September 9 – Ciarán of Clonmacnoise

Ciarán of Clonmacnoise (512 –544) was born in Connacht, one of the five ancient kingdoms of Ireland (comprising modern Counties Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, and Sligo). Which isn’t terribly specific, but it’s what we’ve got. As a boy he tended cows and studied with the local deacon (or vice versa) (kidding), then decided to become a monk. His mother forbade him to take a cow with him (every Irish schoolboy in those days had his own cow, I guess?), but when he blessed one of the cows of the herd, it began to follow him. Unfortunately its calf did also, so Ciarán drew a line in the dirt with his staff, and the calf couldn’t cross it. Eventually it gave up and went home.

His first stop was at Clonard, where he became a stellar student under (St.) Finnian. His cow supplied the monastery with all the milk it could use, and gave extra when visitors came. Once, during a time of famine, the monks were down to their last bag of oats, and it was Ciarán’s turn to carry it to the mill. Clearly of a mind with Dr. Johnson, Ciarán prayed, “Oats again? Can’t we have wheat instead?” Sure enough, one bag of oats went into the mill, but four bags’ worth of wheat came out. The brothers said they’d never tasted such good bread, and the loaves even had healing properties.

A fellow student forgot his book one day when the monks were studying the Gospel of St. Matthew. Ciarán lent him his own, so that when the class was tested, he only knew half the material. The students taunted him and called him “Ciarán half-Matthew,” but Finnian said, “Call him instead Ciarán half-Ireland, for he will have half the country, and leave us the other half.”

In time Ciarán left Clonard and dwelt with (St.) Enda at Inishmore. There he had a vision of a great tree that grew from the heart of Ireland and overshadowed the whole isle. Birds carried its fruit to all of Europe. Enda explained that the tree was Ciarán, and his prayers and fasting would be a protection and nourishment for all Ireland.

After this he visited a monastery run by his brothers, who had to ask him to leave because his charity to the poor was impacting their solvency. As he left their house, he met a stag, placed his books on its back, and followed it until it stopped. There, on the shore opposite Hare Island, he founded a monastery, and it became a center of learning and miracles.

Leaving his other brother as abbot, he took eight monks and went to plant the tree from his vision. He selected a site on the bank of the River Shannon and founded the great Clonmacnoise monastery, which stood for a thousand years as a beacon of art, literature, and sanctity for all Ireland, indeed attracting students from England and France as well (kinda like moths). It weathered Vikings and Brits alike, to finally be destroyed under Henry VIII (I spit on his name). A mere seven months after groundbreaking (or completion) of the monastery, however, Ciarán asked to be taken outside and laid on the ground. There, saying, “Oh! The way is steep!” he died.

We end with a story. Back in his cattle-herding days, Ciarán befriended a little fox. Every day it would come out of the woods, and he would stroke it and treat it kindly. Eventually he talked it into carrying his Psalter back and forth to the deacon’s house. (Our saint’s laziness for carrying books was life-long, apparently.) One day the fox was so hungry it began to eat the leather straps on the book. Immediately it was set upon by a pack of hounds and chased all around, finding no rest until it took refuge in Ciarán’s cowl. Thus was the book saved from the fox, and the fox saved from the hounds.