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Life of St Senan, Bishop, Patron Saint of West Clare

St. Patrick foretells the coming of St. Senan

When St. Patrick was preaching the good tidings of the Gospel throughout Ireland, and had reached that part of Munster inhabited by the people called the Ui Figente, his fame reached to the people of Corcabhaiscinn on the Northern shores of the river Shannon. (The territory of the Ui Figente corresponds to the present Diocese of Limerick. Findinne is supposed by competent authorities to be KnockPatrick, which is not far from the present town of Foynes. Corcabhaiscinn: the tribe of Baiscinn, son of Conaire Mor, King of Ireland (c.A.D. 165). It meant also the territory inhabited by this race who claimed descent from Baiscinn. Corabhaiscinn comprised the present baronies of Clonderlaw, Ibrickan and Moyarta. These three baronies comprise sixteen parishes extending westwards from Killadisert to Loop Head and from Kilfarboy (Miltown Malbay) on the north to Killard.)

Led by their chieftain, they took to their fishing craft and in great numbers came across the river to meet the great teacher. They came to the place where St. Patrick was preaching, which was the place later called Domnachmore. There the apostle instructed them in the truths of the Christian faith and duly baptized them.

So deeply impressed were these persons at all they had seen and heard that they earnestly besought Patrick to come with them to their district, and teach their kinsfolk the truths of salvation. This, however, was not possible. Yet, to satisfy in some measure their desires, the saint accompanied them to the high hill, called Findinne, from which he could view their lands. He looked into the future with prophetic gaze and solemnly assured them that in due time one would be born among them who would speak and act for them in his stead. He promised them that if they remained faithful to his teaching all would be well with them. Should they turn aside from the way he would lead them, then hunger and want and slavery would be their lot. Meanwhile, he, Patrick, would send two of his disciples to instruct them and their families in the Christian way of life.

How many years went by between St. Patrick prophecy and its fulfillment? Probably not so many as within a generation. Colgan is of the opinion that, since Senan is said to have lived at the same time as Saints Brendan and Kieran, he was born at the end of the 5th century, about the year 488.

The metric life, which Colgan considers to be very ancient commences with the following words:

‘Senanus ex nobilibus procreatur parentibus,
et ab ipsis cunabulis fidelibus christicolis;
qui magna Dei gratia habebantur in Scotia,
quorum haec sunt vocabula, Ercanus et Coemgella’.

Which stanza may be freely translated:

Senan is of noble parents born;
faithful Christians they from childhood morn.
By God’s great grace in Scotia was their home.
As Ercan and Coemgella they are known.

According to the prose life, he was born in a place called Moylougha, (Magh-locha), which is about four miles east of the present town of Kilrush. His mother, while walking through the nearby woods, was seized with the pangs of childbirth. A branch of a tree which she grasped for support is said to have blossomed, as if to signify the virtues which her child would show forth in future years.

Of his childhood it is stated that he grew in virtue as in age, a source of joy to his parents and companions alike. As a youth, he was convinced of the need of that self-denial which is part of the Christian way of life. To illustrate this, it is related that on one occasion, while accompanying his mother on a journey, he reproved her for picking berries and reminded her that God, in his providence, had ordained times for abstinence as well as for refection.

Many are the ‘legenda’ which transcribers recount of this saint’s youth.

On one occasion he was summoned to take part in a foray into the neighboring territory of Corcomore, for he was bound to serve his chieftain in time of battle.

The metric life thus tersely tells the result of the raid:

‘Tandem commisso praelio, justo Dei judicio,
Vehementer exterritus, rex terga dedit hostibus.
Ex omni vero populo, a nece vel periculo,
Solus immunis fuerat qui fuga labi poterat’.

(The battle joined, but then by God’s decree,
seized with dismay, the leader turned to flee.
Then he alone might ‘scape his deadly plight
who slipped aside to save himself by flight.)

However, before the raid had begun, the pious youth, who had no heart in this kind of work, already slipped aside and lay down in a heap of straw, intending to join his companions on their return. There a band of enraged inhabitants of Corcomore discovered him. Suddenly, to their astonishment, the heap of straw seemed all ablaze while the young man himself seemed to be unharmed. When he candidly confessed that he was one of the raiders they were even more mystified. Convinced that he was protected by some strange power, they spared his life and sent him on his way.

On another occasion, while driving cattle from a district called the Irros, to the west of his home, the oncoming tide flowing into an estuary prevented him from proceeding any further. Because it was late in the evening, he decided to seek shelter for the night at a fort called Dun Mechair. When they refused to give him hospitality, he returned to guard his herd. Then, to his surprise, he saw a path through the estuary which seemed quite dry. When he had driven his cattle to the other side he saw the tide swiftly overflowing the passage he had just used. Seeing in this occurrence the kindly providence of God, he stuck his spear into the ground, and making the sign of the cross, resolved there and then to dedicate his life to the service of God. And so the young farmer from Moylougha, who had hitherto kept himself uncontaminated, now forsook wordly pursuits to follow where the Spirit of God directed him.

Animated with this desire, he sought the spiritual guidance of a monk, named Cassidus. (Colgan, in his notes to the metric life, tells us that this holy man had come from Kerricurichy to live in the Irrus - or Peninsula - of West Clare). From this saintly man he received the habit and tonsure of a monk. From him he learnt also the reading and understanding of the sacred scriptures, as well as the principles and practices of the religious life.

So rapidly did the zealous novice advance along the path of perfection that Cassidus was inspired to direct him to a still greater teacher. There was then in Ossory the great monastery of Kilnamanagh. The abbot was a man already renowned for learning and sanctity? known later as St. Natalis. According to the author of the metric life the community of Kilnamanagh numbered then a hundred and fifty. To this centre of religion came young men who desired to dedicate their whole lives to the service of God. From such centres they went forth to enlighten those who were ‘in darkness and in the shadow of death’. It was there the youth from Corcabaiscinn completed his studies and in due time became a priest.

Those chroniclers, who later wrote the story of his life tell us that already in this monastery miracles testified to his virtue. Two examples will here suffice to indicate how greatly his biographers wished to enhance his prestige.

One day, when he was appointed to ‘mind the cows’ in the monastery pasture, the persistent efforts of young calves seeking their mothers interfered with his prayers. So he drew a line with his stick between these thirsty young animals and their mothers. He continued praying with no further interruptions!

Then there was the incident of the three robbers who came by night to the monastery mill to steal corn. Peering through a slit in the door, they saw two persons within, one a monk, reading, and the other nearby a man of splendid appearance.

The robbers decided to wait until the door was unbolted. However, when morning came and the door was opened they found to their amazement only one person. When Senan explained that the other person whom they had seen was one who came to his aid in time of need, and, indeed would come to anyone who, needing help called upon him, the robbers were so deeply impressed that they abandoned their life of crime to follow the narrow way of Christian virtue of the monastery.

How many years the future abbot of Iniscathaigh spent in Kilnamanagh is not stated. In the metric life unfortunately not a few chapters are missing, and these, most probably, the very ones that would tell us of his life from the time he left Kilnamanagh until, after many years he came to Iniscathaigh.

The Irish life, however, though less ancient and less reliable than the metric one, supplies to some extent this information. In it we are informed that the fame of Senan’s sanctity and miracles spread abroad so that many flocked to the monastery to be healed of their infirmities. At length, the abbot Natalis decided that this saintly monk was now so well and truly advanced in monastic discipline that he was quite capable of leading others on that road. He therefore informed Senan that such a time had now come, and so, he bade farewell to the monastery where he had received so many and so great graces. He directed his steps eastwards until he reached the river Slaney. There in a green island called Iniscoirithe, (the present Enniscorthy), he had a cell. During his stay in that place he became acquainted with the abbot of Ferns, later known as St. Maidoc, or Aidan.

Prompted with a great longing to visit the places hallowed by the Apostles, he undertook a pilgrimage to Rome. On his return journey he spent some time in Gaul (France), and visited the shrine of St. Martin of Tours. Before coming back to Ireland he went to Menevia to meet the abbot David, the future archbishop and patron saint of Menevia. It seems very probable that he had been consecrated bishop before he returned to Ireland.

In the second, or prose, life of the saint we are told that he came from Wales to the south coast of Ireland, and landed at an island called Ardmenedh, in the present Co. Cork. (Ardmenedh has been identified as the ‘Great Island’ near Cork.) After spending some days there he was urged by an interior spirit to proceed further. He continued on his journey until he came to the river Lee. Here, on the Island of Iniscarra, he set up a monastic settlement. While he was staying here there came fifty monks from the continent, for the fame of Ireland as a centre of Christian learning and culture was well known in Gaul and Rome. Ten of these monks placed themselves under the direction of St. Senan.

From Iniscarra he went to Inisluinghe on the river Shannon, where he established a ‘cell’ or church. (Inisluinghe has not been identified.) While he was in this island the daughters of the local chieftain received from him the veil of religious life. (Some authorities deduce from this event that St. Senan was a bishop at this time). From Inisluinghe to Inismore (Deer Island?) and from Inismore to Iniscaorach (lit. ‘Sheep-island’, now mis-named Mutton Island) and from there to Iniscunla (now Inisconla). Iniscaorach has an oratory of St. Senan, as has Bishops Island. Finally, this zealous and untiring apostle proceeded to the island which he knew by revelation would be the centre of his greatest apostolate and his last resting place on earth.


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