I am not particularly religious, but I believe that when you make a promise to a person, you should keep it. Even if that person died 1,470 years ago. I promised Saint Ciarán of Clonmacnoise that if certain things happened, I would write about him in my blog. (Of course, I also pray to the goddess Asphalta when I desperately need to find a parking spot.)
But seriously, this one’s for you, Ciarán.
Around 520, St. Finian founded a monastic school in Ireland at Clonard on the river Boyne, which drew aspiring scholars from far and wide. Among these were the future “Twelve Apostles of Erin,” including Brendan the Navigator, who voyaged over the Atlantic Ocean to a mysterious “Isle of the Blessed,” and Saint Columba, also known as Colum-cille, who converted the wild Scottish Celts to Christianity.
My favorite of the Twelve is Saint Ciarán, who founded the Abbey at Clonmacnoise, south of Athlone in the center of Ireland. It became the greatest center of learning and craftsmanship in Éire, rivaled only by Clonard. Ciarán’s original buildings were of wood; what exists today is tenth-century and later. The complex includes two round towers, two high crosses (large, ornamented standing crosses distinctive of early Celtic Christianity), and at least seven churches.
One of the oldest churches is the Temple Ciarán, the shrine of the saint. Legend says he was buried here, although excavation revealed no bones. Instead, one of the great treasures of Ireland came to light: the crozier used by abbots of Clonmacnoise in the eleventh century and later.
Ciarán was the son of a carpenter and chariot maker from Roscommon. After receiving his education at Aran and Clonard, he began to found churches. At this time much of Ireland, and great tracts of Britain and Europe, were still pagan; the collapse of the Roman Empire had led to widespread illiteracy, economic decline, and war. But on the far outskirts of Europe, the light of learning was preserved by a few dedicated men. We hear of no learned women during this period, but I like to think there were a few…
Ciarán’s choice of Clonmacnoise, (“Meadow of the Sons of Nós”) was a fateful one. The abbey was allied with the High Kings of Tara, including Diarmid, the first to convert to Christianity. Several of the High Kings are buried in the graveyard there, which continues in use to this day. Ciarán himself died of the plague soon after founding the Abbey. He was only 33, but he had helped change the course of history. For it was Irish monks, as copyists, missionaries and teachers, who ensured the preservation not only of Christian texts, but also Greco-Roman and vernacular Irish literature. Throughout Europe they were revered as the most learned of men.
Ciarán’s legends focus on his holiness and the kindness he showed to animals. The bread he baked was said not only to be the most delicious the monks had ever tasted, but it healed every sick person in the monastery. Once, he befriended a fox who used to carry his gospel book back and forth between him and his teacher Justus in a leather case. When the fox was beset by hounds, it took shelter in the cowl of Ciarán’s robe. The most famous story of Ciarán is that of the Dun Cow who followed him when he left home for Clonard, and gave enough milk for everyone there. It was this cow who (after dying a natural death) supplied the hide on which the “Book of the Dun Cow” was written.
The Lebor na hUidre, or Book of the Dun Cow, is in my opinion, more precious than the Book of Kells. The Kells book is a gospel manuscript and a great work of art, but the gospels are known from much earlier texts. The Lebor na hUidre (12th century) is the oldest manuscript in the Irish language and contains (among many other texts) the oldest version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the epic of Ireland’s greatest hero, Cúchulainn. The manuscript today resides in the Royal Irish Academy. It was created ca. 1100, so it could not have been written by Ciarán. But it is the descendant of earlier manuscripts, and it was produced by the monks at Clonmacnoise, those faithful preservers of Irish heritage.
Ciarán’s feast day is September 9. He’s the unofficial patron saint of all who love early Irish mythology.