Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ciaran (516-549)

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CIARAN, Saint (516–549), of Clonmacnoise, also called Ciaran Cluana, Ciaran mac in tsair, St. Keyran, St. Kieran the younger, and St. Quiaranus, is the traditional founder of the see of Clonmacnoise, and is still a popular saint in Ireland, whose ruined church, nearly in the centre of the island, is a place of pilgrimage. It stands in a lonely plain, close to the left bank of the broad, slow flowing Shannon, and in the midst of a group of ecclesiastical ruins; several other churches two round towers, two beautiful crosses, and many ancient ornamental tombstones. A single low ridge, extending out of sight across the plain, seems to suggest rather than form a way to the outer wond. Till about twenty years ago crowds used to assemble here on St. Ciaran day, 9 Sept., and after prayers an old feud was renewed, and the day ended in a fight between two parties. The civil power, aided by ecclesiastical threats, at last put an end to these contests, and in his boyhood the writer of this article saw two priests with whips disperse and chase away a group of visitants to Clonmacnoise on St. Ciaran's day. Thus this lonely place of devotion, unroofed and sacked in 1552 (Annala R. E.), is now more lonely than ever, and approaches in desolation its state when, in 544, it was given to Ciaran by King Diarmait Mac Cerbhaill, who put the saint’s hand above his as he helped to drive in the first stake of the wattles of which the church was first built. The best life of the saint is a Latin one in Archbishop Marsh’s library in Dublin (Reeves on Coder Kilkeniensis). This manuscript was transcribed about l400, but internal evidence shows the composition to be much earlier, and the life was probably written in the eighth century by an ecclesiastic whose native tongue was Irish. It has never been printed, but has been copied by Bishop Reeves, who generously lent his transcript for the purpose of this life. It relates that Ciaran, born in 516, was son of Beonand, a maker of chariots, and of Derertha, his wife. They had fled into Connaught from the oppressions of a king of Tara, and in Rath Crimthain, of Magh aei, the holy boy was born. Diarmait, the deacon, baptised him, and many miracles are related of his childhood. Parents in those days used to send their children to get honey from the rocks and trees. Ciaran stayed at home, and when reproved dipped his jar into the nearest spring and, drew it out full of honey. He was charitable even to the hungry wolves which preyed on the herds of Magh aei. He gave away all he had and all his parents had, and at last was seized as a slave by a king whose golden cup, sent to Beonand to mend, the saintly son had given to a beggar. Bought out of slavery by alms he went to St. Finnian’s school at Cluain Irard in Meath, taking with him his favourite cow, the Odhuyr Ciarain. She supplied the whole school with milk, and when she died the saint skinned her. Her skin was kept in his church, and was long in request to die on, for it was believed that whoever lay on it while dying ‘vitam æternam cum Christo possidebit.’ Brendan and Columba were at the same school, and had to grind their own corn in querns; but an angel ground Ciaran’s. Life in the school is quaintly described, including the difficulty of teaching the king of Tara’s daughter, and the Irish puns made by the scholars. After leaving Cluain Irard the saint wandered about releasing slaves, then went to the Aran Isles and was ordained by Abbot Enna; then visited St. Senan at Scattery Island in the mouth of the Shannon. Then working up the stream, after many adventures by the way, he established himself on an island in Loch Ree, but, thinking it too luxurious a retreat found out the solitude of Clonmacnoise and there finally settled. He lived only one year there, and died with his stone pillow under his neck, after blessing his people, in 549 in the this thirty-third year of his age. His school fellow, Columba, made a poem on him, and asked for some earth from his grave, and this earth, thrown into the raging sea between Ireland and Iona, stilled the waves. Ciaran was no doubt a real person, the actual founder of the famous monastery and school of Clonmacnoise. He was a pure Irish saint, of an ancient Ulster family, which could be traced back through twenty-three generations, adhering to the letter as well asthe spirit of his gospel, giving anything he had to any one who asked for it, appreciating a joke, of powerful blessing, violent in his curses, a warm defender of his ecclesiastical tribe (Life, c. xxx), and fond, like Columba, of the old tales of Erin. In one ancient Irish tale he is represented as writing the ‘Tain Bo Cuailgne,’ the most famous romance of ancient Ireland, on the skin of his beloved red cow from the dictation of Feargus mac Roidh, tutor of the hero Cuchullin, whom he called up from the grave to relate the almost forgotten story. This dramatic incident is associated with the fact that a precious book of Clonmacuoise was called ‘Lebor na huidri,’ the book of the red cow; and its descendant in title, written by Maolmuire mac Con na mbocht about 1100, is extant under that name, and may be seen in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

[Reeves on a manuscript volume of Saints, Dublin, 1877; Reeves’s transcript of v. 3. 1, 4 of Archbishop Marsh’s Library; Reeves’s Acts of Archbishop Colton, Dublin, 1850. p. 123; Stokes’s Felire of Oengus. Dublin, 1871, p. 137; Chronicon Scotorum (Rolls Series); Annals Rioghachta Eireann, i. 181; O`Conor’s Rerum Hibern. Scriptores; Ware's Prelates of Ireland. Dublin, 1704, p. 27 Connellan’s Imtheacht na Tromdhaimhe. Dublin. 1860. p. 124; Rev. James Gammaek in Smith and Wace’s Dict. of Christian Biog. i. 544.]

N. M.