Patron Saint of Atheists?

This is the story of a man who became patron saint of two different places in Ireland – but is also considered the patron saint of atheists.

Wait – what? Atheists have a patron saint? Isn’t that like a complete oxymoron?

I think I’d better get on with the story. When we were in Lismore recently I visited the enormous and architecturally-interesting Catholic church called, (like the Church of Ireland Cathedral down the road) after St Carthage (AKA Mochuda or Mochua). In this church there is an impressive rose window, which I decided to feature on our Facebook page the other day. In doing so, I found I had to decipher the names of the saints, in an ancient script around their haloes. All of them were familiar to me except one – St Otteran. My quest to find out more about him led me to this story.

The Saints of Ireland, from top left, Patrick, Bridget, Declan, Dympna, Mochuda, Attracta, Otteran, Ita. I love that there is an equal number of male and female saints, even if the depiction is not very imaginative

Otteran is also spelled as Odhrán or Oran – I will use Oran for simplicity for the rest of this post. According to some accounts he was born in Britain, but his monastic career was first noted when he was an Abbot in Meath. However, he is revered in Tipperary where he established a monastic settlement and is honoured today as patron saint of the Silvermines Parish. There is a ruined church and a holy well dedicated to him in Latteragh, near Nenagh. See this lovely post about his church and holy well from our friend The Tipperary Antiquarian. He lived there for 40 years, therefore he must have been aged already when he went with St Columba (AKA Columcille) to Iona.

Photo courtesy of The Tipperary Antiquarian

St Columba voluntarily banished himself to Iona in 563 when he lost a judgement over a plagiarism incident. He took 12 disciples with him, Otteran being the oldest and therefore the first to die. 

Columba blesses Derry as he prepares to depart from Iona – from a large stained glass window in St Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry

Columba went to visit him on his sick bed and that night he had a dream of two warring angels – a good angel and a bad angel, fighting over Otteran’s soul. Sure enough, he died the next day, and was the first person to be buried on the island.

St Oran’s Cross, believed to be from the 8th century has recently been restored (story here)

A small church with a wonderful Romanesque doorway is dedicated to him, but more importantly, the graveyard that eventually grew up around it was called Reilig Oran.

This image, and the one below, has been borrowed  with thanks (I hope she doesn’t mind) from a lovely Blog called Flickering Lamps. This post is “Rèilig Odhrain, the ancient cemetery on the edge of the world”

Iona, located as it was on the extreme West coast of Scotland, was in those days a major stop along the marine highway. Irish, British, Scottish and Norse and Danish ships stopped. The Vikings did more than stop by – they sacked the monastery on two occasions, murdering the monks at a site afterwards called Martyr’s Bay.

Sráid nam Marbh is the Street of the Dead. It is a Medieval paved road (very rare) leading from the Bay of Martyrs (the Vikings did it) to the Reilig

As the fame of Columba and his monastic settlement grew, the Island acquired a mystical reputation as a preferred place to be buried. According to tradition, 48 kings are buried there, including MacBeth and Duncan –  kings of France, Scotland, Ireland and Norway.

This image, of grave slabs taken inside for safekeeping, is from the official Historic Environment Scotland page 

The Scots eventually surrendered the island to Magnus, King of Norway in 1098 and the Norse Vikings continued to transport their kings to Iona for burial at Reilig Odhráin from all over their territory.

Image courtesy of A Tribute to Alexander Ritchie 

And their territory was vast, and included several settlements in Ireland – Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick all started off as Viking sea-ports. In Waterford, honouring the burial place of their ancestors, the Vikings chose St Oran as the patron of their city. Thus, an Irish man who had never set foot in Waterford became one of its revered icons. Later, he also become patron of the diocese, along with Carthage of Lismore and of course St Declan of Ardmore. And don’t forget, he was already the Patron Saint of the Silvermines area in Tipperary.

Waterford celebrates its Viking and Norman heritage

But I said he is also the Patron Saint of Atheists – how could that have happened? Well, mainly it’s because there are two different stories about how he died on Iona, and it’s the second one that’s part of true Hebridean lore.

Image courtesy of A Tribute to Alexander Ritchie 

When Columba arrived he set about building a church. But the builders became very frustrated because every morning when they arrived on site what they had built the day before had been knocked down. Columba prayed a mighty prayer and the answer came to him – what was required was a ‘foundation sacrifice’ – that means a human had to be buried alive under the church. According to some accounts, Oran was in fact Columba’s son, and Columba felt, therefore, he would be the most powerful sacrifice. According to others, Oran actually stepped forward and offered himself, in the assurance that this guaranteed his place in heaven.

Image courtesy of St Barnabas Orthodox Mission Kenya

He was buried and the church walls stayed up. However, three days later, while the monks were at prayer in the church, he arose, poked his head up and announced that he had seen what was on the other side. God is not as we imagine him, he said, There is no hell, and, while he was at it, nothing like heaven either. St Columba was horrified and ordered that earth be heaped on him to keep him down. There is even a Hebridean saying Uir, Uir, air suil Odhrain! mun labhair e tuille comhraidh, which translates as Earth, earth on Oran’s eyes, lest he further blab. More succinctly, an old Irish saying, apparently, is to say Throw mud in the mouth of St. Oran, when somebody is uttering uncomfortable truths.

St Columba as a monk (right) along with Patrick and Bridget, from St Mary’s Catholic church in Ballinrobe. Columba is usually shown with a book, since he is so strongly associated with the story of the copied manuscript. This window is by the Harry Clarke Studios

St Oran’s body, according to tradition, is still under the foundations. Or maybe not – another version has it that Columba had him reburied in consecrated ground and that once that was done he troubled them no more with his blabbing of the secrets of the next world. That consecrated ground became St Oran’s Graveyard – this ensuring his immortality in Waterford at least, if not in heaven.

Images from the Kickstarter Page (this one and the final GIF) for the movie The Grave of St Oran by Jim Blatt, based on Neil Gaiman’s poem

It turns out I am far from the only one who finds this tale, and its various nuances fascinating. None other than Neil Gaiman has written a poem, In Reilig Oran.

Neil Gaiman’s poem – a signed print is available here

And now that poem has been made into a stop-motion animation by Jim Batt, called The Grave of St Oran. The kickstarter campaign page will give you an idea what it will be like – and apparently it’s finished but I can find out nothing more about it. So look out for it coming at some point to a screen near you. This GIF is offered as a teaser on their project page (see link above). It depicts St Oran gazing out to sea – perhaps he is contemplating the decision he is about to make.

There are so many layers in this story, so many familiar tropes of mythology, heroic tales and biblical stories, but I don’t believe I have ever heard one quite like this before. Pointing out that none of this story made it into the Life of St Columba by Adamnán, The Blogger Nihil Obstat puts it this way in his post The Silencing of St OranThe moral of this story is the same 15 centuries later. If even the most devoted follower of the faith reveals a revelation not in support of the preached version they are quickly silenced. And saints have their ugly or suspect  actions edited out of their official biographies.

A high status individual is buried in St Oran’s Graveyard

Among the many feelings it’s left me with, though, is a strong desire to visit Iona. Future post!

Ancient Irish Art – Moone High Cross

Wherever we travel in Ireland, we look for the routes which will take us past sites rich in history and archaeology. Finola wrote a while ago about places to visit close to the M8, which links Cork to Dublin. Last week we discovered a real gem, in County Kildare, about 40 kilometres east of the motorway – well worth the diversion.

Just outside the village of Moone is the finest medieval high cross that we have seen in Ireland. It is on the site of Moone Abbey (above right – a sketch from 1784 by antiquarian Austin Cooper), where a church is believed to have been founded by St Palladius, who came to Ireland in 431. It was later dedicated to St Columcille. The abbey ruins date from the 13th century, but the site must have been an important religious foundation long before this as the high crosses (there were once four here) are very much older. Historical sources differ on their age – I have found them variously attributed to the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th centuries! It’s safe to say they are at least 1100 years old.

Early views of the High Cross at Moone: left – an engraving from 1857 and right – a photograph from the Lawrence Collection dating from the 1890s. Both images show the earlier reconstruction, before the centre pillar was discovered and added

The Abbey was ransacked and burned along with the nearby Castle by Cromwellian forces in the 17th century and the high crosses were probably buried at that time. Two sections of the one we can see today were rediscovered in the Abbey grounds in 1835 and re-erected in the Abbey by the Duke Of Leinster. In 1893 a further section was uncovered and added to bring the full height of this cross to 5.3 metres. This is not quite the highest high cross in Ireland – Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice is 5.5 metres – but Moone is visually more impressive because it is so slender, and beautifully decorated.

The west face of the Moone High Cross seen in its present context in the ruined Abbey. The site has been well laid out and presented with the fragments of other carved stones discovered during excavations. A protective roof has also been constructed in a non-intrusive simple style

The carvings on the granite Moone cross are in relatively good condition and all the panels can be clearly seen. They are fine examples of medieval Irish art: stories from the Bible  are mingled with Celtic knotwork and some enigmatic bestiary. The figurative work is simple and stylised – yet somehow very modern in its execution.

Stories told in stone: Adam and Eve, Daniel in the Lion’s Den and the Flight into Egypt. The header image is a wonderful representation of the Loaves and Fishes
The Crucifixion, SS Paul and Anthony breaking bread in the desert and The Fiery Furnace
Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac and the Temptation of St Anthony the Hermit

A six-headed monster? Probably not a Bible story…

The site is very well interpreted by the Heritage Service: there are comprehensive information boards describing every carved panel.

Interpretation boards include full annotation for the panels on the High Cross, together with projected reconstructions of the other findings on the site

Top picture – looking towards the east face of the High Cross; below – the east and west faces of the cross wheel
Left – an interesting conjecture showing that the panels may have been coloured in; right – the friendly Keeper of the Cross!

Be sure to visit this site – and don’t forget to purchase your guide book at Wall’s Mini Mart in the village!

Mary Mary

Roadside Shrine in Donegal

Roadside Shrine in Donegal

St Columcille

St Columcille

On our drives, it has become a game to be the first to spot a shrine and yell out “Grotto!” They are everywhere. While some are standards of Christian iconography (Calvary groupings, crosses) and others venerate local saints, the vast majority are Marian and based on the apparition of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette of Lourdes. In 1954, at the height of Catholic fervour in Ireland, the Vatican declared a Marian Year – a year of special devotion to Mary. Ireland embraced this with great enthusiasm and suddenly the countryside was decorated with statues (like the Pieta on the Sheep’s Head), hills were topped with crosses, and every community sported a Lourdes grotto. Ireland at that time was poverty-stricken so it is particularly striking that when the Irish had nothing – there were few cars, no modern conveniences, little spare money – parishes managed to put together enough to erect devotional shrines.

Holy Well

Holy Well and close up

The best ones, of course, are the  rustic shrines you stumble across on a drive or a walk. Sometimes an ancient holy well will have been ‘Marianised’ by the addition of a small carving or rosary beads, or a summit or mountain gap will have a simple rocky structure to house a statue. Pilgrims or passers-by leave small tokens either as a mark of respect or to support a special intention.

Ballinspittle: The Moving Statue

Ballinspittle: The Moving Statue

There is an elaborate grotto near here in Ballinspittle. In the mid 1980s the country was galvanized by reports that the statue of Mary had been seen to move. Pilgrims flocked to the site, overwhelming the small town of Ballinspittle for a while. The 80’s were very different from the 50’s: many of the older generation believed, and still do, while others had lost that simple devotion that characterised earlier times and the apparition was greeted by many with a scepticism that would have been unknown in the 50’s.

When I was a schoolgirl, we were arrayed in veils for a walk down through the school grounds every day in May to visit the grotto. Hands folded in prayer, we sang

“Oh Mary we crown thee with blossoms today, Queen of the angels and Queen of the May.”

The tradition of choosing a young girl to be May Queen to preside over spring festivals is common to many cultures and probably pre-dates Christianity. In Ireland, as we often see, this tradition has become Christianised. The ubiquity of Marian images here is yet another aspect of the rich fabric of Irish culture.

Ruined medieval church, converted to a grotto