St. Kieran of Saigir
For the 6th-century abbot of Clonmacnoise, see Ciarán of Clonmacnoise. Ciarán of Saigir (5th century – c. 530), also known as Ciarán mac Luaigne or Saint Kieran (Welsh: Cieran), was one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland and is considered the first saint to have been born in Ireland, although the legend that he preceded Saint Patrick is questionable. Ciarán was bishop of Saighir (Seir-Kieran) and remains the patron saint of its successor, the diocese of Ossory. He is identified with the Saint Piran who is venerated in Cornwall, Wales, and Brittany. His feast day is celebrated on 5 March. He is sometimes called Saint Ciarán the Elder (Latin: Kyaranus or Ciaranus Maior) to distinguish him from the other 6th-century Irish Saint Ciarán, who was abbot of Clonmacnoise
Various medieval traditions about the saint are recorded in a number of 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, while the longer one is found in the Codex Kilkenniensis. The latter was rendered into Irish and a second Irish Life was produced after the Protestant Reformation. The latter, though the latest of the four, is thought to draw on the oldest traditions when it deals sympathetically with the Osraige. Primarily intended to edify, educate and entertain, it is unclear to what extent they are an accurate representation of events.
Family background and early career
The martyrologies, notably the Félire Óengusso, and medieval Irish genealogies identify Ciarán's father as Lugna (also Laighne), a nobleman of the Dál Birn rulers of Osraige, and his mother as Liadán, of the Corcu Loígde. Before he was conceived Ciarán's mother had a dream that a star fell into her mouth. She related this dream to the druids who were knowledgeable of such things, and they told her that she would bear a son whose fame and virtues would be known as far as the world’s end. Cape Clear Island south west of County Cork is regarded as his birthplace and it is said that a church was built by him on the island.
Ciarán's biography is full of obscurities. It is commonly said, however, that he left Ireland before the arrival of St Patrick. Already a Christian, and of royal Osraige blood, he had determined to study for the Church; hence, he secured an education at Tours and Rome.
Foundation of Saighir
By one account Patrick sent Ciaran to precede him and directed him to build a monastery at the site of a well. When Ciaran asked how he should find this well, Patrick gave him a little bell, that would not ring until he reached the well.
On his return from Rome, he built himself a little cell in the woods of Upper Ossory. He settled as a hermit at Saighir (alternately called Seir Kieran, or just Seir) near to the Slieve Bloom Mountains, but soon disciples were attracted to him and a large monastery grew up round his cell, which became the chosen burial place for the Kings of Osraige. A tradition shared by all four Lives describes Ciarán as a holy man wearing skins, whose first pupils are animals in the forest. This corresponds to the image of him as a Western John the Baptist, wearing skins and dwelling in the wilderness, seemingly as a forerunner to St. Patrick as John was to Christ. His mother, Liadan, is said to have gone to Saighir with a group of women who devoted their lives to the service of God and the members of her son's community.
Sier Kieran became the chief church of the Osraighe, a center for the preaching of the Gospel and a large industrial community noted for its wealth. It was superseded by the later monastic foundation of St Canice at nearby Aghaboe.
Like the saints Ailbe of Emly, Declán of Ardmore and Abbán, Ciarán is credited with a pre-Patrician career in Munster, though the Lives hardly refer to these putative contemporaries. This tradition may reflect interaction with Christians of south Wales before St Patrick came to Ireland.
Ciarán is said to have met Patrick in Italy and made allegiance to him. Some writers say that when St. Patrick arrived in Ireland, Ciarán was already a bishop, having been ordained while on the continent. It seems more likely, however, that he was one of the twelve men that Patrick, on his arrival, consecrated as helpers. He became the first bishop of Ossory.
There is long-standing academic disagreement in the dating of the life of St. Ciarán of Saighir. Traditional Irish sources (his vitae, the Félire Óengusso, etc.) ascribe his missionary activity as before St. Patrick, but assign no dates to his life. If true, he would have likely been born somewhere near the end of the 4th century and evangelizing in the 5th, and some writers accept this (Plummer, Hogan, Kenny). Modern scholarship tends to view this with skepticism, (Bearing-Gould, Sharpe, O'Riain, Sperber) pushing his life back variously into the 5th and even 6th centuries. Lanigan and Leslie Stephen place him in the 5th century, based on anecdotes that make him a contemporary of Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, Brendan of Birr, and Brendan of Clonfert. Lanigan suggests that Ciarán of Saighir was one of Finnian of Clonard's first students, and indicates that he was likely bishop sometime prior to 544. The Irish annals are silent on the matter.
Legends attribute remarkable miracles to Ciarán. One day when Ciaran was still yet a child he made a beginning of his miracles; for in the air right over him a kite came soaring and, swooping down before his face, lifted a little bird that sat upon her nest. Compassion for the little bird took Cieran, and he deemed it an ill thing to see it in such plight; thereupon the kite turned back and in front of him deposited the bird half dead, sore hurt; but Cieran bade it rise and be whole. The bird arose, and went whole upon its nest again.
One such relates how the Lord Justice of Ireland, Risteárd de Tiúit, went to Athlone, with the intention of sending his brothers to Limerick, Waterford, and Wexford, that he himself might reside in Dublin and Athlone (alternately); but it happened, through the miracles of God, St Peter and St Ciarán, that some of the stones of the castle of Athlone fell upon his head, killing him, his priest and a number of his people.
Another story is that he blessed a well so that “it had the taste of wine or honey for everyone who drank it got drunk as well as filled”.
Folklore also relates many charming tales of St Ciarán's influence on wild animals. Tales tell of a fox, badger and wolf who worked with Ciarán and his monks to cut wood and build huts for the brothers. One day the fox stole Ciarán's shoes; upon which Ciarán ordered the badger to retrieve them. The badger found the fox, and bound him from head to tail, returning him to his master; the saint ordered the fox to repent for his sin as a monk would, and to return to his tasks as before.
Scholia in the Martyrology of Oengus states that he foretold of the sanctity of Conall and Fachtna of Rosscarbery. Ciarán's date of death is uncertain but thought to have been around 530 from natural causes.
The ruins of Ciarán's monastery - which were long the burial place of the Kings of Osraige - still remain to this day. It is speculated that the site is pre-Christian, and, in common with other Irish sanctuaries, a perpetual fire was said to have burnt there. He is also associated with a monastic site near Errill. Another site exists at the island of Cape Clear, which is said to have been his birthplace and the hermitage of his youth. Church ruins and a well exist here of considerable age. Saint Ciaran is venerated in England, Brittany, Wales, and Scotland, on 5 March. St. Kieran's College (est. 1782) is the oldest Roman Catholic secondary school in Ireland, and is named for the saint.
He is sometimes listed as one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, although in the Martyrology of Oengus, Ciarán of Saighir is not enumerated as such, and his association with the students of St. Finnian may be a persistent confusion.