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


This island on which St. Senan would establish his monastery was not far from his native home, no more than an hour's rowing in a currach. From his childhood he surely would have heard about the ‘Cathach’, the beast that roamed and occupied the island, so fearful and so dangerous that neither man nor beast dared to come near the place. Since it had been revealed to the man of God that this was the place where he should work and pray, he went there, trusting in the power and protection of the Almighty. Facing the ferocious animal, the saint made the sign of the cross and commanded him to depart.

The Irish life states that the ‘cathach’ immediately obeyed, and neither ‘stopped nor stayed’ until he reached the dark waters of Lough Dou (Dubh-Loch) near Mount Callan.

When the news spread through the surrounding districts that the monster had been expelled and that the island had been occupied by monks, the chieftain of the territory near the island, Mac Tail by name, proceeded to lay claim to the island. He sent two brothers of the abbot to induce or force him to leave. When this attempt failed Mac Tail had recourse to a Druid. This pagan sorcerer went to an island which lay near Iniscathaigh to consult his evil spirits and with spells and incantations prepare for an encounter with the saint. However, it happened that a tidal wave swept over the place, thus putting an end to the Druid. In due course the chief himself met with an untimely end. (The author of the prose life states that in his day the rock from which the druid was swept away was shown and named ‘Carraig an Draoi’, the Rock of the Druid).

It is probable that when St. Senan came to establish his monastery in Iniscathaigh he was already advanced in years. The prose life mentions that saints Brendan of Birr and Kieran of Clonmacnois came to visit him, and it states that they came to him for spiritual direction as to one who was superior to them in age as well as in dignity, for Senan was bishop as well as abbot. These two visitors were accompanied by members of their respective communities. The arrival of such a contingent caused much concern to the guest-master, for the monastery had not enough of food for so many persons. The abbot assured him that this was no cause for concern, since the Lord would surely provide. His confidence was not misplaced. A boat was seen coming to the island with provisions sufficient for everyone.

While these saintly visitors were at table a bell appeared, apparently heaven sent. A discussion then arose among the members of the three monasteries, for they all wondered for which of their communities this bell was intended. They found that when they went apart in different directions the sound of the bell accompanied the abbot of Iniscathaigh, and with him it remained.

Another remarkable miracle is attributed to the saint. The monks living in Iniscathaig suffered much through want of fresh water. They were often obliged to carry water to the island not only for the community but also for their cattle and sheep. In their need they besought their abbot to pray that they might find water somewhere on the island. It was revealed to the saint that water was to be found at a certain spot. When he probed the earth at the place indicated to him, he uncovered a spring of pure, fresh water.

The monastery was not long established when the sanctity of its abbot and his community was known far and wide. In far-away Beanntraighe a holy woman named Cannera saw in a vision the glory of this island. To her it appeared as if a tall pillar of light reached up into the heavens, higher than that of any of the other monasteries in Eire. She resolved to visit this most holy spot and, if possible end her days there. At length she arrived at the island only to discover that a strict rule forbade any female to enter the place. Vain were her appeals to relax this rule in her favour. She stayed by the shore and there she languished and died. Her remains were laid to rest at the foreshore and the slab that covers her mortal remains is still to be seen.

From this story it must not be inferred that St. Senan was a misogynist. As proof of his concern for the souls of women as well as of men, it is known that he gave the veil of religious life to those virgins who wished to dedicate their lives to God. He established what was probably the first convent of nuns in West Clare when he gave the veil of religious life to the daughters of Naereus and established them in a place called Killeochaille. (Colgan: ‘This church of Killeochaille seems to be the one now called ‘Kill-na-cailleach’, ‘the church of the nuns’, in Querrin).

So highly did the saintly abbot regard the sanctity of the sisters in their holy retreat that Providence so ordained it that he would visit them before his death, and that his mortal remains would repose there even before he was laid to rest in his own monastery. It is related in the ‘prose life’ that when he knew that the course of his earthly life was soon to end, this servant of God decided to visit once again the cell of the abbot Cassidan, who had directed his first steps on the sure way of Christian perfection.

So he set forth from his monastery. On the way he turned aside to visit the holy virgins, the daughters of Neraeus to whom he had once given the veil of religious life. Leaving their church at Killeochaille, he went to the cell of Cassidan where he spent some time in prayer. Then he turned homewards. But when he neared Killeochaille he was taken ill. A voice seemed to say to him: ‘Servant of God, thou are being called to Heaven’.

He raised his hands in thanksgiving to God, and telling his companions that his hour had come to depart from them, he bade them to convey his body to the monastery. Then and there in a field near the church he expired. It was the first day of March, and the feast day of St. David. His disciples conveyed his body to the church of the nuns and sent the sad news of his death to the community in Iniscathaigh. Led by Odhran, Macinnill and bishops Erc, Mola and Segarius and many others the monks came and conveyed the body of their abbot to the monastery he had founded. For fully eight days they celebrated the obsequies. From the southern side of the river came many prelates, mourning his loss. Then his body was laid to rest in the church. The author of the ‘prose life’ states that there ‘to this day miracles continue to be wrought’.

Scattery Island Map











Bell Shrine


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An Irish Saint