Early Irish Saints
Did you know St Patrick is only one of three patron saints of Ireland? In the early middle ages Ireland was known across Europe as the 'land of saints and scholars'. There were many early Christian saints in Ireland, each with wonderful and inspiring stories of their own. Read on for the stories of a monk who organized a battle, the feisty woman who shaved her head so she wouldn't have to get married, and the navigator whose miraculous journey may have taken him to America nine centuries before Columbus!
St Columba: a real battler
Also a patron saint of Ireland, Columba (or Colmcille, his Irish name) was born near Derry in the north of Ireland in the 5th century BC, a time when the Christian church was becoming established in Ireland through a series of monasteries. But despite being a monk, Columba led anything but a quiet life! He was heavily involved in the first copyright dispute recorded in Irish history; with another saint! Columba had borrowed a psalter from St Finian and quietly made a copy of it - however when Finian found out he demanded Columba surrender the copy to him as the owner of the original book. When the case was taken to arbitration with the local king Diarmuid he made the famous decree; 'to each cow its calf, to each book its copy'. Columba we can assume was not best pleased, and later after Diarmuid had killed a man Columba had guaranteed safety to, the saint persuaded a rival family to make war on Diarmuid. 3,000 lives were reputed to have been lost at the Battle of Cumandrum. In order to make up for causing this loss of life Columba was ordered to convert an equal number of pagans to Christianity. In 561 Columba moved to the Scottish Island of Iona and set up a monastery there which remains famous to this day. Now he set about the true battle of his life - converting the pagan Scottish to Christianity.
Saint Brigit: an independent woman
Ireland's only female patron saint, Brigit was born around 455, daughter to an important local cheiftain. The story is told that Brigit's family did not want her to become a nun as they had in mind to marry her to a local man of good standing. So, the story goes, Brigit cut off her hair so that she would be too unattractive to marry. What we do know for sure is that she succeeded in becoming a nun and she went on to found abbeys across the island, most famously in Kildare. In one legend, a local chief tried to cheat her out of land for an abbey by saying she could have some land but only as much as could be covered by her cloak. However when Brigit spread out her cloak it miraculously reached out to cover an area of several fields. Whatever the truth of the legends, Brigit shows that in early Celtic christianity, a woman could be a powerful spiritual leader.
St Brendan: spiritual adventurer
Brendan was born in 485 in Kerry in the south of Ireland, and was ordained as a priest in 512. Some time around 530 Brendan is recorded as having gone on a maginificent and miraculous journey in search of the isle of paradise. In tradtional Irish pre-Christian belief the Isles of the Blessed (heaven) lay to the West of Ireland across the sea. So Brendan set off across the wild Atlantic ocean in a tiny boat. Medieval manuscripts telling of his journey still exist all across Europe. According to these sources he encountered volcanoes and icebergs so he must have passed Iceland and reached Greenland - he may even has reached America almost 1000 years before Columbus! For a long time this account of his journey was considered to be fantastical as it was deemed to be impossible to cross the Atlantic in a tiny boat. However, in 1976 Tim Severin successfully demonstrated the journey was indeed possible as he crossed the Atlantic in a traditional irish 'curragh' (boat made of animal hide stretched across a frame).
St Ita is known for founding a convent and a school. Various outlandish miracles have attached to her in folk mythology, such as healing a man who had been decapitated! She is also said to have lived off only food delivered from heaven.
St Enda is considered to be the founder of Irish monasticism, having set up the first true monastery in Ireland on Inishmore island. He is said to have become a monk only after his fiancée died tragically.
St Finnian of Clonard founded three churches in Ireland before even becoming a monk. Legend says birds would gather around him because of his gentle holiness and that he once defeated a band of raiding warriors by causing an earthquake to open up under their camp.
St Kieran the younger was known for his austerity and simple living. He ws actually driven out of one monastery because his generosity to the poor was threatening to bankrupt the abbey!
Though he was born in Ireland, St Aidan went on to found the famous monastery of Lindesfarne in north-east England. This monastery produced some of the most beautifully-illuminated manuscripts of the early middle ages. There is a spring in the grounds of a church near where I live in Ireland, known as St Aidan's well. Local people still drink the water today because it is believed to have curative and miraculous properties.