Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Biographies


Saint Kieran (Ciaran) founder of Clonmacnoise Monastery, Ireland

(† 544

Source: http://www.stkieranchurch.org/Biography_of_St_Kieran.html

A first approach to the indigenous Orthodox Saints and Martyrs of the Ancient Church who lived and who propagated the Faith in the British Isles and Ireland during the first millennium of Christianity and prior to the Great Schism is being attempted in our website  in our desire to inform our readers, who may not be aware of the history, the labours or the martyrdom of this host of Orthodox Saints of the original One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of our Lord.

"The Church in The British Isles will only begin to grow when she begins to venerate her own Saints"     (Saint Arsenios of Paros †1877)


Saint Kieran (Ciaran) of Clonmacnoise, also known as St. Kieran the Younger, was born around 512 AD in Connacht, Ireland, a town located in the northern part of County Roscommon. The son of Beoit, a carpenter and chariot-builder, Kieran inherited a love of learning from his mother’s side of the family, as his maternal grandfather had been a bard, poet, and historian. Baptized by deacon Justus (“the righteous one”), who also served as his first tutor, the boy Kieran worked as a cattle herder. Even this early in his life, stories testifying to Kieran’s holiness are told. Some later believed that his work as a herdsman foreshadowed the care he would offer the many who sought his wisdom.

Kieran continued his education at the monastery of Clonard, which was led by St. Finnian. Yet another story, that of the “Dun-Cow of Kieran,” is associated with his move to this abbey. What is quite certain is that Kieran quickly gained the reputation of being the most learned monk at Clonard, and was asked to serve as tutor to the daughter of the King of Cuala, even as he continued his own studies. His friend and fellow student, Columcille of Iona, testified to Kieran’s brilliance by saying, “He was a lamp, blazing with the light of wisdom.” Besides being renowned for his brilliance, Kieran also had a great capacity for friendship with other leaders of the early Irish church. In addition to Justus, Columcille, and Finnian, Kieran counted Enda of the Aran Islands as his mentor, and both Senan of Scattery Island and Kevin of Glendalough as friends and colleagues. Kieran’s years of residence at Clonard were also marked by miraculous events that benefited the entire monastery.

After completing his studies under Finnian, Kieran left Clonard and moved to the monastery of Inishmore in the Aran Isles, which was directed by St. Enda. While a member of this monastic community, Kieran was blessed with the vision of a great tree, which anticipated his own foundation of a renowned monastery. From Inishmore, Kieran went to visit his religious brothers at Isel in central Ireland. His stay here was brief, as the other monks envied his fame as a scholar, and resented what they considered his excessive charity to the poor. Asked to leave Isel, Kieran was led by a stag to Inis Aingin, or Hare Island. While he lived here for 3 years and 3 months, brothers from all over Ireland came to study under Kieran, and more miracles attested to his holiness.

Kieran departed Hare Island with eight monastic brothers, and eventually settled at a location in the center of Ireland, on the east bank of the River Shannon. Here, in the year 544, he founded the great monastery of Clonmacnoise  (Photo of ruins, below).

Students by the thousands came to study there, not only from Ireland, but also from England and France. Clonmacnoise became Ireland’s center of study, art, and literature. To this day, tourists and pilgrims visit the site of Kieran’s monastery to see some of the finest monastic ruins and high crosses in all of Ireland (photo below).


A mere 7 months after establishing Clonmacnoise, Kieran died, perhaps of the plague.

Because of his prominence in the early Irish church, St. Kieran is known as one of the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland.”

The Feast of St. Kieran is celebrated on September 9th.


Stories & Legends of St. Kieran

Kieran & A Fortunate Fox
One day as Kieran was watching the cattle some distance from the home of deacon Justus, Kieran realized he was able to hear his tutor’s instruction as closely as if he were in Justus’ house. On another occasion, while Kieran was out in the cattle pasture, a fox emerged from the forest and approached him. He treated the animal gently, so that it returned quite often. Kieran asked the fox to do him the favor of carrying his text of the Psalms back and forth between him and Justus. One day, however, the fox was overcome by hunger, and began to eat the leather straps that covered the book. While the fox was eating, a hunting party with a pack of hounds attacked him. The dogs were relentless in their pursuit, and the fox could not find shelter in any place except the cowl of Kieran’s robe. God was thus glorified twice – by the book being saved from the fox, and by the fox being saved from the hounds.


The Dun-Cow of Kieran
When it was time for Kieran to leave home for the monastery of Clonard, he asked his parents for a cow to take with him as a contribution to the community. His mother refused this request, so Kieran blessed a cow of the herd, and the cow followed him to Clonard, accompanied by her calf. Not wishing to take both the cow and the calf, Kieran used his staff to draw a line on the ground between the animals. After that, neither the cow nor the calf would cross this line, and the calf returned home. The milk provided by Kieran’s cow was reputed to amply supply all in the monastery, as well as their guests.


Kieran Helps in a Time of Famine

During a time of famine, when it was Kieran’s turn to carry a sack of oats to the mill in order to provide a little food for the monks, he prayed that the oats would become fine wheat. While Kieran was singing the Psalms with pure heart and mind, the single sack of oats was miraculously transformed into four sacks of the best wheat. Kieran returned home and baked bread with this wheat, which the older monks said was the best they had ever tasted. These loaves not only satisfied their hunger, they were said to heal every sick person in the monastery who ate them.


The Vision of the Great Tree

While in the Aran Islands with St. Enda, both monks saw the same vision of a great and fruitful tree growing on the banks of a stream in central Ireland. This tree sheltered the entire island, its fruit crossed the sea surrounding Ireland, and birds came to carry off some of that fruit to the rest of the world. Enda interpreted this vision for his friend by saying, “The great tree is you, Kieran, for you are great in the eyes of God and all people. All of Ireland will be sheltered by the grace in you, and many will be nourished by your fasting and prayers. Go to the center of Ireland, and found your church on the banks of a stream.


A Cow Comes to Kieran’s Aid
A careless monk dropped Kieran’s text of the Gospels into the lake surrounding Hare Island, where it remained underwater for a long time. On a summer day when the cattle went into the lake, the strap of Kieran’s book stuck to the foot of one of the cows. When the book was retrieved, it was dry, with not a letter blurred or a page destroyed.





Abbey and School of Clonmacnoise

Source:  http://www.aoh61.com/saints/a_saints.htm


Situated on the Shannon, about half way between Athlone and Banagher, King's County, Ireland, and the most remarkable of the ancient schools of Erin. Its founder was St. Ciaran, surnamed Mac an Tsair, or "Son of the Carpenter", and thus distinguished from his namesake, the patron saint of Ossory. He chose this rather uninviting region because he thought it a more suitable dwelling-place for disciples of the Cross than the luxuriant plains not far away. Ciaran was born at Fuerty, County Roscommon, in 512, and in his early years was committed to the care of a deacon named Justus, who had baptized him, and from whose hands he passed to the school of St. Finnian at Clonard.


Here he met all  those saintly youths who with himself were afterwards known as the "Twelve Apostles of Erin", and he quickly won their esteem. When Finnian had to absent himself from the monastery, it was to the youthful Ciaran that he deputed his authority to teach and "give out the prayers", and when Ciaran announced his intended departure, Finnian would fain resign to him his cathair, or chair, and keep him in Clonard. But Ciaran felt himself unripe for such responsibility, and he knew, moreover, he had work to do elsewhere. 


After leaving Clonard, Ciaran, like most of the contemporary Irish saints, went to Aran to commune with holy Enda. One night the two saints beheld the same vision, "of a great fruitful tree, beside a stream, in the middle of Ireland, and it protected the island of Ireland, and its fruit went forth over the sea that surrounded the island, and the birds of the world came to carry off somewhat of its fruit". And when Ciaran spoke of the vision to Enda, the latter said to him: 

"The great tree which thou beholdest is thou thyself, for thou art great in the eyes of God and men, and all Ireland will be full of thy honour. This island will be protected under the shadow of thy favour, and multitudes will be satisfied with the grace of thy fasting and prayer. Go then, with God's word, to a bank of a stream, and there found a church." 


Ciaran obeyed. On reaching the mainland he first paid a visit to St. Senan of Scattery and then proceeded towards the "middle of Ireland", founding on his way two monasteries, in one of which, on Inis Ainghin, he spent over three years.


Going farther south he came to a lonely waste by the Shannon, and seeking out a beautiful grassy ridge, called Ard Tiprait, or the "Height of the Spring," he said to his companions: "Here then we will stay, for many souls will go to heaven hence, and there will be a visit from God and from men forever on this place".


Thus, on 23 January, 544, Ciaran laid the foundation of his monastic school of Clonmacnoise, and on 9 May following he witnessed its completion. Diarmait, son of Cerball, afterwards High King of Ireland, aided and encouraged the saint in every way,promising him large grants of land as an endowment. Ciaran's government of his monastery was of short duration; he was seized by a plague which had already decimated the saints of Ireland, and died 9 September, 544. 


It is remarkable that a young saint dying before he was thirty-three, should have been the founder of a school whose fame was to endure for centuries. But Ciaran was a man of prayer and fasting and labour, trained in all the science and discipline of the saints, humble and full of faith, and so was a worthy instrument in the hands of Providence for the carrying out of a high design. St. Cummian of Clonfert calls him one of the Patres Priores of the Irish Church, and Alcuin, the most illustrious alumnus of Clonmacnoise, proclaims him the Gloria Gentis Scotorum. His festival is kept on 9 September, and his shrine is visited by many pilgrims. 


Ciaran left but little mark upon the literary annals of the famous school he founded. But in the character which he gave it of a seminary for a whole nation, and not for a particular tribe or district, is to be found the secret of its success. The masters were chosen simply for their learning and zeal; the abbots were elected almost in rotation from the different provinces; and the pupils thronged thither from all parts of Ireland, as well as from the remote quarters of France and England.


From the beginning it enjoyed the confidence of the Irish bishops and the favour of kings and princes who were happy to be buried in its shadow. In its sacred clay sleep Diarmait the High King, and his rival Guaire, King of Connaught; Turlough O'Conor, and his hapless son, Roderick, the last King of Ireland, and many other royal benefactors, who believed that the prayers of Ciaran would bring to heaven all those who were buried there. 


But Clonmacnoise was not without its vicissitudes. Towards the close of the seventh century a plague carried off a large number of its students and professors; and in the eighth century the monastery was burned three times, probably by accident, for the buildings were mainly of wood. During the ninth and tenth centuries it was harassed not only by the Danes, but also, and perhaps mainly, by some of the Irish chieftains. One of these, Felim MacCriffon, sacked the monastery three times, on the last occasion slaughtering the monks, we are told, like sheep. Even the monks themselves were infected by the bellicose spirit of the times, which manifested itself not merely in defensive, but some times even in  offensive warfare. These were evil days for Clonmacnoise, but with the blessing of Ciaran, and under the "shadow of his favour", it rose superior to its trials, and all the while was the Alma Mater of saints and sages. 


Under date 794, is recorded the death of Colgu the Wise, poet, theologian, and historian, who is said to have been the teacher of Alcuin at Clonmacnoise (see Coelchu). Another alumnus of vast erudition, whose gravestone may still be seen there, was Suibhne, son of Maclume, who died in 891. He is described as the "wisest and greatest Doctor of the Scots", and the annals of Ulster call him a "most excellent scribe". Tighernach, the most accurate and most ancient prose chronicler of the northern nations, belongs to Clonmacnoise, and probably also Dicuil (q.v), the world-famed geographer. In this school were composed the "Chronicon Scotorum", a valuable chronicle of Irish affairs from the earliest times to 1135, and the "Leabhar na h-Uidhre", which, excepting the "Book of Armagh", is the oldest Irish historical transcript now in existence. In the twelfth century Clonmacnoise was a great school of Celtic art, architecture, sculpture, and metal work. To this period and to this school we owe the stone crosses of Tuam and Cong, the processional cross of Cong (below), and perhaps the Tara Brooch and the Chalice of Ardagh. The ruined towers and crosses and temples are still to be seen; but there is no trace of the little church of Ciaran (below) which was the nucleus of Clonmacnoise. 


Saint Ciaran of Clonmacnoise’s church, County Offaly, Ire.





Article published in English on: 2-9-2009.

Last update: 20-3-2011.