Celtic and Old English Saints          12 September

* St. Ailbhe of Emly
* St. Eanswythe of Folkestone

St. Ailbhe, Bishop of Emly
(Albeus, Elvis, Ailbe)
5th or 6th century (died 526-540?). Although many are under the mistaken
belief that Saint Patrick was the first to bring Christianity to
Ireland, Saint Ailbhe was converted by British missionaries. Some
traditions say that he was baptized by a priest while a boy in northern
Ireland; another that he was baptized and raised in a British settlement
in Ireland. In either case, he had travelled to Rome before Patrick's
arrival-- and some say that he was consecrated bishop there.

Upon his return to Ireland, he became the disciple of Patrick and,
according to some, was consecrated the first archbishop of Munster by
him. Ailbhe fixed his see at Emly (Imlech, County Tipperary, though the
cathedral is now at Cashel), which is officially listed by the Vatican
as being founded in the 4th century, making it the oldest continuous see
in Ireland.

He was known as a powerful preacher and a model of sanctity, who won
many souls to the faith. Although he lived in the world in order to care
for the souls of his flock, he was careful for his own soul, too. He
made frequent retreats and engaged in habitual recollection. Saint
Ailbhe especially loved to pray in front of the sea. King Aengus of
Munster gave him Aran Island (Co. Galway) on which he founded a great
monastery and established Saint Enda as abbot. He also drew up a still
extant rule for the community.

When in his old age he wanted to resign and retire to the solitude of
Thule (Shetland? Iceland? Greenland?) to prepare for death, the king
stationed guards at the ports to prevent his flight. Thus, Saint Ailbhe
died in the midst of his episcopal labours and is deemed the principal
patron of Munster.

There are many accounts of Saint Ailbhe: that he baptized Saint David of
Wales; that an angel showed him the "place of his resurrection"--Emly;
that he was in constant dialogue with the angels. Even his name points
to a legend: Ailbhe, said to mean "living rock" in Gaelic, was a
foundling left under a rock and suckled by a she-wolf, and thus named by
his adoptive family. The story continues that later, while he was
hunting with some companions, an aged female wolf ran to him for
protection (Benedictines, Delaney, Encyclopaedia, Farmer, Husenbeth,

Another life:

< http://www.alvyray.com/Ailbhe/AilbheSaint.htm >

St Ailbhe comes from an uncertain and controversial period of Irish
history. There is evidence that he is one of the first Christian
missionaries in Ireland - before St Patrick! - but then the Patrician
history contradicts this - perhaps with a political agenda? Who knows.
Anyway, he is acknowledged to be the patron saint of the current
Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly located in south central Ireland
comprising parts of Counties Tipperary and Limerick. He is probably the
founder of the first, ancient cathedral at Emly. A typical "history" of
him can be found on the Cashel and Emly Archdiocese website, <
http://ireland.iol.ie/~pjackson/acesaint.htm > which tells us that
Ailbhe was able to save the wolf (see name list item above) when she was
to be killed and that the wolf thereafter ate from his table.

Learned information appears in a translation of the Life of St Declan of
Ardmore < http://www.ccel.org/d/declan/life/declan.html > which clearly
states that Ailbhe and Ciaran (both now Saints) preceded Patrick in the
Irish mission, that the Life of St Patrick affirms this, that St Patrick
came to Ireland only slightly after Ailbhe and Ciaran as a superior to
them in the Catholic hierarchy. Unfortunately, the Life of St Declan
contains obvious contradictions, so these facts are controversial. The
Life of St Declan, by the way, appears to establish Declan as another of
the pre-Patrician Irish Christian missionaries. Other candidates for
membership in this elite corps are Ibar, Brigit, Senan, "perhaps Mac
[son of] Cairthinn" (see Life of St Senan <
http://www.solaw.com/jg4/senan/ > ). Another example of the confusion
rampant here is evidenced by the Celtic baby name list item above which
claims St Ailbhe lived in the 6th century. This is consistent with the
website entry above for the Cashel and Emly Archdiocese which lists 528
as his death year. The website points out that this contradicts the
claim that he preceded Patrick who was in Ireland in the 5th century.
But the Life of St Declan goes on and on about just how and when Ailbhe,
Declan, Ibar, and Patrick met and interacted, both in Ireland and in
Rome before that.

The best information I have found comes from The Flowering of Ireland:
Saints, Scholars & Kings by Katharine Scherman, Little Brown & Co, 1981
(reissued 1999 for St Patrick's Day). Excerpts:

p 83: "But he [Patrick] had predecessors. Through the nimbus of myth
that surrounds early Irish church history there emerge four holy figures
who were there when Patrick came. ... Not much remains to us but the
names - St Ciaran of Saighir and Ossory, St Ailbe of Emly, St Ibar of
Beg Erin and St Declan of Ardmore - and some lively legends of their
miraculous activities."

pp 84-85: "The figure of St Ailbe is almost as nebulous as that of St
Ciaran. His life is said to have spanned 167 years, from 360 to 527. He
is probably a composite: the saints of early years, the recording of
whose deeds was dependent on the spoken word of recent converts steeped
in the magic and mysticism of their pre-Christian youth, tended to blend
together. Their deeds, later recorded in writing by monks themselves
enveloped in the climate of unquestioning faith, took on a cloudy aura,
and several saints merged into a single hyperbolic monument to

"Ailbe was born to a maidservant in the house of Cronan, lord of Eliach
in County Tipperary. Cronan, for reasons unrevealed, disapproved of his
birth and directed that he be exposed to 'dogs and wild beasts, that he
might be devoured'[1] The baby was found by a wolf, who tended him until
an unidentified passerby, possibly a Christian from Britain, noticed his
beauty and his potential Christian grace, and took him away to be reared
in the faith. After study and consecration in Rome, Ailbe was directed
by the pope, along with 'fifty holy men from Ireland,' presumably
recently converted followers, to proselytize the heathens in an
unrecorded corner of Europe. Then, like 'a sagacious bee loaded with
honey,' he embarked for Ireland with his companions in an unseaworthy
boat. By blessing the sea, he brought them all serenely to port in
northern Ireland, where he converted the king, Fintan, and brought back
to life Fintan's three sons, slain in battle.

Note [1]: "Quotations concerning the life of St Ailbe throughout this
chapter are from Rev John O'Hanlon, Lives of the Irish Saints" [which I
have not been able to find: 10 volumes, Dublin: J. Duffy & Sons, 1875].

"St Ailbe traversed Ireland, as did St Patrick after him, converting as
he went, and at last settled in Emly, County Tipperary, near the place
of his birth. There he founded a church and a school, and promulgated
the 'Law of Ailbe,' supposedly the first codification of ecclesiastical
rule in Ireland. In the huge span of his life he was friend to many holy
men, including, of course, St Patrick, who reputedly named him
archbishop of Munster. When he was very old he wished to retire to Tyle
(Thule), the island that is now Iceland, to flee worldly honours and to
meditate among the holy hermits already established on that bleak shore.
But King Aengus of Munster (converted by St Patrick) refused permission
and placed guards at the seaports so he could not escape his
responsibilities to the multitudes of his adoring followers. Ailbe is
called 'the second St Patrick,' and he may be one of those whose deeds
and persons fuse into the great shadowy form of Ireland's patron saint."

p 86: "In Rome he [St Declan] had met Ailbe, already prominent, and they
had formed a deep friendship that was to last their lives."

p 94: "Apocryphal as are most of the stories around the hazy figure of
Ireland's patron, it is historical fact that the framework of a
Christian organisation modelled loosely on that of Rome began to take
shape under the aegis of a single or composite strong, vibrant
personality. It started, probably, when Patrick went to challenge the
heathen stronghold of Cashel. (This was the seat of King Aengus, the
over-king of Munster, which was one of Ireland's five provinces and at
that time, with Tara, the most powerful.) Cashel was the traditional
rival of Tara ... and Patrick knew that the conversion of its king was
just as important for his mission as the convincing of king Laoghaire at
Tara. The eloquent young man succeeded where his elders, Ireland's first
four holy men, had failed. Aengus became one of his strongest
supporters, and Cashel was the site of Ireland's first meeting of
ecclesiastics, as Patrick summoned to him Declan, Ibor, Ailbe and Ciaran
for the disposition of local ecclesiastical affairs."

Troparion of St Ailbe tone 4
When Ireland's Enlightener returned to his native land he found thee, O
holy Ailbe, preaching the Faith at Emly,/ where at the bidding of an
Angel thou hadst built a church./ O wise shepherd of souls and glorious
ascetic,/ O friend of animals, and fellow missionary with the
illustrious Patrick, pray to Christ our God that we might also become
bastions of Orthodoxy/ and a shining example to our fellow countrymen,
drawing them away from ignorance and error/ and into the true Faith that
all our souls may be saved.

The Rule of Saint Ailbe can be found in "The Celtic Monk: Rules &
Writings of Early Irish Monks" Uinseann O'Maidin OCR, pub. Cistercian
Studies Series Number 162, 1996. ISBN: 0879076623 (pb) and 0879075627

The church at Emly

Graveyard at Emly

Saint Ailbhe's Well

Statue of Saint Ailbhe on facade of church

St. Eanswythe of Folkestone, Abbess
(also known as Eanswida, Eanswith(a), Eanswide, Eanswyth)
Died August 31, c. 640; this is probably a memorial of the translation
of her relics; feast day at Saint Augustine, Canterbury, and Durham is
celebrated on August 31.

>From her infancy Saint Eanswythe, the daughter of King Eadbald of Kent
and granddaughter of King Saint Ethelbert, found delight in prayer.
Rejecting the world and its foolish vanities, she refused all offers of
marriage, which she felt would interrupt her devotions and
contemplation. King Eadbald finally consented to allowing her to found a
monastery on the coast near
Folkestone, Kent, where she served as its abbess and died at an early
age. It seems likely that she was trained in France and that hers was
the first convent in England.

The monastery was destroyed by the Danes, but restored by King
Athelstan, then refounded in 1095 for the Black Benedictines. Part of it
was swallowed up by the sea, and so the community was moved to
Folkestone. Her relics were
translated to the church built by Eadbald in honour of Saint Peter, but
later known as Saints Mary and Eanswythe. In 1885, a Saxon coffer was
found in the north wall containing the bones of a young woman, which
were assumed to be those of Saint Eanswythe (Benedictines, Farmer,

In art, Saint Eanswythe is portrayed as a crowned abbess with a book and
two fish. She is venerated at Folkestone (Roeder), where her image is
incorporated on the town's seals (Farmer).

Icon of our holy Mother St. Eanswitha, Royal Abbess of Folkestone
Larger size

Service for our Holy Mother Eanswythe, Abbess of Folkestone


Benedictine Monks of St. Augustine Abbey, Ramsgate.
(1947). The Book of Saints. NY: Macmillan.

Delaney, J. J. (1983). Pocket Dictionary of Saints, NY:
Doubleday Image.

Encyclopaedia of Catholic Saints, August. (1966).
Philadelphia: Chilton Books.

Farmer, D. H. (1997). The Oxford Dictionary of Saints.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Husenbeth, Rev. F. C., DD, VG (ed.). (1928). Butler's
Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints.
London: Virtue & Co.

Montague, H. P. (1981). The Saints and Martyrs of Ireland.
Guildford: Billing & Sons.

Scherman, Katharine (1981, and reissued 1999 for St Patrick's Day)
The Flowering of Ireland: Saints, Scholars & Kings.
Little Brown & Co.

Roeder, H. (1956). Saints and Their Attributes, Chicago: Henry

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