Virgin Saints and Martyrs – Saint Itha

Saint IthaWhat Bridget was for Leinster, that was Itha or Ita for Munster; and from the way in which her cult spread through Devon and Cornwall, we are led to suspect that there were a good many religious houses and churches in the ancient kingdom of Damnonia that were under her rule, and looked to Killeedy in Limerick as their mother-house.

Saint Itha was a shoot of the royal family of the Nandesi, in the present county of Waterford. Her father’s name was Kennfoelad, and her mother’s was Nect. They were Christians, as appears from the fact of Saint Itha having been baptised in childhood.

She was born about 480, and probably at an early date received the veil “in the Church of God of the clan.”

Unfortunately we have not the life of Saint Itha in a very early form; it comes to us sadly corrupted with late fables foisted in to magnify the miraculous powers of the saint.

She moved to the foot of Mount Luachra, in Hy Conaill, and founded the monastery of Cluain Credhuil, now Killeedy, in a wild and solitary region, backed by the mountains of Mullaghareirk, and on a stream that is a confluent of the Deel, which falls into the Shannon at Askaton.

The chief of the clan or sept of Hy Conaill offered her a considerable tract of land for the support of her establishment, but she refused to receive more than was sufficient for a modest garden.

Let us try to get some idea of what one of these monasteries was like.

In the first place a ditch and a bank were drawn round the space that was to be occupied, and the summit of the bank was further protected by a palisade of stakes with osier wattling. In such places as were stony, and where no earthwork could well be made, in place of a bank, there was a wall.

Within the enclosure were a number of beehive-shaped cells, either of wattle or of stone and turf. Certainly the favourite style of building was with wood; but of course all such wooden structures have perished, whereas some of those of stone have been preserved. There were churches, apparently small, and a refectory, bakehouses, and a brewery and storehouses.

Outside the defensive wall of enclosure lived the retainers of the abbey. Where an abbot or abbess was head of an ecclesiastical tribe, he or she was bound to find land for each household: nine furrows of arable land, nine of bog, nine of grass-land, and as much of forest. As the population increased, a secular or an ecclesiastical chief was obliged to obtain an extension of territory, or would be held to have forfeited his claims as a chief. This led to incessant feud among the Celtic princes; it forced the saints to be continually striving to obtain fresh grants of land and make fresh settlements. When there was no more chance of obtaining land in Ireland, they sent swarms to Britain and to Brittany, to found colonies there, under the jurisdiction of the saint. This explains the way in which the Celtic saints were incessantly moving about. They were forced to do so to extend their lands so as to find farms for their vassals.

A very terrible story is told of the condition of affairs in Ireland in 657. The population of the island had increased to such an extent that the chiefs could not find land enough for the people. Dermot and Blaithmac, the kings, summoned an assembly of clergy and nobles to discuss the situation and consider a remedy. They concluded that the “elders” should put up prayer to the Almighty to send a pestilence, “to reduce the number of the lower class, that the rest might live in comfort.” Saint Fechin of Fore, on being consulted, approved of this extraordinary petition. And the prayer was answered from heaven, but the vengeance of God fell mainly on the nobles and clergy, for the Yellow Plague which ensued, which swept away at least a third of the population, fell with special heaviness on the nobles and clergy, of whom multitudes, including the two kings and Saint Fechin of Fore, were carried off.

Saint Itha does not seem to have coveted land, and she assumed a different position from that taken by Saint Bridget. She was not an independent chieftainess over a sacred tribe, but acted as prophetess to the secular tribe of the Hy Conaill. Just as among the Germans, the warriors had their wise women who attended the tribe, blessed the arms of the warriors, and uttered oracles, so was it among the Celts; and we are assured that the entire sept, or clan, unanimously adopted Saint Itha as their religious directress and, in fact, wise woman. In such cases, when a prophecy came true, when a military undertaking blessed by the Saint proved successful, the usage was, that an award was made in perpetuity to him or to her, a tax imposed that must be paid regularly by the tribe.

Thus there were two ways by which a Celtic saint might subsist – either as an independent chieftain over a sacred tribe, or as the patroness or prophetess of a tribe, not owning much land, but drawing a revenue from the sept or clan.

We have a very curious illustration of this in the life of Saint Findcua, who was the great seer and prophet of Munster. He blessed the arms of the king seven times in as many battles, and was rewarded for each; he received tribute in this wise: “The first calf, and the first lamb, and the first pig,” from every farm for ever. “For every homestead a sack of malt, with a corresponding supply of food yearly.”

Now there is not a trace of Saint Itha having allowed herself on any occasion to degrade herself to blessing and cursing, blessing the arms of the Leinster men and covering their foes with imprecations. She succeeded in inspiring the whole of the people with such reverence, that they were ready to receive what she declared as a message from God, and she used this position for no other object than that of advancing God’s kingdom, stirring up to good works, encouraging peace, and restraining violence. She showed no eagerness for gifts. On one occasion a wealthy man, to whom she had rendered a service, insisted on forcing money on her. She at once withdrew her hand, absolutely refused it, and to show him her determination, washed her hands that, she said, had been defiled by contact with his filthy lucre. God’s gifts were not to be traded with, and profit must not be made out of an office such as that filled by her.

Parents, desirous of having their children brought up to the ecclesiastical state, committed them to her; and thus she became the foster-mother of Saint Pulcherius or Mochoemoc, of Saint Cumine, and Saint Brendan. The latter was committed to her when one year old, and she kept him with her till he was five. Throughout his life Brendan retained not merely the tenderest love for Itha, but such a reverence that he consulted her in all matters of importance.

One day Brendan asked her what three works were, in her opinion, most well-pleasing to God. She replied, “Faith out of a pure heart, sincerity of life, and tender charity.”

“And what,” further asked Brendan, “what are most displeasing to God?”

“A spiteful tongue, a love of what smacks of evil, and avarice,” was her ready reply.

Brendan, as a little fellow, was the pet of the community, and all the sisters loved to have him and dance him in their arms. In the life of Saint Brendan is inserted a snatch from an older Irish ballad concerning him:

“Angels in shape of virgins white
This little babe did tend.
From hand to hand, fair forms of light,
Sweet faces o’er him bend.”

Saint Erc, Bishop of Slane, seems to have been Itha’s principal adviser and friend; and when the five years of Brendan’s fostering were over, Erc took the little boy away to teach him the Psalms and the Gospels. Saint Erc found it rather hard to keep the boy supplied with milk, but a hind with her fawn, so says the legend, was caught, and gave her milk to Brendan.

It may be asked, What was the mode of life of the community of Saint Itha?

Unhappily we do not know so much of that of the religious women as we do of that of the monasteries of men, yet we cannot doubt that the rule of the house for women much resembled that in the others. Here is an account of the order as given in the life of Saint Brioc, an Irishman by race, though born in Cardigan.

“At fixed hours they all assembled in the church to celebrate divine worship. After the office of vespers (6 p.m.) they refreshed their bodies by a common meal. Then, having said compline, they dispersed in silence to their beds. At midnight they rose and assembled to sing devoutly psalms and hymns to the glory of God. Then they returned to their beds. But at cockcrow, at the sound of the bell, they sprang from their couches to sing lauds. From the conclusion of this office to the second hour (8 a.m.) they were engaged in spiritual exercises and prayer. Then they cheerfully betook them to manual labour.”

Happily one of the monastic offices of the early Irish Church has been deciphered from a nearly obliterated leaf of the Irish MS. Book of Mulling: it consisted of the Magnificat. What preceded this is illegible: some verses of a hymn; the reading of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, a hymn of Saint Secundinus, a commemoration of Saint Patrick, a portion of a hymn by Saint Hilary of Poitiers, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s prayer, and a collect.

The work of the day consisted in teaching the young girls their letters, in needlework, tending the cattle – in which each, abbess included, took turn – grinding corn in the handmill, and cultivating the garden.

Numerous visitors arrived to consult Saint Itha, and she most certainly had fixed hours in which to receive them.

One striking instance of the veneration in which she was held is that Saint Coemgen of Glendalough, when dying, sent to entreat her to come to him; he would have no one else minister to him in his last sickness, and he begged her, when he expired to place her hand over his mouth and close it.

One Beoan was a famous artificer; he was a native of Connaught. He went to Itha and passed into her service; but was summoned by his military chief to attend him in one of his raids. He departed most reluctantly. Itha was greatly distressed at losing him. As he did not return after a skirmish, she went to the scene of the encounter, and found him grievously wounded, but still living. Under her fostering care he recovered. According to late legend, his head had been cut off and thrown away. She found his body but not his head, so she called “Beoan! Beoan!” Whereupon the head came flying through the air to her, and she set it on again. So a very simple transaction was magnified into a ridiculous fable.

After leaving her, Saint Brendan went about with Bishop Erc in his waggon, from which the bishop preached to the people. One day when Erc was addressing a crowd, Brendan was in the back of the waggon, looking over the side, clearly not attending to the sermon. Then a small, fair-haired, rosy-faced girl came near, and seeing the little fellow peeping over the side, she tried to scramble up the waggon-wheel to get to Brendan and play with him. But he laid hold of the reins and lashed her with them, so that she was forced to desist, and fell back crying. Erc was much annoyed at Brendan’s conduct, and sent him into the black-hole in punishment.

Some years later, Itha required Brendan to come to her: she was in great trouble, and needed his assistance. He went accordingly, and with many tears she told him that one of her pupils had run away some time before, and had fallen into very bad courses, which had led at last to her being reduced to be a slave-girl in Connaught. Would he go in search of her and bring her back, with assurance that everything would be forgiven and forgotten?

Brendan readily undertook the task, and succeeded in redeeming the girl and restoring her to her spiritual mother.

Now Brendan himself got into trouble. He had gone with a boat one day to an island, taking with him two lads, one quite young. He left one boy in charge of the boat, and advanced up the land with the other. Then this latter said to him, “Master, the tide will rise before we get back, and I am sure my little brother cannot manage the boat alone.”

“Be silent,” retorted Brendan. “Do you suppose that I do not care for him as much as you do yourself?”

After a while the young man returned to the matter. “I am sure,” said he, “it is not safe to leave the boy unassisted. The current runs very strong.”

“Bad luck to you!” said Brendan, flaming up, – he was a peppery man, – “Go yourself, then;” and the youth took him at his word and found the boy struggling with the boat, tide and wind were driving from shore, and he was unable to control the coracle. The elder ran into the water to assist his brother, and a great wave swept him off his feet and he was drowned, but the little boy escaped.

After this Saint Brendan had no peace of mind. He thought himself responsible for the loss of the youth. He had wished him “Bad luck,” and bad luck indeed had fallen to him.

He went at once to his foster-mother, and consulted her.

It is quite possible that the relatives of the drowned youth had taken the matter up, and pursued Brendan in blood-feud. So Itha, after mature consideration, advised Brendan to leave Ireland for a while; and in punishment for his hastiness, and for having caused the death of the youth, she bade him abstain from blood in everything.

So Brendan started. He went to Armorica, and determined to visit Gildas, the historian, who was then at his abbey of Rhuys. Gildas was a sour, ill-tempered man, very hard; and when Brendan arrived, it was just after sundown and the gates of the monastery were closed. He announced who he was – a traveller from Ireland – but Gildas replied that rules must be kept, and it was against his rule to open after set of sun, so Brendan was constrained to spend the night outside the gates.

Thence he went to Dol, but after a while, and a visit to Saint David in Wales, he returned to Ireland, and now Itha told him a marvellous story. There was a rumour that far away to the west beyond the horizon was a wondrous land of beauty. He must not remain in Ireland: let him put to sea, sail after the sun as it set, and discover the mysterious land beyond the Atlantic.

The imagination of Brendan was fired; he set to work to construct three large vessels of wickerwork, and he covered them with skins; each vessel contained thirty men – some were clergy, a good many laymen – and he took a fool with him, because he begged hard to be admitted. Brendan was absent three or five years, it is uncertain which – for apparently the time of his absence in Brittany is included in one of the computations.

Wonderful stories are told of what he saw and did, but no trust can be put in the narrative. On his return he went to Itha to report himself. She received him with great pleasure, but objected that he had not literally obeyed her, for his sails had been made of the skins of beasts, so had been the covering of his boats, and cattle had been slaughtered for the purpose, so that he had not wholly abstained from blood.

But it is doubtful whether this is what she really said. It is probably the legend writer’s explanation for what follows. “Why,” asked Itha, “should you risk these lengthy voyages in such frail vessels as coracles made of basket-work covered with hides? Next time build boats of wood.”

This was a new idea. The Irish, like the Welsh, had hitherto used large coracles, and the only wooden boats they had employed were trunks of trees hollowed out, and these only on lakes.

Brendan at once seized on the suggestion, and constructed ships of wood, which were the first ever built in Ireland, and these were due to the idea of Saint Itha.

Brendan made a second voyage to the land beyond the ocean, and it is possible that he may have actually reached America; but, as already said, nothing trustworthy has come to us of the result of his attempts.

Itha had a brother, Saint Finan, and she was related to Saint Senan of Achadh-coel.

Itha in her old age was attacked by perhaps the most terrible and painful disease to which poor suffering mortality is subject, and it is one to which women fall victims more often than men. She was attacked in her breast, but endured her pains night and day with the utmost patience and trust in God’s mercy. Her nuns were affected to tears at her sufferings, but she had always a smile and cheerful words on her lips to banish their discouragement.

She died at length on January 15th, in the year 569 or 570, and was laid in her church of Cluain Credhuil, which has since borne the name of Killeedy or the Church of Ida.

She must have been known beyond the island of Ireland, for in the Salisbury Martyrology she is entered in strange form as “In Ireland the festival of Saint Dorothea, also called Sith (S. Ith)” on January 15th.

In Cornwall a lofty and bare hill, that commands the Atlantic and the coast, is crowned by a great ruined camp. It had belonged to the British, but was wrested from them and became a stronghold of the Saxons, who held it so as to dominate the entire neighbourhood. This is Hellborough, not far from Camelford. It continued to be a royal castle, the property of the Crown, though it does not seem that any mediaeval castle was built upon it. Now, curiously enough, in the midst of this great camp is a mound of stone or cairn, and on this cairn is a little chapel, at present in ruins, dedicated to the saint whose life has just been given. And on the river Camel, that flows into the Padstow estuary, is a parish that bears the name, though corrupted into Saint Issey. But near Exeter is a parish church that has her as patroness with the name unmutilated, as Saint Ide.

How came these dedications in Cornwall and Devon? Either because Saint Brendan on his way home from Brittany founded the churches in memory of his dear foster-mother, or else because here were colonies of holy women from the mother-house in Limerick.

In or about 656 Cuimin of Connor wrote the “Characteristics of the Irish Saints” in metre, and this is what he says of Itha: –

“My (dear) Itha, much beloved of fosterage,
Firmly rooted in humility, but never base,
Laid not her cheek to the ground,
Ever, ever full of the love of God.”

– text and illustration taken from Virgin Saints and Martyrs, by Sabine Baring-Gould, F Anger, illustrator, published in New York, 1901