Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Lawrence O’Toole, Archbishop of Dublin

detail of a stained glass window depicting Saint Lawrence O'Toole; by Lucien-Leopod Lobin, latter 19th century; 6th window in the ambulatory, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sligo, County Sligo, Ireland; photographed on 14 September 2013 by Andreas F. Borchert; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Died A.D. 1180.

Saint Lawrence was the youngest son of Maurice O’Toole, a rich and powerful prince of Hy-Murray, in Leinster, Ireland. He was but ten years of age when his father delivered him as a hostage to Dermot, King of Leinster. The cruel king treated the boy with great inhumanity.

O’Toole, however, being informed of the ill-treatment and poor health of his son, obliged Dermot to place him in charge of the Bishop of Glendalough. The good prelate carefully grounded him in the principles of religion, and, at twelve years of age, the little Saint was sent back to his father.

Soon afterwards Prince O’Toole and his sons visited Glendalough. He told the bishop that it was his intention to devote one of his sons to the Church, and proposed casting lots in order to find out which. The young Lawrence was startled at such a foolish thought, and more than glad to find so favorable an opportunity for the accomplishment of his desires.

“There is no need to cast lots,” he exclaimed. “It is the wish of my heart to have no other portion than God in the service of the Church.”

On hearing this his father placed him once more under the care of the venerable bishop, who rejoiced in having charge of one so young, and noble, and promising.

The soul of Lawrence expanded in the holy cloistered shades and amid the romantic beauties of Glendalough. His mind was stored with knowledge, and he grew in age, and grace, and wisdom.

At the age of twenty-five he was chosen Abbot of the monastery of Glendalough. The Saint governed his large community with rare virtue and prudence. When a great famine desolated the country, his charity was boundless. Nor did he cease to aid the poor and the unhappy when the resources of the abbey were exhausted. He even distributed a treasure which his father, Prince O’Toole, had left with him as a deposit.

But other trials were not wanting to test his goodness. Some false monks, whose eyes could not bear the brightness of his virtue, the holiness of his conduct, and the manly zeal with which he opposed their disorders, slandered his reputation. The young Abbot remembered that Christ had His calumniators, and that the disciple is not better than his Master. He looked up to Heaven, and fought his enemies with silence and patience.

On the death of Gregory, first Archbishop of Dublin, our Saint was unanimously chosen his successor. He was then about thirty years of age; and, much against his own wishes he was consecrated in 1162 by Gelasius, Archbishop of Armagh.

In this exalted position he carefully watched over himself and the large flock committed to his charge. He was an unwearied toiler in winning souls to Christ. Before all shone the light of his example. His words were powerful, because they were enforced by sweetness and lofty virtue.

The Saint’s spirit of prayer and penance was admirable. He always assisted at the midnight office with the Regular Canons of his cathedral; and often when the world was buried in slumber he might be seen for hours whispering aspirations to heaven before some lonely crucifix.

He never ate flesh-meat. He fasted on all Fridays. He wore a rough hair-shirt, and often used the discipline. Every day he entertained thirty poor persons at table; and countless others partook of his charity at home. In him all found a tender father ever ready to aid them in their temporal and spiritual necessities.

For the renewal of his interior spirit, this great Irish Archbishop made frequent retreats at Glendalough – that holy and picturesque spot in which he had first learned the beauty of the narrow way that leads to heaven. On such occasions he usually retired to a famous cave at some distance from the monastery. This wild abode overhung the south side of the lake. It was hewn out of a solid rock three hundred feet above the water. Six hundred years before the days of Saint Lawrence it had listened to the sighs and prayers of Saint Kevin, the religious founder of Glendalough.

But the quiet, holy career of Lawrence was about to be disturbed by an unhappy event that fills many a dark page in history. The land was rent by discord. A band of English freebooters invaded Ireland. The tocsin of strife sounded louder than ever, and the rage of contending hosts marked the beginning of a long, gloomy period of appalling misfortunes for the “Isle of Saints and Sages.” Our own age has not seen its termination!

When Dublin was besieged by the faithless Dermot and his English allies, the city soon felt its weakness, and Saint Lawrence O’Toole was sent at the head of a deputation to make terms with the enemy. But while the venerable Archbishop was engaged in negotiations with the leaders at their headquarters, a number of treacherous officers were secretly examining the city walls. A weak point was discovered. One thousand picked soldiers entered with fury, sword in hand; and no pen can picture the scenes of carnage that followed. Old and young were butchered without mercy, and crimes the most revolting were committed.

The Saint did everything that man could do to save his unhappy people. Fearless of danger, he passed from quarter to quarter; but, alas! often the most he could achieve was to procure a decent burial for the slain.

About seven months after this dreadful disaster, the death of Dermot, and other favorable circumstances, induced the noble-hearted Archbishop – who was none the less a patriot because he was a Saint – to urge a grand union of the Irish princes for the utter extermination of the fierce and lawless invaders. With this object he flew from province to province. He implored them to forget their foolish animosities and combine against the foreign foe. But in vain were the pleadings of sanctity and eloquent patriotism A few years passed, and history records that Roderick O’Connor, the last king of Ireland, signed a treaty with Henry II by which he promised to hold his title from the English monarch. The Saint himself was one of the witnesses to this document, which bears the date of 1175.

In the same year Lawrence was obliged to go over to England, to see Henry II in relation to some affair relating to his diocese. He was nearly killed while at Canterbury. As he was ascending the steps of the cathedral altar to say Mass, a sacrilegious ruffian conceived the scheme of making the Saint another Saint Thomas; and, rushing at him, he struck him on the head with a heavy club. The Archbishop fell to the floor. The people were horror-struck, and thought he was murdered. But he soon recovered and called for water, which he blessed. No sooner was the ghastly wound washed with the holy water than the blood ceased flowing, and the Saint celebrated Mass.

In 1179 the Third General Council of Lateran was held at Rome. Saint Lawrence and six Irish bishops assisted at that august assembly. Pope Alexander III. greatly admired the wisdom and learning of the Archbishop of Dublin, and appointed him Legate of the Holy See in Ireland.

Meanwhile a misunderstanding had arisen between Roderick O’Connor and Henry II. Between the bickering rulers, Saint Lawrence undertook to negotiate, and with that object he made another journey to England. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” says Christ. But the English monarch would not hear of peace, and immediately after the Saint’s arrival, he sailed for Normandy. Lawrence followed the rude, ill-tempered king into France. In a second interview his charity and prudence triumphed over Henry’s wild passion and brutal selfishness. He granted everything, and left the whole negotiations to the discretion of the great Archbishop.

But the earthly pilgrimage of the Saint was drawing to its termination. On the way home he was seized by a fever. He retired to the monastery of Eu, on the borders of Normandy. “This is my resting-place,” he said as he reached the entrance. He prepared for death and received the last Sacraments.

When the abbot suggested that he should make a will, Lawrence answered with a smile: “Of what do you speak? I thank God I have not a penny left in the world.”

A little before the light of this world faded from his eyes, the thought of dear, unhappy Ireland made him exclaim: “O foolish and senseless people! what are you now to do? Who will cure your misfortunes? Who will heal you?” He died on the 14th of November, 1180, and was canonized in 1226. Saint Lawrence O’Toole is the last canonized saint of Ireland.

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Lawrence O’Toole, Archbishop of Dublin”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 September 2018. Web. 13 November 2018. <>