By Katharine Lochnan, the second of three essays on the role of deserts; presenting options to nurture silence. If you missed her first missive, read it here>
St. Colman mac Duagh (6th-7th c. CE) was said to be the son of the Irish chieftain Duagh, born at Cork, Kiltartan, County Galway and educated at St. Enda’s monastery on the Aran islands. For a time he lived as a recluse and built a church and small oratory near Kilmurvey (Aran) which is one of the Seven Churches. In the late 6th c. C.E., craving greater solitude, he moved, with a young cleric, to a cave on the Burren at the foot of Slieve Carran. The Burren, which appears on the surface to be a barren moonscape, was seen as analogous to “the stricken hills of Judaea.” Colman was able to survive there thanks to the fact that the rock contains incredibly fertile soil within its crevices and mini-woodland valleys.
Today the site consists of Colman’s cave, a holy well, the grave of his cleric, a bullaun stone, and a small stone oratory which was added later. According to legend, after fasting through Lent, Colman asked his cleric whether he had found anything for their Easter meal. When the latter replied, in frustration, that he had only found a small fowl and some herbs, Colman prayed that the Lord would provide a suitable meal.
There are at least two colourful variations of the story that follows: one that maintains that at that very moment when Colman’s cousin, King Guire Aidne mac Colmáin, who lived near the site of Dunguaire Castle in Kinvarra, was sitting down to feast from the “Cauldron of Guaire,” it rose up from the table and was escorted by two angels over the woods and crags landing in front of Colman’s hermitage.
In another variation, as soon as the dishes had been filled from the cauldron, they rose up and flew out the window all the way to Colman’s hermitage. The amazed king followed with his retinue only to discover their banquet spread before Colman and his cleric! Today there is a sign near Kinvarra, pointing to Bóthar-na-Mias, “the road of the dishes.”
Like all these early legends this story was not meant to be taken literally, but to be understood as a metaphor. The so-called “bounty of Guaire” is a variation on the story of the manna that fell from heaven to feed the Israelites in the desert. As Patrick Sheeran has pointed out in “The Fertile Rock: The Burren as Desert” in The Book of the Burren (Kinvara: Tir Eolas, 2001, 211-220), “Colman is a type of Israel, the Burren a type of Sinai” (216). These stories are ancient ways of illustrating the precept that, for those who believe, God will provide.
But the colourful way in which this precept is conveyed through the Celtic imagination is distinctly different from the simplicity of Eastern asceticism. Impressed by Colman’s holiness, the King asked him to take episcopal charge of the territory of the Aidhne. Around 610 C.E., they founded the monastery of Kilmacduagh (the church of the son of Duagh) near Gort. This became the centre of the tribal Diocese of Aidhne which was practically coextensive with the See of Kilmacduagh.
Colman governed it as abbot-bishop; his crozier can be seen today in the National Museum, located at Kildare Street, Dublin.