Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Laurence, Archbishop of Dublin, Confessor

[Pictorial Lives of the Saints: Saint Laurence O'Tool, Archbishop of Dublin]Article

A.D. 1180

Laurence was youngest son to Maurice O’Toole, a rich and powerful prince in Leinster, whose ancestors for many ages had been princes of the territories of Hy-Murray, and Hy-Mal, in the vicinity of Dublin. Laurence was but ten years old when his father delivered him up a hostage to Dermod Mac Murchad, king of Leinster. The barbarous king kept the child in a desert place, where he was treated with great inhumanity; till his father being informed that by such usage his son had fallen into a bad state of health, obliged the tyrant to put him into the hands of the pious bishop of Glendaloch, by whom he was carefully instructed in the service of God, and at twelve years of age sent back to his father. Maurice took Laurence with him, and went to thank the good bishop. At the same time he mentioned to that prelate his design of casting lots which of his four sons he should destine to the service of the church. Laurence, who was present, was justly startled at such a mad superstitious project, but glad to find so favourable an overture to his desires, cried out with great earnestness: “There is no need of casting lots. It is my most hearty desire to have for my inheritance no other portion than God in the service of the church.” Hereupon the father, taking him by the hand, offered him to God by delivering him to the bishop, in whose hands he left him, having first recommended him to the patronage of Saint Coëmgen, founder of the great monastery there, and patron of that diocess, which has been since united to the see of Dublin. The good prelate performed excellently the part of an Ananias to his pupil, who, by his fidelity in corresponding with the divine grace, deserved to find the Holy Ghost an interior master in all virtues, especially humility and the spirit of prayer.

Upon the death of the bishop of Glendaloch, who was at the same time abbot of the monastery, Laurence, though but twenty-five years old, was chosen abbot, and only shunned the episcopal dignity by alleging that the canons require in a bishop thirty years of age. The saint governed his numerous community with admirable virtue and prudence, and in a great famine which raged during the first four months of his administration, like another Joseph, was the saviour of his country by his boundless charities. Trials, however, were not wanting for the exercise of his virtue. For certain false brethren whose eyes could not bear the refulgency of his virtue, the regularity of his conduct, and the zeal with which he condemned their disorders, attacked his reputation by slanders, to which he opposed no other arms than silence and patience.

Gregory, the archbishop of Dublin, happening to die about the time that our saint was thirty years of age, he was unanimously chosen to fill that metropolitical see, and was consecrated in 1162, by Gelasius, archbishop of Armagh, and successor of Saint Malachy. In this exalted station he watched over himself and his flock with fear, and with unwearied application to every part of his office, having always before his eyes the account which he was to give to the sovereign pastor of souls. His first care was to reform the manners of his clergy, and to furnish his church with worthy ministers. His exhortations to others were most powerful, because enforced with sweetness and vigour, animated with an apostolic spirit, and strongly impressed by the admirable example of his own life, which every one who had any sparks of piety in his breast, was ashamed to see himself fall so infinitely short of. About the year 1163, he engaged the secular canons of his cathedral of the Holy Trinity, to receive the rule of the regular canons of Arouasia, an abbey which was founded in the diocess of Arras about fourscore years before, with such reputation for sanctity and discipline, that it became the head or mother house of a numerous congregation. Our saint took himself the religious habit, which he always wore under his pontifical attire. He usually ate with the religious in the refectory, observed their hours of silence, and always assisted with them at the midnight office; after which he continued a long time in the church in private prayer before a crucifix, and towards break of day went to the burial-place to pour forth certain prayers for the souls of the faithful departed. He never ate flesh, and fasted all Fridays, on bread and water, and oftentimes without taking any sustenance at all. He wore a rough hair shirt, and used frequent disciplines. Every day he entertained at table thirty poor persons, and often many more, besides great numbers which he maintained in private houses. All found him a father both in their temporal and spiritual necessities; and he was most indefatigable in the sacred functions of his charge, especially in announcing assiduously to his flock the word of life. To watch over, and examine more narrowly into his own heart and conduct, and to repair his interior spirit, he used often to retire for some days into some close solitude. When he was made bishop, King Dermod Mac Murchad preferred to the abbey of Glendaloch, one so notoriously unworthy of that dignity, that he was in a short time expelled, and Thomas, a nephew of the saint, by whom he had been brought up, was canonically elected. By the care of this young, pious, and learned abbot, discipline and piety again flourished in that house. And from that time Saint Laurence frequently made choice of Glendaloch for his retreats; but he usually hid himself in a solitary cave at some distance from the monastery, between a rock and a deep lake, in which Saint Coëmgen had lived. When our saint came out of those retreats he seemed like another Moses coming from conversing with God, full of a heavenly fire and divine light.

Saint Laurence found the greater part of his flock so blinded with the love of the world, and enslaved to their passions, that the zealous pains he took seemed lost upon them. He threatened them with the divine judgments in case they did not speedily and effectually reform their manners by sincere repentance: but, like Noë when he preached to a world drowned in sin, he seemed to them to speak in jest, till they were overtaken on a sudden by those calamities which he had foretold, which served to purify the elect, and, doubtless, brought many who before had been deaf to the saint’s remonstrances, to a sense of their spiritual miseries. Dermod Mac Murchad, king of Leinster, having violated the wife of Tigernan O’Ruarc, (prince of Breffny and occasional administrator of Meath,) Tordelvach O’Connor, then monarch of Ireland, took cognizance of the injury, and obliged the violator to restore that princess to her family, together with her effects. So slight a reparation of a public as well as domestic crime, involved bad consequences. Dermod, growing daring from impunity, became intolerable to his vassals, whom he despoiled by various acts of tyranny, and Roderic, the son and successor of Tordelvach on the throne of Ireland, was put under the necessity of expelling him from his government of Leinster. To gratify his revenge, and regain his former power, Dermod solicited the aid of Henry II, king of England, a very powerful monarch, who scrupled not to permit some of his subjects to join their arms to the tyrant’s. The times were favourable to that attempt, and the adventurers found but a weak resistance from a monarch ill obeyed and from a people divided by internal factions. Dermod’s success in this event was principally due to Richard earl of Pembroke, commonly called Strongbow, who brought with him several noblemen, with the best soldiers among their vassals; and, having landed at Waterford, overran the greater part of Leinster and Ossory. Dermod dying in 1171, the earl of Pembroke being left his heir, claimed the principality of Leinster, (in right of his wife, Eva, who was Dermod’s daughter,) took Dublin sword in hand, and massacred a great number of the inhabitants. In this dreadful disaster the good pastor was employed in relieving the distressed, in imploring for them the compassion of the conquerors, and in inducing the sufferers at least to make a good use of their afflictions. This invasion of Ireland was begun by private noblemen, whose success gave umbrage to the court, and King Henry II commanded Strongbow and his associates to return to England: but they declared they only conquered Ireland in his name. Whereupon, he went thither, and, in 1171, received at Dublin the homage of some of the princes and petty kings, and was acknowledged by them lord and sovereign of Ireland. Some time after this, Saint Laurence was obliged, for the affairs of his church, to go over to England, in order to make application to King Henry II who happened then to be at Canterbury. Saint Laurence repaired thither, and was received by the monks at Christ Church with the honour due to his sanctity, and desired by them to sing high mass next day. That whole night he spent in prayer before the shrine of Saint Thomas, to whose intercession he recommended himself and the business which brought him thither. On the day following, as he was going up to the altar to officiate, a madman who had heard much of his sanctity, out of an extravagant notion of making so holy a man a martyr, and another Saint Thomas, gave him so violent a blow on the head with a staff, as knocked him down. All that were present concluded that he was mortally wounded, and expressed their concern by their tears. But the saint, coming to himself again, called for water, which he blessed with the sign of the cross, and then directed the wound to be washed with it. This was no sooner done but the blood was immediately stanched, and the saint said mass. To this miracle, the author of his life, who was then at Canterbury, was an eye-witness, and assures us that the fracture was to be seen in the saint’s skull after his death. The king ordered the franatic assassin to be hanged; but the holy prelate interceded in his favour, and obtained his pardon.

The third general council of Lateran was held at Rome, in 1179, by Pope Alexander III with three hundred bishops, for the reformation of manners, and the extirpation of heretical errors. Saint Laurence went on from England to Rome, and, with the archbishop of Tuam, five other Irish, and four English bishops, assisted at this council. Our saint laid before his holiness the state of the Irish Church, and begged that effectual remedies might be applied to many disorders which reigned in that country, and care taken for preserving the liberties of that national church. The pope was wonderfully pleased with his wise and zealous proposals, and so satisfied of his virtue and prudence, that he readily made the regulations which the saint desired, and appointed him legate of the holy see in the kingdom of Ireland. As soon as the saint was returned home, he began vigorously to execute his legatine power, by reforming the manners of the clergy, and making wholesome regulations. He found the whole country afflicted with a terrible famine which continued to rage for three years. The saint laid himself under an obligation of feeding every day fifty strangers, and three hundred poor persons of his own diocess, besides many others whom he furnished with clothes, victuals, and the other necessaries of life. Several mothers who were reduced so low as not to be able to keep their own children, laid them at the bishop’s door, or in other places where he would see them, and the saint took care of them all: sometimes he provided for three hundred of them together.

Henry II, king of England, was offended at Roderic, the Irish monarch, and our saint undertook another journey into England to negotiate a reconciliation between them. Henry would not hear of a peace, and immediately after the saint’s arrival, set out for Normandy. Laurence retired to the monastery of Abingdon; and, after staying there three weeks, followed him into France. Henry who had always repulsed him, was at length so much moved by his piety, prudence, and charity, that he granted him every thing he asked, and left the whole negotiation to his discretion. It was only to obtain this, that charity had made the saint desire to remain longer upon earth. Having discharged his commission, he was obliged, by a fever which seized him upon the road, to stop his journey. He took up his quarters in the monastery of regular canons at Eu, upon the confines of Normandy, an abbey depending upon that of Saint Victor’s in Paris. Going into this house he recited that verse of the psalmist: This is my resting-place for ever: in this place will I dwell, because I have chosen it. He made his confession to the abbot, and received the viaticum and extreme-unction from his hands. To one who put him in mind to make a will, he answered with a smile: “Of what do you speak? I thank God I have not a penny left in the world to dispose of.” Indeed, whatever he possessed always became immediately the treasure of the poor. The saint died happily on the 14th of November in 1180, and was buried in the church of the abbey. Theobald, archbishop of Rouen, and three other commissioners, by order of Pope Honorius III. took juridical informations of several miracles wrought at the tomb, through the intercession of the servant of God, and sent an authentic relation to Rome: and Honorius published the bull of his canonization, in 1226, in which he mentions that seven dead persons had been raised by him to life. This archbishop, in 1227, caused his body to be taken up and enshrined, forty-two years after his death. The abbey of our Lady at Eu still possesses the greater part of his relics, though some churches at Paris and elsewhere have been enriched with certain portions.

The saintly deportment, the zeal, the prayers, and the miracles of Saint Laurence were not able to awaken many of those hardened sinners whom he laboured to convert. How few among the Jews, especially among the Pharisees, obeyed the voice of our Redeemer himself! If a pastor’s labours were constantly attended with easy success, he would meet with nothing for the exercise of his patience, by which he is to purchase his own crown, and perfect the sanctification of his soul. No degree of obstinacy, malice, or perverseness, must either disturb or discourage him. The greater the blindness, the more desperate the spiritual wounds of others are, the more tender ought his compassion to be, the greater his patience, and his earnestness in praying and labouring for their recovery and salvation. He is never to despair of any one, so long as the divine mercy still waits for his return. If opportunities of exhorting fail, or if charitable remonstrances only exasperate, so that prudence makes them unseasonable for a time, he ought never to cease earnestly importuning the Father of mercies in their behalf.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Laurence, Archbishop of Dublin, Confessor”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 14 November 2013. Web. 20 September 2018. <>