Irish saints are a mainstay of Irish history. 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..
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.
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.