West Limerick History

Saint Ita's Associations With Other Irish Saints

Slieve Mish Mountains from Maherabeg, Castlegregory, Co. Kerry, Éire

St. Ita’s work in Killeedy brought her into the lives of several young people who later became saints in their own right. Here then is a varied collection of stories about these young men who were to have so much influence because of their piety.

St. Finbar

During St. Ita’s stay in Crossbarry, a baby boy was born to a devout Christian family not far from the beautiful valley of Gougane Barra. Her being a friend of the family enjoyed the privilege of being invited to the baptism of the child, which was performed by a priest named MacCorp and who was later ordained as a bishop. The child was given the name Finbar and grew up in a very influential family.

On reaching the age of twelve he and his parents decided that he should seek to be educated at the monastery in Killeedy. On arrival, he got a great welcome from Ita and all the students he was to befriend for the next six years. Excelling in his education, he decided to visit his parents but saw a blaze as he approached his home. His family were being attacked by a Druidish gang and Finbar tried hard to save his parents, but his efforts proved futile. Realising that he was in danger, some family friends took him away to Cork for his safety. He then remained there for some time to recover from his ordeal before returning to Killeedy to continue his studies.

Then, he moved to Gowran in Co. Kilkenny, another very established seat of education. Once there, he was joined by his old friend Pulcherius and, in time, ordained to the priesthood. Afterwards, he returned to his native Cork and the beautiful, peaceful and tranquil valley of Gougane Barra. With the help of fellow monks and local Christian supporters, he built a circular hermitage whose ruins remain to be seen by the many visitors to the place to this day, a testament to the skill used in building the walls from stone and mortar.

Inside the walls, there are several cloisters containing a long stone slab that served as an altar where the monks offered Mass. Finbar spent many years at this hermitage until he got a divine message in a vision to follow the stream flowing out from the lakes until it met the sea as a big river. That was where he was to set up a large educational centre and his influence spread rapidly throughout the area. From these beginnings, further schools and monasteries were built that gave rise to the foundations of Cork city as we know it today.

Finbar took time off to visit Rome where he received his episcopal elevation from Pope Gregory the Great. He returned to Cork to be consecrated Bishop by Bishop MacCorp, who had baptised him. Some years later, Bishop MacCorp passed away to the intense grief of Finbar who had lost a sincere and valued advisor. Finbar then relied on another old friend named Olan of Aghabulloge.

Advancing years began to catch up with Finbar, and he retired for a rest to his old friend, Coleman of Cloyne. During this visit, he became seriously ill. When the news of his illness spread, large crowds travelled to Cloyne seeking his prayers and blessing by kneeling by his bedside. St. Coleman remained with him in prayer until he drew his last breath on September 25th, 620. His remains were reposing in a silver shrine for two weeks and were visited by many wishing to say their final farewell and express their gratitude for the service for which he gained ecclesiastical acclaim.

St. Pulcherius

Another child who was fostered by Ita at her monastery was St. Pulcherius. Nessa had come to live and work with Ita at Killeedy and, at that time, a young chieftain named Boen became the victim of recurring battles in Connaught and was forced to leave his territory for safety. Having heard of the monastery at Killeedy, he arrived there and the people at the monastery soon found him a home nearby.

It soon became clear that he was a skilled craftsman with wood and stone. Then, Ita’s youngest sister Nessa and the young chief became acquainted and, with Ita’s approval, they were married. In time, a baby boy was born to them who was given the name Kevin at baptism, which was changed later to Pulcherius. In his infancy, he received loving care from his mother, Ita, Eannaigh (another of Ita’s sisters) and all the nuns. He grew up under the influence of the monastic tradition, being trained and educated in every virtue until the age of twenty-one.

He then left Killeedy for a famous college in Bangor under the guidance of St. Comgal. Pulcherius distinguished himself so greatly by his learning and piety that Comgal encouraged him to found a monastery in Munster or wherever the Lord might lead him. He then approached a Christian chieftain named Ely O’ Carroll who offered him a site for his monastery. He chose an isolated spot in a wooded district about four miles from Thurles where the ruins of his monastery still are to be seen. When that chief died, he was replaced by a very hostile aggressive chief who wanted Pulcherius expelled from the district but divine providence and prayer prevailed. By the time he died on the 13th of March 648, Pulcherius had built up a large community of monks in that place.

St. Brendan the Voyager

The monastery of Killeedy became known as a centre of learning and holiness through Ireland. Eannaigh was highly regarded in north Kerry for her caring for the sick and dying. In the year 484, there lived a noble and very strong Christian family some distance west of Tralee at the foot of Brandon Mountain. This family lived under the guidance of a very God-fearing Bishop named Erc.

When a baby boy was born to the family, it was baptised by Bishop Erc. It was the custom at that time that when a son was born to a distinguished Christian family, he would be handed over for fostering to a monastic institution. Bishop Erc advised the parents of this child that he had arranged with Abbess Ita to foster their little boy when they wished to hand him over. At a very young age, they brought the boy on horseback to the monastery in Killeedy. Handing over the child to Abbess Ita, the Bishop remarked “This is a very special child and God has important plans for him”. She welcomed the child with open arms and gave him loving care as he developed into boyhood. At the age of five, Bishop Erc took him back to Tralee to develop his knowledge and sanctity. From there he went to Tuam to study under St. Jarlath before moving to Roscommon to complete his studies for the priesthood and return to Tralee to be ordained by Bishop Erc.

After his ordination, he returned to Killeedy where he spent some time ministering in the monastery. In the meantime, a cell was being built for him in an isolated spot near the sea. Living on this spot enhanced his lifelong ambition to explore what might lie on the other side of the great Atlantic. With the help of fellow monks, a boat was constructed using cattle hides. One morning dawned and Brendan, with his crew, rowed out into the Atlantic Ocean. History does not tell us the actual point of the launch but, because of his association with Tralee, it is presumed they set out from Fenit in Tralee Bay. They rowed in turns day and night for weeks and months before meeting an island for rest. Their only navigation guide was Brendan and his knowledge of the stars.

Legend tells us that, after seven years sailing from island to island, they had failed to find that promised land. Then, they turned for home and arrived on Erin’s green shores again at one of the Aran Islands. Brendan’s first port of call was to see his foster mother at Killeedy where he stayed and rested for a long time. He continued to entertain Abbess Ita and her nuns and students with stories relating to the insights and experiences that he had encountered on his voyage.

One day they had been rowing for days without seeing an island, then out-of-the-blue one of the monks shouted “I see a rock!” and all the crew agreed “It is a rock”. They rowed towards what they thought was a large rock, moored the boat and climbed onto it to have a meal of fish and rest. After a while, they felt movement and got back quickly into the boat. The rock began to disappear. It was then that they realised that the rock was a very large whale asleep on the surface of the sea.

Brendan and Abbess Ita had long discussions about his determination to find that promised land beyond the great Atlantic. She told him all she had learned about boat building from an old skilled boat builder on a boat strand in Waterford. When he returned to Tralee, Brendan he brought all his monks and local craftsmen together. They started making a much larger and stronger boat of seasoned timber, and it took over twelve months to complete.

By that time, Brendan and his crew again were well motivated to challenge the Atlantic once more with their new boat. Soon they were rowing through high waves and rough seas in search of that promised land. They met an island where they rested and refreshed themselves for the next stage. Brendan felt much more confident about this venture. Then one morning at daybreak, they saw a vast tract of land before them. They moored their boat and started exploring. This was the promised land Brendan had so often dreamed about; it was America. They were fascinated with the wonders of this new world and continued for a long time exploring it. One night, Brendan was told in a dream that the Lord wanted him back to continue his work in Ireland. Soon, they were rowing back home again with all on board so pleased at having achieved their objective.

On his arrival in his homeland, Brendan wrote his memoirs, which earned him the title Brendan the Voyager to distinguish him from Brendan of Birr. His next engagement was to travel visiting schools in Britain and religious centres through continental Europe. Feeling his energy declining, he returned to Killeedy for a rest. From there he went on a teaching mission to Rosscarberry in West Cork for two years. Feeling the advancing years telling their tale, he returned to the monastery of Clonfert on the western banks of the Shannon. He was on a visit to his sister’s convent at Annaghdown when he passed away at the age of ninety-four. It was on the grounds of Clonfert monastery where he was laid to rest.

St. Cummian

The Old Testament story of how Moses was abandoned as a baby and was found floating in a basket is well known throughout the Christian and Jewish world. A similar event took place within the monastery grounds at Killeedy. One sunny afternoon, one of the nuns was taking a leisure walk along the stream that flowed near the convent when she heard a strange noise. At first, she thought it was the chirping of a bird. Then it sounded more familiar, she moved nearer to the stream and saw an object floating in the water. With the aid of the branch of a tree, she manoeuvred the object closer to her to find it was a neatly woven basket with a beautiful baby boy wrapped comfortably in very expensive clothing. She took up the baby gently in her arms and took it to Mother Abbess with wondering from where the child had come. However, she treated him as a child of God, took him into her care and accepted him as another foster child.

The community, assuming that the parents were unmarried, decided to find a name for him. Eventually, they all agreed that Cummian, meaning the child found in a basket, would make an appropriate name for him. The Abbess and community cared for him lovingly always expecting his mother to come to claim him. One very fine day his foster mother was sitting with him out on the lawn when she saw a strange woman approaching in the distance.

She introduced herself as having come to speak about the child. She explained in a very nervous tone that a young girl aged sixteen was the mother of the baby and that her name was Flann, the daughter of the Chieftain of Lough Lein. The woman continued hesitantly to tell how Prince Fiachra was visiting the chieftain who asked his daughter to take the Prince on a sightseeing tour of the mountains and lakes. They set out on horseback and, on their journey, the sky thundered and opened with a downpour of rain that caused the two to take shelter in a cave on the side of a mountain. The woman explained how the prince took advantage of the innocence of the girl and made her fall pregnant.

The girl was both afraid and ashamed to tell her family about her ordeal and relied on this woman for advice and guidance. About a month before the baby was due to be born, the woman asked if she could take the girl up to a shelter that the chief owned on the side of the mountain as her health needed a boost from the mountain air. The chief agreed. Both lived comfortably at the shelter with the woman providing the food and all living requirements until the day came for the baby to be delivered. The woman explained that she delivered a lovely little boy without any problem.

Knowing that the monastery at Killeedy fostered babies over the years, the plan was that the woman would take the child in secret and leave it in an exposed place at the monastery where it would be found and cared for. The Abbess, having listened carefully to her story, admired the woman for her honesty and assured her that the child would be treated with loving care and that his future would be well provided for. The woman felt a load of worry and guilt had lifted from her mind which was replaced by a feeling of relief and happiness.

Having taken a good meal at the monastery she set out on her long journey to her home on the banks of Lough Lein. Cummian, the baby found in a basket amid the bulrushes on the bank of a stream, became a cherished child by the Abbess and her sisters Eannaigh and Nessa, He grew up under the influence of a community whose ethos of dignity and religious fidelity to the teaching of the Church was paramount.

It must be mentioned here that weaving was a common practice in those days. Saplings were grown from willow or sally roots and were dried and left to season before being woven tightly into baskets and boats. To make them waterproof the woven object was lined inside with clay that was hardened by a slow form of baking. Cummian, having completed his education in Killeedy, moved to Finbar’s school in Cork for two years. To complete his studies for the priesthood, he attended and excelled at all the leading colleges in the country. Having been ordained he joined the monastery at Clonfert where he was ordained as Bishop. After a life dedicated to his vocation to bringing the word of God to his people, Bishop Cummian died in Clonfert on Nov 12th 621.