Monday, 3 July 2017

Saint Mael-Muire Ua Gormáin (Marianus O'Gorman), July 3

July 3 is the commemoration of a twelfth-century Augustinian abbot of the monastery of Cnoc na n-Apostol (Hill of the Apostles) in County Louth. Although this is the first post I have made in honour of his feast day, he is no stranger to the blog for Saint Mael-Muire ua Gormáin (Marianus O'Gorman) was himself a hagiologist whose lasting contribution to the study of the Irish saints is his calendar, known as the Martyrology of Gorman. His name appears quite simply on July 3 in the Martyrology of Donegal as 'MAELMUIRE UA GORMAIN, Abbot of Lughmhagh.' Below is an account of the man and his monastery from the nineteenth-century scholar, Whitley Stokes, who edited and translated Saint Mael-Muire's metrical calendar from a manuscript copy in the Royal Library, Brussels:

The Author of the Martyrology, and the Place in which it was composed.

The author of the Martyrology now published was Mael-Maire hua Gormain, otherwise called Marianus Gorman, abbot of Cnoc na n-Apstol ' the Hill of the Apostles,' a monastery of Canons Regular of St. Augustine at Knock close to the town of Louth. All that is really known of him is derived from the preface to his Martyrology, which uses the first person (rodherbsamar fuaramar, tuccsamar) when referring to the author,and may well have been written by Gorman himself, though Colgan ascribes it to an ancient scholiast.

Hence it appears that Gorman was abbot of Cnoc na n-Apstol (otherwise called Cnoc na Sengán, ' the Hill of the Pismires '), and that he composed his Martyrology while Ruaidre hua Conchobair was King of Ireland, while Gelasius or Gilla mac Liac was archbishop of Armagh, and while Aed hua Cáillaidhi was bishop of Oriel, i.e., the present counties of Louth, Armagh, and Monaghan. Ruaidre began to reign as monarch of Ireland about the year 1166 and retired in 1183 to the monastery of Cong, where he died in 1199. Gilla mac Liac was archbishop of Armagh from 1137 to 1173, when he died. Aed hua Cáillaidhi was bishop of Oriel from 1139 to 1182. The result is, if the statements in the preface are true, that Gorman must have composed his Martyrology at some time between 1166 and 1174, 'circa annum 1167,' says Colgan.

It must, however, be admitted that the Martyrology commemorates two saints—Gilla mac Liacc at March 27, and Gilla mo Chaidbeo at March 31, of whom the former died in 1 173, the latter in 1174. We are therefore driven to one of two hypotheses—either the statements in the preface are not true, and the Martyrology was composed after 1174, or the commemorations just mentioned were added after the completion of the poem. The latter hypothesis seems the more probable. The tradition of the Irish literati agrees with the preface, and the commemorations in question are at the ends of the stanzas in which they respectively occur, and may well have been inserted in accordance with the suggestion in the preface: 'If defects are found therein, let the erudite . . . add; but let them not spoil the course of the poem.' Who made these insertions does not appear. In 1181, according to the Four Masters, Maelmuire Hua Dunain, Abbot of Cnoc na Sengán in Louth, died. Of him Colgan, Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae, p. 737, says :

' Hic videtur esse B. Marianus Gormanus, author Martyrologii, a nobis laudatus, quem constat anno 1172 fuisse eiusdem monasterii Abbatem, ut praefatio eius Martyrologio prefixa, tradit' If Colgan's conjecture be right—and Lanigan agrees with him—the insertions may have been made by Gorman himself But I know of no sure instance of an Irishman being called at one time after his paternal, at another after his maternal, grandfather.

Gorman is commemorated in the Martyrology of Donegal at July 3. He was probably canonised, not by the Apostolic See, but by his metropolitan, the archbishop of Armagh, just as in 1153, St. Gaultier, Abbot of Pontoise, was canonised by the archbishop of Rouen.

The monastery of Cnoc na nApstol, or Cnoc na Sengán, in which Gorman probably wrote, was founded by Donnchad húa Cerbaill, King of Airgeill (Oriel), in honour of SS. Paul and Peter. The best evidence of these statements is an Irish entry, dated Jan. I, 1170, in an antiphonary formerly belonging to the cathedral church of Armagh, but now in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, Class B, Tab. I. No. i. This entry is printed in Petrie's work on the Round Towers, p. 391, with the following translation :

Kalend. Januar. V. feria bin. X. Anno Domini MCLXX. A prayer for Donnchadh O'Carrol, supreme King of Airgiall, by whom were made the book of Cnoc na nApstal at Louth and the chief books of the order of the year, and the chief books of the Mass. It was this great king who founded the entire monastery both [as to] stone and wood, and gave territory and land to it, for the prosperity of his soul in honour of [SS.] Paul and Peter. By him the church throughout the land of Oirghiall was reformed, and a regular bishopric was made, and the church was placed under the jurisdiction of the bishop. In his time tithes were received, and the marriage [ceremony] was assented to, and churches were founded, and temples and cloictheachs were made, and monasteries of monks and canons and nuns were re-edified, and nemheds were made. These are especially the works which he performed for the prosperity [of his soul] and reign, in the land of Airghiall, namely, the monastery of monks on the bank of the Boyne [both as to] stone and wooden furniture and book, and territory and land, in which [monastery] there are one hundred monks and three hundred conventuals, and the monastery of canons of Termann Feichin and the monastery of nuns, and the great church of Termann Feichin, and the church of Lepadh Feichin and the church of * * *.

So the Four Masters at the year 1148: ' The church of Cnoc na Sengán was finished by the bishop Ua Caellaidhe and Donnchadh ua Cearbhaill, and was consecrated by Ua Morgair, a successor of Patrick; and a neimeadh, i.e., ecclesiastical land, was assigned to it in Lughmadh....

Whitley Stokes, ed. and trans.,  Félire Húi Gormáin, The Martyrology of Gorman, (London, 1895), xix-xxi.

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Saturday, 1 July 2017

Saint Lughaidh, Son of Lughaidh, July 1

On July 1 the calendars record the name of Lughaidh, son of Lughaidh. He is one of a number of Irish saints to bear this ancient name and trying to figure out the relationships between them is not an easy task. There appears to have been some sort of tradition recorded that our saint was associated with a place called Cluain-camaint, but this information proves to be of little help, as Canon O'Hanlon explains below:

St. Lugid or Lughaidh, Son of Lugeus or Lughaidh.

... The Martyrology of Tallagh enters the name of Lugidius, son of Lugeus, as having veneration paid him, at the 1st of July. Thus was he distinguished, at an early period of our ecclesiastical history, among his contemporaries. Marianus O'Gorman has a similar notice in his Martyrology, at this day. Cathal Maguire agrees in the paternity, and he adds, that the present holy man was Bishop of Cluain-camaint. It is now difficult to identify this ancient place. The Bollandists, who notice Lugidius filius Lugei at the 1st of July, state, that Cluain-camaint was unknown to them, but they suggest, that a Cluaid-camhain is mentioned in the Annals of Donegal, at the year 1089. Where they obtained such information is not apparent to us. Lughaidh, son of Lughaidh, is the entry of the O'Clerys, in the Martyrology of Donegal at this date.

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Friday, 30 June 2017

Saint Caelán Dahoc, June 30

We close the month of June with a notice of Saint Caelán Dahoc, whose memorial is to be found on the Irish calendars across the centuries, as Canon O'Hanlon explains:

St. Coelan Dahoc, or Caolan.

In the Martyrology of Tallagh, a festival in honour of Coelan Dahoc is entered, at the 30th of June.  Marianus O'Gorman and Charles Maguire name a St. Coelan, for this day.  The Martyrology of Donegal records the name as Caolan, together with Failbhe of Cill-eo, at this same date. The Irish Calendar in the Royal Irish Academy has a fuller entry in reference to both these saints. There is, however, an apparent discrimination of places.

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Thursday, 29 June 2017

Saint Maeldoid, June 29

Canon O'Hanlon brings details of an obscure holy man, Maeldoid, Son of Derbhdara at June 29:

St. Maeldoid, Son of Derbhdara.

We find entered in the Martyrology of Tallagh, that veneration was given at the 29th of June, to Moeldoid i Failbhe, mac Daire. Little seems to be known regarding him. At the same date, the Martyrology of Donegal registers the name of Maeldoid, son of Derbhdara.

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Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Blessed Malchus of Mellifont, June 28

At June 28 Canon O'Hanlon has a brief notice marking the feast of a monk from the Cistercian foundation at Mellifont, County Louth. Mellifont Abbey was founded in 1142, the first Cistercian monastery to be established in Ireland. Its first abbot was said to be Saint Christian O'Connarchy, who died in 1186 and whose own feast day is March 18. Some sources say that the founder abbot was succeeded by his brother, Malchus, as the writer of an 1897 guide to the monastery explains:

About the same time [i.e. 1186], there died at Mellifont, a holy monk named Malchus, who is said to have been St. Christian's brother and successor in the abbatial office, as has been related above. Ussher, quoting St. Bernard, positively asserts that he was St. Christian's brother. And Sequin, who, in 1580, compiled a Catalogue of the Saints of the Cistercian Order, mentions Malchus in that honoured roll, and styles him "a true contemner of the world, a great lover of God, and a pattern and model of all virtues to the whole Order." He says, "he was one of St. Malachy's disciples in whose footsteps he faithfully followed, and that he was renowned for his sanctity and learning, as well as for the many miracles he wrought." His feast was kept on the 28th of June.

Mellifont Abbey, Co. Louth, its ruins and associations : a guide and popular history (Dublin, 1897), 64-65.

Canon O'Hanlon has only the briefest of notices for this holy monastic:

The Blessed Malchus, Monk of Mellifont, County of Louth.

[Twelfth Century]

At this date, the Bollandists have a feast for the Blessed Malchus, of the Cistercian Order in Ireland, on the authority of Henriquez and Chalemot.

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Sunday, 25 June 2017

Saint Ailell, Son of Seigen, June 25

On June 25 the Irish calendars record the feast of Saint Ailell, accompanied by the patronymic 'son of Seigen'. As Canon O'Hanlon explains below, however, it is not easy to definitively distinguish this saint from others of the same name:

St. Ailell, Son of Seigen. 

We find Uill, son of Segin, recorded in the Martyrology of Tallagh, without any other addition. There are many distinguished ecclesiastics bearing the name of Ailill mentioned by our annalists, who have recorded their deaths. Under the head of Clocher, Duald Mac Firbis enters an Ailill, bishop, quievit 867. He is also called Scribe and Abbot of that place. We cannot be sure, however, that he is identical with the present saint. According to the Martyrology of Donegal, a festival in honour of Ailell, son of Seigen, was celebrated, at the 25th of June.

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Saturday, 24 June 2017

Saint Gaibhrein, June 24

Canon O'Hanlon, in Volume VI of his Lives of the Irish Saints, has an entry at June 24 for a Saint Gaibhrein. The seventeenth-century Donegal hagiologist, Friar Michael O'Clery, identified him with a  fellow-student of Saint Mochua of Balla, interestingly this Gabhrin was described as a 'Bishop of the Britons'. Whatever the accuracy of this identification Saint Gabrin's feast day was recorded on the Irish calendars at June 24. In his account below Canon O'Hanlon also speculates on a County Tipperary location for the city of 'Gael' mentioned as the site of Gabhrin's church in the Life of Saint Mochua:

St. Gabrin, or Gaibhrein.

We find the name, Gabrin, set down in the Martyrology of Tallagh, at the 24th of June. According to the O'Clerys, the Life of Mochua of Balla states, that when Mochua left Bennchar, he proceeded to Gael, i.e., a city, which is in Fir Rois. A Bishop of the Britons was there named Gabhrin, and it is said, that he offered the church to Mochua, for they had been fellow-students together. The Calendarist O'Clery thinks this is the same Gaibhren, as that one to whom allusion has thus been made. Under the head of Gael, Duald Mac Firbis enters, Gaibhrinn, bishop, at June 24th. Where his See was situated, however, has not been discovered, nor when he flourished. There is a Geal or Gaile, a parish in the barony of Middlethird, and county of Tipperary. It lies south of Holycross, and east of the River Suir. Here are some ruins of an ancient church. A sketch of it is preserved among the drawings to illustrate County of Tipperary Records, for the Irish Ordnance Survey. The ruined church is surrounded by a cemetery. The west gable was surmounted with a belfry, while some of the walls and windows are still tolerably preserved; however, the east gable, down to the height of the side walls, was destroyed, in 1840. The church was 50 feet in length, by 10 feet, 10 inches, in breadth; the walls were over 3 feet in thickness, and about 13 feet in height. The doorway was on the south wall, about 13 feet, 10 inches, from the west gable; it was destroyed at top, on the inside, so that the original height is not now known; but, its width was 4 feet, 1 inch, and on the outside it had a semi- circular top, measuring 6 feet, 9 inches in height, and 3 feet, 6 inches, in width. This was finished off with chiselled limestone. The west gable contained a small window, which was quadrangular, on the inside, and round-headed, on the outside. There was a second doorway in the north wall, opposite that in the south wall. The parish of Geal was a rectory, and part of the benefice of Holy Cross, in the diocese of Cashel. According to John O'Donovan, the meaning of its denomination is not certain. In the Martyrology of Donegal, at the 24th of June, this saint is described, under the name of Gaibhrein.

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Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Some Saints of County Clare

I was recently reading a paper by the one-time president of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, T.J. Westropp (1860-1922). His subject was the Churches of County Clare and it includes a useful appendix on the patrons and founders of the churches. I reproduce the list below, please note that in the references to the feasts of the saints the letter 'O' refers to the Martyrology of Oengus and 'D' to the Martyrology of Donegal. Those preceded by an asterisk are female.

List of the Patrons and Founders of Churches.

The list of patrons and church builders in this county, during the period from 450 to 750, extends to over sixty names, nor can I satisfy myself that it is in any way complete. Owing to difficulties of identity and date, they are arranged alphabetically, not chronologically.

ACCOBRAN of Kilrush, January 28th (0, pp. 29-39) or 29th (D).

AEDAN of Iniscatha, stated to be the famous saint of Lindisfarne, August 31st.

If so, Bede records his death in 651. The Leabar Brecc identifies Inis Medcoitt with both Scattery and Lindisfarne, but the matter is very doubtful.

*BANAWLA or MANAWLA, supposed to be Tola, of Dysertodea; legendary name attached to the high cross, sometimes " Monalagh."

BLATHMAC of Rathblamaic, father of Onchu, supposed Blathmenus of "Vita S. Flannani," c. 640, or Blathmac, friend of Macreehy, c. 550.

BRECAN of Kilbrecan, May 1st, son of King Eochy Bailldearg, 440; living, c. 480; shared Aranmore with Enda, and founded churches of Noughaval or Kilbrecan; Clooney, near Quin and Doora; wells at Noughaval and Toomullin.

BRECAN, nephew of the last, and cousin of Diman; probably commemorated October 12th, c. 520.

BRECANUS, a contemporary of S. Molua and Elannan, c. 640.

BRENDAN (of doubtful identity), has wells in Kilmoon Parish, and at Farihy in Kilfearagh.

BRENDAN, of Ardfert, A.D. 550, had a church at Inisdadrum.

BRENDAN MAC FIRLOGA resided at Dubhdoire or Doora.

*BRIDGET, daughter of Conchraid, of the family of Mactalius, was Abbess of Feenish, c. 550; she is possibly Patroness of the wells at Kiltanon, Cappafeean, Finnor (in Ibrickan), and Coney Island.

CAMIN of Iniscaltra, son of Dima, of the race of Cathair Mor, and half-brother of King Guaire Aidhne; churches of St. Caiman, at Iniscaltra, Moynoe, and perhaps Kilcameen, near Kilfenora, died March 25th, 653 (Colgan) (0).

CAEIDE of Kilkeedy church and well, March 3rd; perhaps also of Kilkee (Cil Caeide).

CALLAN of Iniscaltra, August Quart. Cal. (D).

*CANNARA of Kilconry, Visited St. Senan, and was buried on Iniscatha.

CAEITAN of Kilcredaun church in Moyarta, a disciple of Senan ("Vita S. Senani"), wells at Kilcredaun, near Carrigaholt; at Kilcredaun, near O'Brien's Bridge; and Kilcredaunadober, near Cratloe; living c. 550.

CARROLL, of KilCarroll, near Kilrush, where his well, ''laght," and wooden image remained in 1816.

*COCHA of Rossbenchoir; nurse of St. Kieran.

COLAN of Iniscaltra, well at Tobercolan, died at Tomgraney, 551 (Annals Four Masters), October 24th (D).

COLMAN MACDUACH of Kilmacduach, half brother of Guaire Aidne, and (through their mother) a descendant of Dathi. Colman studied in Aran, and lived a recluse life at Kinallia, Slieve Carran, and Oughtmama; wells at Teernea, Lough George, and near Crusheen. He founded Kilmacduach about 610; his mediaeval "Life" is extant; he died at Oughtmama 29th October, 632. He gives his name to Macduach's river in Clooney Parish, near Quin.

COLMAN of Clonrush.

COLMANS the three, of Oughtmama churches and well and Glensleade well.

COLUMBA of Glencolumbcille, probably the famous saint of Iona, who is the traditional founder of Crumlin, after leaving Aran, June 9th. Another tradition connects him with Iniscaltra; he died at Iona 597.

COMAN. There was a Comman out at Arran, November 21; his son Colman, November 21, was also a saint.

*CONANDiL, sister of Senan.

CONNELL of the lost church of Kilconnell, on the Fergus (will of King Cormac, of Cashel, 902).

CORNAN, of Kilcornan, near Ennistymon, and Tobercoman, near Ballyvaughan.

CROINE, patron of Kilcroney Church and well at Liscrona.

CRONAN of Tomgraney, October 24th, c. 505; November 1st.  He or the second Cronan was also patron of Inchicronan and Termoncronan. The wells at Killokennedy Church and Corrakyle are dedicated to a Cronan.

CRONAN of Tomfinlough, the Leabar Brecc identifies him with Cronan of Roscrea, April 28th.

CUANNA of Kilshanny, perhaps Mochunna (the abbot Covanus) of Kilquane' and Feakle.

DIOMA of Kildimo, near Kilrush, perhaps Diman, nephew of Aenghus, son of Cairthinn Fionn.

*ELIA of Killeely, sister of St. Mainchin, c. 550.

*EMERIA, see Imer.

ENDA of Aran, son of Connall the red, was granted Aran by his sister's husband, Engus, King of Cashel; founder of the church of Killeany, in the Burren; March 21st, c. 480: see his " Life " in Colgan.

FACHTNAN of Kilfenora, perhaps of Ross, as the same saint's day, August 14th, was observed at both places (D).

FINGHIN of Quin, perhaps Einghin of Roscrea, February 5th (D), or Finghin of Clonmacnoise, whose coarbs were connected with Tomgraney.

FLANNAN of Killaloe, son of King Torlough; his Latin Life is preserved; he preached in the Hebrides, and gave his name to the Flannan Isles there; living c. 680, December 19th.

*IMER, or Emeria, of Killimer.

*INGHEAN BAOITH of Kilnaboy, March 29th, December 29th; wells at Kilnaboy, Commons, Glensleade, Quakerstown, Killavella, Dulick in Templemaley, Kiltachy, Kilshanny, Aglish, Moy Ibricane, Magowna, Ballycoree, Shallee (two), Cullann, Castletown (Clooney), Drumumna and Quin.

Perhaps daughter of Mobaoi, of Cluan Fhionnabhair (Clooney of Kilfenora), December 14;  his mother was of Loop Head. A certain " Columb inghen Baiti," March 23rd, is named. Ethne and Sodelb, daughters of Baoith, founded Donabate Church, in county Dublin.

*ITA of Killeedy, January 15th, living 551. She is alleged to have founded a church in Southern Clare.

KIERAN of Kilkerin, Clonderlaw, locally "Keereen," wells there and at Kilnasoola. Perhaps of Clonmacnoise.

LAUGHTEEN of Kilnamona, chui'ch and well, and the wells at Kilfarboy and Stacpoole's Bridge, near Miltown Malbay; the reliquary of his arm was preserved at Kilnamona for some time, and thence sent to Lislachtin, Kerry. He is most probably Lachtin, friend of St. Senan, c. 550, and gave his name to Autkeenlaughteen at Kilnamona.

LONAN  of Killaspuglonan; also of Killilagh and Clooney (in Kilfenora) church and wells, and Derrynavahagh well in Kilmoon Parish. A friend of Maccreehy, c. 550.

LUCHTIGHERN, son of Cutrito, of Tomfinlough, and perhaps of Inisdimain (Ennistymon, or Moy Inisdia). A friend of Maccreehy, c. 550, April 13th, as kept in parish in 1839. April 28th, in Calendar of Oengus.

MACCREEHY, Maccreiche, or Maccreeius, of Kilmacreehy, a disciple of Ailbe of Emly, who died 540, having lived to an advanced age, founding Kilmacreehy, Kilmanaheen, and Inagh churches, about 580. April 11th (D): his curious Latin "Life " is extant.

MAINCHIN of Kilmanaheen, a disciple of Maccreehy, c. 580. Perhaps the Bishop of "Luimneach," now known as St, Munchin, and Manchenus.

MOBAOI of Cluain Thionnabhair (probably Clooney, in Kilfenora); his mother came from Loop Head; December 14th.

MOCHONNA of Feakle, well at Moynoe, "Mochonna of Magheo," March 29.  Perhaps the Abbot Covanns of Kilquane.

MOCHULLA* of Tulla, in eastern Clare, wells at Lough Graney, Lough Bridget, Tulla, Kilgorey, Portanne, Broadford, Trough, Palahine, Miltown (Tulla), Cragg, Lahardaun, Cappavilla, Carrigaholt, Scattery, and Moylough. Perhaps the "Molocus" of Inistibraid, a friend of St. Senan. If so, living c. 550. Was remembered as a bishop at Tulla.

MOGUA of Noughaval (perhaps of Kilmoon, Kilmugown, 1302, but name is difficult), wells at Noughaval and Moy. Perhaps Mochua or Cronan.

MOLUA, also Dalua, Lua, and Lugad, of Killaloe. Abbot and Patron of Kildalua, c. 640, also of Friars' Island, and probably Killue (Killuga, 1302), Killofin (Killugafion, 1302).

MORONOC of Inisloe, the penitentiary, a friend of S. Senan, c. 550.

ONCHU of Killonaghan, probably the son of Blathmac, whose remains were laid with those of Finan in a "Sepulchrum religionis" at Clonmacnoise.

RICIN and REKIN of Clooney, see Brecan.

RUADHAN of Lorrha,  some think of Ruan. April 15th,  died 584.

SANCTAN of Drumlaigill, in Tradree (Dromline, Drumligil, 1302), son of Samuel the low-headed, and Dectir, daughter of Muredagh Muingdearg. May 11th.

SCREABAN (? Sribanus, 1302) of Clondegad, wells there and at Anna, Clondegad.

SEANACH of Kilshanny. Probably brother of Senan, c. 550, and of the Magharees, Co. Kerry.

SENAN, son of Gerchinn of Moylongh, born late in the fifth century; died 553. Several early lives are extant. He was of Iniscatha (Scattery), Moylough, Iniscaorach (Mutton Island), Inisloe, Feenish, Inismore, Doonass (Kiltinanlea), and Ross (Ros an airchail). Besides these churches and wells, he has wells at Scattery, Kilclogher, Carrow, near Kilmacduane, Erribul (in Kilfeddan), Kilshanny, Killaneena, near Clonlea, Cooraclare, Kilclogher, Drim, and Kilcredaun; he is also the traditional founder of Kilmihil Church. March 8th.

SEILY of Kilseily church and well, an unknown saint.

STELLAN of Iniscaltra, a contemporary of St. Caimin, died May 4th, c. 650. Perhaps also of Terryglas. May 26th.

TOLA of Dysert Tola (Dysert O'Dea), son of Donchad, of the race of Corbmac, died March 30th, 734 or 737. He was Bishop of Clonard and Disert Tola, in the Upper Cantred of Dalcais. His crosier is preserved. He was probably founder of Kiltoola.

VOYDAN or BAIGHDEAN of Kilvoydan, graveyard, well, and cross near Corofin, and Kilvoydan graveyard, well, and bullaun near Kilraughtis.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Holy Wells of Ireland

Sunday, June 18 has been declared 'National Holy Wells Day'. I had the chance to visit a holy well in County Down yesterday and now mark this day with an 1884 paper by Father John Healy, later to become Archbishop of Tuam. He had a keen interest in the Irish saints and published a number of books and articles on the Early Irish Church and on Saint Patrick. In this paper on holy wells he defends the expressions of popular devotion these sites enjoyed, something with which other churchmen were not always so comfortable. He begins by attempting to place the Irish tradition of holy wells in its wider Christian and scriptural context before moving on to give us some examples from this country:



"The holy wells, the living wells, the cool, the fresh, the pure,
A thousand ages rolled away, and still those fonts endure,
As full and sparkling as they flowed, ere slave or tyrant trod
The emerald garden set apart for Irishmen by God."


THERE have been holy wells and sacred streams in every country and in every age. Sometimes amongst Pagan nations they have been the object of idolatrous worship; sometimes, too, in Christian countries they may have been unduly and superstitiously reverenced.

But it is also certain that a lawful and becoming reverence of a religious character may be paid to those sacred fountains whose waters have been instrumental in performing miracles or have been specially sanctified by the Church's use, or by the blessing of some great saint. There is no other country in the world where there are so many of these truly holy wells as in Ireland, or where they are still so much reverenced by the people. We propose to explain the origin and the motives of the religious reverence which is still justly due to the holy wells of Ireland.

Tertullian, the first of the Latin Fathers, who flourished towards the end of the second century of the Christian era, tells us that the element of water was specially sanctified by the Spirit of God, who "moved over the face of the waters." Not only amongst the Jews but even amongst Pagan nations the living stream was regarded as the most fitting symbol of spiritual life; and the purity of heart that befits the ministers and servants of God, was fitly typified by the limpid water whose lustrations cleansed and cooled and refreshed the bodies of the worshippers. So God Himself commanded that water should be used in the legal purifications of the Jews; and a brazen sea of pure water stood within the court of the temple for the purifications to be performed by the priests.

There were, moreover, holy wells and holy streams in Palestine, Everyone has heard of the sacred pool of Bethsaida, where our Saviour performed the great miracle so often represented in ancient Christian art. St John (v. 2) tells us that amongst its five porches

"lay a great multitude of sick, of blind, of lame, of withered, waiting for the moving of the water. And an angel of the Lord descended at certain times into the pond, and the water was moved. And he that went down first unto the pond after the motion of the water was made whole of whatsoever infirmity he lay under." A holy well, in sooth, a second Lourdes, of marvellously miraculous virtue, which not even a Protestant, if he be a Christian, can safely sneer at.

Then the Jordan was pre-eminently a sacred stream. For its waters heard the voice of God " and came down from above, and stood in one place swelling up like a mountain," so that they were seen from afar until ail the people passed over through the channel that was dried up. At the word of the prophet, too, the same stream was filled with healing efficacy, so that when the leper Naaman, "went down and washed in the Jordan seven times according to the word of the man of God, his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child and he was made clean." But more than all was the Jordan sanctified when our Saviour Himself stood in the stream, and John the Baptist poured upon his head the baptismal waters that gave no sanctity to Him, but were, as all the Fathers teach, sanctified forever by contact with his saving flesh. In after-times a large cross was erected upon the spot, a great monastery was built nigh to it, and pilgrims from every land came to bathe in the sacred stream, and its waters were borne over all the earth and were used at the baptism of the children of kings.

Jacob's well near Sichem in Samaria, where our Saviour asked the drink of water from the Samaritan woman, not unnaturally became also a holy well; and a great cruciform church was built round about, so that the well was in the very centre of the church. A pilgrim bishop, Arculphus by name, in the eighth century, saw the church with his own eyes, and drank of the waters of the well, as he himself told our great countryman, Adamann, abbot of Iona, who mentions this as well as many other interesting facts in his celebrated tract on the Holy Places.

There were many circumstances that combined to lend a special sanctity to the holy wells of Ireland. In the earlier centuries of the Christian era adult baptism was almost always performed by immersion. Hence we find that a baptistery was nearly always constructed in the immediate neighbourhood of the great cathedrals, as at Constantinople, Rome, Milan, and Ravenna. These baptisteries were separate buildings, although in connection with the church, and were frequently constructed of considerable size and elaborately ornamented. In the inner chamber of the baptistery there was always a large pool of pure water, surrounded by a low wall with two or three ascending and as many steps descending to the water. This wall was again surrounded by rows of columns sometimes of richest porphyry', from which depended curtains that served at once for the purpose both of ornament and propriety. The catechumens, on the great festivals of Easter and Pentecost, descended into the pool in batches, and were baptized by the officiating minister. Standing in the water, almost in the same costume as is worn now by bathers, they first turned to the west, the place of darkness, and solemnly renounced Satan; then turning to the east, the throne of light, and stretching out their hands to heaven, they made solemn profession of their faith and were then baptized, sometimes by immersion, and sometimes by infusion, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Now these fonts were always solemnly blessed before use with prayer, and invocation, and insufflation of the minister; and the waters were commingled with the holy chrism. We are informed, too, that it was a common belief that the moment the font was blessed an angel of God came down from heaven to purify the waters, and guard them from diabolical profanation, and thus he became the guardian angel of the holy spot.

But the font was not the only sacred fountain near the church in those early centuries. In the porches of the larger churches there were cisterns of water for the use of the faithful. Such a basin was erected by St. Paulinus of Nola in the atrium or porch of his church of St. Felix. This fountain, too, was blessed as well as the font and had its temporal advantages as well as spiritual significance. In hot countries, especially, it was a great benefit for the worshippers who sometimes travelled long distances to be able to wash the face, and hands, and feet, especially when going to partake of the sacred mysteries. And an inscription in the porch reminded them that they were to cleanse their consciences by penance as they cleansed the face with water before admission to the sacred mysteries.

St. Patrick, during the years of his sojourn in Gaul and Italy, witnessed these observances; and knew that at least a suitable baptismal font was a matter of obligation wherever it could be had. But when he came to preach the Gospel in Ireland there were neither churches nor fonts of any kind; yet, of course, the people were to be baptized, that the living stones of the spiritual edifice might be ready when the material edifice was built to receive them. We know, too, that the primitive churches in Ireland were very small, and oftentimes of the rudest materials, so that baptisteries of the continental style were altogether out of the question. On his missionary journeys in this country the saint found it necessary to act as the deacon St. Philip did with the Eunuch from Ethiopia, and baptize his converts in the wayside wells and streams.

We can easily gather from the early lives of our great apostle how he usually acted on these occasions. When the converts of a certain district were sufficiently instructed, he selected a suitable site for the future church. That site was generally near a well or stream of pure water, which might serve as a baptistery for the new congregation. The rude little church of stone, or timber, was easily built by willing hands, and when the Catechumens were instructed the apostle prepared to baptize them in the well. But it must first be blessed, for it might have been profaned by evil influences, or it might have been a stream which the Druids held sacred to their gods. It was then, of course, all the more necessary to bless it by exorcism, and prayer, and invocation of the Holy Spirit of God; for the Church nearly always thus blesses whatever is to be used for the purposes of divine worship. Then the Catechumens, as they were ready, were brought in batches, made to stand up to their knees in the well, or stream, and the apostle and his assistant priests pouring the living stream on their heads, ransomed them from the powers of darkness, and made them heirs of the kingdom of light. And undoubtedly the stream thus blessed by St. Patrick, and used by him and by succeeding ministers as a baptistery and font for the faithful, became in very truth a holy spring and had its own guardian angel; and besides its sacramental efficacy, there was a virtue in its waters derived from the prayers of the Church, and the merits and prayers of the great and holy men who sanctified its waters.

There are several incidents narrated in the lives of the early Irish saints which furnish abundant proof of these statements. We are told, for instance, that when St. Patrick, having crossed the Shannon, came to the Royal Palace of Rath Cruachan, in Roscommon, where the daughters of King Leoghaire were being educated, as he approached the palace at early morning he met the two royal maidens, Fedelm of the red-rose cheeks, and Ethna of the golden hair, at Clebach's fountain on the southern slope of Cruachan, where they were wont to take their morning bath, according to the simple customs of those early days. There before them sat the saint, a "king-like presence, fronting the dawn he sat alone," and his monks stood nigh to him. The wondering maidens gazed upon the venerable stranger, and questioned him much as to who he was, and whence he came, and what king he served. Then Patrick told the lofty message which he bore, and: —

"As he spake the eyes of that lovely twain
Grew large with a tearful but glorious light;
Like skies of summer, late cleared by rain,
When the full-orbed moon will be soon in sight."

At the same moment God touched their hearts with his grace, and, believing with the fulness of a perfect faith, they were baptized, even where they stood, by the margin of Clebach's fountain; not, however, until he had first blessed the stream:

"No word he said,
But three times made the sacred sign;
At the first men say the demons fled;
At the third flocked round them the Powers divine, unseen."

And then the maidens fair were robed in white, and begged the Eucharistic Bread Divine and prayed that they might be united to their Spouse and King for ever. The saint, as was the custom in those days, gave them the Holy Communion after the baptism, and lo! the flush of health faded from their brows, and they calmly sank to sleep in death, and side by side at Clebach well were laid to rest. But their souls went up to heaven, to their Saviour and King, and the fountain became one of the holy wells of Erin, long celebrated in history and in song.

We are told in the same "Tripartite," which is one of the earliest and most authentic lives of St. Patrick, that when the saint was at Aghagower, near the modern Westport, in the county Mayo, he built a church there, and he set over it the Bishop Senachus, whose innocence and holiness were so great that Patrick called him God's lamb. And Patrick loved much the beauty and retirement of this spot, so well suited for heavenly contemplation, and longed to remain there as long as the constant care of the churches permitted. " Nigh to the little church of Senachus there was a large fountain of wondrous efficacy, wherein two fish might always be seen swimming, and nothing could destroy them. This immunity from death, which the fish in the sacred spring enjoyed, was," so the writer of the Life tells us, "believed to be the fruit of St. Patrick's blessing." This is probably one of the earliest of many similar stories told of fish that lived for ever in the blessed wells. It must, however, be borne in mind that the "fish," especially in those early days, was a Christian symbol of most sacred significance. The name ichthus which is the Greek word for fish, and the fish itself are of constant recurrence amongst the sacred symbols of the early Christians in the Catacombs. The letters of the Greek word formed the initial letters of the sentence: "Jesus Christ, of God the Son, our Saviour." The heavenly Ichthus, then, was Jesus Christ, and we are the smaller fishes, born in the waters of baptism, as Tertullian says, caught in the net of salvation, and thus made members of the heavenly kingdom. There is a reference in the same symbol to the Holy Eucharist, with which the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes had such intimate connection both in point of time and significance. On a tablet found, in 1839, near Autun, in France, there is a Greek inscription, of which the following, amongst other words, can be clearly discerned: "Offspring of the heavenly Ichthus, see that a heart of holy reverence be thine, now that from the divine waters thou hast received, while jet among mortals, a fount of life that is to immortality. Quicken thy soul, O beloved one, with the ever-flowing waters of wealth-giving wisdom, and receive the honey-sweet food of the Saviour of the saints. Eat with longing hunger the Ichthus which thou boldest in thy hands." (See Smith's "Christ. Ant," p. 806, vol. i.) Remembering this beautiful symbolism of the life-giving waters, and the heavenly Ichthus, we shall be disposed to look with greater reverence on the crystal waters of the holy well and the sacred fish, on which the prayers of Patrick are said to have bestowed immortal life.

Another fact is narrated in the life of St. Patrick, which shows that he regarded a spring of water as a matter of necessity near a church, for the purposes already indicated. When the saint was not far distant from Rath Cruachan, he received from the converted druid, Ono, a suitable site, [whereon he built a church, which was called Ail-finn (Elphin), that is the rock of the clear stream. The rock was there already, and St. Patrick one night caused a miraculous fountain of limpid water to spring from beneath the rock, as Moses did at Horeb. That copious fountain is still flowing before the gate of the Protestant church of Elphin, which is built on the site of the old cathedral founded by St. Patrick for his beloved disciple, Asicus, the first bishop of Elphin, who made for Patrick his chalices and patens and the quadrangular covers for the sacred books.

We might give many other instances from the lives of our Irish saints to show that it was customary from the earliest times to baptize the faithful in the wells near the churches, which thus not unnaturally acquired a character of special sanctity. We are told, for instance, that the great Saint Columba was baptized at Temple Douglas, that is, the Church of the Black Stream — it was sometimes darkened by the floods — which flowed quite near the sacred edifice. We are told in like manner that St. Finnian of Clonard, the "tutor of the saints of Ireland," was baptized by St. Abban at the place where the streams of two fountains met, and on account of the limpid purity of the water, he was baptized by the name of Finnlach, the Child of the Limpid Fountain. (Col. xxiii. Feb.)

But there were other reasons that moved our Irish saints to bless the holy wells, and our faithful people to reverence them. It seems that with the Celtic tribes, as, indeed, amidst most of the Pagan nations, idolatrous worship was offered to certain fountains which were regarded as gods, for Satan always seeks to have that reverence paid to himself, as if he were lord of the elements, which is due to God alone. We have related, both by Tirechan in the Book of Armagh, and by St. Evin in the Tripartite — a fact which fully explains St. Patrick's mode of dealing with these superstitions, and, no doubt, accounts, too, for the origin of several of our holy wells. The following is a literal translation of the Tripartite account: — "Now, when the holy man was travelling through this same region (of Mayo), nurturing and watering the seeds of the divine word, he came to a certain fountain in the plain called Finmagh, which the credulous people named the King of Streams, and from the virtue which they believed it possessed they also gave it the name of Slan, or the Health-giver. The foolish people believed in this fountain, or rather regarded it as a god, and hence they called it the "King of Waters, and worshipped it as a god. Now, the fountain was formed of a quadrangular shape, and a large stone of the same shape closed up its entrance. An encouragement, if not the foundation, of the popular superstition seems to have been derived from the fact that a certain magician who worshipped the water as a propitious deity, and regarded fire as a hostile one, when dying ordered his body to be buried under the stone, within the fountain. When Patrick ascertained the nature of the superstition, he explained to the people, whom he rebuked for their errors, that neither that fountain nor any other creature, but God alone, was the Creator of the elements, and King and Lord over them, as well as over all other creatures. Moreover, he ordered the stone to be taken from the mouth of the well; but as they could not by any means be induced to comply with his request, making the sign of the cross, he himself easily removed the stone, and baptized St. Cannech in the stream, and furthermore enriched that saint's offspring with the perpetual inheritance of his blessing. This St. Cannech was afterwards the ruler of St. Patrick's monks, became a bishop too, and built a church in that same region of Corca-Themore, which was called Kealltag." This is the place since called Ballintober, but known in our native annals as Ballintober Patrick, the Town of Patrick's Well, but the fame of its ancient holiness has departed, for although it is still called Tobermore, the Great Well, it is no longer deemed a holy one. (See Joyce, vol. I, p. 436).

There was yet another cause that sanctified many holy islands and holy wells in Ireland. In the century, especially that succeeded the death of St. Patrick, the Irish saints loved to seek out some desert spot altogether cut off from the habitations of men, where they might give themselves up exclusively to the service of God. Some made their hermitages in the uninhabited islands of the ocean, especially on the wild western coasts of Ireland; others sought out islets in the great lakes, like Corrib, Bee, and Derg; others, again, retired into mountain valleys, or sought some lonely cluain, or meadow island, in the midst of woods or marshes, where the wild boars freely roamed. The lives of these hermits were appallingly austere.

Their home was a cave or a hut of wattles, or of loose stones, through which the rain and the wind freely entered. They wore the same coarse clothes until they fell to pieces from their backs; their food was a little corn with roots and water from the spring — this last was not unfrequently their only drink. Hence, wherever the hermit lived, he always had his cell nigh to some fountain: and that fountain was blessed by his prayers, and doubly blessed by his use. He not unfrequently, too, knelt or stood knee-deep in the cold stream whilst he recited the entire psalter, for this was a favourite mode of penance with our Irish saints. Then his secret was found out: men came to see his grotto, his little church, and the holy spring which gave him half his nourishment. And so it came to be regarded, what in very truth it was, a holy well; and when the saint had gone to his reward, the devotion of his disciples brought them year after year to the same holy spot to perform their devotions, especially on the feast-day of the patron, and to secure themselves the strong protection of his prayers.

Sometimes, too, it would happen that in their journey through the country the missionary saints, like Bridget, Patrick, and Columbkille, tired and foot-sore, sat down, like our Saviour at the well of Samaria, to refresh themselves at some way-side fountain: and they blessed the grateful stream, and that was a fruitful and abiding blessing long remembered by the people, who, of course, came from all the country round to drink of its waters, and carry home the saving stream. Thus it came to pass that we have not only at the old churches, but also by the way-side, in almost every parish in Ireland, some Toberpatrick, or Bride’s-well, or Columbkille's-well; so that the blessings of God's saints has remained upon thousands of the wells of holy Ireland.

There are persons who deem any reverence paid to these holy wells to be superstitious; they sneer at the simple faithful who perform their devotions at the holy spring, and in their own great knowledge and superior Christianity pity their ignorance and folly. If these people are Protestants we cannot argue with them now; those who will not reverence the cross of Christ, cannot be expected to venerate holy wells. They are, at least, very inconsistent; for the men who themselves venerate the statues, the monuments, and other memorials of their statesmen, warriors, and poets, cannot blame us if we should pay, at least, an equal reverence to the memorials of the saints of God, to anything blessed by their prayers and hallowed by their daily use.

With Catholics, however, who talk in this fashion, as they sometimes do, we have less patience: we must take the liberty of telling them that the due veneration of these holy wells is not superstition; that prayers to the saints, in any spot hallowed by their abode, their miracles, or their labours, is all the more likely to be efficacious; and that the Church has no sympathy with the hollow smile and frozen sneer of their scepticism. They do not understand the things that are of the Spirit of God. If they were alive in the apostolic age they would, no doubt, sneer at the foolish woman who, in her simple faith, thought she might be cured by touching the hem of our Saviour's garments; and at the still more foolish people who, as we are told in the Acts of the Apostles, " Brought forth their sick into the streets, laid them on beds and couches, that St. Peter's shadow, at least, might overshadow them, and that they might thus be delivered from their infirmities." Equally foolish and superstitious, no doubt, from the scientific point of view were those who brought to the sick the handkerchiefs and aprons of St. Paul: yet we are told on high authority, that these same handkerchiefs drove away the disease, and the evil spirits, from the bodies of the possessed.

With this doubting faith and false science we have no sympathy. It is the mongrel offspring of ignorance and pride — pride in its own petty wisdom, and ignorance of the wondrous ways of God. For our own part, we believe in the ancient sanctity of these holy wells; we believe it lingers round them still, that a virtue still abides in the sacred stream, and that the saints who hallowed them of old, by their works and prayers, still look down in benignant mercy on those who worship God, and ask their prayers on the very spot that was so intimately connected with their own earthly pilgrimage. If abuses arise let them be corrected; if they cannot be corrected, and the evil is greater than the good, then let the pilgrimage be stopped. But, meanwhile, call them not superstitious — the men and women of simple faith and loving hearts who still go to the holy places where dwelt the saints of God, to ask their prayers, and call to mind the bright example of their virtues and of their lives. "Are not the rivers of Damascus," said the Syrian leper, "better than all the waters of Israel, that I may wash in them and be clean? " But they were not, and Naaman could only be cleansed in Jordan's holy stream. Is there any virtue in these holy wells more than any other spring, say the Naamans of our time? Yes, if you go at the word of the prophet, if you go in the spirit of faith, and say your fervent prayers by the sacred stream, and drink of its waters; it may do you quite as much good in this world, and certainly more in the next, than to go to the rivers of Damascus — to Buxton, Harrowgate, or Lisdoonvarna.

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Monday, 15 May 2017

Saint Dymphna of Gheel, May 15

May 15 is the feast of Saint Dymphna of Gheel, a saint whose cult continues to flourish. According to the traditional account she was an Irish princess who fled to continental Europe to escape the incestuous attentions of her widowed father and was there martyred by his agents. She has become associated with the patronage of the mentally ill, a role in which her popularity is undimmed today. From the point of view of modern scholarship, there are a number of problems with the Dymphna story as it has come down to us. First, she does not appear on the Irish calendars of the saints. Now it is true that the Martyrology of Donegal ( a 17th-century compilation) does record at May 15 'Dymphna, Virgin and Martyr', but this entry is not based on an earlier native source. Her name is not to be found in the 8th/9th-century calendars of Oengus or Tallaght, nor does it occur in the 12th-century Martyrology of Gorman. There is a good reason for this: the cult of Saint Dymphna was only established in the 13th century when a Flemish hagiographer composed her Life. Secondly, the relationship between the saint of Gheel commemorated on May 15 and a native holy woman, Damhnat of Slieve Beagh, commemorated nearly a month later on June 13, is a complex one. It seems that the great 17th-century hagiologist, John Colgan,  thought he had found proof positive in manuscript sources for the Dymphna legend in a reference to a Damnoda or Dymna schene, 'the fugitive' whom he tied into the royal line of the kingdom of Oirgialla, the territory of Saint Damhnat. Later writers like our old friend Canon O'Hanlon, whose account I published at the blog here, were happy to accept Colgan's view uncritically, even though when he came to write about Saint Damhnat in his June volume, the same Canon O'Hanlon expressed his scepticism that she and Dymphna of Gheel were one and the same individual! Below is a paper on Saint Dymphna from one of Canon O'Hanlon's contemporaries, Father J. F. Hogan (1858-1918). Father Hogan had the chance to study on the continent and was a prolific contributor to the religious press of his day. He acted as a specialist in the study of Irish saints in Europe for the Irish Ecclesiastical Record and this 1893 article on Saint Dymphna was one of a series on such saints. In it he presents the traditional story, including the identification of the Belgian fugitive princess with the Ulster holy woman, but does seem uncomfortable at times with aspects of it. Writers of this period were convinced that the Irish were inherently a holy people so the fact of Dymphna's father taking an unholy interest in his own daughter created a major difficulty. This is overcome by the author first suggesting that this Irish king was a pagan (despite Christianity having been established in Ireland in the fifth century) and then by somewhat more desperately trying to blame the 'eastern' influence of the earliest races to inhabit Ireland, especially the Milesians! Rather more likely for modern scholars is the scenario that thirteenth-century Gheel wanted to associate itself with Ireland, the insula sanctorum, and thus a legend was born.


There are certain features in the life of St. Dympna which not only distinguish her from all the other saints of her native land, but which, in some respects, have scarcely their parallel in the annals of the universal Church. The number of virgin-martyrs on the roll of the early Irish calendar is comparatively small, owing, no doubt, to the peaceful manner in which the conversion of the country was effected. The Irish virgins who secured the crown of martyrdom received it in foreign lands, and amongst them St. Dympna undoubtedly holds the most prominent place. Well worthy, indeed, she seems, to be enumerated amongst the frail but heroic witnesses to divine faith, whose firmness in the midst of persecution constitutes one of the most miraculous elements in the establishment of Christianity. The physical pain which she endured was not comparable, of course, in intensity or barbarity, to that which was inflicted on the virgin-martyrs of an earlier period. One has only to cast a glance at the history of the persecutions under Nero or Diocletian to realize the difference. The mind absolutely recoils from contemplating the tortures inflicted on such helpless victims as St. Euphemia of Chalcedon, St. Theodosia of Persepolis, St. Febronia of Nisibe, St. Philomena of Ancyra, St. Eulalia of Merida, not to speak of the great Roman virgin-martyrs — Felicitas, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Anastasia, Cecilia, Agnes, whose names the Church has taken into the Canon of the Mass, and whose memory will there be honoured as long as the sacrifice of expiation is offered up in any part of the world.

The constancy of St. Dympna was, in its special circumstances, not less admirable than that of these noble victims. Physically speaking, indeed, it was not put to so severe a test; but it was made to endure the strain of a moral ordeal which did not accompany the sufferings of these or of any other martyr with whose history we are acquainted. Saints there were, no doubt, in the early days of the Church who were sacrificed by those who should have been their natural protectors. Flavia Domitilla, the niece of Titus and Domitian, was not spared on account of her kinship with the persecutors; and, later on, the eldest son of Leovigild, king of the Visigoths of Spain, was put to death by the orders of his own father in one of the dungeons of Seville because he would not renounce the orthodox faith, and conform, like his brother Reccaredo, to the Arian creed. But in these cases the fatal deed was perpetrated by strangers and by servants, whereas the martyrdom of St. Dympna presents all the features of a domestic tragedy. The blow was struck by her own father, whose passion had blinded him to such a degree that he was in the end bereft of the commonest instincts of nature and of all human sense. The loss of life was in itself, we imagine, but a small thing to St. Dympna. The weight of her affliction came rather from the circumstances by which it was surrounded, and the flower of her martyrdom is to be found in the patience, the fortitude, the stainless purity with which she maintained her peace, and bore the heavy cross by which her fidelity was tried. No wonder, therefore, that she should be called, in the old Flemish tongue " Een Lilie onder de Doornen " — a lily amongst thorns — and be honoured as such in the Latin verses: —

"O Castitatis lilium!
Virgo decus regium!
Dei martyr gloriosa!
Christo regi gratiosa!"

The oldest life of St. Dympna now in existence was written by Pierre de Cambrai, in the thirteenth century. But this work would seem to he merely a translation of an older life written in Flemish at a much earlier date. In addition to the authors of the Acta Sanctorum, Molanus, Colgan, Miraeus, Baillet, a large number of historians have dealt with the life and martyrdom of St. Dympna. Special lives of the saint were written by Ludolphusvan Craywinckel, canon of the Norbertine Abbey of Tongerloo, in 1652; by Felix Bogaerts of Antwerp, in 1840; and Peter Dominick Kuyl, curate of Antwerp Cathedral, in 1863.

These writers all, with the exception of Henschenius, the Bollandist, admit, without reserve, the Irish nationality of St. Dympna, following in this the example of her oldest biographer. Nor is Ireland's claim positively denied by Henschenius. He admits that his theory of her English origin is a mere conjecture, and the difficulties which he puts forward have already been satisfactorily answered by Lanigan and other historians.

According, then, to the best authorities, St. Dympna was the daughter of one of the petty kings or princes who ruled this country about the beginning of the sixth century. Although Ireland was at that time practically converted to Christianity, a few princes seem to have still clung to pagan ideas and practices. Dympna's father was, undoubtedly, a pagan. He is said to have ruled over that part of Ulster which was called Oirghialla, or Orgiel, and which embraced the territory of the modern counties of Louth, Armagh, and Monaghan. Her mother, who was as remarkable for her goodness as for her beauty, died at an early age, and Dympna's education fell to the lot of some Christian attendants, who had her baptized and instructed in the true faith. The young princess entered thoroughly into the spirit of Christian life. She despised the dancing and light songs which were indulged in by the maidens of her age, and secretly vowed herself body and soul to the service of Christ.

The King who was greatly afflicted by the death of his wife, soon commissioned his counsellors to seek a spouse for him, who should resemble in every respect the lady he had lost. They were not successful in their undertaking, but when all else failed them, they directed the attention of the King to his daughter Dympna, who became each day more and more the image of her mother. Infatuated with this idea, the King now began the importunities which his daughter so firmly and so consistently repudiated from the first, and which, after years of annoyance, were to end in her destruction.

"Matre defuncta, filie rex concupivit speciem,
Cerneus illius faciem, sponsae vultus effigiem."

This strange proposal will appear somewhat less astonishing, perhaps, when we remember that the King was an absolute pagan and that unions of the kind were not unfrequent amongst the heathen peoples of ancient times. They were condemned, no doubt, by the more civilized pagans of Greece and Rome, and we may recall with what dramatic power Sophocles has disposed of such relations. It is impossible for anyone who has read the drama of Oedipus, to forget the woe and despair of the unhappy King who, without his knowledge or his fault, had contracted an incestuous marriage. "When the mystery of his life is unravelled, his grief knows no bounds. He believes himself unworthy of the light of day, and puts out his eyes with his own hands. He foresees the cruel destiny of his sons, Polynices and Eteocles, and of his beloved daughter Antigone, and goes to his fate with an overwhelming consciousness of wrong.

In many parts of the East, however, no such strong feeling existed. In Persia, in particular, from the earliest times, the law of consanguinity was violated. Even amongst the chosen people, the angels of heaven had not long rescued Lot and his family from the doom of the cities of the plain, when they gave to the world an example of the dissolute manners that prevailed around their former domicile; and we know that Thamar pined away in the house of Absalom her brother, not so much on account of the wrong inflicted upon her by her elder brother Amnon, as because the consent of their father, David, had not been asked to regulate the intercourse. At a later period also we learn from the Epistles of St. Paul, that in Greece itself, and particularly in the corrupt city of Corinth, instances of this same vice had to be deplored. Some of the earliest races that inhabited Ireland — the Milesians, in particular — are believed to have come more or less directly from the East, and it is no wonder that they should have brought with them customs that were prevalent in the territory of their origin.

However this may be, the relentless monarch pursued his purpose without any respite. Entreaties, threats, promises, were all employed in turn, but with not the slightest effect, except to fill with sadness and affliction the soul of the pure virgin to whom they were addressed. When driven thus to the extreme limits of distress, Dympna was inspired, like Judith of old, to ask for a term of forty days, in order that she might consider maturely the proposals that had been made to her. This request having been readily granted, the King rejoiced when he saw his daughter occupied at the preparation of the ornaments of dress suitable to the nuptials of a person in her state. Such outward appearances were, however, only intended to cover the design which she had conceived, to fly from the peril.

In all her troubles, Dympna found a wise and trustworthy guide in the person of the aged priest Gerebernus, who had secretly converted her mother to the Christian faith, and who had watched over her own education and spiritual interests with the most paternal care. At the crisis which had now arrived, this faithful counsellor saw that flight alone could save Dympna from the most miserable fate, and to this expedient the princess readily consented. Gerebernus himself was prevailed upon to accompany her to a place of safety, whilst her father's court-jester and his wife, who were both Christians, and whose devotion could be relied upon, were taken into the secret, and agreed to follow her as attendants.

The small company of fugitives made their way to the sea-side, and took shipping to some foreign coast. It is not stated whether they passed through England on their journey outward; but in due course they landed at the port of Antwerp, in Belgium. Here they remained for a short time; but, anxious for greater solitude, they resolved to seek a quiet retreat in the country, and they proceeded inland as far as Gheel. Close to this town, in a quiet and secluded spot, then surrounded by dense woods and thickets, they built themselves a house, in which, as their biographer tells us, they led an angelic life. They went regularly to the neighbouring church of St. Martin at Gheel, where Gerebernus celebrated Mass, and on their return the day was spent in prayer and other religious exercises. About the middle of July, 1892, we passed by this sacred spot, in company with the Abbe de Vel, the good "pastoor" of St. Dympna's parish. A handsome little oratory now marks the spot in which the Irish virgin lived. Statues of the two saints are erected there on either side of the altar. At noon of the summer's day, the country all around was peaceful and still. The peasants were all occupied in the fields, and there was scarcely a sound to be heard on any side. We could imagine what it must have been when Dympna and her companions selected it for their abode, and when the woods and thickets cut it off from the noise of the outer world.

The anger of the father, when he heard of Dympna's departure, was utterly uncontrollable. He ordered the country to be searched high and low, in order to discover her hiding-place; and when he had found that she had already fled from the country, he fitted out a fleet to pursue her. With a number of followers he traced her by different stages, till at last he landed at Antwerp, having evidently been informed of the course she had taken. From Antwerp he sent envoys through the surrounding country in the hope of finding some trace of her whereabouts. Some of these messengers, when paying for their food in Irish coin at the village of Westerloo, were informed that money of a similar stamp had recently been received from a young Irish lady, who, with an aged priest and two servants, was living in seclusion in the woods close by. This was the first clue which the pursuers had found, and it naturally led to almost immediate discovery.

The anger of the king, when brought face to face with the fugitives, fell chiefly on the venerable priest Gerebernus. When the courageous old man warned Dympna, in the presence of her father, to be faithful to the spouse whom she had chosen, and to yield neither to the threats nor to the entreaties of the tyrant, he was ordered by the King to be seized at once, taken away, and beheaded. These commands were instantly obeyed, and the foul deed was aggravated by almost every expression of hatred and contumely which furious passions could excite. The aged priest received with joy his glorious crown of martyrdom, and sealed with his blood the love of chastity and truth which distinguished him during life.

The infatuated monarch next employed all his powers of persuasion in endeavouring to induce his daughter to return with him to Ireland to share his kingdom, to be the pride of his people, and to have her statue placed amongst those of the goddesses that were still worshipped in his temples. But to all such inducements the answer of Dympna was prompt and firm. "With all my soul I despise thy kingly delights. I repudiate the honours thou desirest to confer upon me. It is useless to persist in thy entreaties." Enraged at her steadfastness, the King had now recourse to threats of violence. "Do at once what I wish, or thou shalt incur thy father's anger, like that malignant priest, Gerebernus, who has lost his head for his treachery. Spare thy own youth. Submit to thy father's wishes. Sacrifice to our gods, or thou shalt die, and be an example to all who dare oppose our will." Dympna replied: "O cruel tyrant! Didst thou kill the venerable priest of God, who was guilty of no crime? Know now that thou shalt not escape the judgment of the Almighty. Thy gods and goddesses I abhor and detest, and commit myself altogether to my Lord Jesus Christ, who is my spouse, my glory, my salvation, my hope, my desire. Whatever pain thou canst inflict, I shall bear with joy in fidelity to Him."

Whilst listening to this uncompromising declaration, the King was overcome with passion. He saw that his plans were frustrated, that his labour had been spent in vain, that he should return to Ireland baffled and defeated in his project. In his frenzy nothing short of the death of his own daughter would satisfy him. To the miscreants who had already killed the faithful Gerebernus he issued the fatal order. But even they had too much regard for the youth and beauty and purity of the princess to obey him. They feared, moreover, that in calmer moments he would repent of his harshness, and that whosoever should dare to do injury to his daughter would become the victims of his altered mood. Seeing their unwillingness to act, the unhappy father drew his own sword from its scabbard, and wielding it high in the air, delivered the inhuman blow which deprived him for ever of his daughter, and added one more to the heavenly train that follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth. It was thus that the blood of the Irish virgin was shed on the land of Gheel, and in presence of the crime we have only to repeat the words, in which, in after ages the inhabitants recorded their gratitude at the event: 

" 0 felix patria quam sacrat sanguine Dympna."

We have before us a long list of the miracles by which, in the course of history, God showed His appreciation of the fidelity of His servants Dympna and Gerebernus. Through them the divine life of the Church was manifested by graces of a special kind. It poured its compassion upon a class of human creatures who are, perhaps, more to be pitied than any other afflicted mortals in the world; namely, on those who, like the father of the virgin-martyr herself, had been deprived of the guiding light of reason. Even to this day a colony of poor demented creatures find refuge at Gheel, lender the benign protection of the angelic virgin. At the foot of her altar they seem to yield to the influence of her memory, and to submit with unusual patience to the lot which Providence has designed for them. "Whoever contrasts their treatment with that to which their fellow-sufferers are subjected in other lands, must admit that the ways of Catholic charity are wonderful indeed. For although it is a pitiable sight to see them going about the streets with "the noble mind o'erthrown " —" Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh."

Yet it is surely consoling to think that they are not altogether cut away from the society of their fellow-creatures, and that a ray, however faint, of earthly happiness may still shine, at intervals, on their existence.

But the blessings obtained through the influence of St. Dympna were not confined to any class or section of the people. She is the patron saint of the whole district, known as the Campine; and in the year 1682 the bishop of the neighbouring diocese of Hertogensbosh in Holland, in a letter in which he exhorts his spiritual subjects to have constant recourse to the powerful protection of St. Dympna, bears testimony to the innumerable favours, both spiritual and temporal, which the whole country had received through the influence of its virgin patron. And what is still more important, several Popes, including John XXII., John XXIII., and Eugene IV., testified to her miracles in Apostolic letters.

The bodies of the two saints were religiously preserved together at Gheel for many centuries. So great was the veneration of the people for these relics, and so widespread the fame of their miracles, that when a great pilgrimage came from the distant town of Xanten, in Germany, in the Middle Ages, the men in their enthusiasm carried away the bodies of the two saints which they wished to have in their church. They were pursued, however, by the people of Gheel, and the contentions which followed resulted in a compromise by which the relics of St. Dympna were restored to their owners, whilst those of Gerebernus were transferred to Xanten or Sonsbeck. The "pious robbers of Xanten " have since then a very bad reputation for honesty amongst the peasants of the "Campine." These, however, have not forgotten St. Gerebernus, and on the feast of St. Dympna, his name is invariably associated with that of the Virgin.

The remains of St. Dympna are preserved in a beautiful silver shrine designed in Gothic shape and exquisitely ornamented. There are many other memorials of the virgin-martyr at Gheel and in the surrounding country. The principal church in the town is dedicated to St. Dympna. It is a handsome Gothic structure, with a nave and two aisles. The high altar is relieved by a reredos, showing in curious figures scenes from the life of the saint. At the back of this reredos is a large Gothic shrine containing the tombs in which SS. Dympna and Gerebernus were first interred. The inscription indicates what is there: —

"Quod jacet hic intus dum transis pronus honora."
"Tumbae sanctorum Dympnae sunt et Gereberni."

In the choir there is an interesting mausoleum of the family of the Counts de Merode-Westerloo. In it are buried John III., Baron of Merode, and his eldest daughter, Anna van Ghistelle, who founded the Chapter in St. Dympna's church, in 1552. Over the choir there is a beautiful stained-glass window presented by the present Countess de Merode. Beneath it, under the shield of her family, the Princes of Arenberg, is inscribed the motto, "Plus d’honneur que d'honneurs." Honours, however, have been no obstacle to honour in the family of Merode. Through many vicissitudes and revolutions they have preserved the faith of their fathers, firm and strong, under the shadow of St. Dympna. Whenever the interests of the Church required faithful, discreet, and trustworthy ser-vice, they could always be relied upon, and at the end of a long line of statesmen and soldiers the present Count holds the honourable position of Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Conservative and Catholic government of his country. From his castle at the little village of Westerloo, a long avenue, shaded by two splendid rows of lime trees, leads to the old historic monastery of Westerloo, where the sons of St. Norbert have always kept alive the memory of St. Dympna. Nor is there any sign of this general devotion falling off. It is rather the other way. Several memorials of the martyrdom of St. Dympna have recently been erected, and at the foot of one of these we noticed a Latin inscription the date of which speaks for itself.

In Ireland there are several memorials of St. Dympna. In the days of Colgan she was regarded as the patroness of the whole country of Orghialla or Orgiel in Ulster and Louth. The parish of Tydavnet, in the Co. Monaghan, is said to have been originally consecrated to her; and there is a spot in the townland of Curraghwillan, in Cavan, which also seems to be associated with her name. Another church called Kill-Alga or Killdalkey, between Trim and Athboy, in the Co. Meath, was placed under the protection ofSt. Dympna. Dr. Petrie, in his work on the Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland, says that he had in his possession the staff of the "Virgin and Martyr, Damhnad Ochene, or Dympna the Fugitive." It is to this “baculus " or staff that Colgan alludes when he speaks of the honour in which St. Dympna was held by the gentry and people of Orgiel. In later times the name of Dympna has become more popular than it had been as a Christian name in Ireland. We are happy to contribute a word to the fame of the virgin-martyr who bore it, and to join in the honour which is paid her in Belgium and Holland.


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Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Vignettes from the Lives of the Irish Saints: Saint Comgall and the Mice

...There came a time of famine in Ireland, and there was not food enough to go around, as has often happened there from the earliest days until even now. Comgall and his household at Bangor were very hungry. But what made it hardest to bear was that they knew where there was plenty of food close by, if only they could get it. For Croadh was a great Prince who lived in the neighborhood, and Croadh had barns and storehouses full of grain which could be made into bread. But he was a selfish, stingy man and would not give away or even sell his stores, for he would rather see the people starve. Now Croadh had a wicked old mother living in his palace, who was even more cruel than himself. Her name was Luch, and Luch means in Irish " the Mouse." And it was her name which put an idea into Comgall's head.

After sending all sorts of messengers to beg Croadh to give them some of his grain ; after trying all sorts of ways to make him sell it, Comgall went himself to the Prince's palace to see what he could do. He carried with him a beautiful silver goblet which had been given him by some one as a present, and it was worth many bushels of grain.

Comgall strode into the Prince's hall and stood before Croadh holding out the goblet in his hand. And he said, "Here, O Prince, is a valuable thing. We are starving in the monastery, and silver we cannot eat. Give me and my monks some of your golden grain and I will exchange for it the silver cup. Be merciful, Croadh, and hear me." But the Chief only laughed and said mockingly, " Not so. You keep your silver goblet and I will keep my golden grain. Your beggarly pupils shall not eat of my stores. I want all, every grain, for my old Mouse." And by that word he meant his mother, the black-eyed, wrinkled, gray old Luch, whose name meant "the Mouse." For she was the most miserly, wicked, old woman in the world, and she had made him promise not to give up any of the grain. Then Comgall was angry, because he saw that the Prince meant to see the people starve.

 "Very well," he said, fixing his eyes sternly upon Croadh, "as you have said, so shall it be. The mouse shall have your grain." And drawing his robe about him he strode home with the useless silver goblet.

As I have said, the mice were Comgall's friends. He had only to call them and explain what the hard-hearted Prince had done; he had only to tell the mice what he wished them to do, and the matter was settled. The word spread through the kingdom of the mice, carried by the quickest messenger with the shortest tail. All the mice became enemies of Croadh. And there were many mice in Bangor in those days.

That very night when every one was asleep, out of every hole and corner came peeping little pointed noses and quivering whiskers. And a great procession of long-tailed tiny things formed into line and crept along, and along, up the hill, and up the walls, and into the barns of Croadh. A legion of mice, thousands upon thousands of them in a gray-uniformed army, pounced upon the Prince's precious grain and ate up every kernel.

So the next morning when Croadh went to his barns he found them empty. There was not so much as a single yellow dot of grain left anywhere. But out of every crack and crevice peeped a pair of twinkling black eyes which watched him saucily. Then Croadh began to bellow and roar with anger, and the wicked old woman Luch, his mother, came hobbling in to see what was the matter. But when the mice saw her they gave a chorus of fierce squeaks as if crying " Mouse! Mouse! Mouse! " Then Croadh remembered what Comgall had said, that the mouse should have his grain after all. And he guessed what the Saint had meant, and knew that Comgall had taken this way to punish a selfish and cruel man.

Abbie Farwell Brown, The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts (NY 1900), 148-155.

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Saturday, 22 April 2017

A Feast of Saint Philip the Apostle on the Irish Calendars

W.S.Sparrow, The Apostles in Art (1906).
Although our Irish calendars are primarily a source for the feast days of our native saints, they also commemorate saints of the universal Church. Some of the feasts recorded in the earliest Irish calendars are interesting, there was for example a commemoration of the feast of the Transfiguration, not at August 6 but at July 26 and there were even fixed dates assigned to moveable feasts, with March 27 being noted as the feast of the Resurrection. There are also commemorations of saints and apostles at dates different to those to which we are now accustomed. Saint Mary Magdalene, for example, had a feast at March 28 and Saint Symeon at October 8. On April 22 we have another of these historical curiosities with a feast of Saint Philip the Apostle being recorded in the two earliest Irish calendars, as Canon O'Hanlon explains below. In his day the feast of Saint Philip was celebrated on May 1 but has since been moved to May 3, the Orthodox commemoration is on November 14:

Feast of Saint Philip, the Apostle.

In the Feilire of St. Aengus at the 22nd of April, the commemoration of the Apostle, St. Philip is announced. In the Martyrology of Tallagh, a similar commemoration is found. The festival of this great Apostle is more generally assigned, however, to the 1st of May, when with the other Apostle St. James, the Less, the Church celebrates a feast, in their honour.

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Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Saint Caritan of Druim-Lara, March 7

Another name to add to the list of obscure Irish saints - Caritan of Druim-Lara. Neither the man nor the place can be definitively identified. There have, however, been some suggestions made. Canon O'Hanlon, in Volume III of his Lives of the Irish Saints, cites the speculation of the seventeenth-century hagiologist, Father John Colgan, that our saint may be Cronaghan, a priestly mentor of Saint Colum Cille, but this is unproven. Pádraig Ó Riain, in his Dictionary of Irish Saints suggests that he may be perhaps synonymous with the patron of a County Clare church and holy well at Kilcredaun. Sadly when the nineteenth-century scholar, John O'Donovan, was writing about this location he found that all knowledge of the patron saint, Críodán, had been lost. Canon O'Hanlon does not mention the Clare saint in his entry below but does cite the evidence for the feast of Caritan of Druim-Lara, whoever he was, from the Irish calendars:

St. Caritan or Cariotan, of Druim-lara. 

At the 7th of March, in the Martyrology of Tallagh, we find a St. Caritan, of Dromalara, entered. In like manner, Marianus O'Gorman, has noticed Caritan of Druim-lara. But, the exact identity of this saint, and of his place, appears to be unknown. It is conjectured, by Colgan—who has Acts based on the supposition at this date—that owing to some mistake of copyists, the present holy man may be the same as a distinguished priest, called Cruthnechan, who baptized St. Columba, who had charge of his infantile years, and who was remarkable for his piety. Without attaching weight to it, the Bollandists merely allude to his statement. We cannot see, how it can be well established. Again, Cariotan, of Druim-lara, is registered in the Martyrology of Donegal, as having been venerated on this day.

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Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Saint David in Irish Sources

March 1 is the feastday of the patron of Wales, Saint David, a saint much honoured and loved in Ireland. A modern scholar summarizes below some of the links to the Welsh patron in the Irish sources:

In the first millennium A.D., prior to the promotion of St David’s cult by Rhygyfarch, St David already can be seen to have enjoyed a significant reputation not only in Wales, but across the Irish Sea. Dauid Cille Muni features amongst three Welsh saints whose feasts are recorded in the Latin Martyrology of Tallaght and the Irish Martyrology Félire Óengusso in the early ninth century – both probably the work of the same author, and certainly of the community of the Céli Dé of Tallaght. David also appears in another early list of saints, the Catalogus sanctorum Hiberniae, where he features amongst the British saints from whom the ‘second order’ of early Irish saints are held to have accepted their ritual of the mass. His obit appears in Irish annal collections, probably entered at some time in during first millennium. These references would appear to speak to the relations between the westernmost part of Wales and its closeness to Ireland – the same relationship, perhaps, as is evinced by Armes Prydain Fawr.

The kingdom of Dyfed, the early medieval polity in which the region of the modern St Davids is located, was itself, of course, originally under an Irish dynasty – a fact that appears to have been still known in Rhygyfarch’s time – but it would be unwise to place much weight upon this early Irish connection of St Davids. The association of David’s cult with Irish saints are as likely to reflect later as earlier connections between these closely adjacent countries. Most of the dedications to the saint in Ireland can be shown with certainty to have been made under Cambro- or Anglo-Norman patronage. The appearance of David in the Irish Martyrologies, however, speaks to exchange of cults between Ireland and Wales before A.D. 800. Irish uitae add further detail to this testimony. St David features in the Vita of St Molua of Clonfert-Mullow and in the Vita of Ailbe of Emly. In both cases he appears in the versions of these uitae that are preserved in the Salamanticensis collection amongst the subset (the ‘O’Donohue group’) which Richard Sharpe has identified as preserving a putatively eighth-century form.

The arguably early reference in the cult of St Ailbe is thus of especial interest for the fact that Ailbe (Elvis) is a saint with a cult near St Davids. In Rhygyfarch’s Vita S. David Ailbe is joined by more Irish saints: SS. Patrick, Brendan, Maedóc, Bairre, Modomnóc and Scoithín. Patrick and Ailbe are given the most significant roles in Rhygyfarch’s Vita. The role of St Patrick – who has a dedication near St Davids, at Whitesands Bay – is to be the previous denizen of Vallis Rosina, the place that will later be the site of St David’s monastery. St Ailbe’s role is to baptize David. These roles reflect the significance of these saints in Irish history: Patrick as apostle to the Irish; Ailbe as patron to Munster, whose church was second only in status to Patrick. Pádraig Ó Riain is right to argue that these ‘facilitating’ roles are intended to establish St David’s status as superior to that of other major insular churches. They are products of a time when these saint’s cults had already achieved their existing status in Ireland, not of the time of the historical David. How early or late this period of exchange of information may be placed is a point of contention by Ó Riain.

Jonathan M. Wooding, ‘The Figure of David’ in J. W. Evans and J.M. Wooding, eds., St David of Wales: cult, church and nation (Boydell, 2007), 11-12.