Ireland: Top Saints

The First Christians in Ireland

Christianity is thought to have made its first appearance in Ireland in the C4th AD, but no records remain of the earliest practitioners.

The credit traditionally given to Saint Patrick for bringing Christianity to the island appears to owe much to the propaganda of one particular foundation. As early as the C7th AD, Armagh was busy bolstering its claim to the status of the principal house founded by Saint Patrick. By promoting the cult of the saint, which entailed propagating Patrick as the Apostle and first bishop of the Irish, it sought to establish and control a network of religious houses throughout the country.

The fact that a missionary sent by Rome, Palladius, had been active before Saint Patrick, in 431 AD, possibly in Leinster, did not sit well with its agenda. In the writings of Armagh scholars, notably Tírechán and Muirchu, Paladius’ activities were therefore belittled as a failure, ignored or, as TF O’Rahilly famously argues in his hypothesis of the ‘Two Patricks’, silently conflated with Patrick’s.

The Pre-Patricians, comprising a number of specific early Christians believed to have been active in Ireland before Saint Patrick, were in fact probably his rough contemporaries.

Most modern scholars of Saint Patrick follow a variant of TF O’Rahilly‘s “Two Patricks” theory. That is to say, many of the traditions later attached to Saint Patrick actually concerned Palladius, who Prosper of Aquitaine’s Chronicle says was sent by Pope Celestine I as the first bishop to Irish Christians in 431 AD and was known in Ireland as Patricius (leading to confusion with the later Saint Patrick).

Palladius was not the only early cleric in Ireland. Saints Auxilius, Secundinus and Iserninus are also associated with early churches in Munster and Leinster.

Prosper associates Palladius’ appointment with the visits of Germanus of Auxerre to Britain to suppress the Pelagian heresy and it has been suggested that Palladius and his colleagues were sent to Ireland to ensure that exiled Pelagians did not establish themselves among the Irish Christians. The appointment of Palladius and his fellow-bishops was not obviously a mission to convert the Irish, but more probably intended to minister to existing Christian communities in Ireland.

Although the evidence for contacts with Gaul is clear, the borrowings from Latin into the Old Irish language show that links with Roman Britain were many.  The Palladian mission should not be contrasted with later “British” missions, but forms a part of them.

Palladius (fl. 408–431; probably died c. 457/461 AD) was the first Bishop of the Christians of Ireland, preceding Saint Patrick.

Palladius was married and had a daughter. He is described as a friend and younger kinsman by Namatianus. Coming under the influence of Pelagius in Rome, he kissed his family goodbye in the manner of the Apostles, and lived as an ascetic in Sicily about 408/409, giving his daughter to a convent on that island. To this period is ascribed his authorship of six Pelagian documents.

He seems to have been ordained a priest about 415 AD, presumably after recanting the teachings of Pelagius (although at this time Pelagius was only condemned locally, and not yet by the Pope, so it is possible that he would not have been required to recant). He lived in Rome between 418–429 AD, and appears to be the “Deacon Palladius” responsible for urging Pope Celestine I to send the bishop Germanus to Britain, where he guided “the Britons back to the Catholic faith.”

It is a question whether or not it is the same person who, in 431 AD, was sent as first bishop to the Christians of Ireland. According to Muirchu, writing in the Book of Armagh two centuries later, “God hindered him...and neither did those fierce and cruel men receive his doctrine readily, nor did he himself wish to spend time in a strange land, but returned to him who sent him“.

In Ireland, Palladius is most strongly associated with Leinster, particularly with Clonard, County Meath. His date of death is unknown.The Vita tripartita states that he died at Cell Fine (thought to be modern-day Killeen Cormac, County Kildare), where he left his books, together with a writing tablet and relics of Saints Peter and Paul.

Palladius is also recalled as the First Apostle to the Scots. There is a cluster of dedications in the Mearns in Scotland, where the village of Auchenblae is believed to be his last resting place. Scottish church tradition holds that he presided over a Christian community there for around 20 years. As late as the reign of king James V royal funds were disbursed for the fabrication of a new reliquary for the church there, and an annual “Paldy Fair” was held at least until the time of the Reformation.

Saint Secundinus / Sechnall / Seachnall was according to medieval tradition  a disciple of Saint Patrick and one of the first bishops of Armagh. Historians have suggested, however, that the connection with Patrick was a later tradition invented by Armagh historians in favour of their patron saint and that Secundinus is more likely to have been a separate missionary, possibly a companion of Palladius.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Seachnaill was the son of Restitutus, a Lombard, and Liamain, sister of Saint Patrick. He was one of nine brothers, eight of whom became bishops in Ireland. His early life and training are obscure, but he appears to have studied in Gaul, and to have accompanied Saint Patrick to Ireland in 432.

The first documentary evidence that exists is an entry in the Irish Annals recording the arrival of Saint Sechnall and his brother Saint Auxilius “to help Saint Patrick”.

Little is known about the saint and his cult. His foundation is Domnach Sechnaill (‘Church of Sechnall’), now Dunshaughlin (Co. Meath), not far from Tara, and to judge by the use of the toponymic element domnach (from Latin dominicum), the church is likely to be early.

Linguistic arguments in favour of the early date of the saint’s arrival and his foundation have also been advanced with respect to the saint’s name in Latin and Irish. The Late Latin name Secundinus was a common one across Latin-speaking parts of Euro

In 441 Palladius was recalled to Rome to be examined by the newly elected Pope Leo I, leaving Secundinus in charge of the Church in Ireland. He became known as the first Christian bishop to die on Irish soil, in 447 or 448 AD, aged 75. His feast-day is 27th November.

The saint’s name was familiar enough in Mide to give rise to a number of derivative personal names, notably Máel Sechnaill (attested since the C9th AD) and later also Gilla Sechnaill.

Saint Auxilius, aka Usaille (d. c. 459 AD) was an early Christian missionary associated with Saint Patrick, Saint Secundinus / Seachnaill and Saint Iserninus in establishing Christianity in the south of Ireland. He is called a brother of Saint Secundinus / Seachnaill.

He may have been ordained a deacon at Auxerre with Patrick and Iserninus.

He is called the founder of the church at Killashee (Co. Kildare), near Naas in northern Leinster.

Auxilius died around 459 AD but his date of death is also given as 454 or 455 AD. His feast day varies considerably in old Martyrologies.

Saint Iserninus / Isernius was an early Christian missionary  who is traditionally associated with Saint Patrick and Saint Auxilius in establishing Christianity in the south of Ireland.

Saint Iserninus is thought to have been a Briton or Irishman, and is associated with the lands of the Uí Cheinnselaig in Leinster. Sabine Baring-Gould believes that Iserninus and Auxilius were Celts: “They would not have been of much use to [Patrick] had they not been fluent speakers of the Celtic language, and we may assume that they were Celts, either from Armorica, Cornwall, or Wales.”

He was originally named Fith, and he may have been ordained a deacon at Auxerre with Patrick and Auxilius.

Iserninus is referred to as a bishop in the Annals of Ulster, and he is recorded as having begun his mission in 439 AD.

A tradition at Aghade, County Carlow, holds that Iserninus founded a church there and was later buried there. Iserninus is also called the founder of the church at Old Kilcullen, where he was reputedly appointed as bishop by Saint Patrick, possibly along with Saint Mactail.

The first native Irish Saints

Four native-born saints had Vitae written for them claiming that they founded monasteries and preached the Gospel in Munster before their younger contemporary Saint Patrick ever set foot in Ireland. These bishop saints, known since the C17th as quattuor sanctissimi episcopi, were  Saint Ciarán of Saigir, Saint Declan of Ardmore, Saint Ailbe of Emly and Saint Abbán of Moyarney. The same claim was apparently made for Saint Íbar of Beggary Island, according to the Life of St Abbán, which identifies him as Abbán’s uncle and teacher, but no separate Vita survives which offers any information. The relevant Lives are all found in the so-called Dublin Collection, which bears a stamp of editorial intervention.

Their testimony, late though it seems, has often been treated in relation to the historical question of pre-Patrician Christianity in the south of Ireland. It has been argued that before the coming of Patrick, the south coast of Munster would have provided the most likely point of entry for the introduction of Christianity via Britain or Gaul. The settlements of the Déisi and the Uí Liatháin in southwest Wales, as evidenced by the distribution of ogam-stones, provided an important connection between Britain and Ireland. A key aspect of this overseas link, the import of slaves, usually British Christians, by Irish raiders would have directly exposed Munster to the influence of Christianity.Further, Munster, lying opposite Gaul, would have represented a first destination for Irish trading connections with the Continent. In the context of wine-trade, this is in some way corroborated by the archaeological record for pottery in Munster settlements.

The Lives of Ailbe, Declán, Ciarán and Abbán in the Dublin Collection appear to reflect the need of the Munster houses to offer some counterweight against the Patrician dossier promoted by Armagh, even though they do not deny the national importance of Saint Patrick.

It has been argued that this way of promoting Munster saints was anticipated in texts emanating from the Schottenklöster or Irish Benedictine monasteries of southern Germany, whose principal house was at Regensburg. Not only was there a strong Munster presence, but many such texts were written down in recognition of the generous donations received from the kings of Desmond and Thomond. The most substantial achievement is the hagiographic compilation known as Magnum Legendarium Austriacum (“The Great Austrian Legendary”), begun sometime in the 1160s or 1170s.

The prologue to a recension of St Patrick’s Life preserved incomplete at Göttweig (Austria) asserts that disciples of one Mansuetus, an Irish bishop of Toul, had set themselves up as bishops in Ireland to prepare the way for Saint Patrick.

Saint Ciarán of Saigír, aka Saint Ciarán mac Luaigne / Saint Ciarán / Kieran the Elder (in order to distinguish him from Saint Ciarán of Clonmacnoise) was born on Cape Clear, and is still venerated as the patron of the island. The year of his birth is often given as 375 AD, but this is disputed.

Sometimes called the “first saint born in Ireland”, Ciarán has also been listed as one of four bishops to have preceded Saint Patrick in Ireland. This is unlikely, though they may have been contemporaries. His date of death is not certain but is believed to have been as early as 465 AD or as late as 530 AD.

Ciarán’s biography is full of obscurities. It is commonly said, however, that was already a Christian, and determined to study for the Church when he secured an education at Tours and Rome. He is said to have met Saint Patrick in Italy and made allegiance to him.

On his return from France, he built himself a little cell in the woods of Upper Ossory. He settled as a hermit at Saigir near to the Slieve Bloom Mountains, but soon disciples were attracted to him and a large monastery grew up round his cell, which became the chosen burial place for the kings of Ossory. His mother, Liadain, is said to have gone to Saigir with a group of women who devoted their lives to the service of God and the members of her son’s community.

Tradition describes Ciarán as a wild man wearing skins, whose first pupils were animals in the forest. Folklore also relates many charming tales of St Ciarán’s influence on wild animals. He is usually depicted with a fox, a badger and a wolf, who according to folklore worked with Ciarán and his monks to cut wood and build huts for the brothers. One day the fox stole Ciarán’s shoes; upon which Ciarán ordered the badger to retrieve them. The badger found the fox, and bound him from head to tail, returning him to his master; the saint ordered the fox to repent for his sin as a monk would, and to return to his tasks as before.

When Saint Patrick arrived in Ireland, Ciarán gave him his glad assistance. Some writers say that Ciarán was then already a bishop, having been ordained while on the continent. It seems more likely, however, that he was one of the twelve men that Patrick, on his arrival, consecrated as helpers. He became the first bishop of Ossory. His feast day is 5th March.

Saint Ciarán has been erroneously identified with the Saint Piran who is venerated in Cornwall, Wales and Brittany.

The ruins of Ciarán’s monastery still remain, next to a derelict CoI church; the location is nowadays called Seir-Kieran. It is speculated that the site is pre-Christian, and, in common with other Irish sanctuaries, a perpetual fire was said to have burnt there. The place is notable for a particularly popular wish tree draped with votive offerings and prayers. A Holy Well and church ruins of considerable age also exist on the island of Cape Clear.

Legends attribute remarkable posthumous miracles to Ciarán. One such relates how Cathal Carragh, king of Connaught, assembled his forces against the English, and, marching towards the enemy, arrived at Guirtin Cuil Luachra, in the vicinity of the monastery. During this time, daily skirmishes took place between the two hosts. At the end of this time Cathal Carragh went forth to view a contest; but a body of his people being violently driven towards him, he was caught in the crowd and killed. This happened through the miracles of God and St. Ciarán, and it was claimed that he restored to life several of those who had died.

Another quaint tale tells of how the Lord Justice of Ireland, Risteárd de Tiúit, went to Athlone, with the intention of sending his brothers to Limerick, Waterford, and Wexford, that he himself might reside in Dublin and Athlone (alternately); but it happened, through the miracles of God, St. Peter, and St. Ciarán, that some of the stones of the castle of Athlone fell upon his head, killing him, his priest and a number of his people.

Saint Declan / Declán / Déclán / Declanus belonged to the royal dynasty of the Déisi Muman of East Munster. His birthplace is said to be Drumroe, near Cappoquin.

In one version, Declán embarked on a journey to Rome, where he studied and was ordained bishop by the Pope. There he met his fellow countryman Saint Ailbe of Emly. On returning to Ireland, he met Saint Patrick and came to an arrangement about the sphere of their mission in Ireland. On Saint Patrick’s instructions, he founded the monastery of Ard Mór, and went on to convert the Déisi to Christianity. He later paid a visit to the Déisi of Mide/Meath, where the King of Tara welcomed him and granted him land for the purpose of founding a “monastery of canons”. The monastery founded there became known as Cill Décláin (Kilegland, Ashbourne, Co. Meath).

Some claim he was a contemporary of Saint David of Wales in the C6th. Likewise, the even later saint Ultan of Ardbraccan (d. 655) is presented as Declán’s pupil.

A Middle Irish note added to the Félire Óengusso, which is of no historical value, tells that Declán was responsible for introducing rye (Irish secal, from Latin secale) into Ireland.

According to his Life, Declán reposed in the Lord at his monastery in Ardmore and was subsequently buried there. His feast day in the martyrologies is 24th July.

Declán has enjoyed a steady cult in Waterford, where many church dedications still name him. Every year on his feast-day, locals and people from the region celebrate his pattern. The pattern includes various devotional acts at sites associated with his life.

A round tower still stands at the site of the saint’s monastery at Ardmore as well as earlier ecclesiastical ruins, such as a stone oratory and a small stone church. The diocese of Ardmore and its episcopal church lasted until the C13th.

Saint Ailbe / Ailbhe / Elfeis / Elveis / Elvis, aka Saint Ailfyw / Ailvyw / Albeus  was the first bishop of Emly. He is sometimes claimed as one of the pre-Patrician Saints, but the annals note his death in 528 AD (i.e. well after the death of Saint Patrick).

Ailbe was born to the king of Munster and a slave-woman. The king refused to acknowledge him and ordered him killed, but the man who was supposed to murder him instead gave him to a she-wolf to be raised. Not long after, Britons living in Ireland fostered him. When they wished to return to Britain, they refused to let Ailbe come with them. However, they were unable to make the crossing without him and he sailed with them the next day. He then crossed to Gaul, with difficulty, because he wished to go to Rome. He was educated and ordained in Rome by a Saint Hilary, then sent to the pope to be made a bishop. The hagiographer claims that he fed the populace of Rome for three days after his consecration and then went home to Ireland. There he became involved with local royal politics and founded the See of Emly. At the end of his life, a supernatural ship came and he boarded to learn the secret of his death. After returning from the other world, he went back to Emly (Imlech) to die and be buried. A C9th AD Rule bears his name.

Ailbe is said o have baptised Saint David, patron saint of Wales, where he is commemorated as Saint Elvis.

The Dublin Collection of Saints’ Lives gives pre-eminence to Ailbe, asserting that Munster was entrusted to him by Saint Patrick, while to similar effect, Ailbe is called a “second Patrick and patron of Munster” (secundus Patricius et patronus Mumenie) in Saint Declán’s Life.

A Life was composed at Regensburg in the mid-C12th, relating the life and miracles of Ailbe under his German name Saint Albert.

Saint Ibar / Iberius / Iubar / Ivor, aka Saint Ibar of Beggerin and Ibar mac Lugna, preached in the present County Wexford and is regarded as the patron of Beggerin / Begerin Island, now part of the reclaimed Sloblands in Wexford Harbour. Although at first not disposed to yield to Saint Patrick (or his successors), he afterwards submitted and became a disciple. His death has been chronicled in the year 500 AD on 23rd April, on which day his feast is observed.

Saint Abban (d.520 AD?) was a very early Irish Saint of whom much was written over the years but little is really known, as the conflicting texts, slanted by regional / dynastic / political bias, are so full of contradictions and absurdities, e.g. that he lived for over 300 years. He seems to have been a nephew of Saint Ibar / Iberius / Iubar / Ivor, with whom he supposedly travelled to Rome. Abbán was primarily associated with the Mag Arnaide / Maigh Airnaighe / Moyarney / Adamstown area in modern County Wexford and with Cell Abbáin / Killabban in modern County Laois. However, his cult was also connected to churches elsewhere in Ireland, notably that of his alleged sister Gobnait: according to local he was buried near her nunnery in what is now Ballyvourney, in Muskerry, County Cork. Contrary to the Great Synaxaristes, the official hagiographical compilation of the Orthodox Church, it is highly unlikely that he was baptised in 165 AD, or had any connection whatsoever with the Abingdon area of England. Saint Abbán’s Feast Day is variously identified as 26th March / 13th May / 27th October. Some of the legends associated with him can be read here.

Saint Erc / Ercus of Slane was the only person to give homage to Saint Patrick during the latter’s confrontation with the druids on the Hill of Slane in 433 AD. Patrick later ordained him a priest and bishop of Slane. He was responsible for establishing the famous school at Slane, where the Merovingian king Dagobert II of Austrasia is said to have received his early education. He is thought to be the same person as Bishop Erc, who baptised and educated Saint Brendan the Navigator at Ardfert. Saint Erc of Slane is also identified with Saint Erth of Cornwall, but it seems unlikely that the same man could have been all three.