September 9 is the feast of Saint Ciarán of Clonmacnoise and a modern summary of his life was posted last year here. The account below of his life and virtues has been excerpted from a sermon delivered by a nineteenth-century Bishop of Ardagh, the Right Rev. George Conroy (1833-1878), on the dedication of a new church in honour of 'the sainted founder of Clonmacnois, whose heroic sanctity as monk, priest, and abbot, made him what Alcuin styles him: the glory of the Irish race.' The sermon illustrates the spirit of the 19th-century national and Catholic revival in Ireland very well indeed. It is filled with romantic imagery which contrasts the riches of Ireland's early Christian past with the contemporary degradation of the country just as it contrasts the ruined churches of old with the new building arising on this occasion. The Bishop is particularly good at conveying the impact of the early training of Saint Ciarán (or Kyran as he has chosen to render the name) at the monastic school of Saint Enda of Aran. Aran exercised a particular fascination for this generation as the epitome of the harsh and lonely windswept island scenario which produced the ascetic Irish saints. We start at the point where the speaker begins to talk of 'Ireland's abiding reverence' for St. Ciarán's virtues:
That St. Kyran's virtues should never be without honour in Ireland was announced to himself thirteen centuries ago in Aran, when first he narrated to his beloved master, St. Enda, the vision that had been vouchsafed him of the future glories of Clonmacnois. He had seen the noble stream of Shannon flowing among these verdant plains, and on its banks a stately tree laden with leaves and fruits, and covering the land with its grateful shade. "That fruitful tree," explained St. Enda, "art thou thyself, for thou shalt be great before God and man, and shalt produce sweetest fruits of good works, and shalt be honoured throughout all Ireland." First fruits of these good works were the monastic virtues exercised by our saint in Aran. He entered that holy island in the bloom of his youth, and for the long years he sojourned there he was, as St. Enda described him, "the flower and strength of religious observance." His life was a pattern of humility. For seven years, well-born and scholarly as he was, he toiled with his hands at those labours which men commit to the least important of their servants. He would fain continue to the end in the practice of obedience ; and even when at length he was compelled to become the master of others, he prayed that he and his charge might still continue under the guidance of St. Enda. His austerity was marvellous. Lashed by the Atlantic waves, swept by the Atlantic blasts, the island of Aran was the home of penance and mortification. Hundreds of Ireland's saints fled to it, as the anchorets had fled to the desert solitudes of the Thebaid. "Aran", says a recent writer, "is no better than a wild rock. It is strewed over with the ruins, which may still be seen, of the old hermitages; and, at their best, they could have been but such places as sheep would huddle under in a storm, and shiver in the cold and wet which would pierce through the chinks of the walls. . . . Yes, there on that wet soil, with that dripping roof above them, was the chosen home of these poor men. Through winter frost, through rain and storm, through summer sunshine, generation after generation of them, there they lived and prayed, and at last laid down and died." Most fervent among these austere men was our St. Kyran, who made of his innocent body a martyr of penance. As day followed after day, and week after week, and month after month, for seven long years, he ceased not to sacrifice his will by minutest obedience, his body by severe labour, his repose by incessant prayer; and this with the flinty rock for his bed, with coarse and scanty food, in poor attire, exposed to frost and sun, buffeted by wind and snow. And as he was a miracle of humility and of penance, so also was he a miracle of sweetest charity. As his penitential life tells eloquently of his love for God, so the story of his parting from his brethren, when he was called away from Aran to Clonmacnois, as related in the ancient Life of St. Enda, is a proof of his loving heart towards men. As the boat that was to carry him to the banks of the Shannon was spreading its sails to the breeze, St. Kyran came slowly down from his beloved cell, weeping and surrounded by his weeping brethren. Tenderly his gaze lingered on each familiar sanctuary as he passed onwards to the beach, and there, kneeling down, he asked for the last time the blessing of the father of his soul. In sign of the charity that filled their hearts, and of the brotherhood they had contracted between themselves and those who were to come after them, a cross was erected on the spot, and the two saints said: "Whosoever in after times shall break the loving bond of this our brotherhood, shall not have share in our love on earth, nor in our company in heaven." Near to where that cross stood, a church was erected to commemorate the virtues of St. Kyran as the perfect Religious....
From Aran, St. Kyran came to this part of the valley of the Shannon, but not as yet to settle in Clonmacnois. He was now a priest, and on the island of Inis-Oenghin, in Lough Ree, he practised for eight or nine years the virtues of the perfect priest with as much fervour as he had practised on Aran those of the perfect monk. Surrounded now by disciples of his own, constituted a teacher of the faith and a dispenser of the sacraments, it was no longer permitted to him to shun altogether the concourse of men. But he did all that he could to guard from the world s tainted breath the gifts he had received and the souls that had been entrusted to his charge. St. Ambrose describes to us the attractions which islands such as those that stud the noble expanse of Lough Ree possessed for the religious men of that age. They loved, he says, those islands " which, as a necklace of pearls, God has set upon the bosom of the waters, and in which those who would shun the pleasures of the world may find a refuge wherein to practise austerity, and save themselves from the snares of life. The water that encompasses them becomes, as it were, a veil to hide from mortal eye their deeds of penance; it aids them to acquire perfect continence; it feeds grave and sober thought; it has the secret of peace; it repels the fierce passions of earth. In it these faithful and pious men find incentives to devotion. The mysterious sounds of the waves call for the answering sound of sacred psalmody; and the peaceful voices of holy men, mingled with the murmur of the waters against the shore, rise harmonious to the heavens. Here, then, did St. Kyran lead the life of the perfect priest. Here did he practise the rule of a priest's life that had been given to him at Aran, which his fellow-student, St. Carthage, has written for us, and which tells of "the patience, humility, prayer, fast, and cheerful abstinence; of the steadiness, modesty, calmness, that are due from a leader of religious men, whose office it is to teach, in all truth, unity, forgiveness, purity, rectitude in all that is moral; whose chief works are the constant preaching of the Gospel for the instruction of all persons, and the sacrifice of the Body of the great Lord upon the Holy Altar" (Rule of St. Carthage). Here did he reach the perfection to which, an ancient Irish treatise invites all priests: that "their hearts should be chaste and shining, and their minds like the foam of the wave, or the colour of the swan in the sunshine; that is, without any particle of sin, great or small, resting in his heart!" And here another church was raised to perpetuate the memory of his virtues. Alas! that church also is in ruins....
...At length the day came in which, about the year 544, he who was already the perfect monk and the perfect priest was to become also the perfect abbot, founder, and ruler of the glorious monastery of Clonmacnois. How splendid were the virtues that adorned St. Kyran as the perfect abbot, let Clonmacnois itself proclaim! It was long the most celebrated religious house in Ireland. It was the mother of countless saints. It was a treasure-house of graces. It became the chief seat of learning in Ireland. It was a school of art and literature. Kings esteemed it an honour to build its walls with their royal hands. The Emperor Charlemagne sent rich presents to it through Alcuin. The chieftains and princes of Erin bestowed their gifts upon it, until, in lands and treasures, in precious chalices and sparkling gems, in stately churches and rich crosses, it was the wonder of many lands. To be laid to rest beneath its earth, as near as might be to the relics of St. Kyran, was a privilege coveted by the noblest in the land. Bright with dew, and redrosed, as it is styled in an old Irish poem, it was not its sunny meads or its bright flowers that won for it such esteem: it was Ireland's faith in the power of its founder's intercession. And yet he to whose merits all this was due ruled over the monastery he had founded for the short space of less than a single year. After seven months of labour there, he passed to his reward, and there beyond he rests, awaiting his glorious resurrection...
Rt. Rev. George Conroy, Late Bishop of Ardagh, Occasional Sermons, Adresses and Essays (Dublin, 1888), 19-24.
Note: A hymn in praise of Saint Ciarán, attributed to Saint Colum Cille can be found at my other site here.
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