St. Coemgin or Kevin, Abbot of Glendalough, County of Wicklow (published in 1901)

Kevin and the Blackbird | Public domain image
Kevin and the Blackbird
Public domain image
St. Kevin on an Irish Stamp (2018) | Courtesy of P. Reid
St. Kevin on an Irish Stamp (2018)
Courtesy of P. Reid
Kevin's Kitchen, Glendalough | Public domain image
Kevin's Kitchen, Glendalough
Public domain image
Sculpture of Kevin and the Blackbird | Courtesy of Heritage Week
Sculpture of Kevin and the Blackbird
Courtesy of Heritage Week
Manuscript illumination featuring St. Kevin | Courtesy of Our Wicklow Heritage
Manuscript illumination featuring St. Kevin
Courtesy of Our Wicklow Heritage
St. Kevin featured in stained glass | Artist Unknown
St. Kevin featured in stained glass
Artist Unknown

Sixth and Seventh Centuries

Several old Acts of St. Kevin are still extant. In the time of the O’Clery’s, his Irish Life was in the possession of Domhnall Carrach, son of Feaghal MacEochada, at Eanach Mor, in Ui Ceinnsellaigh. There is a manuscript belonging to Trinity College, Dublin, containing an Irish Life of St. Kevin of Glendalough, in prose.

In the Codex Kilkenninsis is a Life of St. Comegan, in a folio. There were probably two of his Irish Lives, one in prose and the other in verse, left transcribed, by Michael O’Clery, and among the Burgundian Manuscripts, at Bruxelles. There is a Manuscript, Vita S. Coemgeni, preserved among the Records, belonging to the Franciscan Convent, Dublin. On the 3rd of June, Colgan had intended to produce the Acts of St. Coemgen. His Acts are very fully published, in the great Bollandist collection. A previous commentary and notes, as we may learn from the initialled marginal letters, were written by Father Francis Baert.

Our Saint’s Life

Our saint’s Latin Life has been printed, from a Manuscript, formerly belonging to Hugh Ward. This narrative is contained in six chapters, comprising forty-nine paragraphs. However, this Life of St. Kevin is very justly supposed to abound in fables. It is thought to have been written during or before the twelfth century, and on very reasonable grounds. For, mention is made, regarding the flourishing state of Glendalough city, at the time, when this life had been written; while, in the thirteenth century, this episcopal seat had dwindled into an insignificant and wasted village.

A prosperous city

Now, it is supposed, that at least one hundred years must have elapsed, before a prosperous city could have become a small village, in the ordinary course of things. Those proofs, on which the Bollandists rely for the fact of Glendalough being in a flourishing state at the time when St. Kevin’s published life had been written, shall be reproduced, in the sequel of this
narrative. Baert remarks, that at first he intended to suppress many fables contained in this Life, and to issue a more compendious and reliable account, regarding our saint. Afterwards, how ever, his mind changed on the subject for these following reasons.

Many things are related in this Life, which the author could have seen and recorded, as existing in his own time. Matters, referring to the site of places and monasteries, in or near Glendalough, are found written there, and this information need not necessarily have been derived from popular tradition.

Miracles and Prophecies

Again, there are accounts, relating to miracles and prophecies, whereby we are not so certainly informed, indeed, regarding what St. Kevin did and predicted, as respecting what had been then rumoured, and as a picture representing the state of things which prevailed during the writer’s own lifetime.
Moreover, as several Irish Historiographers used this Life, it was judged advisable to publish a document, which had not in its entirety as yet seen the light; while, to judicious readers, was left the option of pronouncing on its questionable or credible passages.. It is supposed, by Baert, that Irish Hagiographists were accustomed to attribute miracles, in particular instances, to certain saints which had been before related respecting other holy persons.
This happened, less through a desire of practising deception, than from a motive of misconceived piety. He allows, also, that there may be some truth in various transactions related.

The Life of Blessed Kevin

Yet, the writers of those acts, for the most part, having received their accounts from traditions of the vulgar, these are usually accompanied with so many fabulous circumstances, that they appear in certain instances unworthy of credit. The Life of blessed Kevin, as published by Baert, tells us on its title page, that our saint was both Bishop and Confessor. But, this title is supposed to have been supplied by some more modern commentators.

The title of Bishop is wanting

In three more compendous lives of our saint, which are also supposed to have been of considerable antiquity, this title of Bishop is wanting. One of these three Lives had been written, after the manner of a short Eulogy or Panegyric on the saint ; another, which was lent by the Jesuit, Henry Fitzsimon, appears to be more filled with fabulous traditions which its author had collected; while, a third Life had been taken from a Book, belonging to the Library of Salamanca in Spain. This latter MS. was at least three centuries old, before coming into Baert’s possession, and in his opinion, it contains many things which might be tolerated and believed, if they were not accompanied by some mythical accounts.

There are notices of this holy Abbot, by Archbishop Ussher, Dr. Meredith Hanmer, and by Bishop Challoner, at the 3rd of June, as also, in Rev. Alban Butler’s cc Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and other principal Saints/’ and in the work of Rev. Dr. Lanigan; by Mrs. Anastasia
O’Byrne; Bishop Forbes, Rev. S. Baring Gould, he is recorded, while in the Dictionary of Christian Biography, there is an account of this celebrated Abbot.

The Holy Man was born in the year 498

The holy man was born in the year 498, according to Archbishop Ussher, and his chronology has been accepted by most writers; yet there are strong motives for doubting his having been born so early, and it seems very probable, the date for Kevin’s birth should be advanced to some year in the earlier part of the sixth century. Nor does the year assigned well accord with the chronological dates in reference to his brother and nephew, nor can it be as certained that a passage in the Irish Metrical Acts of St. Brigid has allusion to what occurred while she lived. The only reason Dr. Lanigan can discover for placing this saint’s birth in 498 is the supposition that he lived 120 years. As he is said to have died in 618, it
therefore became necessary to go back for his birth to that year. St. Kevin’s Acts, as published by the Bollandists, state that he was born in the eastern part of Leinster province.

Kevin’s Parents

His parents seem to have lived on the sea borders and among a people known as the Dalmasincoirb. It is said St. Kevin be longed to a family of great rank. This also is related in the old Acts of the saints, but it remained for a modern writer not only to deny St. Kevin’s
civilized descent, but even the fact of his birth.

The father of St. Kevin was named Coinlogha or Coemlugus. According to his genealogy he belonged to the race of Laeghaire Lore, monarch of Erin, and from whom the Leinstermen
are descended. His mother’s name was Coenhella or Caemell. However, the Acts of St. Kevin state that his father sprang from the royal race of Leinster kings; but, to lead a more pious life, he left his friends and inheritance, while he sustained himself by the labour of his hands. What was still much better than nobility or titles, this saint’s parents were just and faithful persons in the sight of God and men.

It is related, as one of the legends of his Acts, that an angel appeared to Coenhella during her sleep and said to her: ” O happy woman, thou shalt bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Coemgen. He shall be dear, both to God and men, and he shall be a Father over many monks. The grace of the Holy Spirit shall abound in his place; but immediately after his birth let him be brought to the baptismal font.”

The Baptism of Kevin

According to the heavenly messenger’s advice the infant was brought for the purpose of being baptized by certain persons. These, too, were accosted by an angel of God on the way, and he appeared to them, in the shape of a beautiful young man. He asked those, who bore the child, what purpose they had in view. Those persons replied, they were on their way, towards a certain holy priest, who lived an eremitical life in the neighbourhood, and that
they wished him to perform the baptismal rite for the infant. It is said, moreover, that Angel breathed on the child, and signed him, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the
Holy Ghost. Then praying, he bestowed a benediction on the future saint.

Afterwards, the bearers of the infant visited a holy Priest, named Cronan. He enquired, on what business they had come. They answered, that he might baptize the child. Where
upon, he replied : ” This holy infant needs not a repetition of baptism, for he has been baptized by & better and holier person than I am.”

So shall he be always called Coemgen

While those present were in admiration at what Cronan said, the Priest asked if any one had met them on the way. Then, they told him, that a young man blessed the infant, and called him Coemgen, or Kevin, as the name is differently spelled, although the pronunciation is the same. The Priest then said : ” This was the Angel of the Lord, who baptized the child, and as
the Angel named him, so shall he be always called Coemgen, which in Latin means, Pulcher-genitus ; for, he shall be most beautiful.” Then, the holy old man Cronan, looking upon the boy, and being filled with a prophetic spirit, cried out: ” 0 beautiful child of God, may the Almighty Lord bless thee ; I shall be thy first monk, and I give thee my place with my effects.” Then having prayed and blessed the infant, this spiritual treasure was brought back to his parents.

A white cow was miraculously sent to his parents

We are told, that during St. Kevin’s infancy, a white cow was miraculously sent to his parents’ house, each morning and evening. With the milk of this animal, the child was nourished. It was not known, whence the animal came, or whither she went, at other times ; but, two large vessels of milk were obtained from her each day. This circumstance caused no little degree of interest to be excited in the neighbourhood, regarding that child, in whose favour such wonders were wrought. In the shorter acts of our saint, it is said, that his parents lived in this place for two years.

Some poor persons one day came to him

When Coemgen attained sufficient age, he was employed in tending, with other shepherds, the sheep of his parents. While thus employed, some poor persons one day came to him, and stated, from an account heard regarding his sanctity, they hoped he would afford them some relief. In the presence of certain per sons,the holy youth delivered four sheep to those paupers. When evening came and the flock had been counted over, still it was found, that the number of sheep remained complete.

Thus, it would appear, the Almighty wished to reward this charity of his servant, and to avert all blame from him, because of his great liberality. Coemgen felt greatly strengthened in the love of God, after this occurrence. It is stated, that when seven years of age, our saint was sent by his parents to receive a literary and religious training from a holy man called Petrocus, who was a Briton by birth. He lived as a hermit, and having left his paternal kingdom, Petrocus embraced a monastic life. About a.D. 498, he is said to have been distinguished for sanctity, in Ireland. Here, he remained for twenty years, which expired in A.D. 518.

Many miracles were wrought through him

The writer of Kevin’s Life says, that while his youth was spent in the house of his parents, many miracles were wrought through him. These are not written, it is alleged, so that thus his biographer might sooner arrive at those incidents, connected with our saint’s more mature age. Seeing so many indications of sanctity in their son, the boy’s parents placed him under direction of three holy men, who dwelt in a cell. Guided by these venerable seniors, who were named, Eogoin, Lochan, and Enna, our saint prosecuted his studies with the greatest diligence.

St. Kevin lived near Bray

A local tradition has it that St. Kevin lived near Bray, in the county of Wicklow, before he went to Glendalough. Nothing is distinctly known regarding Eogoin, Lochan, and Enna, although it may fairly be supposed they lived not very far distant from the home of St. Kevin’s parents. This event of our saint’s life is said to have occurred in his twelfth year, and consequently, assuming the earliest chronology, about A.D. 510.

She… conceived a particular affection for him

We are told, shortly after this period and in the bloom of youth, that our saint was greatly distinguished for his comely appearance. While engaged at work with the brethren of his cell the young novice was one day seen by a young and beautiful maiden. She then conceived a particular affection for him. At first this female began to manifest great friendship towards our saint, but dissembling her real object for some time, she endeavoured to engage the love of this holy youth by her looks, her words, and sometimes by her messages. However, Kevin rejected these several advances.

Thus baffled and disappointed, the maiden sought an opportunity and found him alone. The brethren being at work in the wood, Kevin separated from them. Soon was he found in a solitude by that young female, who had followed the band of workmen. Seizing an opportunity that now presented itself she approached our holy youth. With words of affection, and with blandishments capable of over coming one less firmly resolved, she sought to tempt him from that course of life he had voluntarily embraced, but Kevin arming himself with a sign of the cross, and being filled with the graces of the Holy Spirit, at once fled from the maiden’s solicitations.

He sought concealment within a wood

He sought concealment within a wood. Here the pious youth buried himself among some nettles; yet, having discovered his place of concealment, the girl followed him thither, when binding a bundle of nettles our saint repelled her further advances by striking her several times with them. These nettles stung her severely. In fine, she became repentant, for indulging in her former thoughts. Prostrate on her knees she asked pardon from God, and from the saint. Kevin offered up his prayers for her.

Afterwards she promised to dedicate her virginity to God, and in presence of his servant Kevin. At this moment, the brethren coming up were in admiration at what they had heard and seen. The maiden modestly related what had taken place before their arrival ; and, on learning this the brethren were more confirmed in their love for holy purity. Thenceforward that female became distinguished for great prudence and sanctity. During the whole of her subsequent life, she deligently observed the wise and holy admonitions of blessed Kevin.

St. Kevin resolved on retiring from the world

There is a local tradition that when St. Kevin resolved on retiring from the world, to commence his religious course of life, he selected for such a purpose, that retired and deep valley, now known as Luggela. Whether this was the place of his noviceship or not is unknown, but it seems to be sufficiently probable. It must be observed, according to the peasantry living near the district of Lough Tay, county of Wicklow, St. Kevin is said to have founded a monastery, in the upper part of this romantic valley, before he retired to Glendalough.

The site of this cell or monastery is yet pointed out, on a delightful spot, adjoining the waters of Lough Tay, where the Annamoe River enters it, and on that beautiful lawn, extending in front of Luggela Lodge. Hardly a vestige of the old building now remains. A shapeless pile of stones, just rising over the earth, and grass-covered mounds, mark the site of a former religious edifice, which undoubtedly occupied this exact spot. The people of Luggela neighbourhood supposed it a profanation to destroy any of those branches, that grew within the ruins of St. Kevin’s deserted hermitage, and that some evil must be sure to await any such offender.

Unrivalled for the grandeur and loveliness

The local traditions hardly leave a doubt on the inquiring mind, that at one period of his Life St. Kevin hallowed this lone dell with his presence and prayers. The scenery around possesses features of the most magnificent and romantic character. Even in a district of country, unrivalled for the grandeur and loveliness of its varied landscapes, no more appropriate or fascinating spot could be selected for the quiet hermitage of an ascetic or a contemplative.

Brother, run quickly for the fire

One day our saint was told to go into a wood near the cell, and in company with a namesake, known as Coemgen the senior. This latter told our saint to bring fire into the wood for some purpose required by the brethren. His orders, however, were forgotten and neglected. When they had come to the place where he wished it to be kindled, the senior Coemgen asked where was the fire. Then St. Coemgen, junior, declared that he had forgotten the mandate. The senior cried out: ” Brother, run quickly for the fire and bring it with you.” St Kevin asked in what manner he should bear it, when his senior rather hastily answered:  “In your bosom.”

Then going to the kitchen Kevin placed a burning torch, as we are told, with some living coals, in his bosom, thus literally observing the senior’s mandate. Coming towards him the young novice threw his fire on the ground, in the presence of his superior.  Not alone his flesh, but even his garments seemed to suffer no injury. When the senior Coemgen witnessed this miracle, he cried out: ” O holy youth, I see that thou are full of the Holy Ghost, and that thou oughtest to rule – over our community. The youthful saint replied: “It must be an absurd supposition that reverend old men should serve under the rule of a foolish young man; but tell this occurrence to no person.” The senior said:  “Now it is more proper that thou be set over others than that thou shouldst be under a superior. Truly a day must come when all of us and our place shall be subject to thee.”

He took his departure from among them

The senior then related such a miraculous occurrence to Kevin’s superiors, and to all the brethren. This, however, displeased our saint, and it gave him much in quietude. His resolution was soon formed. As alone wanderer he took his departure from among them. He then journed far off, and through a desert country, to seek a more convenient retreat for practices of austerity and contemplation.

 

This article, written by Canon O’Hanlon, was published in two parts in 1901. The images featured were not part of the original article and are used here for illustration purposes.

The original articles can be found here:

  • All Ireland Review, Vol. 2, No. 41 (Dec. 14, 1901), pp. 337-338
  • All Ireland Review, Vol. 2, No. 42 (Dec. 21, 1901), pp. 347-348

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