Hubert McLaughlin.

Biographical sketches of ancient Irish saints, etc online

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fiiogtaplikal Sketches oi




Prebendary of Hunderton in tlie Cathedral CJiurcJi of Hereford ;
Rural Dean, and Rector of Burford, First Portion.






/ / y^i^

(by his kind permission)




ST. PATRICK . . . , . 1

ST. COLUMBA . . . .14


ST. GALL . . . .67


AIDAN . . - . . .91




FAILURE . . . . 141







^Sicrgraphkal Sk^trhtjs ot ^ndmt Imh Saints,



THAT converts to Christianity were in Ireland
before the arrival there of St. Patrick, is
admitted by all good historians. Palladius,
who was sent by Pope Celestine to Ireland, a.d.
431, but who remained in that country only a
very short time, was sent to the " Scots that
beheve in Christ." This sentence proves two
things : first, that the ancient Irish were called
" Scots," and secondly, that there were Chris-
tians already in the land. It is said that they
had Bishops amongst them, and therefore some
species of authorized Church constitution.
Lanigan, the great Poman Catholic historian
of the Irish Church, and who is, for the most
part, a very pains-taking author, gives us the


names of some of them, though at the same
time he attempts to disprove their mission :
Ailbe of Em] J, Declan of Ardmore, Ibar of
Begery, and Kieran of Saigir. It was scarcely
possible for two countries to lie so near to one
another as England and Ireland, and that there
should not be a continuous intercourse between
them. We know the great zeal that existed
amongst the ancient missionaries, and that there
were Christian Churches in Britain towards the
middle or close of the second century, if not
before ; and hence we may reasonably conclude
that their efforts miist have been directed to
the sister isle, and the Gospel of Christ must
have been preached to its people.

Christianity, however, made no great progress
in Ireland before the arrival of St. Patrick, and
to this great and good man may certainly be
ascribed the honour of being the Apostle of the
Irish nation.'" He is said to have been born

^ Ledwich, and some other persons of small antiquarian
lore, and less research, have attempted to throw a doubt
upon the existence of St. Patrick. Such authorities as
Usher, Camden, " The Annals of the Four Masters," " The
Saxon Chronicle," etc., in whose writings his mission is
spoken of, will establish the fact of his existence to all
minds, except those of the prejudiced or unlearned.


near Boulogne, in France. His father was Cal-
pornins, a deacon, and his grandfather Potitus,
a priest. From these circumstances, as well as
from an article in one of his own constitutions
respecting the wives of clergy, we may infer
that in his time marriage was not prohibited.
When quite a youth, Patricius, or Patrick, was
taken captive by some pirates, carried over to
Ireland, and there sold as a slave to a man
named MUcho, whose sheep he tended for about
six years. At the end of that period he escaped
from captivity, and returned to his own country,
near Boulogne. He then devoted himself to
the study of sacred literature for several years.
A part of his time was spent with St. Martin, at
Tours, where, probably, he obtained holy orders ;
a part with St. German, at Auxerre, and a part
in the Monastery of Lerins, which was built on
one of the two islands now called ** Isles de St.
Marguerite," near Cannes, in the South of France.
His mind was deeply imbued with divine truth,
and with an earnest desire to save immortal souls.
During his residence in Ireland, " his spirit had
been stirred within him, when he saw the people
wholly given to idolatry," in that quarter where
he lived ; and as his heart now yearned for mis-


sionaiy work, he determined to return to the
land of his captivity, and to devote his life to
the deliverance of that people from spiritual
bondage, by whom he had formerly been en-
slaved. He is said to have been consecrated to
the episcopal office by a Bishop, near Evreux, in
France, about the year 431, a.nd probably with a
view to the Irish mission. His consecration did
not come from the Bishop of Bome. Palladius
was the Romish missionary, but he failed. Per-
haps he wanted perseverance, or was terrified
by the threatening aspect of the people ; or, to
take the most charitable view of the case, his
health might have caused him to retire from the
work, for he died in Britain shortly afterwards.
St. Patrick may have heard of the failure of
Palladius, and thus his steps may have been
quickened on their course. He arrived in Ire-
land in the early part of the year 432, and never
was any missionary more successful. He went
forth with his life in his hand, " to turn a peo-
ple from darkness unto light, and from the
power of Satan unto God," and before his death
the greater part of the inhabitants of the Island
were converted to the Christian faith. Nor did
he fail to establish the Irish Church upon a


firm basis.- It was " built upon the foundation
of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ
Himself being the chief Corner-stone." Arch-
bishop Usher very clearly shows, in his work,
" The religion professed by the Ancient Irish,"
what true doctrine was held amongst them; and
at the same time Church discipline and order
were duly attended to. The chief episcopal seat
was fixed at Armagh, and a great number of
Bishops were consecrated for their especial work.
In those ancient times, and in the rude and
uncivilized state of society which then existed,
it was necessary that missionaries should hve
together, as well for mutual support and conso-
lation, as for mutual defence. From this and
other causes arose Monastic establishments, and
the brethren of the Monastery were frequently
not only the teachers of religion, but the culti-
vators and civihzers of the district. All honour
be to those high-minded men who thus devoted
themselves to the spiritual and temporal welfare
of their fellow-creatures ; but now that the
state of society in these lands is so completely
changed, — now that danger springs from other
sources than bodily assaults upon the teachers
of Christianity, the attempt to revive this " ex-


tinct enthusiasm " would only create ridicule, or
excite contempt.

" Non tali auxilio nee defensoribus istis
Tempus eget."

In primitive times a great work was wrought
in Ireland, as well as in other countries, by
means of Monastic houses ; and in many of them
it was not uncommon to have a Bishop, who was
under the jurisdiction of the Abbot. We are so
much accustomed in modern days to ally the
temporal condition of a Bishop with his spiritual
functions, that we can sever them with difficulty.
And yet they are perfectly distinct, and to the
minds of men in those remote days, there was
nothing to prevent the subordination of a Bis-
hop to the Superior of his Convent. The Bishop
had his own functions to discharge, and these
interfered in no way with that temporal obedi-
ence which he owed to the head of his house.
The idea that Bishops must necessarily have
jurisdiction within a city, and be named there-
from, is not borne out by the facts of history.
It has been asserted that more than 300 Bishops
existed at one time in Ireland, and such a vast
number may well be accounted for from the


custom above stated. Nor did dependence upon,
the Monastery entirely cease, even when terri-
torial jurisdiction was added to episcopal duties.
There is evidence to prove that the missionaries
who went forth from lona to evangehze the
north of England, and to revive the drooping or
dying condition of the British Churches, con-
tinued in their obedience to Columb-kille and
his successors ; and even after they became
Bishops of Lindisfarne and other places,- they
looked back to their old Convent, not only with
fihal respect and love, but they seemed to have
obeyed implicitly the commands of him whom
they still regarded as their chief. The great
controversy respecting Easter proves this beyond
a doubt ; and though the Irish missionaries may
have been in error as to the true mode of calcu-
lating the return of this festival, let us not be
too severe upon them for their pertinacious
regard to the custom of their Church. There is
abundant proof that we owe them a great debt
of gratitude. More was done by them for the
revival of the British Church in the north of
England, and in the kingdoms of Mercia and
Wales, and even for the conversion of the Saxons,
than by Augustine and his immediate successors.


But to return to St. Patrick. He landed in
Ireland, somewhere in the county of Wicklow,
probably in the place where the town of Wick-
low now stands, about the month of April, a.d.
432. The people did not receive him, and he
found it necessary to retire to his boat. He
then sailed towards the north, and ao-ain dis-
embarked on the shores of the county of Down.
He there converted the Lord of the district, who
was named Dicho, and thus obtained a footing
and a friend in the country. He then directed
his course inland, towards the residence of his
former master, Milcho ; but as the latter would
not receive him, he returned to his Mend Dicho.
After this period he seems to have met with
almost miraculous success in the holy cause
which he had espoused, and after about two
years sojourn in various places, he became more
bold, and determined to preach his Divine
Master's Gospel at Tarah, the residence of the
Monarch Leogaire, where the Princes and chief
men of the kingdom were assembled at that

The ancient government of Ireland was a Pen-
tarchy. There were five principal Kings, one of
whom, the King of Meath, was usually chosen


as Monarcli. In later times, tlie King of Ulster,
was occasionally selected for the Monarchy,
being of the same sept or family as the royal
house of Meath. This form of government
existed until the early part of the eleventh
century, when it was broken in upon by Brian
Boru, the King of Munster, who usurped the
Monarchy, under the pretext that he could thus
have more power and influence in expelling the

In the fifth century, the residence of the
Monarch was at Tarah, in Meath, and St.
Patrick and his companions arrived in the
neighbourhood on Easter-eve. It happened at
that very period, that the Monarch and a great
assembly of people were met to celebrate one
of their religious festivals. They seem to have
been fire-worshippers (a circumstance which may
indicate the eastern origin of the race), and a
law existed that on this particular evening, no
fire should be lighted in that locality, until the
signal was given by a fire blazing forth from the
royal hill of Tarah. The Christian company
unwittingly broke this law, and theii* fire being
observed by the King and his Princes, caused
great astonishment. Inquiry was made re-


specting the daring violators of the law, and
when the Magi informed the King that the
strange fire must be extinguished immediately,
or that it would overcome their fires, and bring
about the downfall of the kingdom, Leogaire
set off in violent haste with a number of fol-
lowers, to exterminate the intruders. When
he arrived within a short distance of the Chris-
tians, he sent for St. Patrick to appear before
him, and to give an account of his conduct.
" A soft answer turneth away wrath." We
may presume that such was the course pursued
by the Christian Bishop upon this occasion.
Certain it is, that not only was the King's anger
pacified, but permission was given to St. Patrick
to preach before the Royal assembly at Tarah on
the next day, which was Easter-Sunday.

We cannot conclude that Leogaire himself
was ever converted to the Christian faith. Two
of his daughters, and his brother Connall, became
converts at a later period, and in all probabihty
their influence furthered much the progress of
the Gospel. When St. Patrick left Meath, he
proceeded to Connaught, and we soon hear of
the conversion of thousands of people. At a
particular place in Sligo, 12,000 persons, and


amongst them seven Princes, were gained over
to tlie cause of Christ. From Connanght, our
missionary Bishop directed his steps to Ulster,
and after a short sojourn there, he visited the
other provinces of Ireland, and success every-
where attended his holy efforts. Doubtless
he met with obstacles in his triumphant
career. When the cause of God is prospering,
Satan's activity is sure to be redoubled ; and
the Magi and heathen priests did not fail to
struggle for the maintenance of their own
superstitions. In the province of Leinster, in
that part anciently called Leix, but now deno-
minated the King's and Queen's County, St.
Patrick nearly met with his death. A great
man of that district was stirred up against him
and his religion, and determined to murder
him. Tidings of this foul intent reached the
ears of Odran, the faithful charioteer of St.
Patrick ; and when he came, while driving his
master, to the dangerous neighbourhood, this
generous and devoted servant feigned fatigue or
illness, and requested his master to change
places with him for a space. Thus when the
murderer approached to execute his wicked
purpose, his vengeance was wreaked upon the


wrong man, and the assassin making a sudden
attack upon him who was sitting in St. Patrick's
seat, transfixed him with a lance ; and then, be-
Keving his work performed, coolly passed on. The
good missionary was saved, but at an expense
which must have caused the deepest affliction
to his mind. It is related that punishment soon
overtook the murderer, and that he was struck
dead by God a short time afterwards.

From the King's County, St. Patrick pro-
ceeded to Munster with unabated zeal, and
unabated success. Wherever a Christian com-
munity was formed, he there ordained clergy to
continue the work which he had commenced, to
build up tha Church in its most holy faith, and
to keep ahve the flame of pure religion upon
the Christian altars. After preaching the Gospel
throughout every district in Ireland, he returned
to Ulster, and it is probable that it was upon
his return -he founded the Church and Bishopric
of Armaofh. From the time of his arrival as a
missionary in Ireland, he never left the country
of his adoption. True, it was not so easy to
travel in those days, as in our own ; but still
Boulogne was not very distant, nor could home
or kindred have been foreign to his heart. This


period of his life occupied about thirtj-five years;
and then, after one of the most eventful Hves
upon record, he fell asleep in Jesus, on the 17th
of March, in the seventy-eighth year of his age.
The exact year of his death cannot be stated
with accuracy, but most probably it was a.d.
465. Before his decease, he intimated his wish
that Benignus, who had been converted by him
on his first visit to Tarah, should succeed him
in the Bishopric of Armagh. This wish could
not fail to be attended to, and Benignus was
advanced to the Primacy.




THE learned reader needs not to be informed
that Columba is a Latin name, and signi-
fies a dove. Several persons were called
Columba, or Columbanus, but the two most
distinguished were the subject of the present
memoir and that Columbanus who evangelized
the country of France around Luxeuil, and who
afterwards established a Monastery at Bobbio in
Italy. St. Columba of lona, was born about
the year 521. He was descended by his father's
side from ^' Niall of the nine hostaofes," the
Monarch of all Ireland, and his mother belonged
to a noble family in Leinster. This royal and
illustrious lineage may have given him a certain
amount of worldly influence, which, doubtless,
he employed usefully in his holy endeavours
to preach Christ's Gospel, and to spread the
truths of Christianity both in his own country


and in tlie country of his adoption ; but upon
one occasion it seems to have been a great snare
to him, — caused him to trust too much in an
arm of flesh, and resulted in disastrous conse-
quences to himself and others. The circumstance
shall be related in the course of this narrative.

His real name was Crimthan, and he himself
either assumed the name of Columba from a
^due appreciation of the qualities thereby im-
plied, and which he wished to sustain, or it
was given him by others, in consideration of
that dove-like innocence which was certainly
the general character of his life. He is com-
monly styled in Irish history, St Columbkill.
Kill signifies cell or church ; and the term
Columbkill is said to mean " Columb of the
churches," from the vast number of churches
and religious establishments which he founded.

He seems like Timothy to have known the
Holy Scriptures from his childhood, having been
entrusted for care and education to the charge
of a clergyman, near the church of Kilmacrenan,
in the county of Donegal. While yet a small
boy, he was invited, together with his preceptor,
by Brugacius, Bishop at Bathenaigh, to spend
the festival of Christmas with him ; and we are


told tliat he and this good Bishop used to recite
the psalms together, probably in alternate verses.
Our Bishops and other ecclesiastics, should never
forget the injluence which their words and
actions may have even upon the lowliest minds ;
and the effect may be felt, acknowledged, and
bring forth its fruit, when they themselves are
mouldering in their graves.

Columba exhibited from his earliest years a
pious and holy mind, as well as a proper atten-
tion to the subjects of useful knowledge, which
would fit him for his station in life, and enable
him to act that part in the world, to which his
high birth evidently called him.

When he left the house of the friend and
tutor of his boyhood, he was sent to the school
of St. Finnian, of Maghabile, in the county of
Down. He remained there until he became a
deacon in the Church, and he applied himself
very diligently, not only to the acquisition of
human learning, but also endeavoured to imitate
the virtues of his excellent preceptor. After
leaving Finnian's school, he went to Leinster,
and there studied for some time with Germanus,
a teacher of great celebrity. From thence he
is said to have gone to Finnian of Clonard, the


school or college of which, place was had in great
reputation, if not at that period, certainly in
subsequent ages. From thence he returned to his
native country of Tirconnell, and immediately
apphed himself to the great business of his
life, the work of the ministry, and the inculca-
tion of those great principles by which the
religion of our Lord is known and made effec-
tual. In the chapter upon St. Patrick, the
utility of Monastic establishments, under their
early forms and rule, was spoken of. Columbkill
pursued the same course in this respect, as St.
Patrick. The necessity of banding men toge-
ther for mutual support, and consolation, and
defence, had not ceased, though doubtless
Christianity had much increased. We need
not be surprised, therefore, to find that Columb-
kiU's first efforts were made in this direction.
When he was twenty-five years old, he obtained
from his relatives, the Princes of the country,
a piece of land near Lough Foyle, not far from
the place where the city of Derry now stands.
Upon this he erected a church, and formed a
religious establishment ; and when he had placed
his institution on a firm basis, he proceeded to
visit other parts in Ireland, " that he might



work the works of Him that sent him, while
it was day, and before the night came, when no
man could work."

At that period there was no parochial system,
at least not in Ireland. It is doubtful whether
there was any territorial district assigned even
to Bishops. The parochial system is most ad-
mirably suited to a country that has been already
Christianized. That a clergyman should be in
every parish, that the souls of all the inhabitants
within its limits should be entrusted to his care,
that he should have them in his charge, and be
responsible for God's work amongst them, while
they should have the privilege, and right, and
benefit, of resorting to him for consolation and
direction in all their troubles, whether spiritual
or temporal,^ — ^this is a system of such wisdom,
loveliness, and of good report, that it will com-
mend itself to every Christian mind, and be
adopted in every Christian land. And yet there
is a higher system with which we have to do :
that which may be called by some, the Christian,
by others, the Church system. This existed
long before England, or Ireland, or any other
country was divided into parishes, and in all
new Colonies must necessarily exist, and be the


only one in action, while their civilization and
conversion to Christianity are taking place. We
are right in being warmly attached to the
parochial system, for it has effected, and still
continues to effect great good amongst us ; but
when it fails (as sometimes it will do in over-
crowded and too populous places, or where the
people are thinly scattered over a wide and
straggling district, or where the ministering
servants ©f God may be sadly neglectful of the
great trust committed to them), let us endeavour
to correct the evil, not by disestablishment or
disendowment, because there has been an appa-
rent failure, but rather let the Church system
come to the rescue, infuse new blood into the
feeble parts, wake up the dying embers to a
brighter and better life, and either by division
of parishes, or an increase of clergy and spiritual
agency, throw an increased vitality and energy
into " the things that are ready to die."

It was in accordance with the Church system
that St. Columbkill proceeded in his holy mis-
sion. His earnest desire was to convert souls
to God, and build them up in the faith of Christ,
wherever they could be found, and wherever he
was able to reach them. From Derry he went


to a place anciently called Dairmacli, now Bur-
row, in the Queen's County. Dair, or Dare,
signifies an oak, and the whole word means the
" oak plain," or oak field. Here he again piu"-
sued the same course as at Derry, and erected a
Monastery upon land which was given him for
the purpose, by a chieftain named Bredan.
This establishment became more celebrated, at
least it was more known to foreigners, than the
kindred institution at Derry. Bede thus speaks
of it : — '' Before he passed over into Britain, he
had built a noble Monastery in Ireland, which,
from the great number of oaks, was called in
the Scottish {i.e., Irish) tongue, Dearmach, the
field of oaks ; from both which Monasteries "
(Bede had classed it with his other great esta-
blishment at lona) '^ many others had their
beginning through his disciples^ both in Britain
and Ireland."

St. Columba is said to have founded other
institutions in Ireland, which were doubtless of
vast benefit in their localities, and from whence
the Word of the Gospel sounded forth con-
tinually to the surrounding neighbourhoods.
But the time came when he was destined, in
the providence of God, to leave his native


country. He may have heard of the spiritual
destitution which existed amongst the inhabi-
tants of North Britain, and his heart may
have yearned over their miserable condition,
and longed to communicate to them that holy
religion which conveyed such blessings to his
own soul, and to the souls of his people. From

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Online LibraryHubert McLaughlinBiographical sketches of ancient Irish saints, etc → online text (page 1 of 13)