Ireland: Top Saints

Top Irish Missionaries

Saint Colmcille / Colum Chille / Columba (521-597 AD),  one of the Patron Saints of Ireland, was a pioneer Irish missionary monk, credited with introducing Christianity to the Kingdom of the Picts (modern Scotland) from the monastery he founded on he island of Iona.

St Aidan Lindisfarnensis

Saint Aidan / Aodhán of Lindisfarne aka Aidan the Apostle of Northumbria (d. 651 AD), thought to have been born in Connacht, was a monk on Iona.

Although the Roman Empire had spread Christianity into Britain, invasions by Jutes, Angles and Saxons had virtually overwhelmed the religion. The young Saxon prince Oswald of Northumbria, who  lived with his brothers in exile among the Gaels of Dál Riata after their banishment by a rival royal house in 616 AD,  converted to Christianity and may have visited the monastery of Iona.  In 634 AD he regained the kingship of Northumbria. Determined to bring Christianity to the mostly pagan people there, he requested missionaries from Iona rather than the Rome-backed mission in England.

At first the monastery sent a new bishop named Cormán, but he met with no success and soon returned to Iona, reporting that the Northumbrians were too stubborn to be converted.  Sent as a replacement, Aidan chose Lindisfarne, a tidal island close to the royal fortress of Bamburgh, as the seat of his diocese. King Oswald, who after his years of exile had a perfect command of Irish, often had to translate for Aidan and his monks, who did not speak English at first. When Oswald died in 642 AD, Aidan received continued support from king Oswine of Deira and the two became close friends.

An inspired missionary, Aidan would walk from one village to another, politely conversing with the people he saw and slowly interesting them in Christianity. According to legend, the king gave Aidan a horse so that he wouldn’t have to walk, but Aidan gave the horse to a beggar. By patiently talking to the people on their own level Aidan and his monks slowly brought Christianity to the Northumbrian communities. Aidan also founded other churches and monasteries in the area, notably Melrose Abbey, and trained English boys in Latin, Scripture etc. and

In 651 AD an army led by king Penda of Mercia attacked Bamburgh and attempted to set its walls ablaze. According to legend, Aidan prayed for the city, after which the winds turned and blew the smoke and fire toward the enemy, repulsing them; hence his patronage of fire fighters.

Aidan became ill while at the Bamburgh castle and died leaning against the buttress of a church on a royal estate near Bamburgh. He was soon succeeded by the great Saint Cuthbert, and Lindisfarne became a place of pilgrimage  with a reputation as a major storehouse of scholarly knowledge and centre of manuscript illumination until the Vikings chose it for their first attack on the British mainland in 793 AD.

The Venerable Bede wrote Aidan’s biography and described the miracles attributed to him. Aidan was called the Apostle Of the English, unlike Saint Augustine, who was the apostle of Kent. In 2008 he was proposed as patron saint of the whole UK. Saint Aidan’s feast day is 31st August.

Saint Fursey / Fursa / Fursy / Forseus / Furseus (d. 650 AD) was born in Connacht, supposedly the son of Fintan and grandson of Finlog, pagan king of the area. His mother was Gelges, the Christian daughter of Aed-Finn, king of Connacht. He was baptized by Saint Brendan the Voyager, his father’s uncle, who then ruled a monastery in the Island of Inisquin in Lough Corrib, where he was educated. He was inducted into the monastery at Inisquin (near Galway), under the Abbot Saint Meldan, his “soul-friend” (anam-chura), where he devoted himself to religious life. He built his own monastery in Claran near the modern town of Headford, County Galway.

His great sanctity was early discerned, and there is a legend that here, through his prayers, twin children of a chieftain related to king Brendinus were raised from the dead. He was said to have been an ascetic, wearing thin clothing year round. Aspirants came in numbers to place themselves under his rule, but he wished to secure also some of his relatives for the new monastery. For this purpose he set out with some monks for Munster, but on coming near his father’s home he was seized with an apparently mortal illness. He fell into a trance from the ninth hour of the day to cock-crow, and while in this state received the first of the ecstatic visions which have made him famous in medieval literature.

In this vision were revealed to him the state of man in sin, the beauty of virtue. He heard angelic choirs singing and was taken to the heavens by three angels who contended six times with demons for his soul. He saw the fires of hell, the strife of demons, and then heard the angel hosts sing in four choirs “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.” Among the spirits of those just made perfect he recognized Saints Meldan and Beoan. They entertained him with much spiritual instruction concerning the duties of ecclesiastics and monks, the dreadful effects of pride and disobedience, and the heinousness of spiritual and internal sins. They also predicted famine and pestilence. As he returned through the fire the demon hurled a tortured sinner at him, burning him, and the angel of the Lord said to him, “Because thou didst receive the mantle of this man when dying in his sin the fire consuming him hath scarred thy body also.” Fursey’s body bore the mark from that day forward.

Fursey seems to have renounced the administration of the monastery and to have devoted himself to preaching throughout the land, frequently exorcising evil spirits. Exactly twelve months later he received another vision. This time, the angel prescribed for him twelve years of apostolic labour. This he faithfully fulfilled in Ireland, and then stripping himself of all earthly goods he retired for a time to a small island in the ocean. After some years he founded a monastery at Rathmat on the shore of Lough Corrib which Colgan identifies as Killursa, in the deanery of Annadown. Here he was joined by his brothers Saint Foillan and Saint Ultan.

Fursey travelled with his brothers in 633 AD to East Anglia, where king Sigeberht gave him land for establishing an abbey at Cnobheresburg, where there was an abandoned Roman fort, traditionally identified with Burgh Castle in Norfolk. Here he laboured for some years converting the Picts and Saxons. After Sigeberht was slain by an army led by king Penda of Mercia, it is recorded that his successor King Anna of East Anglia further endowed the monastery at Cnobheresburg. Three miracles are recorded of Fursey’s life in this monastery. He then retired for a year to live the life of an anchorite. However, as great numbers continued to visit him, and as war threatened in East Anglia, he left Saint Foillan as abbot and sought refuge abroad around 644 AD.

He arrived in France in 648 AD. Passing through Ponthieu, in a village near Mézerolles he found grief and lamentation on all sides, for the only son of Duke Hayson, the lord of that area, was dead. At the prayer of Fursey the body was restored. Pursuing his journey to Neustria he cured many infirmities on the way. He converted a robber, who had attacked the monks in a wood near Corbie, and his family through miracles. He also cured the inhospitable worldling Ermelinda, who had refused to harbour the weary travellers.

His fame preceded him to Péronne, where he was joyfully received by Erchinoald, and through his prayers obtained the reprieve of six criminals. He was offered any site in the king’s dominions for a monastery. He selected Latiniacum (Lagny), close to Chelles and about six miles from Paris, a spot beside the Marne, at that time covered with shady woods and abounding in fruitful vineyards. Here he built his monastery and three chapels, one dedicated to Jesus Christ the Saviour, one to St. Peter, and the third, an unpretending structure, was later dedicated to St. Fursey himself. Many of his Irish countrymen were attracted to his rule at Lagny, including Emilian, Eloquius, Mombulus, Adalgisius, Etto, Bertuin, Fredegand, Lactan, and Malguil. He received some premonitions of his end, and set out to visit his brothers Foillan and Ultan who had by this time recruited the scattered monks of Cnobheresburg and re-established that monastery.

His last illness struck him down in the very village, Mézerolles, where he had restored Duke Haymon’s son to life. From that time forward the village was called Forsheim, which translated as the house of Fursey. In accordance with his wishes his body was brought to Péronne. Many unusual events attended the transmission of his remains, and his body was eventually buried in the portico of the church of St. Peter where Fursey had earlier placed the relics of Saints Meldan and Beoan. His body lay unburied for thirty days pending the dedication of the church, and was during that time visited by pilgrims from all parts, incorrupt and emitting a sweet odour. At the end of that time, it was buried near the altar of the church. Four years later, on February 9, his remains were moved from their earlier location by Saint Eligius, Bishop of Noyon, and Cuthbert, Bishop of Cambrai, to a new chapel specifically built to hold the remains to the east of the main altar. The city would later become a great center of devotion to him. His feast day is January 16.

Saint Fursey features in two comic novels by Mervyn Wall: The Unfortunate Fursey (1946) and The Return of Fursey (1948).

James Joyce mentions St. Fursa in Ulysses, among a list of mostly Irish heroes and heroines.