Ireland, as all her schoolchildren used to learn, was known in the golden age of monasticism as Insula Sanctorum Doctorumque - the 'Isle of saints and scholars'. There were indeed many sancti and many docti at that time, and several even managed to be both. The martyrologies list numerous saints, some with well-documented lives, others known only nominally. At least 350 Colmáns, twenty Ultáns, twenty-two Senans, thirty-seven Moluas, several Finnians and Ciaráns are listed. Most have local reputations, and miraculous powers have been assigned to the broken chancels and crosses. The holy wells and the round towers are their memorials. The great saints like Patrick, Brigid and Colum Cille have enough wonder tales associated with them to fill books. Indeed such books do exist, but they cannot bear scrutiny either by cleric or historian. The facts as we can discern them are wonderful enough. The proliferation of Irish saints is all the more miraculous in that only three were formally canonised - St. Malachy, St. Laurence O'Toole and St. Oliver Plunkett - the latter having languished as 'Blessed' from 1920 until 1975. The only other saint for whom the process of beatification has been initiated is Venerable Matt Talbot.
Even before St. Patrick came, Christians in Ireland were praising God and revelling in the world he had created. They celebrated the seasons' changes and the great variety of flora and fauna that their beloved island boasted. So, even though the monasteries founded by the early saints were noted for the severity of their rules and the austerity of the lives that their monks led, some found that the regime was too easy and imposed even greater mortifications upon themselves for the greater glory of God. The phrase used by the old hagiographers was 'ban-martra' - 'bloodless martyrdom' - by which a person renounces everything he loves for God. These ascetics chose to exile themselves in lonely hermitages on mountains, on islands, in remote lakes or offshore, or in isolated places like Sceilg Mhichil off the coast of County Kerry. The greatest, most heartbreaking exile was to go as a peregrinus - an itinerant missionary - to preach Christ to the barbarian and heretic in the brutish Europe of the Dark Ages.
The brief stories of the holy men and women related in this book are as authentic as modern scholarship can render them. Most belong to the period 400-800 AD when Christianity was being rooted and re-rooted in Western Europe, but the inclusion of some moderns shows that there are still many Irish saints about - all covered by the blanket Feast of All Saints of Ireland, which is solemnised each year on 6 November.
Bláth aka Flora (d. 523)
Her name comes from the Latin form of the Irish for 'flower'. Bláth was a lay sister, working as a cook at St. Brigid's convent in Kildare. She was also known for her exemplary sanctity. Her feast day is 29 January.
Brendan of Birr (d. 573)
A contemporary of St. Brendan the Voyager and a friend of Colum Cille, who had a vision of his body being carried to heaven by angels. His foundation was at Parsonstown in County Offaly. His feast day is 29 November.
Brigid aka Bride (c. 450 - 525)
The premier Irish woman saint, is believed to have been born at Faughart, near Dundalk, County Louth, although some authorities suggest she came from County Offaly. She became a nun at a very young age and founded the double abbey of Kildare. Because of the Celtic worship of deity called Brigit, a number of mythological tales associated with the goddess have been attributed to the saint, making it difficult to determine any reliable biographical facts. One legend tells of how she sat by the bed of a dying pagan chieftan, praying and plaiting rushes into a cross; when he enquired about the significance of the object, she explained and he asked to be baptised. The often elaborate rush crosses that are woven for her feast day on 1 February are associated with that legend but may actually originate from an earlier pagan rite of welcoming Spring. The traditional image of Brigid is of a woman of great charity and joy in life. Her remains, like those of Colum Cille, were supposed to have been buried in St. Patrick's grave in Downpatrick in order to prevent desecration by the Vikings.
Carthage aka Cárthach Mochuda (d. 664)
Born in the Sliabh Luachra region of Kerry and baptised, as the legend has it, in water from a fountain miraculously provided for the occasion. Like many others of this time, he spent a lot of his education journeying. He visited Comgall of Bangor, Molua of Clonfert and Colmán Elo of Lynally. His great foundation was Rahan in Offaly c. 590 for which he wrote the austere rule in verse. He was expelled from the foundation by King Blathmac at the urging of the monks of Durrow, however, probably because of his acceptance of the rulings of the Synod of Whitby (664). He made his way to Lismore, where another monastic school was established not long before his death. His feast day is 14 May.
Cathal aka Cathaldus (d. c. 681)
Born in Munster and studied at, and eventually became master of, Lismore. He is said to have been asked to fill the vacant see of Taranto in southern Italy c. 666 on his way home from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. For the remainder of his life he served as its prelate. He is venerated still in Taranto, where his huge statue guards the port and a fresh water stream in the bay is known as l'annello di san Cathaldo, the ring of St. Cathaldus, as it marks the place where he is believed to have stilled a storm by throwing his ring into the sea. He was the patron saint of the Italian army during World War 1, and his feast day is 10 May.
Colmán of Lismore (d. c. 702)
Became abbot of Lismore in 689, and in his time it reached the height of its fame. His feast day is 23 January.
Declan aka Deálgán (fifth century)
A pre-Patrician saint, was born a prince of the Decies in Waterford and fostered with a Christian. He went to Rome to study, was consecrated bishop there and was later confirmed in his seat of Ardmore by St. Patrick himself. The area on the coast near Youghal harbour was once an island but, according to tradition, Declan attached it to the land (possibly with help from tide-silting). His monastery there was an important ecclesiastical centre for many years. The site still has the ruins of Declan's church and a magnificent round tower. Among many wonders ascribed to the saint are the raising of plague victims to life and the ending of the pestilence. In addition, he is reputed in old age to have sunk a fleet of marauding pirates. Declan's feast day is 24 July.
Patrick (c. 390 - c. 461)
The 'Apostle of Ireland' was a Romano-Briton who was captured by Irish raiders at age sixteen and shipped to Ireland. After six years of slavery he became a student in Continental monasteries and a disciple of St. Germanus (c. 378 - 448) at Auxerre. He was ordained bishop in France sometime before 432, when he left to establish the Catholic faith in the Ireland that he had grown to love. Although there were pockets of Christianity in the island before St. Patrick's arrival, it was his work that essentially made the whole island Christian and laid the basis for its permanence. He travelled widely in Ulster, Leinster and Connaught preaching, baptising, opening monasteries and schools, and winning a majority of Irish chieftains and their followers over to his side. He established Armagh as his primatial see (c. 444) but the pattern of Irish Church rule was to be abbatial rather than episcopal and diocesan. Uniquely among the sancti of the period, he has left two personal documents, Confessio and Epistola ad Milites Corotici, which depict a man full of humility, stern piety and righteous anger against the soldiers of a so-called Christian prince who killed Irish captives. According to tradition, he is buried in Downpatrick not far from the supposed site of his first church at Saul, County Down. His feast day is 17 March. On 'Reek Sunday', the last Sunday in July, over 25,000 pilgrims visit Croagh Patrick near Westport.
Senan (d. c. 540)
Born in Kilrush in County Clare of rich parents who, legend says, had the religious life suggested to him when the waters of the Shannon estuary parted to allow him to walk across. He was educated at Kilmanagh, near Callan in County Kilkenny. He established a monastery at Enniscorthy, County Wexford, before making a pilgrimage to Rome. On his way home he visited St. David at Menevia. His great foundation was on Scattery Island (Inis Chathaigh) near Kilrush, and its stones since are said to be potent against shipwreck. His feast day is 8 March.
There are several varying accounts as to the identity of Saint Begnet, the Patron Saint of Dalkey, yet the stories surrounding her life imply that she was a remarkable woman.
The name Begnet is most likely a diminutive form of Beg or Bec. The common theme running through these accounts of the life of Begnet is that she was a virgin saint who either lived as an anchorite or was the first abbess of nuns, on a small island off the coast of England. There is no reason to assume that these are conflicting stories, as it was quite common in the Early Christian period to have several variations on the lives of saints.
One of these stories tells of the remarkable achievements of a young Irish girl in establishing a religious order in England.
The Legend of St. Begnet
Begnet was an Irish princess who lived in the seventh century. According to legend, when she was a child, an Angel appeared to her and asked her to devote her life to the service of God. She agreed, and the Angel gave her a bracelet, marked with the symbol of the cross, as a symbol of her vocation.
Begnet grew up to become a beautiful woman and had many suitors. Her parents arranged her marriage to the son of the King of Norway. But still dedicated to the vows she had taken, Begnet had no wish to take a husband. To avoid breaking her vow, she left home, leaving everything but the bracelet given to her by the Angel. She found passage in a small boat and sailed to Northumbria on the west coast of England.
There she was received into the Church by Bishop Aidan and became the first abbess of nuns. Her convent was constantly plundered by pirates, so after several years Begnet moved inland towards Cumberland.
After her death, the bracelet became and object of profound veneration. By the twelfth century, accusers and accused were asked to swear their testimony on the bracelet, in the knowledge that a terrible fate would await anyone who dared to swear a falsehood on this sacred relic:
"Whosoever forswore himself upon her bracelet swiftly incurred the heaviest punishment of perjury - a speedy death"
Begnet's connection with Dalkey is not clear. She gave her name to the two churches in the area and Dalkey town and surrounding areas was for many centuries known as Kilbegnet. Perhaps she came from Dalkey, or perhaps she sailed from there to pioneer her religious order. It may also be possible that the churches were dedicated to her memory by missionaries, spreading the faith after her death.
Saint Begnet's Church
The ivy covered ruins of Saint Begnet's Church stand beside Goat Castle in Dalkey's main street, surrounded by a small graveyard. This granite church, named after the virgin saint of the seventh century, Saint Begnet, dates back to the Early Christian period. It is very likely that the granite church was preceded by a wooden church.
As Dalkey was the main port of Dublin at this time, the congregation of Saint Begnet's included many important visitors. However, towards the end of the sixteenth century, as Ringsend became the main port, the Church in Dalkey went into decline. In 1615 the chancel was reported as being in ruins.
Saint Begnet's served as the Catholic Parish Church up to the beginning of the seventeenth century. It then served as the Church of Ireland church, but the congregation merely consisted of the curate and his family, the only permanent Church of Ireland residents in Dalkey at the time. After the Restoration in 1660 the parish was united with Monkstown and Saint Begnet's fell into disuse. The first recorded headstone is for 1738, although it is thought that Saint Begnet's was used as a burial ground from the thirteenth century onwards. In the absence of documentary evidence as to the use of Saint Begnet's during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, one possible hypothesis is that Catholics, during the Penal Laws, took over this disused Churchyard to bury their dead.
The Church of the Assumption, the present Catholic Church opposite Saint Begnet's was built in 1840. After burials were discontinued in Saint Begnet's, people were buried in Deansgrange and Shanganagh cemeteries.
The architectural features of this church help date it to the Early Christian period. The entrance to the church is through a pointed doorway, which is lintelled internally. Just inside the door is a granite font (stoup), where churchgoers blessed themselves with holy water. Once inside, the church opens up into a nave and chancel. The chancel (a later addition) housed the altar while the nave was where the congregation gathered. The nave and chancel are separated by a rounded chancel arch. The building materials used consist mainly of granite, except for limestone jambs in the chancel.
The presence of stone projections (antae) from the gable end of the church, and the narrow splayed window in the north wall, are relics of the Early Christian Era. Antae were used as support beams in wooden churches. These were incorporated into the later stone church. They have no architectural function, merely replicating the earlier wooden design. The belfry on the western end has openings for two bells. These were struck by hand rather than tolled. On the exterior north wall, above and to the left of the narrow round-headed window, there is a cross-inscribed stone. A smaller cross is situated lower down and to the right. These are both difficult to see depending on the light and time of the day.