri, gave her in marriage to a nobleman. Before the marriage solemnities were celebrated, the nobleman saw at midnight something like a ray of the sun extended through the roof of the house onto the bed in which Samthann was sleeping with the king's two daughters. Amazed by the unusual vision of light at such an hour, he rose immediately and, advancing toward his spouse's bed, found that her face was illumined by that ray. He was very happy that he was gifted with a spouse who was surrounded by heavenly light.

The following night, when the solemnities had been celebrated, both were entering the marriage bed, as is customary, when her husband said to her, "Undress yourself so that we may become one". But she replies, "I ask you to wait until all who are in this house are asleep." Her husband agreed. After a short time tiredness overcame him. Then Samthann gave herself to prayer, knocking at the doors of divine mercy so that God might keep her virginity unblemished. And God heard her prayer, for about midnight that town in which they lived seemed to outsiders to be on fire. A flame of extraordinary magnitude was seen ascending from the mouth of the holy virgin to the roof of the house. A mighty cry was raised outside in the town and those who were asleep within were awakened. Together, they hastened to extinguish the fire.

In the meantime the holy virgin Samthann hid herself in a cluster of ferns nearby. The fire vanished immediately without doing any damage to the town. When morning came, her foster-father, the king, set out to look for her. When he found her, she said to the king, "Was your town burned last night?" The king replied, "No." She said, "I thank God that it was not burned." Then she spoke to the king again, "Why did you wish to give this poor servant of the Almighty God to any spouse without her consent?" The king replied, "All right, I will not give you to a man, but let you be the judge." Samthann said, "This is not my decision: as of now you give me as a spouse to God and not to man." Then the king said, "We offer you to God, the spouse whom you choose." Then she, with her husband's permission, entered the monastery of the virgin Cognat where she remained for a time.

'Samthann of Clonbroney" in E.C.Sellner, Wisdom of the Celtic Saints (Indiana, 1993), 194-5.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Saint Maignenn of Kilmainham, December 18

December 18 is the feast of a County Dublin saint, Maignenn (Maignan, Magnenn) whose name is still recalled today in the placename Kilmainham. Saint Maignenn is a fascinating saint whose Vita contains many weird and wonderful episodes which rather shocked some of the 19th-century churchmen who wrote about the lives of the saints. He had, for example, a ram which used to carry his prayer books, as the Martyrology of Donegal explains in its entry for the day:


MAIGHNENN, Bishop and Abbot, of Cill-Maighnenn, near Athcliath. He was of the race of Colla-da-crioch. Sinell, daughter of Cenannan, sister of Old Senchell the saint, was his mother. He had a ram which used to carry his psalter and his prayerbook. There came a certain robber and thief, and stole the ram. Maighnenn, with his thrice nine clerics, went after the robber to his house. The robber denied having stolen the ram by oath on the relics, and on the hand of Maighnenn himself. The ram was cut up in quarters in a hole in the ground, after the robber had eaten what was in his belly. The ram spoke below in the hole. Maighnenn and his thrice nine persons looked up to heaven, and gave thanks to God for this miracle. But the robber was deprived of his eyesight, and their strength left his feet and his hands, and he said in a loud voice, "For God's sake," said he, "O Maighnenn, do not deprive me of the light of heaven for the future." When Maighnenn heard the repentance of the sinner, he prayed fervently to God for him, and he recovered his eyesight again, and he was eminent in religion as long as he lived. And the name of God and of Maighnenn was magnified by that miracle.

In his notes to Archdall's Monasticon Hibernicum, the then Bishop of Ossory P.F. Moran lamented "It is a pity that such a ridiculous fable should usurp the place of more authentic history about this holy man." Yet modern scholars would readily recognize a number of hagiographical motifs from this story of the ram and the robber. First, there is the slight done to the saint's honour by the robber, who compounds his sin by swearing his innocence not only on the relics but on the very hand of the saint himself. That cries out for punishment and it is duly delivered as his perjury is exposed by the miraculous cries of the ram. The thief is then deprived of his eyesight, and this is a motif which operates on more than one level, denoting spiritual blindness for example and recalling the encounter between Christ and the blind man in the Scriptures. Then there is the fact that this 'ridiculous fable' is actually a vehicle for conveying the mercy and sanctity of Saint Magnenn whose actions lead to a sinner being turned around and to the name of God being magnified. I think, therefore, that Bishop Moran perhaps missed the point of this hagiographical account with all of its rich symbolism - the three times nine clerics in attendance on the saint, the fact that a beast is subject to his will and the ability of Maignenn to successfully intercede for a sinner such as this - all tell me quite a lot about this holy man and in a much deeper way than 'authentic history' might have done.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Saint Crunnmael of Iona, December 17

The Martyrology of Oengus has a beautiful entry for December 17:
17. May Victor's host protect us
after the triumph of a deed of valour,
that we may attain splendid bliss
Jesus, Mary's great Son.
The scholiast's notes, however, point to a number of other saints who may also claim to be commemorated on this day:
17. Victor, i.e. a martyr; and Senchaid of Hui Aeda in Bregia, Lazarus and Moliac, and Crunnmael (abbot) of Iona, and Maedoc son of Mursan here.
The Martyrology of Gorman reads a little differently:

The noble translation of Ignatius : Lazarus and Martha, gentle ones, chaste relatives of Christ : Senchad along with them, my Liacc. Crundmael the vigorous whom I mention, my beautiful Aedoc whom thou entreatest.
whilst the latest of the Martyrologies, that of Donegal, omits the mention of Lazarus in favour of a quartet of Irish saints:

CRUNNMAEL, Abbot of Ia Coluim-cille.
MAEDHOG, son of Mursan.

I found it interesting that the Martyrology of Gorman had identified Lazarus as the biblical Lazarus of Bethany, the man whom Christ raised from the dead after four days in the tomb. I wondered if he had a feast day in his own right and wasn't surprised to see Wikipedia claim that:
No celebration of Saint Lazarus is included on the General Roman Calendar, but his memorial is traditionally celebrated on December 17.
I haven't been able to find out any more about the other Irish saints mentioned on this day, but the succession of the abbots of Iona is mentioned in the sources. The succession at Iona, initially at least, tended to remain within the wider family of Saint Columba. It has been estimated that of the first thirteen successors of Saint Columba, at least ten were related to the family of the founder. Our saint is listed as the tenth abbot of Iona, immediately succeeding Saint Adamnan, Saint Columba's most famous biographer. In an appendix to his 1874 edition of Adamnan's Life of Columba, Irish Anglican Bishop, William Reeves, quotes the Chronicle of Iona:

X. CONAMHAIL, 704-710.
707. Dunchadh principatum Iae tenuit.
710. Conamail mac Failbhi, abbas Iae, pausat.

If I am correct in assuming that this Conamhail is our saint, and his is the only name from the list of abbots which fits, then his abbacy would have taken place at the time when Iona was dealing with the debate on the Paschal Dating Controversy. Indeed, earlier scholars were puzzled by the fact that the annals appear to show that there was more than one person claiming to hold the abbacy of Iona at the same time. In this case Conamhail is listed for the period 704-710, yet in 707 his successor Dunchadh is listed as having already been abbot, and Dunchadh too shares his tenure with other abbots. Nineteenth-century scholars speculated that this may reflect some sort of 'schism' at Iona between those who favoured the Roman Easter dating versus those who did not. Alternatively, or additionally, the split may have concerned dynastic, familial rivalries between various branches of the wider family of Saint Columba and thus led to two different individuals both claiming to be abbot of Iona. Modern scholar Richard Sharpe, however, is not convinced that the evidence is there for any kind of schism, pointing out:
If the situation here were one of different parties recognizing different abbots, it is hard to understand why the annals should enter all of them impartially and without explanation...Rather than conjecture a schism, we should admit that it is impossible to interpret how the abbacy was occupied during this period.
Richard Sharpe, ed and trans, Life of Saint Columba, (Penguin Classics, 1991), 75.

Obviously this is one more area of the history of the Irish Church that would repay further study.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Saint Mo-beóc of Loch Garman, December 16

The Irish calendars agree in commemorating the feast of a Saint Mo-beóc or Bean on December 16. His precise identity though seems to be something of a mystery and the subject of some confusion with that of a later Scottish namesake. The prefix -mo meaning 'my' regularly occurs in the names of Irish saints -Molua, Molaise etc - and indicates an affectionate or diminutive form of a proper name. The Martyrology of Oengus first commemorates a Bishop Valentinus and then:
the feast of my excellent Beóóc,
from lustrous Ard Cainroiss.
The scholiast's notes do not add much:
My-Beóóc, i.e. of Loch Carman. Or my Beóóc of Loch Derg in the north.
The 12th-century Martyrology of Gorman also honours this saint as:
my Pióc a strong ingot(?).
and the notes there add:
from Ard Camrois on the brink of Loch Carman in Húi Cennselaig and from Ross Cain in Cluain Fergaile in Delbna Tire [da locha]
The later Martyrology of Donegal has a fuller entry, but one which only serves to deepen the confusion, as it introduces a Scottish Bishop Beanus of Aberdeen:

MOPHIOG, of Ard-Camrois, on the margin of Loch Carman, in Ui-Ceinnsealaigh ; and of Ros-caoin, in Cluain Fergaile, in Dealbhna of Tir-da-loch.
[Mobheog in Aengus, i.e., Beanus;(see in the Roman Martyrology ; vide Usuard, Molanus,) first bishop of Aberdeen or Ardon, i.e., from Ard, whence the error, as if from Ard-bishop, i.e., from Ard, and from this Abardonensis.]
The translator of the Martyrology adds in a footnote:
The note within brackets is in the later hand. It is intended to account for a supposed error of the Roman Martyrology in styling Beanus bishop of Aberdeen. That Mophiog, Mobheoc, and Beanus, are the same, requires no proof ; but the supposition that espug Arda was read episcopus ab Ardo [ bishop of Ard ], and this then corrupted to episcopus Abardo or Abardonensis, is scarcely admissible. The case is this. Molanus text of Usuardus has, at this day, "In Hybernia, natalis Beani, primi episcopi promotus est." Scotichron. iv. 44. (Vol. i. p. 227, ed. Goodall.) The foundation charter of this church, granted by Malcolm ii., A.D. 1010, "Episcopo Beyn de Morthelach" is preserved in the Register of the Diocese of Aberdeen (vol. i. p. 3, Spalding Club), and though called in question by the able editor, Professor Innes, (Pref. p. xiii.) is, at least, a collateral evidence as to the existence of Bishop Beyn or Beanus in the neighbourhood of Aberdeen. It is to be observed that the St. Beanus or Bean of the Scotch Calendar, whom the Breviary of Aberdeen and Adam King commemorate at the 26th of October, is a different person, being venerated at Fowlis in Stratherne, and probably identical with S.Beoan of Tamhlacht-Menan, who appears in the Irish calendars at the same day. Camerarius correctly assigns "Sanctus Beanus episcopus Murthlacensis dioecesis" to the 16th of December, (De Scotorum Fortitu-l p. 202). See Collections of the Shires of Aberdeen and Banff (Spalding Club) vol. i., p. 142.

Thus it appears that some sort of confusion has entered into the preservation of the memory an Irish saint Beóc commemorated on December 16 with a saint of the same name whose feast fell on October 26 and who was further confounded with an 10th/11th-century Scottish bishop of Aberdeen. The Martyrology of Oengus written about the year 900, of course knows nothing of this later bishop, the scholiast though is uncertain as to the locality in which our saint Beóc may have flourished, although all the calendars have preserved Loch Garman (Co. Wexford). Neither do we know at what date this saint may have flourished.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Saint Mughain of Cluain-Boirenn, December 15

On December 9 we commemorated two of the daughters of Oilill, Feidhealm and Mughain. I mentioned then that Mughain has a second commemoration on December 15, at least in the locality of Cluain-Boirenn, which Pádraig Ó Riain identifies as possibly being modern Cloonburren, County Roscommon. It is only one of a number of localities associated with this holy lady, Ó Riain's Dictionary of Irish Saints lists various others, including Kilmoon in County Clare where traditional devotion continued at the holy well up until the early nineteenth century, even though a feast day was no longer remembered for the saint. The Martyrology of Donegal records:

MUGHAIN, Virgin, of Cluain-Boirenn.

whilst the earlier Martyrology of Gorman notes:
15. F. 
Mogain [1] against every great battle. 
[1] a virgin, from Cluain Bairenn.

Reading Professor Ó Riain's research leaves the impression that this holy woman was once an important saintly figure, even if today her reputation is much more obscure.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Saint Cormac, December 14

On December 14 the later Irish calendars commemorate a Saint Cormac, described as a Bishop. The Martyrology of Gorman records his memory in poetic style: 'Cormac be on our behalf for indulgence' with a note adding that he is a bishop. The Martyrology of Donegal records: 'CORBMAC, Bishop, of the race of Eoghan, son of Niall.' Pádraig Ó Riain comments in his Dictionary of Irish Saints that this episcopal holy man belonged to a branch of the Ceinéal Eoghain located on the eastern side of the Inishowen barony of County Donegal. Apart from the commemoration of Bishop Cormac in the calendars on this date, however, nothing else is known of him.