Ciaran (fl. 500-560) (DNB00)

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CIARAN, Saint (fl. 500–560), of Saigar, bishop of Ossory, was the son of Laighe, who was of the Dal Birnn of Ossory, and of Liadain of the race of the Corcaluighe, who occupied a district in the barony of West Carbery, county of Cork. He was born on Clear Island, now Cape Clear, where the ruins of his church still exist, together with a cross sculptured on an ancient pillar near the strand known as St. Ciaran’s strand, and his name is still in use as a christian name among the inhabitants of the island. These facts attest the reality of his connection with the place, but much uncertainty has been caused as to the period at which he flourished by the attempt to represent him as earlier than St. Patrick. The story is that he was thirty years of age before he heard of the christian religion; he then went to Rome, where he spent twenty years in ecclesiastical studies, and, having been ordained a bishop, was returning to Ireland when he met St. Patrick, then on his way to Rome, who prophesied that they would meet again thirty years later at Saigir. From this the conclusion was drawn by Ussher that he was born A.D. 362. This involved the difficulty that he must have lived 300 years, or, as the 'Martyrology of Donegal' has it, 360. It is evident that the whole story must be dismissed as apocryphal, and intended to do honour to the Corcaluighe by representing one of their race as 'the first-born of the saints of Ireland,' the tribe itself as 'the first in Ireland among whom the cross was believed in,' and the church on Cape Clear as 'the first erected in Ireland;' and that in consequence of this St. Ciaran left 'to the king of that territory the honour price of a king of a province and kingship and leadership of his race for ever.'

His authentic history is connected with Saicir, now Seirkieran, in the barony of Ballybrit, King's County, four miles east of Birr. This territory, rormerly called Ele, and belonging to Munster, was that of his father's family. He dwelt near a fountain called 'Saigir the cold' as a hermit in the midst of the primeval forest, his only shelter the spreading branches of a tree. At the other side of the tree a wild boar had his lair, and not only this animal, but foxes, badgers, wolves, and deer, as the narrative quaintly has it, 'became his monks.' A similar story is told of St. Coemgen [q. v.] After a time he built a cell of 'poor materials,' and from this humble beginning grew the great establishment of oeirkieran, which became a centre for the preaching of the gospel, and hence St. Ciaran is regarded as the patron saint of Ossory. His fife was not without peril from the heathen inhabitants. The king, Aengus mac Nadfraech, had several harpers 'who accompanied their songs on the harp and played set pieces.' A party of these when travelling in Munster were killed by enemies, who cast their bodies into the lake, thence called the 'Harpers' Lake.' Again, the king, with a host of followers, would come and devour the substance of the monks. On one occasion eight oxen were slaughtered, but this did not suffice, and when complaint was made of the difficulty of supplying so large a number, Aengus, who was the first christian ruler of Cashel, referred them to the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and thought they ought to be able to do the same. Not far from Saigir was the monastery of Clonmacnoise, where another St. Ciaran ruled [see Claran of Clonmacnoise], who on one occasion came to Saigir to his brother saint, with whom were also St. Brendan of Clonfert [q. v.], famous as the navigator,' and St. Brencuin of Birr [q. v.] These saints 'made a covenant for themselves and their successors,' evidently for mutual protection against the opressive proceedings that have been noticed, they parted with mutual blessings, the form of which indicates the different character of their monasteries. At Clonmacnoise the pursuit of learning and a high standard of piety were aimed at. Saigir seems to have had rather the character of a great industrial establishment. The monks cleared the forest and tilled the soil, and a large community found occupation there. Hence it is termed 'Saieir the hostful,' or populous, and from the large amount of its possessions it was 'Saigir the wealthy.' In the 'Lebar Brecc' we read : 'Wondrous now was that holy Ciaran of Saigir, for numerous were his cattle. For there were ten doors to the shed of his kine, and ten stalls at every door and ten calves in every stall, and ten cows with every calf. . . . Moreover, there were fifty tame horses with Ciaran for tilling and ploughing the ground.' The unworldly character of Clonmacnoise, as compared with Saigir, was calculated to attract popular sympathy and regard, and hence it is that the former occupies so prominent a place in the religious history of Ireland, while Saigir is little noticed, notwithstanding its greatness and wealth.

A remarkable usage observed at Saigir is described in an anecdote connected with a youth firom Clonmacnoise, who was incautiously entrusted by St. Ciaran with the care of 'the sacred fire which he had blessed on the previous Easter.' The youth allowed the fire to go out, for which he was eaten by wolves. It was miraculously relighted at the prayer of St. Ciaran. This legend seems to be founded on a genuine tradition, for a sacred fire was also kept up at Ealdare many centuries later.

The date of St. Ciaran's death may be approximately fixed by a comparison of some of the facts recorded in his life. He belonged to the second order of Irish saints whose period was included between A.D. 644-89. Again, he was a contemporary of St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise and the two Brendans. We may therefore conclude with Dr. Lanigan that he belonged to the sixth century, became distinguished towards the middle of it, and died during the latter half. He was one of the number of eminent men known as the 'Twelve Apostles of Ireland.' His diligence in the conversion of his heathen countrymen is noticed in his life. His mother became a chris- tian, and founded a church named from her Cill-liadhain; his nurse also believed, and retired 'to a rock in the sea,' where he used to visit her. Through him the Corcaluighe abandoned heathenism, and he laboured among his kindred, the Osraighe, to the close of his life.

Some, indeed, have held, on the authority of John of Tinmouth, that he passed over to Cornwall, where he was known as St. Piran, and there laboured and died; and Dr. Lanigan seems to think the slight notice of him in Irish records, and their silence as to the year of his death, afford some countenance to this view. It is indeed possible that Ciaran might become Piran in Cornwall, and the day on which each is commemorated is the same. The parents, however, of the Cornish saint, as mentioned by John of Tinmouth, are not the same as those of St. Ciaran; and, further, the prophecy of St. Patrick relative to St. Ciaran, given by him as referring to St. Piran, has the following addition not to be found in the earlier form of the legend: 'At last arriving in Britain and serving God to the end of your life you shall await the blessedness of the general resurrection and eternal life.' There is nothing of this in the 'Lebar Brecc,' and Archbishop Ussher seems to hint, not obscurely, that it is an interpolation to support the hypothesis of his burial in England. No allusion to his leaving Saigir is made by any native writer; he is simply said to have 'died in peace' on 5 March, though the year is not given. It will be understood from what has been said of Saigir why Ciaran's name was likely to be less prominent than that of some of his contemporaries. If, therefore, St. Piran was an Irish saint, he was probably some other St. Ciaran.

[Life of St. Ciaran MS. 23, M. 60, Royal Irish Academy; Senchus Mor, i. 69; Lebar Brecc in the Calendar of Oengus, pp. lx, lxi; Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh, Rolls ed. p. 13; Martyrology of Donegal, p. 63; Annals of the Four Masters, i. 163.]

T. O.