Saint Senán


Inis-Cathaig and the River Shannon, Ireland

From Early History of Ireland: Ecclesiastical by James F. Kenney

Inis-Cathaig (Iniscathy, Scattery Island) and St. Senan

It has been observed that certain of the saints who belong to that dim backward of time which saw the beginnings of Irish Christianity -- Ibar, Brigit, Ailbe, perhaps Mac Cairthinn -- appear to have taken each the name and something of the legends and cult of a pagan deity. In the same company should be placed Senan, who from the island known as Inis-Cathaig (Scattery Island, about a mile from Kilrush) ruled the waters of the great river Sinann, now the Shannon. In pagan days Senan was, we may believe, a river-god, to whom, as to Neptune, the horse was sacred, and a slayer of monsters, at whose sanctuary on Inis-Cathaig was told the legend of his killing, or driving away, the dragon-like creature Cathach. It is probable that his cult was particularly strongly established among the Corcu Baiscinn, a sea-faring people who dwelt in the southwestern section of the present Clare, between the Shannon and the Atlantic. In Christian times Senan was founder of the church of Inis-Cathaig; patron of the Corcu Baiscinn, and of the Ui Fidgente, the ruling kindreds of the territory on the southern side of the estuary of the Shannon; and a saint whose cult, spread by these peoples, was to be found in Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany. As in the cases of Ibar and Brigit, Macalister offers the hypothesis that the saint was the Christian hermit who turned Inis-Cathaig from a pagan to a Christian shrine, but whose name and fame ultimately fell captive to those of the god whom he overthrew.

Life of St. Senan

The several versions of Senan's Life differ considerably in content. The metrical Latin version is probably the oldest, but it seems to be a monastic composition having no very direct connection with Inis-Cathaig. On the other hand the Irish Life, which, though quite fabulous, is also very interesting, seems to depend directly on legends of the lower Shannon, and probably on a Life written at Inis-Cathaig when that was still a flourishing monastery, that is, not later than the tenth century. The imposing array of miracles, the list of famous saints with whom the subject of the Life is brought into contact, and the records of church foundations made by him, all indicate an origin in a monastery of his community.

The extraordinary inconsistencies of the chronological setting may reject the absence of historical data: Senan is, while still in his mother's womb, foretold by Patrick (d. 461); he succeeds Maedoc (d. 626) as abbot of Ferns; he makes a league with Martin of Tours (d. 397 x 403); he associates with various Irish saints of the middle and second half of the sixth century; and he dies on the same day as David of Wales (544 x 547, or 601). But the biographers were capable of a wonderful recklessness in these matters, even when dealing with saints whose records were well founded.

The establishment of many different churches by Senan is recorded: they represent, doubtless, the paruchia claimed by the abbots of Inis-Cathaig.

Much curious and interesting matter is contained in the several texts.

Amra Senain

This eulogy of Senan is written in language of intentional dignity and obscurity similar to that of the Amra of Colum-cille (no. 212) which it closely resembles. It too is ascribed to Dallan Forgaille.

Miorbuile Senain: The Miracles of Senan

This is an account, written probably in the fourteenth century, of happenings during that and the preceding hundred years which the author considered to be due to the intervention of St. Senan. It has value for the history and social conditions of the age; and the information regarding Senan's churches and their inter-relationships can doubtless, be used in part for earlier epochs. The text ends with a poem giving a long list of famous saints with whom Senan had made alliances, and who were bound to avenge any injury to his churches.

Copyright © 1996-2009 Jim Gilsinan IV
Last updated 26 November 2009.

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