This speech was delivered by Dermot Mulligan, Curator of Carlow County Museum, at the celebration of the Feast of St. Molaise/ St. Laserian, St. Laserian’s Cathedral, Old Leighlin. Co. Carlow, Saturday, April 20th* 2019
“Dia diaobh go leir. Thank you to the Very Reverend Tom Gordon, Fr. Pat Hennessy, Parish Priest of Leighlin and to Fr. Tom Lalor, retired Parish Priest of Leighlin, for the invitation to address you this evening. The significance of the occurrence of the Feast of St. Laserian during Holy Week should not be lost on us. During St. Laserian’s lifetime, discussions, debates and synods on the calculation of the date for Easter were taking place across the Christian world. Despite the efforts of several Popes to standardise the ‘correct’ calculation of the date, these discussions were intense, somewhat divisive and brought out localised resistance to the Pope, famously on the island of Iona, Scotland. No doubt St. Laserian and his colleagues, who supported the Papacy on this matter, was aware of the ironic words of Irish scholar, Cummian, written around AD 632, to reflect the resistance in the Irish Church, ‘Rome is wrong, Jerusalem is wrong, Alexandria is wrong, Antioch is wrong — the whole world is wrong: only the Irish and British know what is right’. Testament to the likes of St. Laserian that during the fractious and fragile nature of the organisation of the church during these early centuries that this decree on the date of Easter, was, for the most part, universally accepted across the Christian world and stands to this day.
The celebration of St. Laserian’s Feast Day is significant as it is an ecumenical celebration. According to Dr Louise Nugent, of Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland, this feast day is one of the few, if not the only one, in Ireland in that both Church of Ireland & Roman Catholic Bishops regularly attend the celebration to honour the first Bishop of Leighlin. It is also one of a small group of ecumenical pilgrimages that are focused around a pattern or feast day at holy wells in Ireland where both communities jointly celebrate together the patron saint of each diocese and on the site of the mother church of each diocese. The procession from here to the nearby Holy Well, that we will undertake immediately after the celebration here, is one of only a handful that take place in the country in the context of pilgrimage. Other examples include the reliquary procession at Faughart in Co. Louth for St. Brigid, both the Patroness of the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin and of Ireland. In Downpatrick, Co. Down, burial place of St. Patrick, the procession held on March 17th for his Feast Day is between churches, and a visit to a Holy Well does not form part of their Patrick’s Feast Day celebrations. What this ecumenical celebration here signifies is a love by the people of the area and the wider Leighlin Parish for this building, its monastic founder Laserian, its peoples, its long legacy, its sense of place and its history. All of this is wrapped up in the wonder of this centuries-old building that is Carlow’s oldest working building. If we want clear evidence in this increasingly secular world of the love of places of worship just look at this week’s reaction to the unfortunate burning of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France.
We are fortunate that we have many early saints, like St. Laserian, associated with Carlow, many of them still widely celebrated. One of them, St Brigid, along with St. Patrick and St. Columcille together form our three national patrons. St Brigid, a lady so much associated with this part of the world, is well revered by Christians and those who believe her to have been a pagan goddess.
In the Cathedral of the Assumption in Carlow Town she is the highest placed statue, positioned directly above the Bishop’s Chair with St. Conleth and St. Laserian directly under her. The Bishop’s Chair is positioned directly on top of a St. Brigid’s Cross, her most famous symbol. According to Noel Kissane in his recent book Saint Brigid of Kildare, ‘…very little is actually known of the saint other than that she probably lived in the general period c.AD 450 – 550 and that she was involved in the establishment of the great double convent and monastery at Kildare (the first such institution in Ireland)…’ For over 1,300 years both Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church’s look to the City of Armagh for their Primacy in the ‘Ecclesiastical Capital’ of Ireland. Kildare town, home to St. Brigid’s significant ecclesiastical foundation, was a rival for the position as Ireland’s ‘Ecclesiastical Capital’. If history had been different could we be celebrating our patron saint on the 1st of February instead of the 17th of March? Irrespective of this, Brigid’s Feast Day marks the end of winter and the arrival of Spring and the renewal of life. Anyone who has studied Brigid’s life, agree that she didn’t travel outside of Ireland. Yet, in the likes of Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany she is known and revered by them. Was it through one of this area’s great alumni, St. Willibrord and his colleagues, that her cult was brought to the continent?
We are familiar with marketing catchphrases, surrounded by them every day, but one that has stood the test of time and is true, but probably underappreciated, is that of ‘Ireland of the land of saints and scholars’. It is from this period of the fifth to the eight centuries that this phrase refers to. Let’s, with all its questions, take the arrival of Christianity to Ireland as being AD 432 by St. Patrick. As well as the arrival of the new religion and its practices, its moral compass in the form of the ten commandments, it also brought the language of Latin, reading, writing, a way of life, international thoughts and practices. Within a relatively short period, through many missionaries, this new Christian religion was embedded across the country. As much as this success is extraordinary what is probably more significant is when the church on this island demonstrated a confidence to turn around and begin sending missionaries abroad. The defining moment was in AD 565 when Donegal’s Columcille founded the significant monastery on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland. While Scotland may not seem that far away, it was the first seed sown abroad by Irish monks and began a long tradition of Irish missionaries heading to the four corners of the world. Columcille’s foundation must also be understood with the context of the fall of the great Roman Empire and the turbulence that much of Europe found itself. Such was the success of Columcille that further monastic foundations began to develop across Britain from this seed of Iona. The impact of Irish monks on Britain was substantial, in fact, it was to the Irish church that the English church looked to for its influence, guidance and lead. The ‘island of the land of saints and scholars’ was truly alive and well and exuding a remarkable confidence. Approximately one hundred and fifty years later, the island of Iona and County Carlow would be directly connected through St Ecgberct of Rath Melsigi and Iona. Just over a decade later Ecgberct’s ‘Carlow’ knowledge on Easter was brought to bear on Iona.
Into these centuries, St. Laserian/Molaise, the man we honour today, emerges and makes his mark. He was born in Ulster in the second half of the 6th century to the name Molaise, ‘flame of fire’, a symbol both used in our pagan and Christian cultures. He is said to have spent his early years in Scotland, not surprising considering the links between this island and Scotland. He chose Holy Island off the Isle of Arran, Scotland, as the location of his hermitage. It is possible that the island may have been known as Eilean Molaise is Scots Gaelic, the Isle of Molaise. He may have spent time on the Isle of Mann. He departed these islands and headed for Rome, not a journey undertaken with any ease in the early medieval period.
It is said that Pope Gregory ‘having thought him about the Bible and ecclesiastical institutions, ordained him, consecrated him Bishop, and sent him back to Ireland to preach.’ He spent time in County Carlow, probably over around Lorum where there is a Holy Well associated with him. It is said that he was directed by an angel to Leighlin, where Gobán, already here, made a ‘union’ with Laserian to allow Laserian to settle here and establish his monastery. It is claimed that his monastery, located in and around the site of today’s Cathedral had over 1,500 monks. A spectacular number. It’s more likely that this was the population of the monastic ‘village’ that grew up in this area and includes all who served the operations of this monastery and among that number were many monks, all inspired by St. Laserian. As mentioned earlier, the calculation of the date of Easter was a burning issue on these islands in the sixth and seventh centuries. St. Laserian played his part in supporting Rome in adhering to the correct method, not surprising considering the time he spent being trained in Rome. It was at a Synod here in Leighlin in the years AD 630 to 632, depending on the source used, that St. Laserian persuaded many of the Irish Bishops to adopt the Roman system of reckoning the date on which Easter is celebrated. It is fascinating to think that the oldest surviving original Dionysiac table for the calculation of the date of Easter is from County Carlow, and now resides in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. It is known as Willibrord’s Easter Table and was written a few kilometres from here at Rath Melsigi.
It would be worth a multi-discipline academic team looking at the life of St. Laserian and undertaking an archaeological, historical and architectural assessment of this wonderful Cathedral and setting. This Cathedral may be one of the very few, if not the only medieval Cathedral in Ireland, not to have had an archaeological assessment undertaken. It’s a project that would take time and would need coordination probably by an academic institution so as to not impinge financially on the parish.
While we live in a busier world, imagine for a moment the wonder and joy the monks here got at sunrise on Easter Sunday, after their preparations during Lent, when the message of Christ was complete and fully understood. Maybe they wandered up to the ridge to watch the sun rise over Mount Leinster and then return here after a visit to the Holy Well!
I assume that the Tibetan Monks who reside on Molaise’s former hermitage, Holy Island, since 1995 are celebrating St. Laserian’s Feast Day as well. Here in County Carlow on April 18th in AD 639 was most likely not a day of celebration as it is today, but a day of sadness and reflection as it was the day that St. Laserian, abbot of this famous monastic foundation and first Bishop of Leighlin, died. It’s likely that his place of burial in Old Leighlin became a place of pilgrimage and veneration. Unfortunately, the passage of time has now denied us the exact location of his burial. While we can’t speak for the dead, he’d probably be impressed that he is still remembered but more importantly, that his monastic establishment is the see of a diocese; that Easter, a high point in the Church year, the calculation of which he believed in, is such a central point of our year; Old Leighlin’s role probably influenced future missionaries, in particular those Anglo-Saxon monks who came to Rath Melsigi within approximately twenty-five years of his death.
We know that the aforementioned, St. Ecgberct of Rath Melsigi & Iona, was the leading monk at the monastery of Rath Melsigi, which, during the 7th and 8th centuries, was the most important Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical settlement in Ireland. Is it possible that the impact of the Easter synod attracted St. Ecgberct and his companions to the area? Their arrival was, without question, very difficult as the plague was rampant across both Ireland and Britain in AD 664. Ecgberct was also suffering from the plague and he made a vow not to return to Britain and to continue working on God’s behalf in exile. He recovered and as promised devoted his life to prayer and preparing several missions to the continent. We know from Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, published in AD 731, that Ecgberct ate only one meal a day during Lent, allowing ‘himself a scanty ration of bread and skim milk, for he used to keep the previous day’s fresh milk in a flask, and having skimmed off the cream next day, he drank what was left with a little bread.
He practised similar abstinence for forty days before Christmas, and as many after the Feast of Pentecost’. While we, rightly so, celebrate and will continue to celebrate Ecgberct’ s most famous pupil, St. Willibrord, Ecgberct is due more than an honourable mention for all his works. Most ironic and most relevant to today is the timing of his death in AD 729 on the island of Iona. Ecgberct left Rath Melsigi to become the Abbot of Iona in c. AD 715. Iona had unlike much of Ireland continued to calculate the date of Easter incorrectly, remaining steadfast to how they always did it. The task of bringing them into line fell to Ecgberct, who followed the agreed method promoted by St. Laserian. Iona wasn’t for turning easily, but Ecgberct persevered for thirteen or fourteen years to change the mindset. I wonder did the main body of monks celebrate Easter as they had done and Ecgberct celebrated according to the agreed method and as each year passed did more and more monks join in Ecgberct’s celebrations? Whichever, the year of triumph for Ecgberct arrived in AD 729 when Easter on Iona was to be celebrated according to the agreed method long since subscribed to by the majority of the Christian world. The irony for Ecgberct was that the new Easter of AD 729 happened on Sunday 24th April, the day he died. If they had newspapers then, would his obituary headline have said ‘mission accomplished’.
There are at least twenty-two early saints associated with Carlow and its area, in fact, the list is probably now over thirty when we add in St. Willibrord’s colleagues. Some of our ‘Carlow’ saints were born in this county and spent their lives here; others came to be educated or to found monasteries. These associations are sometimes in the form of remains of buildings and monuments linked with saintly foundations, but they are also evident in the dedications of later churches and the iconography of stained-glass windows. The saints of early Carlow still play an active role in the religious lives of contemporary Carlovians and indeed contemporary Europeans. While it is great to celebrate these individuals and their remarkable achievements, we do need to be conscious that life was quite fragile and remember that success for these missionaries was in no way guaranteed, they were venturing into the unknown both physically, culturally, and politically in search of people’s hearts and minds.
Our friend, Ecgberct when establishing Rath Melsigi believed he was the person to lead this mission from to the continent. Ecgberct was dissuaded from his goal after one of his colleagues had repeated night visions informing him that he was not the person to lead the mission. However, it was only after the boat that was prepared for the mission, possibly on the River Barrow, was destroyed in a storm that Ecgberct reluctantly concluded that he was not the one to lead the expedition. He chose in his place Uuictberct, and he set off from county Carlow to the Frisian land. He returned after two unsuccessful years.
No doubt the community of Rath Melsigi was in shock when he returned and probably felt much despair at this failure. No doubt there followed a debriefing and a period of reflection before Ecgberct made the pivotal choice of selecting the relatively newly ordained Willibrord to undertake their third attempt.
Willibrord’s mission wasn’t without its own difficulties. His initial success in Utrecht saw him appointed the first Archbishop of Utrecht and built a cathedral dedicated to the Saviour. In AD 714, Pepin II of Herstal, the king who gave Willibrord permission to establish himself in Utrecht, died and the area came under the control of King Radbod, a fierce opponent of Willibrord. Willibrord and his colleagues had to leave the area and could not return until Radbod’s death in AD 719, where they found their mission destroyed and had to begin a period of rebuilding.
More tragic was the fate of two of our Rath Melsigi alumni, Hewald the Black and Hewald the Grey, distinguished, as you have guessed, by the colour of their hair. They followed from Carlow in the footsteps of St. Willibrord, they may have been part of his initial eleven companions that left down the river Barrow with him.
The Hewald’s decided to go further east into Saxony. Why not, considering the historical links between Saxony and the Hewald’s Anglo-Saxon origins. Venerable Bede describes them being well received at first by a local official. As there was no king in the area but a cohort of lords, they didn’t receive the protection of a king to undertake their work. When the locals realised that they were of a different religion they distrusted them. Venerable Bede states that ‘Hewald the White was killed outright with a sword and Hewald the Black was put to a lingering torture and torn agonizingly limb from limb. Then they flung the murdered men into the Rhine’. Immediately their deaths sent shock waves through the region, their bodies being reclaimed and buried in St. Cunibert’s Church, Cologne, where their Feast Day is remembered on October 3rd.
Europe is again at one of its crunch points; aside from the procrastination of our near neighbours, there are many issues that are beginning to bring out extremes in responses and the political system is struggling to find common and universal solutions. Our own Columbanus had a vision of Europe during his lifetime in the fifth and sixth centuries. This vision was espoused in 1950 when the initial steps to the formation of what we know today as the EU began, when Robert Schuman, then French Minister for Foreign Affairs 1948 – 1952, describing St Columbanus as the patron saint of those who seek to construct a united Europe’. Willibrord and his colleagues also had a European vision and it’s not uncommon to hear and see his name associated with, ‘’Un saint pour notre Temps! Un saint pour l’Europe’, a saint for our time, a saint for Europe. Columbanus has competition! Considering the Irish 6th and 7th centuries influence on western Europe in the post turbulent Roman Empire, one wonders where the Europe of today will go from here over the coming decade and who will provide the inspiration to lead us there.
In terms of understanding the significance of the influence of the early Irish church it is sometimes best to listen to an outsider who can’t be accused of bias and truly shows that it not just something we think and just boast about ourselves. I refer you to Dan Snow, the British Television Historian, in his 2010 two-part documentary, ‘How The Celts Saved Britain’, in which his opening sequence captures the very essence of the ‘Irish land of Saints and Scholars’, but also shows how this influence has been ignored by later reversal of our imbalanced relations on these islands. Dan, standing in front of a mist covered Irish lake, delivers the following punch line, ‘The British have traditionally regarded Ireland as a place apart, a wild, unruly, uncivilised land, in need of modernisation, pacification, but what this British view of history conveniently forgets is that around fifteen hundred years ago during a period we used to refer to as the Dark Ages, the Irish played a very different role, back then, it was the Irish that brought civilisation to Britain.’
A Feast Day is a time of reflection and as we already at Easter, many of us say, it doesn’t feel that long since Christmas! Unfortunately, since Christmas, we lost one of our great friends and former St. Willibrord Committee Member, Fr. John Cummins. Those of us, lucky enough, to know and work with John, have great memories of him. We all have had ‘just one of those conversations’. You know, conversations that we have no real need to recall until maybe their relevance, significance or impact reveals itself at a much later time, if at all. Two such conversations took place with John around the St. Willibrord celebrations and the impact of both came back to me at John’s funeral mass in Abbeyleix on Saturday, February 2nd last. The first such occurrence happened in January 2015, at the first meeting of the Willibrord Committee which began here in the Cathedral. I vividly remember a conversation between the Very Reverend Tom Gordon and John, then the Administrator of Carlow Cathedral. While standing here in the nave, John said that he was delighted to see the crib still in place, to which Very Revd. Gordon said we always leave it up until Candlemas. Fr. Cummins, with childlike enthusiasm, said he loved to see the crib still in place until Candlemas, but most Roman Catholic churches have dismantled them well before that. The day and the meeting moved on. Just one of those conversations….
The second of these conversations happened in June of 2015, Fr. Cummins along with Prof Dáibhí O Cróinín, Department of History, NUI Galway, Louise Doyle, her husband Padraig, from Tully’s Travel, and I travelled to Echternach, Luxembourg, as a reccy for the 2017 joint ecumenical pilgrimage led very successfully by Bishops Burrows and Nulty along with Cllr. John Murphy, Cathaoirleach of Carlow County Council. On the Monday of our visit, we crossed into Germany to the nearby towns of Waxweiler and Prum, towns that traditionally walk the 60 km to Echternach following Pentecost Sunday Mass and arrive to Echternach at 7.30am of the Tuesday morning of the hopping procession. As we arrived into the village and began walking around, Fr. Cummins delighted in seeing the ‘Chalking of the Doors’, an European Epiphany tradition where the coming year is written on the front door of the house along with the following letters, C + M + B, possibly representing the names of the three wise men (Magi), Caspar, Malchior, and Balthazar. They could also abbreviate the Latin phrase, Christus mansionem benedicat, May Christ bless the house. Put together you have written 20 + C + M + B + 19. Again, another one of those conversations.
In February, when hundreds of us went to Abbeyleix Church on that Saturday for Fr Cummins funeral, I like everybody else attended with a heavy heart, but these two conversations very unexpectedly came into my recall. I did something not normally encouraged at funerals, I smiled, twice, as I recalled these conversations. I walked in the main door of the church, the doors wide open such was the crowd, and there, probably unnoticed by most people, at approximate head height the doors were chalked, I’ve no doubt in Fr. Cummins own hand.
When I entered the packed church and found a standing spot my view up to the altar was at an angle, the angle led my eye to John’s coffin and there behind his coffin, to the left of the altar, was the crib, sometime departed out of most Roman Catholic churches. Chief Celebrant that day was Bishop Denis Nulty and he made several references to the crib and that Fr Cummins loved to see the crib in place until Candlemas, which fell this year that very day we celebrated John’s life. For me, these are no longer just one of those conversations…. John, I believe lived his missionary life to the full and that I’ve no doubt that he lived as St. Willibrord said he did in AD 728, contained in a paragraph that has the oldest dateable signature of an English person, written in a book originally written at Rath Melsigi, brought by St. Willibrord on his mission, and now in the Biblioteque de France in Paris, ‘In die nominee Feliciter’, in the name of God be happy! Indeed, a worthy ambition for us all at any time of the year but probably even more so today as we await the resurrection on Easter Sunday, in the name of God be happy!
Happy St. Laserian’s Day, Happy Easter, go raibh maith agaibh go leir.”
* deferred from Thursday April 18th as the actual Feast Day fell on Holy Thursday.
With thanks to Prof Dáibhí O Cróinín, Department of History, NUI Galway, and Dr Louise Nugent, Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland.