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Life of St. Declan of Ardmore (Author: Patrick Power)



If thou hast the right, O Erin, to a champion of battle to aid thee thou hast the head of a hundred thousand, Declan of Ardmore.( Martyrology of Oengus).

Five miles or less to the east of Youghal Harbour, on the southern Irish coast, a short, rocky and rather elevated promontory juts, with a south-easterly trend, into the ocean about 51 deg. 57 min. N/ 7 deg. 43 min. W. Maps and admiralty charts call it Ram Head, but the real name is Ceann-a-Rama and popularly it is often styled Ardmore Head. The material


of this inhospitable coast is a hard metamorphic schist which bids defiance to time and weather. Landwards the shore curves in clay cliffs to the north-east, leaving, between it and the iron headland beyond, a shallow exposed bay wherein many a proud ship has met her doom. Nestling at the north side of the headland and sheltered by the latter from Atlantic storms stands one of the most remarkable groups of ancient ecclesiastical remains in Ireland—all that has survived of St. Declan's holy city of Ardmore. This embraces a beautiful and perfect round tower, a singularly interesting ruined church commonly called the cathedral, the ruins of a second church beside a holy well, a primitive oratory, a couple of ogham inscribed pillar stones, &c., &c.

No Irish saint perhaps has so strong a local hold as Declan or has left so abiding a popular memory. Nevertheless his period is one of the great disputed questions of early Irish history. According to the express testimony of his Life, corroborated by testimony of the Lives of SS. Ailbhe and Ciaran, he preceded St. Patrick in the Irish mission and was a co-temporary of the national apostle. Objection, exception or opposition to the theory of Declan's early period is based less on any inherent improbability in the theory itself than on contradictions and inconsistencies in the Life. Beyond any doubt the Life does actually contradict itself; it makes Declan a cotemporary of Patrick in the fifth century and a cotemporary likewise of St. David a century later. In any attempted solution of the difficulty involved it may be helpful to remember a special motive likely to animate a tribal histrographer, scil.:—the family relationship, if we may so call it, of the two saints; David was bishop of the Deisi colony in Wales as Declan was bishop of their kinsmen of southern Ireland. It was very probably part of the writer's purpose to call attention to the links of kindred which bound the separated Deisi; witness his allusion later to the alleged visit of Declan to his kinsmen of Bregia. Possibly there were several Declans, as there were scores of Colmans, Finians, etc., and hence perhaps the confusion and some of the apparent inconsistencies. There was certainly a second Declan, a disciple of St. Virgilius, to whom the latter committed care of a church in Austria where he died towards close of eighth century.


Again we find mention of a St. Declan who was a foster son of Mogue of Ferns, and so on. It is too much, as Delehaye ( Legendes Hagiographiques) remarks, to expect the populace to distinguish between namesakes. Great men are so rare! Is it likely there should have lived two saints of the same name in the same country!

The latest commentators on the question of St. Declan's period—and they happen to be amongst the most weighty—argue strongly in favour of the pre-Patrician mission (Cfr. Prof. Kuno Meyer, Learning in Ireland in the Fifth Century). Discussing the way in which letters first reached our distant island of the west and the causes which led to the proficiency of sixth-century Ireland in classical learning Zimmer and Meyer contend that the seeds of that literary culture, which flourished in Ireland of the sixth century, had been sown therein in the first and second decades of the preceding century by Gaulish scholars who had fled from their own country owing to invasion of the latter by Goths and other barbarians. The fact that these scholars, who were mostly Christians, sought asylum in Ireland indicates that Christianity had already penetrated thither, or at any rate that it was known and tolerated there. Dr. Meyer answers the objection that if so large and so important an invasion of scholars took place we ought have some reference to the fact in the Irish annals. The annals, he replies, are of local origin and they rarely refer in their oldest parts to national events: moreover they are very meagre in their information about the fifth century. One Irish reference to the Gaulish scholars is, however, adduced in corroboration; it occurs in that well known passage in St. Patrick's Confessio where the saint cries out against certain 'rhetoricians' in Ireland who were hostile to him and pagan,—‘You rhetoricians who do not know the Lord, hear and search Who it was that called me up, fool though I be, from the midst of those who think themselves wise and skilled in the law and mighty orators and powerful in everything.’ Who were these 'rhetorici' that have made this passage so difficult for commentators and have caused so various constructions to be put upon it? It is clear, the professor maintains, that the reference is to pagan rhetors from Gaul whose arrogant presumption, founded on their learning, made them regard with disdain


the comparatively illiterate apostle of the Scots. Everyone is familiar with the classic passage of Tacitus wherein he alludes to the harbours of Ireland as being more familiar to continental mariners than those of Britain. We have references moreover to refugee Christians who fled to Ireland from the persecutions of Diocletian more than a century before St. Patrick's day; in addition it is abundantly evident that many Irishmen—Christians like Celestius the lieutenant of Pelagius, and possibly Pelagius himself, amongst them—had risen to distinction or notoriety abroad before middle of the fifth century.

Possibly the best way to present the question of Declan's age is to put in tabulated form the arguments of the pre-Patrician advocates against the counter contentions of those who claim that Declan's period is later than Patrick's:—

  1. Positive statement of Life, corroborated by Lives of SS. Ciaran and Ailbhe.
  2. Patrick's apparent avoidance of the Principality of Decies.
  3. The peculiar Declan cult and the strong local hold which Declan has maintained.
  1. Contradictions, anachronisms, etc., of Life.
  2. Lack of allusion to Declan in the Lives of St. Patrick.
  3. Prosper's testimony to the mission of Palladius as first bishop to the believing Scots.
  4. Alleged motives for later invention of Pre-Patrician story.

In this matter and at this hour it is hardly worth appealing to the authority of Lanigan and the scholars of the past. Much evidence not available in Lanigan's day is now at the service of scholars. We are to look rather at the reasoning of Colgan, Ussher, and Lanigan than to the mere weight of their names.

Referring in order to our tabulated grounds of argument, pro and con, and taking the pro arguments first, we may (I.) discard as evidence for our purpose the Life of St. Ibar which is very fragmentary and otherwise a rather unsatisfactory document. The Lives of Ailbhe, Ciaran, and Declan are however mutually corroborative and consistent. The Roman visit and the alleged tutelage under Hilarius are probably embellishments; they look like inventions to explain something and they may contain more than a kernel of truth. At any rate they are matters requiring further investigation and elucidation. In this connection it may


be useful to recall that the Life (Latin) of St. Ciaran has been attributed by Colgan to Evinus the disciple and panegyrist of St. Patrick.

Patrick's apparent neglect of the Decies (II.) may have no special significance. At best it is but negative evidence: taken, however, in connection with (I.) and its consectaria it is suggestive. We can hardly help speculating why the apostle—passing as it were by its front door—should have given the go-bye to a region so important as the Munster Decies. Perhaps he sent preachers into it; perhaps there was no special necessity for a formal mission, as the faith had already found entrance. It is a little noteworthy too that we do not find St. Patrick's name surviving in any ecclesiastical connection with the Decies, if we except Patrick's Well, near Clonmel, and this Well is within a mile or so of the territorial frontier. Moreover the southern portion of the present Tipperary County had been ceded by Aengus to the Deisi, only just previous to Patrick's advent, and had hardly yet had sufficient time to become absorbed. The whole story of Declan's alleged relations with Patrick undoubtedly suggests some irregularity in Declan's mission—an irregularity which was capable of rectification through Patrick and which de facto was finally so rectified.

(III.) No one in Eastern Munster requires to be told how strong is the cult of St. Declan throughout Decies and the adjacent territory. It is hardly too much to say that the Declan tradition in Waterford and Cork is a spiritual actuality, extraordinary and unique, even in a land which till recently paid special popular honour to its local saints. In traditional popular regard Declan in the Decies has ever stood first, foremost, and pioneer. Carthage, founder of the tribal see, has held and holds in the imagination of the people only a secondary place. Declan, whencesoever or whenever he came, is regarded as the spiritual father to whom the Deisi owe the gift of faith. How far this tradition and the implied belief in Declan's priority and independent mission are derived from circulation of the Life throughout Munster in the last few centuries it is difficult to gauge, but the tradition seems to have flourished as vigorously in the days of Colgan as it does to-day. Declan's 'pattern' at Ardmore continues to be still the


most noted celebration of its kind in Ireland. A few years ago it was participated in by as many as fourteen thousand people from all parts of Waterford, Cork, and Tipperary. The scenes and ceremonies have been so frequently described that it is not necessary to recount them here—suffice it to say that the devotional practices and, in fact, the whole celebration is of a purely popular character receiving no approbation, and but bare toleration, from church or clergy. Even to the present day Declan's name is borne as their praenomen by hundreds of Waterford men, and, before introduction of the modern practice of christening with foolish foreign names, its use was far more common, as the ancient baptismal registers of Ardmore, Old Parish, and Clashmore attest. On the other hand Declan's name is associated with comparatively few places in the Decies. Of these the best known is Relig Deaglain, a disused graveyard and early church site on the townland of Drumroe, near Cappoquin. There was also an ancient church called Killdeglain, near Stradbally.

Against the theory of the pre-Patrician or citra-Patrician mission we have first the objection, which really has no weight, and which we shall not stop to discuss, that it is impossible for Christianity at that early date to have found its way to this distant island, beyond the boundary of the world. An argument on a different plane is (I.), the undoubtedly contradictory and inconsistent character of the Life. It is easy however to exaggerate the importance of this point. Modern critical methods were undreamed of in the days of our hagiographer, who wrote, moreover, for edification only in a credulous age. Most of the historical documents of the period are in a greater or less degree uncritical but that does not discredit their testimony however much it may confuse their editors. It can be urged moreover that two mutually incompatible genealogies of the saint are given. The genealogy given by MacFirbisigh seems in fact to disagree in almost every possible detail with the genealogy in 23 M. 50 R.I.A. That however is like an argument that Declan never existed. It really suggests and almost postulates the existence of a second Declan whose Acts and those of our Declan have become mutually confused.


(II.) Absence of Declan's name from the Acts of Patrick is a negative argument. It is explicable perhaps by the supposed irregularity of Declan's preaching. Declan was certainly earlier than Mochuda and yet there is no reference to him in the Life of the latter saint. Ailbhe however is referred to in the Tripartite Life of Patrick and the cases of Ailbhe and Declan are a pari; the two saints stand or fall together.

IV.) Motives for invention of the pre-Patrician myth are alleged, scil.:—to rebut certain claims to jurisdiction, tribute or visitation advanced by Armagh in after ages. It is hard to see however how resistance to the claims in question could be better justified on the theory of a pre-Patrician Declan, who admittedly acknowledged Patrick's supremacy, than on the admission of a post-Patrician mission.

That in Declan we have to deal with a very early Christian teacher of the Decies there can be no doubt. If not anterior to Patrick he must have been the latter's cotemporary. Declan however had failed to convert the chieftain of his race and for this—reading between the lines of the Life—we seem to hear Patrick blaming him.

The monuments proper of Declan remaining at Ardmore are (a) his ORATORY near the Cathedral and Round Tower in the graveyard, (b) his STONE on the beach, (c) his WELL on the cliff, and (d) ANOTHER STONE said to have been found in his tomb and preserved at Ardmore for long ages with great reveration. The Life refers moreover to the saint's pastoral staff and his bell but these have disappeared for centuries.

The 'Oratory' is simply a primitive church of the usual sixth century type: it stands 13' 4" x 8' 9" in the clear, and has, or had, the usual high-pitched gables and square-headed west doorway with inclining jambs. Another characteristic feature of the early oratory is seen in the curious antae or prolongation of the side walls. Locally the little building is known as the beannachán, in allusion, most likely, to its high gables or the finials which once, no doubt, in Irish fashion, adorned its roof. Though somewhat later than Declan's time this primitive building is very intimately connected with the Saint. Popularly it is supposed


to be his grave and within it is a hollow space scooped out, wherein it is said his ashes once reposed. It is highly probable that tradition is quite correct as to the saint's grave, over which the little church was erected in the century following Declan's death. The oratory was furnished with a roof of slate by Bishop Mills in 1716.

'St. Declan's Stone' is a glacial boulder of very hard conglomerate which lies on a rocky ledge of beach beneath the village of Ardmore. It measures some 8' 6" x 4' 6" x 4' 0" and reposes upon two slightly jutting points of the underlying metamorphic rock. Wonderful virtues are attributed to St. Declan's Stone, which, on the occasion of the patronal feast, is visited by hundreds of devotees who, to participate in its healing efficacy and beneficence, crawl laboriously on face and hands through the narrow space between the boulder and the underlying rock. Near by, at foot of a new storm-wall, are two similar but somewhat smaller boulders which, like their venerated and more famous neighbour, were all wrenched originally by a glacier from their home in the Comeragh Mountains twenty miles away.

'St. Declan's Well,' beside some remains of a rather large and apparently twelfth century church on the cliff, in the townland of Dysert is diverted into a shallow basin in which pilgrims bathe feet and hands. Set in some comparatively modern masonry over the well are a carved crucifixion and other figures of apparently late mediaeval character. Some malicious interference with this well led, nearly a hundred years since, to much popular indignation and excitement.

The second 'St. Declan's Stone' was a small, cross-inscribed jet-black piece of slate or marble, approximately—2" or 3" x 1 1/2". Formerly it seems to have had a small silver cross inset and was in great demand locally as an amulet for cattle curing. It disappeared however, some fifty years or so since, but very probably it could still be recovered in Dungarvan.

Far the most striking of all the monuments at Ardmore is, of course, the Round Tower which, in an excellent state of preservation, stands with its conical cap of stone nearly a hundred feet high. Two remarkable, if not unique, features of the tower are


the series of sculptured corbels which project between the floors on the inside, and the four projecting belts or zones of masonry which divide the tower into storeys externally. The tower's architectural anomalies are paralleled by its history which is correspondingly unique: it stood a regular siege in 1642, when ordnance was brought to bear on it and it was defended by forty confederates against the English under Lords Dungarvan and Broghil.

A few yards to north of the Round Tower stands 'The Cathedral' illustrating almost every phase of ecclesiastical architecture which flourished in Ireland from St. Patrick to the Reformation—Cyclopean, Celtic-Romanesque, Transitional and Pointed. The chancel arch is possibly the most remarkable and beautiful illustration of the Transitional that we have. An extraordinary feature of the church is the wonderful series of Celtic arcades and panels filled with archaic sculptures in relief which occupy the whole external face of the west gable.

St. Declan's foundation at Ardmore seems (teste Moran's Archdall) to have been one of the Irish religious houses which accepted the reform of Pope Innocent at the Lateran Council and to have transformed itself into a Regular Canonry. It would however be possible to hold, on the evidence, that it degenerated into a mere parochial church. We hear indeed of two or three episcopal successors of the saint, scil.:—Ultan who immediately followed him, Eugene who witnessed a charter to the abbey of Cork in 1174, and Moelettrim O Duibhe-rathre who died in 1303 after he had, according to the annals of Inisfallen, ‘erected and finished the Church’ of Ardmore. The Wars of the Gaedhil and Gall have reference, circa 824 or 825, to plunder by the Northmen of Disert Tipraite which is almost certainly the church of Dysert by the Holy Well at Ardmore. The same fleet, on the same expedition, plundered Dunderrow (near Kinsale), Inisshannon (Bandon River), Lismore, and Kilmolash.

Regarding the age of our Life it is difficult with the data at hand to say anything very definite. While dogmatism however is dangerous indefiniteness is unsatisfying. True, we cannot trace the genealogy of the present version beyond middle of the sixteenth


century, but its references to ancient monuments existing at date of its compilation show it to be many centuries older. Its language proves little or nothing, for, being a popular work, it would be modernised to date by each successive scribe. Colgan was of opinion it was a composition of the eighth century. Ussher and Ware, who had the Life in very ancient codices, also thought it of great antiquity. Papebrach, the Bollandist, on the other hand, considered the Life could not be older than the twelfth century, but this opinion of his seems to have been based on a misapprehension. In the absence of all diocesan colour or allusion one feels constrained to assign the production to some period previous to Rathbreasail. We should not perhaps be far wrong in assigning the first collection of materials to somewhere in the eighth century or in the century succeeding. The very vigorous ecclesiastical revival of the eleventh century, at conclusion of the Danish wars, must have led to some revision of the country's religious literature. The introduction, a century and-a-half later, of the great religious orders most probably led to translation of the Life into Latin and its casting into shape for reading in refectory or choir.

Only three surviving copies of the Irish Life are known to the writer: one in the Royal Library at Brussels, the second in the Royal Irish Academy Collection (M. 23, 50, pp. 109-120), and the third in possession of Professor Hyde. As the second and third enumerated are copies of one imperfect exemplar it has not been thought necessary to collate both with the Brussels MS. which has furnished the text here printed. M. 23, 50 (R.I.A.) has however been so collated and the marginal references initialled B are to that imperfect copy. The latter, by the way, is in the handwriting of John Murphy na Raheenach, and is dated 1740. It has not been thought necessary to give more than the important variants.

The present text is a reproduction of the Brussels MS. plus lengthening of contractions. As regards lengthening in question it is to be noted that the well known contraction for ea or e has been uniformly transliterated e. Otherwise orthography of the MS. has been scrupulously followed—even where inconsistent or incorrect. For the division into paragraphs the editor is not


responsible; he has merely followed the division originated, or adopted, by the scribe. The Life herewith presented was copied in 1629 by Brother Michael O'Clery of the Four Masters' staff from an older MS. of Eochy O'Heffernan's dated 1582. The MS. of O'Heffernan is referred to by our scribe as seinleabhar, but his reference is rather to the contents than to the copy. Apparently O'Clery did more than transcribe; he re-edited, as was his wont, into the literary Irish of his day. A page of the Brussels MS., reproduced in facsimile as a frontispiece to the present volume, will give the student a good idea of O'Clery's script and style.

Occasional notes on Declan in the martyrologies and elsewhere give some further information about our saint. Unfortunately however the alleged facts are not always capable of reconciliation with statements of our Life, and again the existence of a second, otherwise unknown, Declan is suggested. The introduction of rye is attributed to him in the Calendar of Oengus, as introduction of wheat is credited to St. Finan Camm, and introduction of bees to St. Modomnoc,—‘It was the full of his shoe that Declan brought, the full of his shoe likewise Finan, but the full of his bell Modomnoc’ ( Cal. Oeng., April 7th). More puzzling is the note in the same Calendar which makes Declan a foster son of Mogue of Ferns! This entry illustrates the way in which errors originate. A former scribe inadvertently copied in, after Declan's name, portion of the entry immediately following which relates to Colman Hua Liathain. Successive scribes re-copied the error without discovering it and so it became stereotyped.