October 29 is the feastday of Saint Colman of Kilmacduagh, a saint of the west of Ireland, who was related to the ruling house of his district. In the account below, which has been distilled from various chapters of Father Jerome Fahey's diocesan history, the writer presents an engaging portrait of Saint Colman's devotion to the monastic life and includes the most famous episodes from his Life - the fly, the cock and the mouse which assisted him and the miracle of the Easter feast:
Amongst the Saints who made the reign of the pious King of Connaught memorable, there is none whose sanctity is so revered, and whose name is so enthusiastically honoured throughout the district of Aidhne, as is St. Colman, son of Duagh. The diocese of Kilmacduagh, of which he was founder, perpetuates his name; and through its various parishes he is still piously invoked as a powerful and holy patron.
His connection with the king was of the most intimate kind, being united to him by ties of intimate friendship as well as by those of kindred.
In the Martyrology of Donegal, we find him referred to as "Colman Bishop, i.e. Mac Duagh of Cill Mic Duach in Connachta; he was of the race of Fiachra, son of Eochaid Muidhmheadoin; great were his virtues and miracles."
This authoritative reference to him as Bishop of Kilmacduagh, and also to his parentage, helps effectually to remove all difficulties as to his identity. The name of Colman was indeed a favourite one with the holy men of the period. This will be abundantly evident from the fact that the Martyrology of Donegal commemorates as many as one hundred and thirteen Saints who bear the name of Colman. But from out of this multitude whose name he shares, the individuality of the holy son of Duagh, of the princely race of Fiachra, is clearly fixed.
...We can have no difficulty as to the particular period to which St Colman's public life may be referred. There is no doubt that it is to be referred to the close of the sixth and the opening of the seventh century. Our fuller knowledge of the history of his distinguished contemporaries, removes all difficulty on that head. But the exact or approximate date of his birth can be only a matter of conjecture. Neither have we any historical evidence of the particular place of his birth. We have, however, a well-defined tradition, always accepted in the diocese of Kilmacduagh, which fixes the village of Corker, in the present parish of Kiltartan, as the place of his birth. The same interesting tradition which tells us of the place of his birth, preserves also some interesting circumstances in connection with it.
Rhinagh, the Saint's mother, when in an advanced state of pregnancy, became the object of the king's jealous hatred. The reigning king was Colman, father of Guaire. He had heard that, according to a prophecy of authority, Rhinagh's son was destined to surpass in greatness, all others of his illustrious lineage. Dreading the jealous hostility of the king, which she thus unconsciously excited, she was obliged to fly. But the hostility of the king pursued her. She was seized by his minions, and cast, with a heavy stone tied around her neck, into the deepest portion of the Kiltartan river. She was miraculously preserved from drowning, however; and the stone lies still by the river margin, an object of interest to many.
It was in the adjoining solitude at Corker that the infant was born, who was indeed destined to bring upon the district "a thousand blessings which time has brought to ripeness."
The anxious mother laid her new-born babe under the friendly shelter of a spreading ash, and waited impatiently for some one who might at least pour on its head the waters of regeneration. And though the tradition here loses itself in one well known to be applied by poets and hagiographers to St. Patrick, it may be undesirable to destroy its continuity. It continues to tell us how two aged clerical pilgrims approached the anxious mother. One was blind and the other lame. Being unable to procure water to administer baptism, they invoked the Divine aid; and lo! a fountain gushed forth from under the shelter of the tree. After administering baptism, the pilgrims washed in the waters of the fountain and were healed. The grateful monks besought the mother to entrust them with the safety and education of the child — a permission which, under the circumstances, must have been gladly accorded to them by Rhinagh.
The holy well at which St. Colman is said to have been baptized, still remains at Corker, and bears his name. It is held by the people of the village and surrounding district in the highest veneration. " Rounds " are still performed there ; and it is confidently asserted in the locality that the supernatural efficacy of the water is still frequently proved. The venerable ash has disappeared, but its place is supplied by a cluster of venerable hawthorns, which will please the lovers of the picturesque, as well as those to whom the legendary history of our Saints is dear.
However much we regret that we are ignorant of the names of those good monks who undertook to guard Rhinagh's holy child in his infancy, and to educate him in his early years, we must at least admire the success with which they sheltered him from the jealousy of the king. Even now we are unable to glean even the smallest particulars regarding the history of his early years. It is only in his mature years, after he had already entered the sanctuary, that we can obtain even a shadowy glimpse of him as he is engaged in his missionary labours or personal austerities.
He reappears in the celebrated island of Aranmore, then widely known as Aran of the Saints. Its reputation as a sanctuary of piety rivalled that of Lerins and of Iona. In fact, Western Europe had not many more remarkable homes of piety than "Ara-na-Naomh."
St Colman's stay in Aranmore must have been considerable, as he built there two churches, which, according to Dr. Kelly, are attributed to St Colman, both by "history and tradition."...But the seclusion of Aranmore was not deep enough to satisfy the yearnings of St. Colman. He resolved to hide himself in some deeper solitude, that he might abandon himself more completely to the influence of that all absorbing spirit of prayer and mortification with which he was then so deeply imbued.
The closing years of the sixth century, which witnessed St. Colman's departure from Aranmore, are memorable for a new development in the religious life of the nation. The monastic life had attained in Ireland a development probably unparalleled. If not the golden age of Ireland's holiness, our early writers speak of the effulgence of its sanctity in comparison with subsequent times, as the brightness of the moon compared with that of the stars.
There were, before the close of the century, clear evidences that the hermit's life was preferred by many to the usual community life of the monk. It may be that our stern ascetics regarded the influx of native and foreign students to our monasteries, as obstacles to high and intimate union with God. It is certain that the desire to live in complete solitude became very general, and marks a new epoch in the religious life of Ireland. The hermits of the period are known as a distinct order of Irish Saints. This "Third Order" of Irish Saints, as they are called, numbered one hundred, and were nearly all priests. "They dwelt in deserts, and lived on herbs, water, and alms; they shunned possessing private property." There were amongst them also some few bishops, amongst whom we find the name of St. Colman. Dr. Lanigan assures us that this Bishop Colman of the Third Class was, "according to every appearance," St. Colman of Kilmacduagh.
Indeed, there can be no doubt that St. Colman Mac Duagh sought in the depths of the Burren forests, for perfect solitude and seclusion to commune alone with his Creator, like another Anthony or Hilarion. The career of austere and exalted sanctity on which we now see him entering even recalls the desert life of the Baptist, who fed on the locusts and honey of the desert. A spirit of profound humility, a love of retirement and mortification, where virtues which he had hitherto cultivated with assiduity, and which constituted leading traits in his character. But the solitudes of Aranmore, and the sacrifices and austerities practised there by the holy disciples of St Enda, seemed insufficient to the generous soul of St Colman Mac Duagh. He resolved to give himself to the practices of penance and contemplation with all the ardour of his soul in complete solitude and retirement.
Colgan informs us that St Colman retired to Burren accompanied by a solitary attendant, while his old enemy and namesake, Colman, father of Guaire, yet occupied the throne of Connaught. And it is not improbable that a knowledge of the cruel persecutions to which his mother had been subjected by her royal kinsman, made him regard it as a matter of grave importance to conceal as much as possible the place of his retirement. Though we cannot fix the date, we can form an accurate approximate judgment as to the time of his retirement into Burren. Guaire did not succeed to the throne of Connaught till A.D. 604. His brother Loigneun succeeded his father Colman, and reigned for seven years. As it was in Colman 's reign that our Saint retired to his hermitage, the period of his retirement could not be later than the last decade of the sixth century. We are informed by Colgan that St. Colman wrote from his retirement to St Columba, then in lona, seeking spiritual direction; and we know the death of St Columba occurred in A.D. 597.
Our Saint constructed his little oratory at the base of the frowning cliff of Ceanaille. Tradition points to a cave close to the oratory in which he sought shelter and repose. A crystal fountain supplied him with drink, the wild herbs of the forest were his only food, and the skins of the wild deer formed his coarse and scanty raiment either in summer heats or wintry snows. Here shut out from all human converse, and dead to all earthly things, he led a life of the highest spirituality. His fasts, like his prayers and vigils, were interrupted only by the necessities of failing nature. So absorbing did his sense of Divine love become, that he was frequently wrapped in ecstasy, and enjoyed the most abundant spiritual consolations. He had, however, his moments of aridity, when God seemed to withdraw Himself from His servant It was in one of those moments of spiritual trial that he wrote to St. Columba. Colgan's brief reference to the Apostle of Iona's reply, shows us that it was full of friendly sympathy and of respect for St. Colman's sanctity. He reminds St. Colman that the great losses complained of presupposed the existence of abundant spiritual treasures. Such friendly banter can be easily understood, when we remember they were kinsmen. And as St. Columba himself had traversed those Burren solitudes, and erected a church in one of its deepest valleys, — Glan
Columkille, — it is possible that they may have been personally acquainted.
Keating writes: "Mac Duagh was retired into the wilderness for the benefit of his devotion. He had no living creature about him except a cock, a mouse, and a fly. The use of the cock was to give him notice of the time of night by his crowing, that he might know when to apply himself to his prayers. The mouse, it seems, had his proper office, which was to prevent the Saint from sleeping above five hours within the space of twenty -four; for, when the business of his devotion, which he exercised with great reverence and regularity upon his knees, had so fatigued his spirits that they required a longer refreshment, the mouse would come to his ears and scratch him with his feet till he was perfectly awake. The fly always attended on him when he was reading. It had the sense, it seems, to walk along the lines of the book; and when the Saint had tired his eyes, and was willing to desist, the fly would stay upon the first letter of the next sentence, and by that means direct him where he was to begin."
For seven long years our Saint lived on in his Burren hermitage, completely hidden and unknown...Yet the time was fast approaching: when he should leave his beloved retreat, and stand before his kindred and the world, as a burning light and an ornament to the episcopacy.
The accession of Guaire to the throne of Connaught in the opening years of the seventh century was destined to mark a new and a bright era in the religious life of the clans of Hy Fiachtach Aidhne; and the son of St. Colman's inveterate enemy was raised up by God to become at once his friend and powerful patron.
The Hospitable King had his principal residence at Kinvara; and yet, though living at Kinvara, he seems to have had no knowledge of the presence of his holy kinsman in Barren. The king at length discovered the hermitage, and became so deeply impressed with the holy solitary's sanctity, that he urged him to accept the episcopal charge of the territory of Aidhne. Such a discovery was perhaps inevitable. But our annalists speak of it as brought about by supernatural agency, to which some of our mediaeval writers have added some incredible marvels of the usual legendary character. The narrative is given at length by Colgan, who takes it from the Menology of Aengus.
Our Saint had spent the Lent in the usual exercises of austerity. And on Easter morning, after reciting the divine office and offering the sacred mysteries, he inquired of his youthful attendant if he had procured anything special for their repast in that great and joyous feast. His attendant replied that he had only procured a little wild fowl in addition to the herbs which were their usual fasting fare, and began to repine at the severity of a life which even on so joyous a festival brought them no legitimate relaxation. He contrasted their position with that of those who had the good fortune of forming Guaire's household. The Saint, seeing with concern that his attendant's patience was nigh exhausted, commended the matter to God, and urged that the King of Heaven and Earth, whose servants they were, could easily supply a feast, and strengthen his attendant's failing confidence, if such were His Divine pleasure. And as to Guaire's royal banquet, to which reference was made, and of which his chieftains and retainers were then about to partake, it might, if it so pleased Providence, be transferred from the palace to the hermitage.
The banquet was being set on the royal tables at Durlus while the Saint was yet speaking. And there can be no doubt that it was a sumptuous one, and worthy of His Majesty's characteristic love of hospitality. The old writers recount with evident satisfaction the important additions to the feast which had been procured specially for the occasion by the king's huntsmen. Before sitting down to the feast, the king exclaimed, with unusual impressiveness, "Oh, would it pleased Heaven that this banquet were set before some true servants of God who require it; as for us, we might easily be provided with another." He had no sooner spoken than the dishes were removed by invisible hands. All were struck with astonishment. The king, amazed at the marvel, summons his mounted guard, that they may follow, and discover, if possible, the destination of the dishes. All his retinue follow in hot haste, and are accompanied by a motley crowd of women and children from the district through which they pass. Meantime, the dishes had reached the Burren hermitage, and were set down in the open space in which the Saint and his disciple were wont to partake of their scanty meals. On seeing them, the disciple exclaimed, " O father, behold the reward of thy patience! Let us thankfully partake of the food sent us by our good God." Our Saint, however, would first know with certainty whence they had come, and is informed by an angel that the feast was sent in response to his prayers, and through the benevolence of the king. Meantime, the unexpected arrival of His Majesty with his retinue and followers filled them with alarm. Their astonishment at discovering the oratory and cell was increased by seeing the banquet spread before the holy hermit and his attendant, who, with thankful hearts, and, it may be assumed, with good appetites, were about to partake of the good things thus bountifully provided for them by Heaven. But our Saint, with a full confidence in the protection of Heaven, commanded that his unexpected visitors should not approach till he and his disciple should have partaken of the feast so providentially provided for them. And here another marvel occurs. Riders and pedestrians alike are unable to move. The level limestone ledges bear to the present day the footprints, as it is piously thought, of that motley gathering; Colgan, who gives the legend, must have thought so. No doubt this singular phenomenon of the footprints on the rocks must have been in the days of Colgan, and in the still more remote times of Aengus, much more striking than it is in our time. But the ascent or approach through the mountain gorge is in our time, as in Colgan's and centuries earlier, called " Bohir na Maes," i,e, the road of the Dishes. Thus did it please God to manifest in a most striking manner the singular sanctity of His servant to the king and the assembled multitude. The favour which he found with God was thus manifested to the world, despite his humble efforts to hide himself, as well from the admiration as from the hostility of men. At the king's entreaties, all were again set at liberty through the Saint's prayers; and they returned to publish throughout Aidhne the sanctity of the holy solitary, and the extraordinary things which it pleased Heaven to do through the efficacy of his prayers.
The character of the holy Solitary of Burren, thus providentially made public, won for him at once the esteem of his clansmen. His austerities and his miracles were on the lips of all, and the public joy was increased by the knowledge that he was a representative of one of the noblest of the tribes of Hy Fiachrach. Meantime, the king, his relative, was urgent in his request that St. Colman should found a monastery, and also assume episcopal charge of the territory of his kinsman. The office of abbot and bishop were frequently united. It did not always happen in those days that bishops exercised episcopal jurisdiction. They were more numerous in our early Irish Church than in modern times. As Montalembert puts it, "they were in many cases incorporated as a necessary but subordinate part of the ecclesiastical machinery with the great monastic bodies." But in most cases, as in the case of our Saint, the abbot who was invested with the dignity of bishop also exercised episcopal jurisdiction, and in such cases their jurisdiction was coextensive with the territory or tribe or clan to which they belonged. Thus it happened that the jurisdiction of St. Colman Mac Duagh extended over the entire territory of Aidhne, the patrimony of the southern Hy Fiachrach, and that the ancient boundaries of the territory continued in after times to mark the boundaries of the diocese of Kilmacduagh...
In earnest prayer St. Colman sought the Divine guidance, and it was soon revealed to him that the king's requests were in conformity with the will of Heaven. It was furthermore revealed to him, that the site of his monastery and cathedral would be miraculously pointed out to him. His girdle was to drop to the earth of itself, on the particular place on which the monastery was to be founded. When gazing from the elevated tablelands near his Burren hermitage, over the territory of Aidhne, he may perhaps have noted specially the solitudes towards the south-east, where the lakes and swamps spread out towards the undulating forest lands. At the north-western side of the diocese, the monastery of St. Colga, at Kilcolgan, was a centre of light and guidance for the surrounding districts. The example of St. Sourney, the teachings and example of St. Foila, were additional powerful incentives to sanctity in the same districts. The most remote districts of Aidhne, which were those on the south, appealed perhaps most strongly to the charity of Colman. And besides, those solitudes amongst which Colman was about to construct his monastery, while favourable to monastic quiet and holy contemplation, were dangerous to travellers. His monastery there would prove a refuge to many to whom the dangerous passes of those low-lying lands might otherwise prove fatal.
Certain it is that our Saint proceeded thither, and discovered, by the anticipated sign of the girdle falling, that it was the destined site of his monastery. "As he journeyed through the forest," says Colgan, " his cincture fell on a certain place, not far from his former cell, and there he built his monastery, which, from his name, is commonly called Kilmacduagh." This girdle continued to be long preserved with religious care by his kinsmen, the O'Shaughnessys. It was in their possession in the thirteenth century ; and even centuries later, in Colgan's time, they retained it still. It was studded with gems; and it possessed the marvellous property of fitting all who were chaste, though it could not be used by the unchaste, no matter how emaciated.St. Colman was now face to face with a great work. It was a holy work, the results of which were destined to endure. It was a work which would inscribe his name on the hearts of a grateful people, who would tmnsmit it, with the memory of his virtues, from generation to generation.
King Guaire, with characteristic generosity, not only granted the required site for the cathedral and monastery, but granted also large endowments for its future maintenance. This was not all. His Majesty sent several teams of oxen to procure the necessary materials. He sent numerous labourers and skilled artisans to carry out the work.There can be no doubt that the date of the foundations at Kilmacduagh was A.D. 610.
But while his diocese rejoiced in the blessings which his labours and presence brought them, he was himself filled with a consciousness of his own unworthiness, and he longed to be free from the lieavy burden of the episcopal charge. He was weary of the praises of men, and lie wished to hide himself in solitude once more, and there await his approaching dissolution. Even during the years of his public labours, his mind frequently went back to his beloved solitude in Burren. He treasured the memory of those happy days which he spent there, with no intenuption which might divert his thoughts from the contemplation of holy things. For him there was society in solitude; and in the "pathless woods," there was enduring attractiveness, for he could there commune without interruption with his Maker.
As he well knew, the Burren forests sheltered many a lonely glen; and he knew from experience their fitness for a life of austerity and prayer. They seemed to invite him once more ; and at length he resolved to retire thither, and hide himself from the praises and admiration of all.
The little valley of Oughtmama was the secluded spot in which he chose to spend the remaining days of his life. It stands within the valley of Corcomroe, and not far from his former hermitage. The rugged mountains rise steeply round it, forming a girdle which completely hides it.
Here, then, in his beloved retirement, our Saint awaited his approaching dissolution with the assured confidence of the just. Indeed, the hour was near, when he was to be summoned to exchange a life of unceasing austerity and labour for a life of unending bliss. He longed to be dissolved and be with his God. Bequeathing his body to his cathedral church at Kilmacduagh, and leaving to his diocese the rich inheritance of his example and the fruits of his labours, he is believed to have yielded up his soul to his Maker on the 29th of October A.D. 632, in the pontificate of Honorius I.
It is stated by Dr. Lanigan, I know not on what authority, that St. Colman died on the 3rd of February. Other writers have also attempted to fix his feast on the 3rd of February. It is so fixed by the Abbot of Knock, — Marianus O'Gorman, — and also by the Martyrology of Tamlaght. Nor can it be supposed that the Martyrology refers to any other of the many Saints who bore the name of Colman, as it refers to him expressly as Colman, "son of Duagh."
Ware and Harris, however, very properly remark that the 3rd of February is not the day on which his feast is observed in the diocese of Kilmacduagh. And though the Martyrology of Donegal gives the 3rd of February as the date of his festival, it is careful to add that "Ua Sechnasaigh says that the festival of Mac Duagh is on the 27th (recte 29th) of the month of October, for he was his own patron and his relative.' And the learned editors of the Martyrology — Todd and Reeves — add, in explanation of the text, that " this was probably 'The O'Shaughnessy,' or head of the family at the time when this work was compiled, and whose testimony our author intimates was the more worthy of credit, because St. Colman Mac Duagh was the patron Saint of his tribe, and of the same race."
As a matter of fact, the festival of St. Colman Mac Duagh has been observed in the diocese of Kilmacduagh from time immemorial on the 29th of October.
Rev. J. Fahey, The History and Antiquities of the Diocese of Kilmacduagh (Dublin, 1893).
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