Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
Betha Naile (Author: [unknown])



The Life of Naile, like the preceding Life of Mac Creiche, is found only in a single MS., Brussels 4190–4200, ff. 129–142. The preservation of both is due to the untiring industry of ‘the poor friar Michael O'Clery’. And of this, as of the other, it must, I fear, be said, that it is not a favourable specimen of Irish hagiology, whether considered from the literary, historical, or spiritual point of view. In style it combines poverty with turgidity. As to the former point the mechanical repetition of certain phrases may be noted. The author's usual way of beginning a prose paragraph is cid tra acht=so then, however. This occurs no less than fifteen times, [sect ][sect ] 5, 6, 11–13, 16, 17, 28–30, 41, 60 (bis), 62 (bis). Another favourite phrase is gan conntabairt, or its equivalent gan amarus=without doubt, unquestionably, [sect ][sect ] 6 (bis), 13, 23, 35; while in [sect ] 29 all three phrases occur in the same sentence.

In the poems, the ‘chevilles’ which the intricacy of the laws of Irish versification rendered almost a necessity, are unusually wooden and tasteless; while the poverty of the poet's invention is proved by the repetition of the same line, in whole or in part, within the compass of a single section, [sect ][sect ] 4, 20, 48, 49.

The turgidity is shown by the way in which, as in much degenerate Irish Prose1 epithets are piled one upon another, for no reason except that they all begin with the same letter. Thus, to take a single example, adjectives compounded with the word buan, ‘lasting’, occur twelve times, [sect ][sect ] 17, 18, 19, 24, 32–3,34 (ter), 38, 41–2; not because the epithet ‘lasting’ is appropriate (it may be, or it may not), but merely that it may alliterate with some substantive beginning with ‘b’. Often indeed the epithets thus heaped up are ludicrously inappropriate to the context. Thus in [sect ] 23 where the saint embarks on a cursing match with a rival saint who had offended him, his words are described as nem-goirt, ‘not bitter’ because that word alliterates with ‘Naile’, while his opponent is made to address him as diada, dercach, deg-bertach, ‘pious, charitable,


of good behaviour,’ epithets which, in this connexion, have the sole merit of beginning with the same letter. The same thing may be noted in [sect ] 61, the third epithet there being daennachtach ‘humane’. This irritable and maledictory character of the saint is one of the unedifying points in his biography. Another is the way in which enormous privileges and tributes are claimed, and the most awful punishments, temporal and eternal, are threatened for the slightest infringement of them, [sect ][sect ] 27, 36, 39, 40, 47, 50, 53–59. These however are defects which it shares with other compositions of the same class, ( Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, pp. 113, 135, 173).

The value of the historical framework of the Life may be judged from the following facts. Naile is made the son of Aengus son of Nadfraech, king of Munster, who died in 490 or 491, while Luan, whose baptism by Naile is made the ground of the enormous grants alleged to have been made to the saint, is made sixth in descent from Cairbre Damairgit, [sect ] 31, who died in 513. Making the usual allowance of thirty years to a generation this would make Luan's date somewhere in the neighbourhood of 690. After this it is a small matter that he is made a contemporary of Columba, d. 597,2 and successor for nine years3 of Molaisse of Devenish who died in 564 or 571, and that he continued his predecessor's alliance with Maedoc, d. 626.

But if the alleged connexion with Maedoc is chronologically dubious, from the literary point of view it is of some interest. For the Maedoc of this Life is not the purely southern saint, the founder of Ferns, as in the ordinary Lives of Maedoc, both Latin and Irish; he is the northern saint, the patron of Breifne, [sect ][sect ] 24, 54, 55. Now this view is only found in the second Irish Life of Maedoc, printed in Bethada Náem nÉrenn 1, 190–290, in which it is conflated with the southern sources, ib., pp. 33–37. The dependence of our Life on Maedoc II seems therefore clear. But the matter is clinched when we notice that six stanzas in one of the poems in our Life, [sect ][sect ] 58, 59, are borrowed bodily from a poem in Maedoc II, [sect ][sect ] 272–3, with only such slight changes as were necessary to fit them into their new context. Our Life is therefore later than Maedoc II. On the other hand, as pointed out in the notes, it is one of the sources of Manus O'Donnell's Life of St. Columba, compiled early in the sixteenth century, to which it has supplied two incidents.4 Naile, like the two saints with whom he is associated in this volume, is not mentioned in any of the chronicles, but, like them,


he has left his mark on local traditions.5 And if his position in time is problematical, his local associations are clear. With the exception of the preliminary settlement at Inver, the whole scene is laid in the district of Lough Erne, and all the saints associated with Naile come from the same region (see especially [sect ] 29).

The story of his birth is inserted by the O'Clerys from this Life in the Martyrology of Donegal at Jan. 27th, the day of his festival. The Life is obviously incomplete, and Michael O'Clery in his colophon speaks of it as a fragment. He also complains that the MS. from which he copied it was ‘unclear’, and it is evident that in one or two places he could not read his exemplar. This belonged to Niall Meirgech Mac Sweeny Banagh, who is probably the Niall whose slaying on Derryness, off the Coast of Donegal, is mentioned by the Four Masters under 1588. Colgan at Jan. 27th gives some notes on Naile, but makes little use of this Life which he speaks of as ‘quaedam mutila et apocrypha’.

In editing this Life I have once more had the assistance of the accurate scholarship and wide reading of Miss Maud Joynt, who has made many useful suggestions and corrections by which I have profited largely.

Piae memoriae Iohannis Colgani eivsqve sociorum ex Ordine Sancti Francisci imprimis Michaelis O'Clery qvi inter persecvtionis procellas inter bella tam civilia qvam externa in exsilio et egestate monvmentis patriae lingvae et Historiae servandis constantem operam navavervnt hos meos qvalescvmqve labores D. D. D.