How the First Irish Saints and Scholars Discovered Ireland

A sixth-century monk named Brendan,  who would later become known as St. Brendan the Navigator,  set out in his tiny seal skin boat with his fellow abbots to a far away land called Hibernia, the name given to Ireland by the Greeks. They voyaged across the cold Atlantic shores toward a wild, mostly untamed territory. They were looking for grace or a way to come closer to God.They came from Britannia (England), Germania (Germany), and Rome as well as all over Western Europe. They wrote Latin and poetry, spoke different languages and came from the highest social ranks. After blending with the Irish, they became the record keepers of genealogies and stories. They became known as the most learned men of Europe. Whether they learned from the Celts or the Celts learned from them is inconsequential. The first Irish monks in Ireland were born ..  and Ireland would be changed forever by their arrival..

Repo. of Celtic Cross in Heritage Park, Wicklow Ireland

Repo. of Celtic Cross in Heritage Park, Wicklow Ireland

The First Women in Christianity

Christianity blended with the people of their new continent. The Irish chieftains who became priests were naturally married, and refused to shun their wives along with their lands upon conversion. Some women however, chose to become nuns ..  as far back as the sixth century. St. Patrick himself, included embroideresses in his entourage. (from The Flowering of Ireland by Katharine Scherman)

Ireland’s most famous female patron saint, Brigit, born in 450, was the daughter of a Pagan chieftain  named Dubthach. His first jealous wife sent Brigid’s mother away before she was born and she was born in the house of a druid who lived nearby. When Brighid was around ten years of age, she returned to her father and to his dismay began giving away all his food and whatever she thought useful to the poor. Then to further insult him,  she returned to her mother who was sick, in order to take over her duties as a milk maid. She churned so much butter for the druid that in delightful gratitude, he allowed himself to become baptized and became her servant for life. He also gave her some of the butter and one of the cows, which she promptly gave away. Perhaps to curb her activities, Dubthach insisted she marry but Brigid refused, disfiguring her own face so no man would want her. Finally her father gave her the money to ‘take the veil’ and it is believed her face became beautiful once again. A sweet little poem is attributed to her. This is the first line. I would like a great lake of ale for the king of the kings; I would like the people of heaven to be drinking it through time eternal. and one more verse: I would like the people of Heaven in my house: I would like the baskets of peace to be theirs.  You can see through her words, the blending of Christianity while still retaining some of the old world views.

St Kevin's Church Wicklow, Ireland

St Kevin’s Church Wicklow, Ireland

The first Irish saints and scholars did not live in groups but in seclusion such as St. Kevin of Wicklow (Coemgen in Irish)  who sought a closeness to God by living simply in the Wicklow Mountains. He was only a boy when Brigid was very old and it is written that he died at the age of 120. Kevin had been born of royalty descended from the kings of Leinster but he never wished to rule or to fight, choosing the life of a poor lonely monk instead. There are numerous stories about St Kevin such as when a girl tried to seduce him, he fled into a patch of nettles then threw them at her, stinging her sorely or when he stood with his arms outstretched, resembling the sign of the cross and stayed there until a black bird built her nest in his hand, an exhausting pose to be sure. Most of the stories are suspect if not fantastic for who knows what is true or what is mere legend. What is not fantastic are the  bee-shaped dwellings and stone made houses the monks left behind such as those on the top of Skellig Michael 600 feet above sea level and only reachable by precarious stone steps.

Life for the first monks under certain abbot’s was strict. St Enda’s rule for example, was rigorous in the extreme. Not only did the monks work their own land but they refused to use any tools. They ate silently and frugally, their food consisting mostly of oats and barley from their fields.  They slept in their day clothes on the bare ground and they seldom had a fire, even when the weather was wild. They prayed both day and night and allowed themselves only brief hours of sleep. Finian, like Enda  also preached an ascetic lifestyle. Written by one of his scribes, so great was Finian’s plight that his ribs could be counted through his inner raiment and a worm seen coming out of his side, for he wore a cold girdle of iron which cut him as penance for his body.

A lack of sleep, harsh physical conditions, little food and heightened pain were thought to strengthen a man’s soul. A profound faith in God as a living presence drove Ireland’s first Irish saints and scholars, but who are we to judge? Perhaps they did become closer to God.

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The Sun Palace by Brighid O’Sullivan


The Sun Palace by Brighid O'Sullivan

The Sun Palace by Brighid O’Sullivan

Book Cover Design

The Sun Palace by Brighid O’Sullivan


West Coast of Eire/ AD 520

She never heard the splash.

The world went black but soon she surfaced to the light, when an angry black wave smashed over her frail body, slapping her as if she were a stubborn child. Gripping her between its teeth, the sea engulfed her, regurgitating her between cusps and swallowed her as if she were nothing. She couldn’t tell which way was up and reached out in all directions, desperate and alone. She rolled and tumbled in the sea … becoming tangled in something slimy … arms flailing … toward what she hoped was the sky. She tried to cry out but the sea flooded her throat with a salty bitterness that choked her with each breath. She was blind and under water she grew deaf as well, disturbing her even more than the water’s icy grip which numbed her, almost solemnly.

The sea continued to churn.

She remembered it all. He’d sent her away with his most trusted friend to have the baby with the monks. She’d given birth, drank something and then woke up in the boat, her arms and legs tied together.

She wanted to kick, and did, but not without much effort. Thick cords secured her legs, the only thing keeping her thin gown from floating up to her head. She could paddle with her hands, though, for he had left a little slack when she had complained rather loudly. Her hands and arms were tied with a horse hair rope, secured above the elbows; it had left scars on both arms.

She flipped onto her back and tried to stay afloat. Once over the shock of bitter cold, she struggled to think, to get her mind clear. Surely the boat would see her. Surely he would come back when he realized she’d tumbled out. She stared up at the sun and swiveled her head side to side, trying to spot the fast disappearing craft.

I can’t see it!

Her breath jammed in her throat when she finally caught a glimpse of the boat. She could only see slips of black hull as it crested each wave. “Come back!” She changed her position and tried to tread water but her limbs were becoming weak.

If I can simply float perhaps … Certainly he won’t let me drown. He loves me too.

She had given birth only two days before, a girl, strong and healthy by the sound of her cry, but the monks had taken her away. Quick as an intake of breath and then what? Her heart quickened in her chest at the thought of leaving the infant behind. She had not seen the child though. Not in the boat before the fall. She must be safe, in the care of the gentle monks. But who will feed her? She pushed the thought from her mind. There were others things needed her energy for.

The only thing she could do now was let herself float. She could see gulls overhead, and grey scattered clouds, and the sun was hot as a new-forged blade upon her face.

He’ll come back for me, she thought. He never meant for me to fall. Then another wave smashed on her head, crushing her below a tall angry white-cap. She swallowed a mouthful; it shot up her nose, sharp as a red-hot poker. She sputtered and coughed, kicking furiously. Finally she flipped onto her back again. Where was the boat? Which way was shore?

I’m here. I’m here! The words stuck in her throat and she wasn’t clear to whether she’d spoken them at all.

Delirium set in and a queer tightness tingled in her breasts. It was time to feed the infant.

She continued to thrash about, reaching the surface now and again.

Is the boat behind me? I can hold on ‘til he sees me. I can! The ropes around her legs slackened giving her new-found energy and hope.

She kicked and the ropes unwound from her feet and floated to the surface. Lifting her bound hands, she pushed them from her face. The ropes flopped across the waves, mingling with long silvery weeds like old friends.

With one last snip of energy, her head above the grave, she searched the horizon.

The boat was gone!

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