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The Island of Saints and Scholars: The Early Centuries

Sister Dr. Evelyn Kenny

Reproduced, with the Society's permission, from the 1999/2000 Journal of The Creggan Local History Society


The Basic Elements of Celtic Christianity
The Emergence of Celtic Monasticism
St Colmcille
St Comgall
St Mochaoi of Nendrum
St Brigid
St Monina
St Bronagh
Monastic Reform


In this millennium year it is right and fitting, I think, to consider and celebrate the tremendous contribution made by this tiny island to the spread of Christianity. In this article, I will confine myself to dealing very briefly with the main contribution of our three national patrons and the saints from this part of the island.

St Patrick is acclaimed by the Irish as their national Apostle and rightly so. Despite the fact that there were Christians in Ireland before his coming due to travellers and traders from the East and from the continent and the labours of Palladius (cf. Annals of Ulster 431), it was Patrick who established the faith firmly in Ireland and by the year 444, had achieved a new position for it as an independent, ecclesiastical province, directly under the jurisdiction of Rome with a secular clergy.

The normal Patrician ecclesiastical enclosure had three buildings - a "large house" where the clerics dwelt, a Church or Oratory where Mass was celebrated and a kitchen which served also as refectory - surrounded by a high wall. In prominent foundations such as Arinagh, Trim and Sletty, the clergy lived in a very disciplined manner under the Bishop's jurisdiction within the enclosure.

The fact that St. Patrick's missionary activity in Ireland was so spectacularly successful was due, in no small measure, to the quality of the man himself and to his respect for the culture of the people among whom he worked, which, incidentally, was a marked characteristic of the methodology of the Irish missionaries on the continent. In Ireland, St. Patrick spent 30 years using his skills of diplomacy, observing protocol and christianising the traditional patterns of devotion.

As for the man himself, the Confessio gives us a portrait of a very simple, sincere, humble man who has been treated harshly by his own ecclesiastical peers. He considered himself a rustic and a person who was unlearned, yet a modem study of his writings reveal a high degree of sophistication. The Confessio points clearly to the fact that he is penitential and ascetic, that he is passionately in love with God, that he engages in continuous prayer, that he loves sacred scripture and that his spirituality is thoroughly biblical, that he is close to the God of nature and is open to hear God in vision and dream. In fact, he is a powerful symbol for the beginning of the Celtic Church in Ireland. His letter to Coroticus reveals a singularly brave and outspoken voice against slavery - which he himself knew about only too well from personal experience - an institution still accepted by the Church in Rome. So, Patrick's own writings tell the story of a man who was remarkable for his time - and for our own time.

The Celts were very religious and many of their impulses and pagan beliefs made it very easy for them to accept the basic tenets of Christianity.

They believed in an after-life and in the immortality of the soul e.g. Tir na nOg, the land of everlasting youth. They believed that the other life was very close to them. They made very little distinction between the material and spirit world. For instance, they believed that the spirits of their ancestors walked about freely around the festival of Samhain. For them also, the after-life impinged on and interacted with the present life. So, they fostered strong relationships with the living and the dead.

They saw the Divine in all of created nature for which they had a great love and respect. For them, the earth and all its creatures were a source of delight and admiration. They were accepted as good and were celebrated. The Celts enjoyed an excellent relationship with nature. One must always remember also in this context that the Celtic culture was a woman-accepting and woman honouring heroic culture.

However, the dark side of nature was also acknowledged. The earth was revered as the source of fertility and life but there was also a healthy respect for it, recognising its power as well as its beauty. So, protection prayers were used in order to live with this reality. Thus you have the "caim" and the "lorica" to protect people against evil and the more destructive forces of nature.

The Irish social system laid great emphasis on kinship and personal rule and was communitarian and relational, rather than hierarchical. This explains why there was such a strong communal sense in the Celtic Church and why the Irish readily welcomed the idea of the monastic family under its Abbot.

They had great respect for heroes and warriors and this was later transferred to Christ and the Saints. Christ was seen as the great warrior. So, they embraced wholeheartedly as their heroes, Christ and the Saints.

There was a fierceness and passion obvious among the Celts in fighting their wars. This later became channelled into an intense, passionate spirituality that insisted on penance and heroism.

The Trinity created no problem for the Celts because they thought in terms of three. They also often thought of them in symbolic and abstract images, so it is not in any way strange that the Trinitarian consciousness permeated Celtic spirituality. An awareness of the Triune God shaped their prayer and a triad way of expressing prayer became common as well. The way that they looked at the world and all reality also made it easy to embrace Christianity. They could see the sacred in the ordinariness of life. Because they were an imaginative, intuitive people, they also had the ability to see more than what is immediately visible.

So, accepting people as they were, St. Patrick was able to bring people with him as it were. He travelled extensively around Ireland and was aided, no doubt, by his knowledge of the language and his awareness of the social traditions. However, it would be quite wrong to minimise the difficulty of his mission. Remember that he did not belong to a tribe, so he would be in constant danger. Remember also that the druids were fortnidable enemies and held great power in Ireland. Nevertheless, St. Patrick endured until the end and, perhaps, the greatest tribute to him was the great flowering of monasticism in this country and the huge impact that his had on Europe.

The Basic Elements of Celtic Christianity

First of all, there was an intense awareness of the world - and the entire universe - as the transfigured image of God, charged at every point with His glory. It affirmed that creation is blessed. Coupled with this was a tremendous awareness of the nearness of God, together with a deep acknowledgement of His otherness.

Celtic Christianity was essentially an embracing of life in its totality. Everything was sacred for there was nothing "secular" in the Celtic psyche. There was no false separation between creation and its Creator. There was an acknowledgement of the masculine and the feminine which was summed up beautifully in an old Hebridean saying: "There is a mother's heart in the heart of God. "

There was a very strong appreciation of spiritual mentoring - the idea of the "anamchara" by both lay and clerical figures.

There was a deep, passionate, heart-felt knowledge of the tenderness and mercy of God but no sentimentality.

There was a tremendous tenderness, warmth and empathy - but not sentimentality - towards the suffering Christ and His sorrowful Mother. ne deep Celtic devotion to Mary, the Mother o God, was entirely down to earth and unsentimental. The call to Mary to come and milk the cow was a down to earth, realistic love of Mary:

"Come, Mary, and milk my cow,
Come, Brigid, and encompass her
Come, Columba, the benign,
and twine your arms around my cow.
Ho, my heifer, ho my gentle heifer
My heifer dear, gentle and kind,
For the sake of the High King, take to your calf

It was a faith which was big enough to embrace the totality of life's experiences, a faith which was totally identified with the whole living experience. Hence, one had prayers for waking, sleeping, washing, milking, eating, going out, coming in, reaping etc. Love was the Celt's natural response to their belief in and experience of a loving Creator. This, of course, was expressed in the tremendous hospitality of the Celt. They had a clear vision of the Church, the people of God, as immersed in the unity of the Trinity.

A marked feature of Celtic Christianity was the centrality of prayer and contemplation. It was all-inclusive and excluded nobody, friend or foe. The Celts hated what they called the 'paidir ghann", the stingy or mean prayer. Pilgrimage was also very strong in the Celtic Church and it was quite usual for people to make a pilgrimage to Rome.

The Emergence of Celtic Monasticism

In the first half of the sixth century, we had the emergence of the great Irish monasteries which developed as centres of learning as well as centres of great holiness and evangelisation and these, in turn, overshadowed the Patrician Church and we had people like Finnian of Clonard, Finnian of Moville, Brigid of Kildare, Colmcille of Iona, Comgall of Bangor, Brendan of Clonfert, Ciairan of Cloninacnois, Kevin of Glendalough, Moluag of Lismore, Finan of Sceilg Mhichil, Molaise of Devenish, Ita of Kileedy, Gobnait of Ballyvoumey, Fanchea of Clogher, Aidan of Lindisfarne, Cuthbert of Melrose and Lindisfarne and our own Colman of Dromore, Bronagh of Kilbroney and Moninna of Killeavy, people whom the Benedictine Fr. Timothy Joyce describes as:

"heroic and passionate men and women who were
following their hero, Jesus, through penance, asceticism, solitude and
pilgrimage that was intended as an exile in honour of Christ but that
brought forth rich missionary and evangelical fruits.

And he goes on to say that "this was a church characterised by a gentle way of life and yet found in austere, monastic settlements and island retreats, dominated by the personalities ofsaints and expressed in poeticforms."

This golden age began in the fifth century and was to flourish for several centuries.

Monasticism became widespread because it appealed to a tribal people who lived closely in community and who forged very strong bonds of kinship. The idea of community living presided over by an Abbot appealed to them. Remember that the King in Celtic society was not distant. He was a local man, one of their own and that, incidentally, is the image of God as King that we find in Celtic prayer.

They were completely unencumbered by the desire to acquire or hoard material wealth. The concept of individual ownership and hoarding was totally alien to them.

Celtic monasticism was based mainly on the Egyptian and Syrian monastic system and was generally influenced by their lifestyle which explains, to some extent at least, the rigorous lifestyle of the Celtic monasteries. The Johannine influence came to the Celts via St. Irenaeus of Smyrna. They were also influenced by his theology of wholeness and his respect for the goodness of creation.

However, the most immediate influence on Ireland was St. Martin of Tours and through him, St. Ninian of Whithom.

However, Celtic monasticism differed from its Eastern counterparts in some important ways:

1. It was much more open to people and more evangelistic in its approach to the society around it. The ffish monastic movement was a missionary movement.

2. Members of the Irish monasteries seem to have been confmed almost exclusively to the upper and middle classes.

3. The Irish system was much more open to study and the intellectual pursuit of learning. So, it combined contemplative life with the active and social life.

4. Finally, the penitential discipline in the Irish monasteries was much more severe.

The monasteries were usually constructed near rivers (like Clomnacnois), or near lakes (like Devenish), on or near the ocean (like Inismurray and Sceilg Mhichil) or deep within woodland areas, such as Glendalough. Although these were remote places, they were easily accessible by boat.

The monasteries were centres of religion. The Irish monks preached the Gospel, took it seriously and practised what they preached. But the monasteries were also centres of commerce, trade, agriculture, recreation and education. These educational centres attracted students from Britain and the continent.

An Abbot or Abbess was the administrative leader of the community, leaving the sacramental and evangelical functions to the bishop or priest.

It should not surprise us that women founded monasteries. For them in particular, the monastic life offered the opportunity to develop one's intellectual abilities and creative pursuits. Remember that in Celtic society women had much more freedom than in other cultures. The Cain Adomnain, a set of laws principally concerned with the protection of women, was drawn up in 697 A.D., for example. The monastic women usually dealt with familial, monastic and pastoral involvements. The men were spiritual guides to the tribes, teachers and tutors, missionaries and pilgrims travelling to foreign lands, mystics and visionaries who knew firsthand the compassion of God, confessors, reconcilers and soulfriends.

The aim of the monk was to live in a state of perpetual awareness of God. So, all the monks studied, prayed and worked daily at their various crafts as a valuable part of spiritual discipline. Everybody had to learn to read. Reading, writing and study of the scriptures went on every day and huge portions were leamt off by heart. They attended services in the Church at dawn, sunset and midnight. On Saturday and Sunday, the Eucharist was celebrated. Public confession and public repentance of sins against the Rule took place on Sundays. The monastic spirituality was thoroughly biblical and the Holy Eucharist held an equally exalted place in the life and spirituality of both monks and faithful. The Antiphonary of Bangor, a seventh century Irish manuscript, contains the text of the Sancti Venite, the Church's most ancient Eucharistic hymn.

In the monasteries also, the elaborate art of the ancient Celts was kept alive and perpetuated in the illumination of manuscripts and the execution of metalwork such as chalices, croziers and brooches. The joy of the monks is to be seen in the glorious colours and endless spiral designs they created in illuminating the Scriptures and in the exquisite work on the metal covers which protected such treasures.

Let us take a closer look at some of these people who shaped society not just in Ireland but throughout Europe. I am just taking a cross section which will show what has been achieved when one had the right motivation - and what can still be achieved if we wish it!

St. Colmcille

Cohncille was born in 521. He was of noble blood, his mother being Eithne of the Royal house of Leinster and his father Phelim MacFearghusa belonged to the Cenel Conaill of the Northern Ui Neill. His parents sent him to a foster father, Cruithneachan, who taught him to read. He then entered the monastery of Finnian of Moville as a student of scripture and became a deacon. His next teacher was Gemman, a Christian bard in Leinster, who taught him preaching and Celtic heritage. His fourth teacher was Finnian of Clonard. So, one could honestly say that Colmcille had a classical education. He was a poet, a musician, a mathematician, an orator, a scribe and a scholar. He was ordained by Bishop Echtan. He went to Derry - the place of the oak - and founded a monastery there. His next settlement was in Durrow and he also founded Kells and Drumcliffe. He and twelve companions headed off for Iona in 563, after the Battle of Cul Dreimhne. There are two reasons given for the battle which was instigated by Colmcille. One is the copying of Finnian of Moville's psalter without permission. Finnian told him to give back the copy, which Cohncille refused to do. Finman appealed to the High King, Diarmuid Mac Cearbhaill, for a judgement and Diarmuid ruled against Colmcille saying the famous phrase: "To every cow its calf, to every book its copy. " Colmcille's kinsmen then waged war on Diarmuid. However, the second reason seems to be much more plausible. In 560, King DiarTnuid held the Tara festival. During the festival games, Cuman, son of King Aed of Connacht, killed a playmate in a hurling match and was subsequently killed by Diarmuid's men while under Colmcille's protection. According to the law, he should have been set free after paying the "oinech fola", the blood fine. This, of course, was a terrible slur on Colmcille and was possibly the real reason for the fight. At the Synod of Teltown, near Tara, Colmcille was excommunicated for his part in the combat and was banished. Lawsaiian (Laisren), his soul-friend, told him to go into exile and to win as many souls for Christ as were killed in the battle.

So, Colmcille founded a monastery on Iona consisting of a rectangular church, small beehive-shaped cells made of timber and turf, a guesthouse, scriptorium and a refectory, all enclosed by a boundary wall. Outside this were the farm buildings and the ground cultivated by the monks. The diet in the Iona monastery was good: bread, milk, fish and eggs with meat for guests and also on feast days and Sundays. The monks ate sparingly and fasting and austere diets were common. The haircut was according to the druidic custom. They observed five daily Offices and kept Saturday as the Sabbath and sunday as the Lord's day with a celebration of the Eucharist. The liturgical worship was influenced by the Eastern tradition, consisting of hymns and psalms.

One must remember that the monastic schools offered new intellectual possibilities; writing, classical learning, ecclesiastical patronage, new art forms and symbols sympathetic to traditional Celtic expression. Colmcille had the virtues of courage, strength, decisiveness and the ability to stand up for one's convictions. He also was very outspoken and was of fiery temperament. He was also a diplomat. He arbitrated in the royal succession of the Dalriada dynasty and ensured the kingship of Aidan as successor to King Conaill in 574 A.D. He also consecrated Aidan as King of Iona. Later, he acted as a powerbroker and attended the Convention of Drum Ceatt in 575 as Aidan's adviser. The purpose of the convention was three-fold: to seek the freedom of Scanlon, to get a better deal for the Bards and to get independence for Alba Dalriada.

So, Columba was an evangeliser and a statesman. He also had a great affinity with animals as is evidenced by the stories about the crane and the horse. He lived a life of poverty, leaving behind him only a cowl, a pectoral Cross, a walking stick and some books when he died on the ninth of June 597, aged 76 years.

St. Comgall (c. 517 - 601)

The greatest of the sixth century monastics was St. Comgall. Comgall's masters were Fintan of Clonenagh, Finnian of Clonard and St. Mobhi of Glasnevin. He built a monastery at Bangor. The Annals of Bangor state:

"And a great host of monks came there to Saint Comgall, so that they could not all be in one place. And so hefounded several cells and many monasteries, not only in Ulster but through all the provinces ofireland. And in the scattered cells and monasteries, three thousand monks were under the care of the holyfather Comgall. But greater and morefamous than all these was the monastery at Beannchor"

Bangor was founded by Comgall in the year 588 A.D. and became one of the most famous monasteries and missionary schools in Western Christendom.

Comgall was a man of deep spirituality, learning and austerity who was fired with missionary zeal. His high standard of leadership prepared many to go out into the world as missionaries, as we shall see, bringing to Europe a love of the scriptures and a rare zeal for the Gospel.

What did Bangor look like?

The largest building was the main oratory. Then there were the wooden buildings of the monastery - the bee-hive cells where Comgall and his companions lived, a kitchen, refectory, a small oratory, a scriptorium, a granary, tannery, corn mill, blacksmith's forge and a carpenter's shop. There was also a cow byre and a hospitium (guest house).

There was scope for individual talent and skills side by side with a strong community spirit which found expression at meal-time in the refectory and again in the corporate worship in the Church. That Bangor's fame was widespread is certain because in the thirteenth century Mappa Mundi we fmd the words "Civitas Bencur" marked on the bottom left-hand corner.

The Rule enjoined obedience until death. Charity was another important rule as was also humility. An ancient Irish rule ascribed to St. Comgall says:
"These are thy three rules. Have thou naught else dearer: Patience, humility and the love of God in thy heart".

Bangor had the reputation of being a very hospitable monastery.

Comgall stressed the importance of loyalty and obedience and had a fascinating fellowship with birds and beasts. Every single act from eating, speaking, working to praying was dedicated to the service of God and neighbour. He ruled the Abbey for fifty years and died on the 10th May 601 A.D. St. Bemard of Clairvaux said of Bangor: "Verily, the place was holy and fruitful in saints, plentifully rendering a harvest to God.

Two of the saints most revered on the Continent, St. Columbanus and St. Gall, are products of Bangor and it was from that monastery that they set forth on their evangelical mission.

St. Mochaoi of Nendrum

Nendrum on Mahee Island is traditionally held to have been founded by St. Mochaoi who died c.490 A.D. Tradition also holds that Mochaoi was baptised by St. Patrick. There is little known about St. Mochaoi but an early litany reports "nine times fifty monks under the yoke of mochaoi of noendruim. "

The monastic site itself consisted of 3 concentric enclosures, defined by dry-stone walls, high enough to provide serious protection. Before the tenth century, a wide range of wooden buildings must be imagined: wooden church, Abbot's house, kitchen, refectory, living cells, workshops, guest house, doorkeeper's hut and tenent's houses, all forming a sizeable monastic "village".

St. Colman of Dromore was a sixth century bishop, born in Ulster, who spent much of his working life in Co. Down and was founder of the monastery in Dromore. An interesting point is that he is reputed to have taught Finnian of Moville there. His feast day is on 7th June.

St. Brigid

The Celtic Church, of course, was not exclusively male in its leadership and spiritual teaching. The women also played a significant part. One such was St. Brigid. The Annals of Ulster puts her birth as 454 A.D. She belonged to the 'aithech-tuatha', that is, a subject people of low social position. She was the daughter of a christian slave named Brocessa and a druidic master, Dubhtach, a nobleman. On the death of her mother, she was recognised as her father's daughter and was given to a foster-mother to be reared. She had a mind of her own and entered the religious life, despite her father. Brigid's life portrays the positive role of women in leadership. She was a woman of genius and of deep spiritual insight. She was a firm advocate of the necessity of having soul-friends.

Kildare was founded towards the end of the fifth century. St. Brigid and 7 companions went to St. Mel, Bishop of Ardagh. While hearing her confession, Mel pronounced the formula for the consecration of a bishop instead of the formula for absolution. Thus, Brigid was ordained bishop. It is a simple fact of history that St. Brigid made an indelibly deep impression on her contemporaries. She was admired most of all for the holiness of her daily life. One of the poems which give us some inkling of her prayer life was Broccan's Hymn (seventh century) which begins:

"Brigid, the victorious, loved not the world,.
She dwelt apart like a bird on a clif.
She slept in a narrowcell
for the sake of Mary's Son."

A second stanza testifies to her habit of meditating on the Godhead and the Trinity.

The favourite characteristic attributed to Brigid was her love for the poor. Cogitosus, her seventh century biographer, asserts that she was incapable of refusing a poor person any request. She gave everything away, including Bishop Conleth's most precious Mass vestments which were a gift from overseas. Being a Celt, Brigid saw the poor and needy as belonging to one great family whose father was God. she once said, "to give away the whole kingdom ofleinster, I would willingly give it to God's poor."

She was given the title "Mary of the Gael" because, in her, people recognised that same selfless dedication and humility and faith characteristic of Our Lady. In her concept of religious life, strict enclosure and the cloister had little or no place. Her place was with the people - to love and serve, both by prayer and by active work. The Annals give her death as 524 A.D.

These are just a few of the many Irish saints. My main reason for picking these particular saints is that they give a flavour of the depth of commitment that was widespread in the Celtic Church in this part of Ireland.

St. Moninna

St. Moninna of Killeavy died in 518 A.D., aged 83 years. She is also known as Blathnaid or Blinne and her feastday occurs on the 6th July.

According to tradition, Moninna, when a child, was baptised and confirmed by St. Patrick. It is said that Patrick came to her parent's house, blessed the family and predicted that Moninna's name would be remembered throughout time.

For a time, she and nine companions - eight virgins and one widow followed a religious rule while remaining in their own homes, but afterwards, they visited St. lbar of Beg Erin in Wexford and lived there for a while under his guidance.

St. Moninna also spent some time with St. Brigid of Kildare. In fact, in popular tradition, St. Brigid, St. Blinne and St. Bronach are described as sisters but it is much more likely that they were religious Sisters following the same rule.

When she came back to her native district, she founded a convent at Faughart. Soon, however, she left Sarbhaile in charge of the community and sought a place of greater seclusion for herself - at Cill Shleibhe (Killeavy) on the slope of Sliabh Gullion. At the crossroads at Ballintemple, St. Moninna established her convent and the ruins of Killeavy Old Church are preserved in the churchyard at Ballintemple. Alongside it is the old road, Slighe Miodhluachra, said to be one of the five great roads from Tara in pre-christian times, once travelled by St. Patrick. Here, many nuns lived under her direction and many people came to her for counsel and prayers. It is said that she never had an idle moment, devoting her time to labour and prayer. It is also said that she loved fasting so much that she never ate enough. One thing is certain, however, and that is that she continued at Killeavy the spirit of the teaching and pastoral concern of St. Patrick and St. Brigid. The convent of Moninna appears to have survived until the Middle Ages but it certainly did not survive the suppression of the monasteries in Elizabethan times.

Moninna is said to be a name of endearment substituted for her earlier name, Darerca. Nowadays, in local tradition, she is best known as St. Blinne.

St. Bronach

There is no reliable biography of Bronach, so most of the information we have about her is from tradition or legend. Having said that, there are references to Bronach from some very sound sources.

She is mentioned in O'Clery's Calendar of Irish Saints. She is also registered in the Martyrologies of Tallaght and Donegal as "Bronach, Virgin of Gleann Seichis". She is also mentioned in the Martyrology of Gorinan where she is described as Bronach Beoda (Tradition has it that she was the daughter of Milchoand that her mother's name was also Bronach. She and her brother Gall became christians when Patrick returned to Ireland. Gall became a priest and, later, a bishop and had his See around Dromore in Co. Down.

It is said that, as a young woman, Bronach had a vision, as a result of which, she established a religious community in the glen above Rostrevor. It is believed that Bronach first came to Killowen and Bronagh's well is found there. However, this site was too noisy due to the raucous noise of the sea gulls and, eventually, she came to Kilbroney valley where peace reigned supreme. Here she built her little Church on the site now occupied by the old ruins of the Pre-Reformation Church in the Kilbroney graveyard, where she presided as Abbess. Another version has it that she became a religious and the Gall had a monastery built for her near Rostrevor.

What is certain is that Bronach and her companions lived in this religious settlement in the sixth century and that from this tiny focalarea, the message of the christian gospel was first carried out by word and deed into the surrounding countryside. She carried on her work in Glen Seichis but her life was cut short by plundering Vikings who, it is said, martyred her. The tiny crude cross with rather grotesque markings in the graveyard is thought to indicate her grave. Nearby is another large, rough, granite Cross of unknown origin known as St. Bronach's Cross.

She was one of the few women saints who had a crozier. Her brother Gall died before her and she was made custodian of his episcopal staff. In the manuscripts of the Irish Ordinance Survey in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, there is a drawing of the Old Church and Cross. St. Bronach's Crozier was supposed to be preserved in the Church. The staff seems to have disappeared, perhaps lost at the time of the Reformation, although Laurence Flanagan in A Chronicle of Irish Saints maintains that St. Bronach's Crozier or enshrined Staff is in the National Museum in Dublin. That St. Bronach had a staff and is portrayed with her staff would suggest that her office was of some importance.

The staff did exist. In medieval times, the custody of her "baculus" or staff was held by the incumbent of the parish whose office still carries the title "keeper of the staff of St. Bronach". Archdeacon Atkinson in his book Dromore: An Ulster Diocese 1925 states that in 1427 the Bishop appointed Agholy Me. Dermydan to be "custos bacule santae Bromanae, Dromorensis Dioc.", that is, "keeper of the staff of St. Bronach, Diocese of Dromore. The Rev. Bemard Mooney in his "Placenames of Rostrevor" notes that a an called Gillabroney Me. Keown (Kewyn) had an interest in the office of the staff in the Church of St. Bromana, that is the latinized version of Bronach Gillabroney comes from Giolla Bhronaigh, that is, servant or disciple of Bronach.

In Kilbroney graveyard also, there is a holy well known as St. Bronach's well. It is claimed that the spring which contains carbonates and iron has curative powers, especially for the eyes. It is also said that young maidens bathed their faces here in search of beauty but to achieve this, the well must be visited before midnight on the eve of St. Bronach's feast, that is on April 1st.

There is a very nice story told about the well. A young maiden called Blamba was blind and went to the holy well at midnight on April 1 st, the eve of Bronach's feastday. She was cured but when she looked at herself in the pool the following day, she discovered that she was very ugly. She loved Rory Mc. Guinness, head of Magennis sept, whose castle stood near Rostrevor Square but he took no notice of her. The following year, she rushed to St. Bronach's well again. At midnight, the waters began to bubble and overflow. She washed her face in it saying: "O Blessed St. Bronach, give me beauty." She had a vision of a brightly illuminated tablet which told her to think only of things which were noble, worthy and beautiful. By doing so, her body would soon begin to reflect the beauty of her soul. Suddenly, her whole being was transformed and, as time passed, the transformation began to show in her face and she became very beautiful. Rory fell in love with her and married her.

A modem shrine was erected over St. Bronach's holy well by Canon McGinn P.P. in 1937.

Among the ruins of the Old Church, which at present measures approximately 13m x 6m and contains a nave and a chancel - a fact which indicates that it was once a place of some importance - was found an old ben. St. Bronach's Bell, which is currently in the Catholic Church in Rostrevor. St. Bronach's bell is a bronze bell of quadrangular shape - the type of bell used after the introduction of christianity in Ireland until the close of the I lth century when the round form came into common use. It was called the "clog ban" (the white bell) from the colour of the metal of which it was made. It was a hand bell used in Ireland at funerals and on solemn religious occasionsSometimes it was called "the blessed bell" because of its use for sacred purposes.

St. Bronach's bell, measuring 12 inches overall in height, is thought to be smaller than is commonly known. It is not of white metal but of bronze. The bell was in use in St. Mary's Church - the Old Chapel - in Newry for many years as an altar bell. Then, it was claimed for the Parish of Kilbroney by the Parish Priest, Rev. Patrick O'Neill and used on Rostrevor altar until the renovations in the 1990s. A lovely old tradition says that anyone who expresses a wish and rings the bell three times will realise his/her desire.

There is also a story about St. Bronach's bell and how it came about. Fergus, the young chieftain of Gleann Seichis, went out hunting with his hounds. They followed a hind and, after a long chase, managed to kill it. A storm arose and as Fergus and his men sheltered, they noticed the hind's companion, an enormous antlered stag. Fergus took his favourite hound with him and pursued it. When he was nearing his quarry, he discovered that Altan of Lecale was also pursuing the same stag. Now, Fergus and Altan's clans were at emity with each other. The two hounds rushed at the stag which was exhausted and badly wounded. Grievously wounded, it gored Altan's hound to death. Fergus' hound was still hanging on to it. In an effort to kill the stag, Altan threw a javelin but killed Fergus' hound. Fergus was furious and fired an arrow at Altan, left him lying on the ground for dead and returned to his companions. Later, however, he began to feel remorse and to fear that Altan's tribesmen would seek revenge. Strangely enough, they did not invade his territory. In point of fact, Altan did not die. His followers had found him lying wounded on the mountain side, had brought him home where a skilled "Ollamh" had cured him after several weeks. Fergus did not know this, however. So, he had a bell of hammered bronze and twelve bronze candlesticks made and he presented them to St. Bronach and her community at Glen Seichis in reparation for his violent deed - as an "eric". St. Bronach had a small shelter forked on a young oak tree which grew near the Church and cloister. The bell was hung in this recess and tolled for the dead chieftain Altan.

On the advice of a holy hermit, Fergus resigned the leadership of his clan as a further act of atonement. He put on a hair shirt, sack cloth and sandals, took a staff and travelled around Ireland as a pilgrim for fifty years. When he returned home, the Danes had ravaged the area, the monastery was in ruins and none of his old companions were alive. He met an old white-haired pilgrim praying at the ruins and they began talking. The pilgrim was Altan who told him that he had not died at his hands but had made his peace with Fergus' successor when he heard about Fergus' deeds of atonement. Fergus was overcome with joy, fell backwards into Altan's arms and died.

For several hundred years, a bell was heard ringing in Kilbroney cemetery but nobody knew where the sound came from. When there was a breeze, it could be heard quite clearly and it frightened the passers-by. A whole lore grew up around the bell. When it rang in the morning, it was for joy, rung by angels' hands. Before a storm it rang wildly and was said to be rung by Gaoth, then god of storm, warning people of coming danger. Hope was given up in a house of sickness when Bronach's doom bell came through the night air, or as a local poet put it:

"In the silence of the night,
how they shivered with affright
at the melancholy menace of its tone.
Every sound that seemed tofloat
from the rust within its throat
was a groan.

If the invisible bell tolled at an interment, it promised rest and immortality to the departed soul. On All Souls' night, 2nd November, when the dead are recreated and walk the earth, the secret bell was the trumpet of resurrection for the Glen of Seichis. It summoned forth the phantoms of the departed at the hours of midnight saying: "All ye dead, awake! arise!" The phantoms arose and then melted out of sight, or, as the poet says:

"They come in shapes of joy and woe,
the airy crowds of long ago;
The dreams and fancies known of yore
that have been and shall be no more;
They change the cloisters of the night
into a garden of delight.
But ere my lips can bid they stay,
they pass and vanish quite away.

Then, suddenly, the bell stopped ringing and was heard no more. People were astounded and some began to doubt that they had ever heard it. In 1885, however, there was a terrible storm during which a large oak tree was blown down and, at last, the mystery was solved. When workmen were cutting up the oak, they discovered the bell hidden in the tree. The ring holding the tongue had worn away and had fallen down to the bottom of the recess. The bell was sent to Dublin where antiquarians agreed that it was of the same period as the earliest christian consecrated bells in this country. A new ring was installed and the bell was again used in the liturgy.

These are just a few of the many Irish saints. My main reason for picking these particular saints is that they give a flavour of the depth of commitment that was widespread in the Celtic Church in this part of Ireland.

Monastic Reform

One could say that the Golden Age of Celtic monasticism occurred between the fifth and the eighth centuries. Here, one found strong men and women of passion, commitment, faith and courage. The actual Rules directing monasteries were often sketchy because so much influence came from the personal power of the leaders.

The Silver Age of Celtic Monasticism occurred between the eighth and twelveth centuries. During this period, the monasteries maintained their centrality. The monasteries of this later period continued to produce people of great sanctity, scholarship and culture. However, abuses crept in regarding property and possessions as well as in the use of power. As happens when people and institutions grow wealthy and secure, the lifestyle lost its vigour and mediocrity was tolerated. The monasteries' well-being gradually became tied up with local politics.

So, in the eighth century a reform movement known as the Celi De (friends/servants of God) emerged. They wanted to recover the lost traditions of their spiritual ancestors and to bring new life into their own churches and monasteries. The monks of this movement attempted to live the full christian life with a new idealism, freshness and vigour, even if, at times, they were excessively austere and even puritanical.

There was a return to a more severe asceticism and increased piety and learning. There was a passionate commitment to the search for God and an intense religious longing expressed in prayer.

Prayers were gentle and tender with little separation of the religious and the secular. St. Patrick's Breastplate, which was written in the eighth or ninth century, encapuslates what is best in Celtic spirituality of the period. It is enraeshed in the Trinity, in the immanence of a loving God, in the goodness of a created world alive with the power and the beauty of God. The image of the Breastplate reflects the theme of protection which was so important to a people who lived close to nature and who were very aware of its dark and destructive moods. In fact, this entire prayer deserves close examination. It gives, I think, a unique view of the closeness of God in creation and also another very important theme of Celtic spirituality: the immanent and close presence of God in the ordinary happenings of everyday life. There was a great respect for and outreach to the poor and to strangers.

Despite the loss of sensitivity to nature among the Continental Christians the beauty of nature and the immanent presence of God within all of created reality did prevail among the Celts. Nature poetry flourished -a monk tells of a lark which accompanies his morning psahn. A wren is characterised as the bard which comes to join a monk's call to Matin. And we have the lovely ninth century poem, Pangur Ban.

One point which was stressed at the monastery at Tallaght was spiritual discipline, especially prayer, solitude and simplicity of life. It was stressed that simplicity was a virtue to cultivate and that the solitary life had special advantages.

The Celi De Reform Movement also gave great emphasis to the 'anamchara' who was seen as of great value for one's on-going spiritual development. The practice of seeing an 'anamchara' on a regular basis seems to have been expected of all christians, lay or cleric, at least once a year. Maelruain believed in a loving yet challenging soul-friend. To use his own words: "When you put yourself under the judgement or control of another, seek out the fire that you think will bum you the fiercest, that is, him who will spare you least."

Under the Celi De movement, the monastic scriptoria continued their work, especially Armagh, Glendalough and Clonmacnois.

The influence of the Celi De Reform movement, however, was cut short before it came into full flowering by external factors, namely, the Viking raids which were beginning along the coast. These, coupled with theological and anthropological controversies, liturgical divergence from Roman custom, their influence of the continental religious orders introduced into Ireland by St. Malachy of Armagh and the coming of the Normans sounded the death knell for the Celtic church. And thus, the Celtic Church which had flourished for so long and which had done so much at home here and throughout Europe died. However, its basic vision has endured down through the centuries and can - if we let it - influence us for good.


So, as we enter the third millennium, what has our native Celtic spirituality to offer us?

First and foremost, it is a recall to a reality where spiritual and material merge and are so integrated that religion is no longer an adjunct of one's regular life but an integral part of it.

Secondly, the spirituality of our ancestors can help us to see beyond the industrial pollution and the necessity of empire building and to see again creation as the transfigured image of its Creator and ourselves as stewards of the gentle earth and its creatures for, as Gerald Manley Hopkins so beautifully puts it, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God" - and I would say not only grandeur but also compassion and beauty. Hopefully, in this coming millennium, we will be able to see, as William Cowper so beautifully puts it, "in scenes, the unambiguous footsteps of God." If we could do this, perhaps there would be less need for animals to be protected and more food for people.

A third challenge our forefathers give us is to see Christ in the face of friend and stranger. What a difference this could make everywhere and particularly in Northern Ireland. It seems to me that our Celtic ancestors are challenging us to imitate their capacity for personal relationships and community relationships.

A fourth challenge is to connect with the poor once again for they too are a reflection of God and are our brothers and sisters. Our ancestors challenge us to make alive again their tremendous gift of hospitality and remind us that the resources of the earth are for all creation, all people and all animals.

A fifth challenge they pose us is to take this moment, this place, this happening as the time and place for an encounter with God. The Celtic approach to God opens up a world in which nothing is too common to be exalted or so exalted that it cannot be made common.

And, in conclusion, our Celtic spirituality and our Celtic ancestors ask us to return to a greater simplicity which will enable us to fmd again the seeing eye and the feeling touch. Celtic spirituality can, if we let it, rescue us from a vision that has grown too narrow, from a God whom we have cramped and interpreted in our own image and open us to a God Who really cares about each one of us.

And what is the secret which will bring about this transformation? Oengus, the Celi De, answers us from the eighth century: "This is true strength - Great love of Mary's Son." And on that note, my prayer for you for the next millennium is: