05 March 2013

With the Saints in Lent (21), Saint Kieran of Seirkeiran, 5 March

Saint Kieran’s throne in Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Kieran, who is said to have been an early pre-Patrician saint, is commemorated today [5 March] in the Calendar of the Church of Ireland in the Book of Common Prayer (see p. 22). He is one of the earliest of the Irish saints, and is sometimes called Saint Ciarán the Elder to distinguish him from Saint Ciarán of Clonmacnoise.

Saint Kiwran or Ciarán of Saigir or Seir Kieran is known as one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland and is considered the first saint to have been born in Ireland. Like Saint Ailbe of Emly, Saint Declan of Ardmore and Saint Abbán, Saint Kieran is said to have been a pre-Patrician saint. However, his biography is full of obscurities and ambiguities.

Although legend says he preceded Saint Patrick, this is questionable. Some legends say he was born on Cape Clear Island, off the coast of Cork, ca 375, other accounts say he was born ca 501 to ca 530.

The martyrologies, including the Félire Óengusso and medieval Irish genealogies identify Kieran’s father as Lugna or Laighne, a nobleman of the Osraige or Ossory, and his mother as Liadán, of the Corcu Loígde in Co Cork He is said to have been born on Cape Clear Island off the south-west coast of Co Cork and it is said that he later built a church on the island.

Various mediaeval traditions about the saint are recorded in hagiographic works: two Lives in Latin, both of uncertain date, and two Lives in Irish. The shortest Latin Life is preserved in the Codex Salmanticensis; the longer one is found in the Codex Kilkenniensis.

It is often said he left Ireland when he was 30, before the arrival of Saint Patrick. He was educated in Tours and Rome. Some legends say that he became a bishop in Rome, others that met Saint Patrick there and pledged him his allegiance.

On his return to Ireland, Saint Kieran met Saint Patrick once again and became an assistant to him. Other accounts say he was one of the twelve men that Saint Patrick consecrated as his helpers.

Saint Patrick gave him a bell and told Bishop Kieran to build a monastery wherever the bell rang. He went on to say that the bell would ring near a river or stream in the middle of the island. When the bell rang, he stopped and built a little cell in the woods of Upper Ossory and settled as a hermit at Seirkieran near the Slieve Bloom Mountains.

A tradition in all four Lives describes Saint Kieran as a wild man wearing skins, whose first pupils were the animals in the forest. But he soon attracted disciples and a large monastery grew up round his cell. The saint’s mother, Liadain, is said to have gone with a group of women to Seirkieran, where they devoted their lives to the service of God.

Seirkieran became a centre for preaching and he became the Bishop of Ossory. Popular legends attribute remarkable miracles to Saint Kieran, many of them associated with battles. Other legends are charming tales of his influence on wild animals, such as a fox, a badger and a wolf who worked with Saint Kieran and his monks to cut wood and build huts.

Saint Kieran is said to have died from natural causes at the age of 90. But the date of his death is uncertain, and is put variously as early as 465 and as late as ca 530, and his feast day is celebrated on 5 March. Saint Kieran’s monastery became the burial place of the Kings of Ossory.

Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, at night ... Kilkenny has been the centre of the Diocese of Ossory since the end of the 12th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The boundaries of the Diocese of Ossory were fixed at the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111, and the seat of the diocese was transferred from Seir-Kieran to Aghaboe.

At the end of the 12th century, the seat of the diocese was moved again, this time to Kilkenny, where Saint Canice had founded an earlier monastery. Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, which was built at the beginning of the 13th century, remains in the diocesan cathedral of Ossory.

The Bishops of Ossory are traditionally enthroned separately in both the cathedral throne and Saint Kieran’s Throne.

Saint Kieran’s Day is celebrated each year on 5 March in Seirkieran, which is now part of Clonenagh Union of Parishes (Mountrath), where Canon Ian Poulton is rector. Saint Kieran is the patron saint of the Diocese of Ossory, and is also identified with Saint Piran who is venerated in Cornwall, Wales, and Brittany.

Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, is also named after the founder of the Diocese of Ossory.

Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Tomorrow (6 March): Baldred of Scotland, Bishop of Glasgow.


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