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


This account of the life of St. Senan, Bishop and Abbot of Iniscathaigh (now mis-named ‘Scattery Island’), is a redaction of ancient manuscripts which were used by the Franciscan hagiographer, Fr. John Colgan in his great work Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae.

It may be of interest to Irish readers to recall the time and circumstances which prompted Colgan’s work on the Irish saints. He was one of the Franciscan community who lived in their college in Louvain [Belgium] in the first half of the 17th century.

Not a few of the priests and brothers living in the college at that time were closely related to the Irish Chieftains. Many of them were destined to live through one of the most terrible periods in Irish history. Indeed, it seemed to them that only God could save Ireland from utter destruction.

In an effort to save from the hands of the invaders the precious books and manuscripts which had hitherto escaped destruction, a member of their community, Brother Michael O Cleirigh was sent to Ireland. This was a truly formidable undertaking. For an Irish friar it was a task fraught with considerable danger. But this ‘Brathair Bocht’, as Brother Michael often styled himself, was more than equal to the task assigned to him. Himself a historian, and descended from a long line of Tirconnell historians, there was no task he would have chosen more readily than this.

He arrived in Ireland in the year 1626 and set forth on his quest, visiting castle, monastery, hamlet and hovel, wherever he thought he might find material for the lives of the Irish Saints, and for the history of Ireland.

Among the MSS relating to the life of St.Senan which he found on his journeyings the following may be mentioned:

In 1629, in Limerick, he found a MS copy of a work on the miracles of St. Senan, Miorbuile Seanain, which Conaire O Moalconaire made from ‘an old obscure book’. This copy ends with a long poem as well as nine other poems relating to the saint.

In the same year, in the Franciscan Friary in Wexford town, he copied a life of St. Senan from a book written by Maoliosa Mac Egan for William son of Sean O’Dorodan.

Five years later, in the Franciscan Friary in Quin (Clare) he copied among other MSS a book which belonged to the Coarb of Iniscathaig, entitled Amra Seanain, (a eulogy of the saint), as well as stories of his life. In the Franciscan Friary in Cashel he discovered a collection of ancient MSS, the Codex Insulensis which contained a life of St. Senan. Eventually, after eleven years of wandering, of searching and of careful transcribing, Brother Michael returned to Louvain.

There, two years after his death (1643), Colgan published the great work, Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae. It is written in Latin. Within its two thousand pages are written the lives of two hundred and seventy saints, arranged according to there festive days. Yet this great tome covers only the months of January, February and March. Happily it includes the life of St. Senan, whose festival day falls on the 8th of March. In Colgan’s ‘Life of St. Senan’ he makes use of three ancient MSS, which are either transcripts or recensions of documents still more ancient. The first one, and the most important, is the Codex Kilkenniesis in which is a metric life of the saint, written in Latin. Because this was incomplete, Colgan collated it with a similar life to a saint in another MS, the Codex Salmanticensis. Further to supply any deficiencies that might exist, he adds as a ‘Supplementum’, a part of that Irish life of St. Senan mentioned above as having been transcribed in 1515 for William O’Dorodan.

It has been asserted that St. Odran, the immediate successor of St. Senan in Iniscathaig wrote the life of his abbot. This is no longer extant. How closely Colgan has come to portray the actual life of our saint it is difficult now to say.

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St. Patrick foretells the coming of St. Senan