Celtic Saints

Celtic Saints were referred to as "Peregrinari Pro Christ" (English: Pilgrims for Christ) and called their peregrinations, the "White Martyrdom".


St Aidan - Feast day, 31st August

St Aidan was a monk sent from Iona in AD 635 to become the bishop of Northumbria. Rather quaintly referred to as 'Aidan's Rest', the summer of AD 635 an Irish monk arrived in Northumbria from Iona at the invitation of the Christian King Oswald. He was related to St Bridget and during his early life had spent some time in the community on Scattery Island in County Clare. Apart from these scant details nothing much is known of his origins. Bishop of Durham during the Victorian era, said wisely that Augustine was the Apostle of Kent, but Aidan was the "Apostle of England." As a center for his missionary activity St Aidan chose the island of Lindisfarne Holy Island as the base for his missionary journeys throughout England.

St Bridget - Feast Day: 1st February

St Bridget was born around AD 453, eight years before St Patrick's death, so she lived during the time when pagan Ireland was embracing the Christian faith due to his missionary efforts. It is possible that Bridget's mother, Broicsech, a Christian Pict who was sold into slavery, may actually have been baptized by Patrick.

There is a strong tradition in County Louth that Bridget was born at Faughart, near Dundalk, but it is more usually accepted that her birthplace was Uinmeras, five miles from Kildare. Bridget was fostered in a Druid household where she received the traditional Irish form of education, as women were considered equal in Celtic society.

Bridget's father, who was a pagan chieftain of Leinster, participated in the institution of the first formal community of Christian women in Ireland, and the white homespun cloth became the distinctive dress of Irish nuns for many centuries. Finally, one Irish source claims that St Bridget was accidentally ordained as a priest by a rather shortsighted bishop who, on discovering his error, decreed that it was the will of God and that the ordination should stand. Therefore, Bridget could be recognized as the first female priest.

St Columba - Feast Day: 9th June

St Columba was an Irish missionary who founded the monastic community of Iona and preached Christianity to the Picts of Caledonia.

Crimthain, meaning "fox" or "cunning wolf", came of noble Irish families on both sides of his lineage and was a descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who led the raid in which St Patrick was captured and taken to Ireland.

As a young boy he could often be found in prayer and so acquired the nickname Columcille, meaning "the dove of the church" - Columba in its shortened Latin form, and the name by which he is now remembered. His father was called Phelim O'Donnell and his mother was named Eithne.

Columba's birth was predicted by Mochta, a disciple of St Patrick, and took place at Gartan in County Donegal on Thursday, December 7th in AD 521. Since then among all the Gaelic people, Thursdays have been an auspicious day on which to begin a new task or undertaking, such as weaving or starting a journey.

In Columba's youth his guardian angel visited him and invited him to choose two virtues. He chose chastity and wisdom, and the third gift of prophecy was bestowed upon him also as a reward for his wise choosing. From childhood he was destined for the priesthood, and he went to the monastery of St Finian at Movilla, at the head of Strangford Lough in County Down, to study theology as well as the arts of copying and illuminating manuscripts. Here he was made a deacon of the church.

After a time he traveled on to Leinster and placed himself under the tutelage of the bard Gemman, from whom he learned of poetry and music and many of the ancient traditional tales of Ireland. Some of Columba's own poems are preserved in manuscript form in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. His studies continued under another Finian at Clonard, and then at the monastery of Mobhi at Glasnevin near Dublin, until in 546, when he was only twenty-five years old, Columba founded his first monastery. It was on the site of a Druid sacred grove at Doire Calgach, later called Doire Cholm Cille for nearly 1000 years and now known as Derry.

Nothing remains of the buildings today, although the round tower stood until as late as 625. This was the place that Columba loved best and which always remained dearest to his heart. In 533, the monastery of Durrow in County Offaly was established, and later foundations were found at Kells in County Meath and Moone in County Kildare.

This was a bitter punishment for Columba, but in the year 563 he sailed away with twelve companions. They came to shore on the island of Oronsay, but Columba found that he could still see the coast of his beloved Ireland from there, and so after resting they continued their voyage northwards. Finally they landed on the island of Hy, now known as Iona, at Port na Curaich, the 'Port of the Coracle'.

Above this bay there is a pile of stones known to this day as the 'Cairn of the Back Turned to Ireland', which the saint climbed to assure himself that he could no longer see his native land. Odhrain of Latteragh, who had died thirteen years before and was Columba's cousin, had already founded a church here, and in the cemetery known as Rilig Odhrain the Irish kings of Dalriada were buried. The monastery on Iona became St Columba's chief foundation and for many years, until superseded by St Andrew, he was the patron saint of Scotland.

Many missionary journeys were undertaken from Iona, and on one occasion Columba traveled north to visit Brude, a Pictish king. The King refused the little band admission to his fortress and the great doors were barred against them. However, the saint made the sign of the cross and the gates swung open, allowing them to enter. Brude and Columba became firm friends and the chieftain was instrumental in securing the tenure of Iona for the monks.

He died June 9th in the year 597, the very year that St Augustine was sent from Rome and landed in Kent. He was buried on Iona, but it is said that his body was later taken to Downpatrick to lie in a grave along with those of St Patrick and St Brigid. Each year on his feast day, June 9th, a three-mile pilgrimage, or 'turas', takes place at Glencolmcille.

St Cuthbert - Feast Day: 20th March

Bishop of Lindifarne, (637-87)

St Cuthbert saw angels descending and then returning, bearing a soul of exceeding brightness to Paradise. It was August 31st in AD 651, and Aidan, the saintly bishop of Lindisfarne, had just died.

So it was that Cuthbert was prompted by his vision to leave his foster mother, Kenswith, and offer his life and service to God. He duly sought entrance to the great abbey of Melrose, but was turned away and told to return when the borderlands were more peaceful. After spending some time as a soldier, he again sought admittance to the religious life. Later in Ripon, Eata and his monks were under pressure to conform to the Roman style of Christianity. Rather than that, he drew his inspiration from the Celtic Iona, and unwilling to do this they eventually returned to Melrose, where Cuthbert became prior. In 661, Boisil foretold that in three years' time there would come a pestilence from which he would die but Eata and Cuthbert would recover. In 664 the Yellow Plague struck. The monks prayed all night that Cuthbert might be spared, and he did recover but was left with a permanent internal disability that troubled him for the rest of his life.

Cuthbert's missionary activity stretched from the coast of Berwickshire and Northumberland to the shores of the Solway, where the town of Kirkcudbright is named after him.

After the Synod of Whitby in 664, Cuthbert became Prior of Lindisfarne, and his gifts for healing were widely celebrated. However, his real desire was to live the solitary life of a hermit and to be alone with God. He used to withdraw to St Cuthbert's Isle, which is just off the coast of Lindisfarne, but this proved not sufficiently isolated and so in 676 he sought permission to retire to the Farne Islands, further out to sea, which St Aidan had used as a retreat before him. Here he lived in a tiny cell, with an adjoining oratory sunk into the ground so that no view of land or sea might distract him from his prayers and meditation.

In 684, at the Synod of Twyford, the King and clergy unanimously elected Cuthbert to the see of Hexham, but nothing could persuade him to leave his hermitage. A fleet of boats containing both noblemen and monks, with the King at their head, sailed for the Farnes to beg him to accept the office. Reluctant, yet conscious of the prophecy of his mentor Boisil, he complied and was consecrated in York on Easter Day, March 26th, 685. Immediately, he travelled north to see his old friend Eata, now Bishop of Lindisfarne, and arranged to exchange sees so he could remain on his own familiar ground.

Two years later, sensing his impending death, he returned to the Farnes. The monks from Lindisfarne tried to visit regularly because they were concerned for his welfare, but a storm prevented them from crossing for a period of five days. When they finally reached the saint they found that his total food store was five onions, only one of which had been nibbled. Soon after this, Cuthbert died. His passing was signalled to Lindisfarne by the waving of two torches through the night. The next day a boat came to collect his body and he was buried in the tiny church of St Peter on Lindisfarne.

Today his body rests behind the high altar in Durham Cathedral, but his remains were carried over a large part of the north of England and southern Scotland to avoid pillage by the Danes before he finally came to rest here.

St David  - Feast Day: 1st March

Patron Saint of Wales and a leader of the 6th century monastic revival.

St David, or Dewi Sant as he is known by the Welsh, was the son of Sant of the royal house of Ceredigion. Sant, for whom David was named, heard an angel voice in a dream which told him that on his hunting expedition the following day he would kill a stag near the River Teifi and in the same place would find a fish and a hive of bees. These three tokens anticipated David's life, for it was thought that stags ate snakes, which showed the victory of Christianity over the ancient serpent.

The fish signified his abstinence from strong drink, which earned him the name Ddyfrwr, the Waterman. As for the hive of bees, this symbolized his great wisdom and his capacity to perceive the spiritual in all things. David was educated to the priesthood at the Celtic monastery of Henfynyw. Later, he undertook missionary journeys to various places including Glastonbury, and then returned to find his own monastery at Glyn Rhosin. During his life David undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where he was consecrated as a bishop, some say archbishop, by the Patriarch John III, who gave him gifts of a staff, a bell, a golden tunic, and a portable altar.

The Desert Fathers - Feast Day: 17th January

In Penmon Priory on Anglesey there is a tenth-century stone cross bearing a carving of St Antony, a third-century monk who lived a solitary and ascetic life in the Egyptian desert. He was the first of many people who followed his example and sought to live in poverty and silence so that they might come closer to God and increase their love of their fellow men through self-discipline, prayer and meditation.

Manual work was also a part of their daily routine, for they needed to provide food, clothing and shelter for themselves. They formed loosely-knit communities, meeting regularly for the celebration of the Eucharist but otherwise living in separate cells or canres.

They were frequently sought out for their wisdom and counsel and they became known as the Desert Fathers. These people were the forerunners of the ascetic tradition in the West, for St Antony of Egypt, the founder of this style of eremitical life, was taken as a model by the monks of the Celtic church.

It was the Celt John Cassian who first brought the concept of monasticism out of Egypt to Gaul when he established his two religious houses, one for men and one for women, near Marseilles. St Patrick and St Illtyd are said to have studied at the men's monastery at Lerins. However, Celtic foundations in Britain and Ireland evolved directly from the monastery set up by St Martin at Tours, which was subsequently used as a pattern by St Ninian at Whithorn in Galloway.

Many Celtic places of retreat and prayer are found on islands or inaccessible coastal promontories, and thus the sea became the equivalent of the sandy wastes of the desert in enhancing isolation and separateness. This idea was further developed by private places of retreat such as St Ninian's Cave, a few miles from his monastery, and St Cuthbert's place of withdrawal on the Farne Islands. Today there is a stone cross on Anglesey with a carving of St Antony, an Egyptian monk, in recognition of his enormous influence on Christian practice over many centuries.

St Ia - Feast Day: 3rd February

Information about Celtic women saints is sadly, somewhat sparse with the notable exception of St Bridget of Kildare in Ireland. However, the Cornish town of St Ives, once famed for its fishing fleet but now better known for its artistic associations, is named for St Ia, a virgin of noble birth said to be an Irish princess of the 5th century.

In the Cornish language the settlement is known as Forth Ia. Ia is mentioned in a Life of St Gwinear written by a Breton cleric, Anselm, around 1300. St Gwinear and his companions had already set sail for Cornwall by the time Ia reached the coast, but she touched a leaf with her staff and by some miracle it grew to the size of a boat. It carried her across the sea to land at Pendinas, that part of St Ives known today as, 'The Island'.

The type of Irish boat, or curragh, which brought her may indeed have been leaf-shaped. Ia's fellow missionaries are thought to have come ashore further north, at Hayle Estuary. They included her two brothers, Euny and Erth, and to this day traces of these saints' names can still be found in local place-names of the area. The saintly band were slaughtered by a cruel local king called Teudar, but Ia escaped.

Dinan, a benevolent chieftain, built her a church, possibly on the site of the present parish church, and in medieval times her tomb was venerated here. Her holy well, Venton Ia, is situated below the cemetery overlooking Porthmeor Beach, and at one time there was another well and chapel bearing her name at Troon near Camborne. Plouye in Brittany may also have been the center of her cult, showing yet again the close links that existed between the Celtic peoples.

St Ita - Feast Day: 15th January

In the ruins of the Romanesque church of Killeedy, County Limerick, Ireland lie the mortal remains of St Ita, who died around 570 AD. Her cult still thrives today and her feast day is a local holiday.

Killeedy means 'church or cell of Ita' and it was here that this sixth century abbess founded her religious community and school. She was born around 480 near Waterford, of the much-respected Deisi clan.

Originally her name was Deirdre, but it was changed to Ita because of her thirst for holiness and divine love. Other spellings include Ite and Ide. Even as a child, miraculous events surrounded her and people remarked on her gentle generosity, purity, and gracious behaviour.

Like St Bridget's, Ita's father was resistant to the new faith and when she reached a certain age a marriage was arranged for her with a suitable young man, also of noble birth.

Her family was duly persuaded to allow her to move away and settle near the foot of Sliabh Luachra, where other women who also wished to live the religious life joined her. The people of Ui Conaill came with their chieftain offering her much land but she took only four acres for a vegetable garden.

She spent long periods of time in solitary prayer and meditation during her ascetic life. She also possessed gifts of prophecy and healing and was much sought after as an adviser and counsellor. The waters of her nearby holy well were reputed through the centuries to cure smallpox and other diseases. As part of the purpose of her foundation, Ita set up an educational establishment for young boys. By tradition, St Brendan was one of her pupils. There are dedications to Ita, a true soul-friend and confessor to many, in Cornwall and Ireland, and she was even invoked in ancient litanies on the continent.

St Kentigern - Feast Day: 13th January

Loth, a British chieftain, was determined that his daughter, Tannoch, would marry a prince called Ewan. However, the young girl, who had become a Christian, preferred to dedicate herself to the service of God. She was cast out but found shelter with a swineherd and his companions, where she quickly settled into a new and peaceful life. However, this was sadly disturbed by Ewan when he found Tannoch alone one day. He violated her and she became pregnant.

Discovering the shame of his unmarried daughter, Loth resolved to have her thrown down the sheer 700-foot drop called Dunpelder on the south side of Traprain Law. As she fell, Tannoch was heard to call upon the Blessed Virgin Mary for aid.

Her anguished friends, rushing to claim her body, found that she was unharmed and had sustained no injury. Still her father showed no mercy, so she was taken to Aberlady Bay and cast adrift in a coracle out near the Isle of May. The tides and wind bore her up the Forth to Culross on the north shore, close to the Christian community founded by the aged St Serf, and it was here in 518 AD that her son was born.

Shepherds brought the mother and child to him, and ancient manuscript tells us that, "The blessed old man was filled with spiritual laughter and his heart with joy at the sight of the baby. Serf named him Kentigern, but he was often known by the pet name of 'Mungo', meaning, 'my dear friend'."

Fergus was buried by the Molendinar burn, and Kentigern began the task of rebuilding the Christian settlement which had fallen into disrepair.

His joyful community was known as 'Eglais ghu' or 'Glesghu', meaning 'dear church', and is now the city of Glasgow. Kentigern lived in very turbulent times. In 543 the King of that region decided that the steady guidance of a permanent bishop was needed, and he was consecrated accordingly. Because the political situation locally had deteriorated even further, Kentigern began to make his way to Wales. He passed through Cumbria, ministering as he went, and present-day Mungrisdale bears witness to his progress southwards.

St David had been Archbishop of the British church in Wales for seven years when Kentigern finally arrived, and with his help land was procured to establish a community at Llanelwy, now known as St Asaph. Kentigern enthroned Asaph as his successor and set out, but instead of returning to Glasgow straightaway he made his base at Hoddam in Dumfries and Galloway and stayed there for some years.

Eventually he was reinstated in Glasgow nearly thirty years after his departure. He was responsible for an extensive mission to Aberdeenshire, and there is evidence that his disciples travelled as far afield as Orkney, Norway and Iceland. Kentigern himself visited Pope Gregory in Rome and received among other treasures the gift of a bell, which was later used in the streets of the city as a summons to prayer for the dead. His burial site is now part of Glasgow Cathedral. The municipal arms of that old city portray various things associated with Kentigern's life, including the bird, the bell, the salmon, and the Queen's ring.

St Kevin - Feast Day: 3rd June

Coemghen is the Irish form of the name of the saint we have come to know as Kevin. The name means "soft gentle birth", for because her offspring was innocent, faithful and righteous, his mother Caemell, or Coenhella, experienced no labour pains. Born of royal lineage in Leinster in the sixth century, he came from a family of saints. Twelve angels with golden lamps presided at his birth. He was taken to a priest for baptism and given the name Kevin as the angels had commanded.

At the age of seven, Kevin began his early training at the monastery of Kilnamanagh, near Tallaght, in County Dublin. Here among the monks were St Eogan, St Enda and St Lochan. One day Kevin was instructed to go and get a source of fire to light the candles for Mass. After his ordination to the priesthood Kevin initially chose to live a solitary life as a hermit in a very isolated place in the Wicklow Mountains at Glendalough, or 'Glen of the two lakes'. It is not easy to chart Kevin's exact movements during his life.

Prayer and solitude continued to play an important part in Kevin's life and he spent time alone in Scotland, mainly in Argyll, as well as in Ireland.

St Patrick had prophesied thirty years before the birth of St Kevin that a great monastic centre would be established and flourish at Glendalough. Today it is one of the four principal pilgrimage sites of Ireland. The others are Croagh Patrick in Connacht, Inis nam Beo in Munster, and the Cave of Patrick in Ulster.

Poetry and music were among St Kevin's gifts, and his harp was one of the greatest treasures of Glendalough as late as the twelfth century.

It is thought that Kevin was over 120 years old when he died in about 618 AD. Before his death he returned to the site of his original lonely hermitage, a place very dear to him. He asked the monks not to visit, not to bring food, and to not disturb him in any way. Kevin's humility was further demonstrated in that he was an abbot who chose to remain as a priest rather than become a bishop. He spent most of his life at Glendalough, unlike some of his fellow saints who travelled widely on missionary journeys, but despite this, his influence and fame spread far and wide.

St Michael - Feast Day: 29th September

Angelic visions and visitations often played a significant part in the lives of the Celtic Saints. For the Celt, both pagan and Christian, perception of the next world overlapped strongly with the awareness of this one. Death was only a door between the worlds and the veil was very thin indeed, especially at certain times of the year and in particular places.

Angels, as messengers, formed a link between the visible and invisible worlds and therefore became a bridge between spirit and matter. The chief archangel, Michael, is much beloved of the Celtic peoples, and there are many dedications to him in Christian places of worship and also in topographical features.

Important Michael sites are usually on hilltops, mountains or other high places, for example, the parish church on the dramatic rocky outcrop at Brentor in Devon, or St Michael's tower on the summit of Glastonbury Tor. Skellig Michael off the coast of Ireland, St Michael's Mount in Cornwall, and Mont St Michel in France are indicative of the archangel's role as a guardian of spiritual sanctuaries, and together these three islands protect the western sea approaches to Europe.

Traditionally, Michael has wings the color of emerald and hair of saffron. In Hebrew his name is Mi-Ka-El, meaning 'who is as God'. He is assigned many tasks, being the commander of the heavenly legions and a divine messenger who protects the faithful from evil attacks, as well as the holder of the keys of the Underworld, who receives and weighs the souls of the departed. From this has grown his popularity as a guardian of cemeteries; however, he is best known as a slayer or subduer of the dragon. In this capacity he has become a great patron in both the East and the West under his other name of St George - for Michael is considered to be the heavenly counterpart of the earthly prototype, George.

From early times his cult was strong in the British Isles, and the Venerable Bede mentions an oratory and a cemetery near Hexham dedicated to him. Cornwall is under the guardianship of Michael or Sen Myghal. He appeared to some fishermen standing in shining glory on a western promontory of St Michael's Mount, now known as 'St Michael's Chair' or 'Cadar Myghal'. He is said to have 'healed their eyes', that is, opened their vision. This occurred on May 8th in AD 495, and this day in the year is when the town of Helston remembers its patron Michael, with its Flora Day.

Part of the day's festivities include the 'Hal an Tow', a pageant in which the victory of St George over the dragon is re-enacted in the streets. A similar apparition is also said to have taken place at Mont St Michel. One of the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls is entitled 'War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness'. Here Michael is called the 'Prince of Light', and he leads his angels in battle against the legions of darkness. St Michael's feast day falls within the astrological sun sign of Libra, whose symbol is the scales or balance. This seems to connect with his duty of weighing the souls of the dead. As a light-bearer for Christ, his territory and patronages include all those people who say that their kingdom is not of this world. Thus he finds a ready place in the heart of the Celt, for whom the otherworld is very near, and indeed of all pilgrims and strangers on this earth.

St Nectan - Feast Day: 17th June

According to a twelfth century Life written for Hartland Abbey, St Nectan, or Nighton as he is known in the vernacular, was the eldest and leader of the Children of Brychan and therefore Welsh by origin.

The centre of his cult, however, was across the Bristol Channel at Hartland, the most north-westerly point of the Devon coast. The medieval Life goes on to tell how Nectan was inspired by the example of St Antony of Egypt, one of the Desert Fathers, who spent his life in prayer, study and manual work alone in an isolated place.

Accordingly, Nectan set out on his own in a boat, committing himself and his journey to God. He sailed away, leaving behind his lands, inheritance and family, and came safely to land on the wooded shores of Hartland, so named because of all the deer there. Austerity and godliness were the hallmarks of his secluded life.

Gradually his brothers and sisters followed him across the water, scattering and settling in various parts of the western peninsula to lead the eremitic life. Nectan was acknowledged as their senior brother, and each year after Christmas at the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord they would all gather together at Stoke, where he lived, to pray and talk of the things of God. Some distance away lived a swineherd called Huddon. One day, while he was roaming the woods looking for his master's breeding sow and her piglets, he chanced to come upon the hermit's humble dwelling. He inquired of the saint whether he had seen the lost animals and immediately Nectan was able to show him where they were.

On his return Huddon related the whole story to his master, who was moved to reward Nectan with the gift of two excellent milkcows. Unfortunately these cows were stolen by two robbers. Nectan set off in search of the beasts and found them not far from his hut, at a place called Neweton. When the thieves were caught they beheaded Nectan. This event occured on June 17th, which has become his feast day.

According to legend, the saint then picked up his own head and proceeded to carry it back to the well near his hut. He laid it down on a certain stone on which red streaks, said to be his blood, can be seen to this day. One of the robbers went mad and died on the spot, while the other was rendered almost totally blind. He followed the headless Nectan as best he could, touching the blood of the martyr as he went, and by his action did not completely lose his sight. He buried the body with the utmost reverence inside the little hut where Nectan had lived.

The pre-Christian Celts believed that the head contained the spirit of the person, and consequently the severed head was much prized as a war trophy. Many sanctuaries and shrines had skull-niches in their walls specifically for the display of human heads. Given that there was also a Celtic water deity called Nechtan, it seems probable that pagan elements have become muddled with Christian legend.

St Patrick - Feast Day: 17th March

Magonus Sucatus Patricius, although of native Celtic stock, belonged to Roman Britain. He was the grandson of a priest, Potitus, and the son of Calpurnius, a deacon of the church; however, despite this background there appears to have been no strong religious influence during his childhood.

Indeed, Patrick himself admits that he neglected his lessons and his Christian faith. His family was of some social standing and owned a small farm outside a Roman town somewhere on the west coast of Britain. Here Patrick was born around AD 390. During a raid organized by Niall of the Nine Hostages, High King of Ireland, Patrick was captured and sold into slavery in Ireland along with thousands of others. He was just sixteen years of age.

For six years he tended the beasts of his wealthy Pictish master, Miliuc, on the slopes of Sliabh Mis, Slemish Mountain in County Antrim. Here in the silence and the loneliness, often in snow, frost and rain, he learned to turn to God for help and strength, and fervent prayer became a vital part of his life. It is possible that he was baptized by Caranoc, a successor of St Ninian at Whithorn, during this period. Spurred on by dreams and an inner voice telling him to go home, he escaped and walked 200 miles to a seaport at the mouth of the River Vartry near Wicklow, where he joined a ship carrying Irish hunting hounds to Gaul.

After this adventure Patrick eventually made his way home to his family in Britain. However, he could not settle and became convinced that he was being called back to Ireland. To prepare himself properly, he travelled to the continent for education and training, retracing his steps to Gaul. There is a tradition that he studied at Lerins on the island of St Honorat, and evidence of him being a pupil at Auxerre. Here he was ordained deacon by Amator, a predecessor of St Germanus, and was taught by them both. Germanus was sent to Britain by Pope Celestine I and became increasingly aware of the great need for teaching and organisation in Ireland.

Patrick had received messages in dreams, through an angelic figure and soul-friend called Victor, from the voice of the Irish, asking him to 'come and walk once more among us'. It was therefore suggested that Patrick should be sent, and his hopes were high, but the proposal was rejected because of his relative illiteracy, and one Palladius was consecrated bishop and sent instead. Some time later the authorities reconsidered and decided that Patrick might be useful as an assistant to Palladius. Accordingly he set off, accompanied by a senior priest called Segitius. They had gone only sixteen miles towards the coast when news of Palladius' death reached them. Here at Avrolles, Patrick was consecrated bishop and embarked on the work for which he had waited so long.

Tradition has it that he landed in Ireland in AD 432 at the narrow entrance to Strangford Lough, not far from the area he had known as a captive. 'Saul' in Irish means 'barn', and it was at this place that Dichu, a local lord, gave him land and just such a building for his first church and also became his first convert.

Later Padraig, as he is known in Irish, lived in the region of the former capital of Ulster at Emain Macha and at Ard Macha, the present-day Armagh, which still claims descent from him. King Daire held court here and Patrick set up his church within the royal rath. It grew into a monastery which is now the site of the cathedral.

Easter Day, 25th March 433, saw him confronting the pagan Druids by lighting a paschal or Easter fire. This act coincided with the Druidic spring festival, when all the fires in the land were extinguished and then relit from the one fire burning on the Hill of Tara, the royal residence and pagan sacred place. The outraged Druids saw Patrick's fire burning on the distant slopes of Slane and prophetically warned King Laoghaire that if it was not put out very quickly then the light of Christ would never be extinguished in Erin.

As a consequence of his challenge to Druidical authority, a trial of powers was arranged between the saint and the Druid magician Lucetmael. Initially the magician tried to overcome Patrick with poison, waist-deep snow and thick darkness, but to no avail. For the next round, a trial by water was suggested by the High King, who wanted the matter resolved. He proposed that a book from each of the parties should be submerged and that he would worship the God of whichever one was unharmed. Patrick was willing, but Lucetmael was not. Similarly he would not agree to the books being cast into a fire. Patrick then put forward a scheme which seemed to favour the Druid. A hut was to be constructed in two sections, one half of dry wood and the other half of green wood. Lucetmael was invited to stand inside the green part wearing the saint's cloak while Benen, a follower of Patrick, would enter the dry half wearing the mantle of the Druid. The shelter would then be set on fire. According to legend, Lucetmael was completely consumed in the flames but not Patrick's cloak, while on the other side only the Druid's cloak was burned to ashes. Despite this, Laoghaire himself died a pagan, but his brother, Conal Gulban, became Patrick's disciple and protector.

The best known story of Patrick is surely his association with the shamrock plant, the three-leaved symbol of the Irish nation, by which he is said to have explained the idea of the Holy Trinity to the High King's daughters in Connacht.

During his life Patrick baptized many thousands of people and nurtured a love of the religious life which he had enjoyed during his training on the Continent. He was responsible for the organization and ordering of the church under episcopal rule and was constantly travelling the country teaching, preaching, and faithfully spreading the gospel. In the church at St Patrice, a village near Tours in France, there is a statue of Patrick and also a stained-glass window above the altar which illustrates the tale that the saint came here in midwinter. Tired and cold from travelling, he settled down beneath a frost-covered tree to rest. As he slept the tree burst into bloom, shedding light and warmth. It continued to flower each year in December until it was destroyed a century or so ago. This story is reminiscent of the 'Holy Thorn' at Glastonbury, which also flowers annually during the dark days of winter.

Depictions of Patrick generally show him with snakes at his feet, recalling the legend that he banished all the serpents, presumably representing evil, from the land; indeed, snakes of any kind are unknown in Ireland. On the last Sunday in July each year, in County Mayo, the pilgrimage to Cruachan Aigli, or Croagh Patrick as it is now known, takes place. The old name means 'hill of the eagles', and it is a steep mountain 2,500 feet high. Patrick is said to have spent the whole of one Lent season here in prayer and fasting, appealing to God for the conversion of the Irish. Thousands of pilgrims, some barefoot, make the long trek up the stony path to the top in memory of his devotion and vigil. Patrick died on 17 March 461 at Saul, or Saball, the very place where he had founded his first church. No one is quite certain where he is burled, but at Downpatrick in the cemetery there is a large boulder bearing his name.

There were Christian missionaries in Ireland before Patrick, but he, working through local chieftains, was largely responsible for the conversion of almost the whole nation within a span of thirty years, from the time when Pope Leo I gave his seal of approval to the venture, and of course Patrick is the much-loved patron saint of that country today.

St Petroc - Feast Day: 4th June

St Petroc has the distinction of being the most influential of the Cornish saints and rivals St Piran for the privilege of being patron of that nation. St Michael the Archangel, who has been adopted by all the Celtic countries, is also a contender.

Petroc came from South Wales, from the royal house of Gwent, and was the uncle of St Cadoc. Quite often the saints are interrelated in this way, showing how entire households accepted the light of the gospel. He embarked upon the monastic life at a very early age and after some years travelled to Ireland to further his studies, remaining there for twenty years or so before settling beside the Camel estuary in Cornwall at Petrocstow, which has become the Padstow of today.

During his life he made a pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem, and there is a most exotic tale about him living on an island in the Indian Ocean as a hermit.

He returned to Cornwall the tame creature accompanied him. In later years he obtained grants of land from one Teudar, a notoriously cruel and irreligious ruler, and also from Constantine, a local chieftain. This enabled him to retire to a hermitage on Bodmin Moor called Bosvenegh, meaning 'place of the monks', which later became the town of Bodmin.

While resting near to Little Petherick (also known as Petroc Minor), he entered the home of a man named Rovel and his family and there he died in June 564. There is still a farm in this vicinity called Treravel.

He was buried at Padstow but later his body was removed to Bodmin, which by the eleventh century had become a centre of veneration for St Petroc.

Petroc is sometimes depicted with a dragon and has at least two associations with them. Once he showed kindness to one by removing a splinter from its eye; on the other hand he is also reputed, according to a later Life written by the monks of Bodmin, to have banished the last Cornish dragon. This fierce serpent was terrorizing the Padstow district, so the saint bound it with his girdle and led it to the sea, releasing it to swim away.

Of course Padstow is far better known for its annual 'Obby 'Oss' celebrations on May 1st. One interpretation of this ancient rite suggests that the memory of St Petroc and the dragon may be bound up in the present day story of the victory of St George, which is reenacted in the streets of the town each year.

St Piran - Feast Day: 5th March

One stormy day a band of wild pagan Irishmen decided to rid themselves of St Piran because, in spite of his great goodness, they were afraid of his authority and power and envious of his influence on the people of their territories. They chained him to a millstone, took him to the cliff top, and cast him into the raging sea below, supposedly to his death.

As he fell, the ferocious winds dropped to a gentle whisper, the sea became as smooth as glass and the sun broke through the clouds to reveal the saint sitting on the stone, which floated away, bearing him to the Cornish shore. He landed at Perranporth on March 5th, which has become his feast day.

It is thought that this legend concerning the millstone arose from the practice of Celtic missionary priests carrying consecrated altar stones with them on their journeys. These stones, inscribed with a cross, were very small, being only five or six inches across, and unlike the Saxon rectangular ones, they were round like millstones. Before an oratory was established, it was customary for the founder to live in a temporary hut on the proposed site for forty days and nights, spending the time in fasting and prayer. Nothing was eaten during the hours of daylight, and then only sparse rations to keep body and soul together during this time.

Piran built a chapel in the sands near his landing place, and it is possibly the oldest place of Christian worship in Britain still extant. Through the centuries the shifting dunes have revealed and then hidden the building, and it became known as 'The Lost Church'. A single black stone formed his hearth, and one night when the fire was burning very hotly he was amazed to see a little rivulet of silver metal trickling over it. This proved to be tin, and even though the people of Cornwall had been smelting this metal and trading it for over 2,000 years, St Piran is credited with discovering this process and was adopted by the miners as their patron saint.

The Cornish national flag is known as 'St Piran's Cross' and consists of a white cross on a black ground, said to represent the metal in the ore as well as the light of the Christian faith in the darkness of the world. This sixth century abbot is honoured not only in Cornwall but in South Wales and Brittany too. Gerald of Wales tells us that there was a chapel in Cardiff dedicated to St Piran.

Tradition tells that he died at the age of 206 and was buried with his mother in his chapel. Certainly his head was kept in a reliquary and a processional bier held his body. In the Middle Ages 'St Piran's Feast' was kept as a holiday in Cornwall, and there are three parishes in the county that still recall his name: Perran-ar-Worthal, Perranzabuloe, and Perranuthnoe.

St Winefride - Feast Day: 3rd November

The healing waters of St Winefride's well at Treffynnon, or Holywell, in North Wales have been visited down the ages by royal personages and more humble pilgrims alike. It is the only shrine in the British Isles to have withstood the destruction of the Reformation and to have remained consistently as a place of pilgrimage.

At present it is open throughout the year from morning until dusk, and traditionally visitors pass through the water three times. The origin of this custom may derive from the ancient Celtic rite of baptism by triple immersion.

St Winefride, or Gwenfrewi as she is known in Welsh, was of noble birth, being the virgin daughter of a local prince, Tefydd, and his wife, Gwenlo.

Caradog, from nearby Hawarden and also of royal blood, was pursuing her for his own ends, and in her terror Winefride fled to the safety of the church. Before she could gain sanctuary Caradog caught up with her at the church door, and in his fury at being refused he beheaded her. Her body lay outside the building while her head fell inside. Immediately a spring rose up on the spot where her severed head lay, and this was the source of the holy well.

The legend goes on to tell how St Beuno, Winefride's uncle, placed her head next to her body and prayed that she might be restored to life. Winefride was made whole and arose with only a white scar around her neck to testify to her martyrdom, while Caradog was swallowed up by the earth and never seen again.

Later in her life, Winefride became abbess of a convent at Gwythering near Llanrwst, where she eventually died on June 22nd and was buried. In 1138, her relics were removed to the Benedictine abbey church of Shrewsbury.

St Winwaloe - Feast Day: 3rd March

There are various forms of his name, the most common being Winwaloe, Gunwalloe, or Guenole, meaning "he who is fair", not necessarily in features but with an inner beauty which shines through.

He came of a Cornish family which had fled to Brittany and settled there to avoid the Saxon encroachment, and he was born near St Brieuc. His mother, Gwen, and his father, Fracan, whose name survives in the parish of Winwaloe's birth, Ploufragan, vowed that their third son should be dedicated to God. However, it was not until the boy was fifteen years of age that he and his two brothers, Gwethenoc and Jacut, went to join the monastery of St Budoc on the island of Lavret, part of the Ile-de-Brehat.

After some years his brothers returned to their old life, but Winwaloe, being both a willing and an able pupil, continued as a monk. His friend and teacher, Budoc, appreciated in him the marks of holiness and saintliness in his Christian life, so when the time came to find a new community he was sent out with eleven other brothers to establish it. This was the custom in the Celtic church, so that communities were rarely large and the gospel was spread abroad. Initially they settled on the island of Tibidy, where they eked out a living feeding on roots and herbs and a little barley that they found growing there.

For three years the band of monks endured this hardship, but eventually the infertility of the soil and the violence of the winds forced them to seek an alternative site. It is said that Winwaloe had a vision of angels ascending and descending on the opposite shore of the River Aulne. It appeared to be so much like Paradise that they moved across there and so the great monastery of Landevennec was founded.

Another story says that life on Tibidy was so good and pleasant that the monks would not, or could not, die, so to give them release from this earthly life they left the island. Gradlon, whose tomb can still be seen at Landevennec, granted them land to found their monastery on his estate of Tevenec. As in all Celtic monastic communities, the life was an austere one. Wine and wheat were not used except as the elements of the Mass. Instead they drank only water, sometimes mixed with wild herbs, and ate only barley bread with boiled roots, except on Sundays and feast days when cheese and shellfish were allowed.

During Lent, Winwaloe partook of only two meals a week. His habit was made of goatskins. For their beds the brothers used the bark of trees with a stone as a pillow. Each of them was required to work on the land in some measure. The rule of St Winwaloe was kept at Landevennec until the year 818, when it was superseded at the decree of Louis le Pieux, son of Charlemagne, by that of St Benedict, which is still in use there today.

Winwaloe was celebrated for his modesty, patience and charity. Always humble, from the age of twenty he was never seen to sit down in church, preferring either to prostrate himself or to stand. He spent long hours in prayer, and his own spirituality was grounded in the Psalms. In "La Legende Doree de Saint-Guenole", penned by Clement, a monk of Landevennec around 860, many miracles associated with the saint are recorded.

He died at a great age on March 3rd, which is his feast day, but he is also remembered each year on April 28th, which marks the enshrining of his body in the new church that was later built. At one stage, his body, bell and vestments were taken to Montreuil-sur-Mer, near Boulogne, to escape destruction by the Northmen.

During his life Winwaloe returned to his family roots in Cornwall, and among other dedications in the county there are two places on the Lizard peninsula that recall his presence. One is Landewednack, the prefix "lan" denoting a church enclosure. The other is the 'Church of the Storms' at Gunwalloe, so called because the building is virtually on the beach and at the mercy of the sea and wind. It is thought that Winwaloe lived for a time in a cell in the shelter of nearby Castle Hill.

He is also the patron of Towednack in West Penwith, where in 1987 a pilgrimage was held in his honour in which the abbot and visiting monks from the present day community of Landevennec came from Brittany to take part. In this way, the heritage of Winwaloe has been handed down through the ages and is still very much alive today.


See Also



  1. ^ Swyrich, Archive materials