Celts to the Creche: St. Ita of Ireland

Icon of St. Ita of Ireland

Icon of St. Ita of Ireland

Celts to the Creche: Day 13

St. Ita of Ireland

c 480-c570 AD

On this 13th day of the Celts to the Creche we meet St. Ita of Ireland. We are over 1/2 way on the journey to the creche at Bethlehem! St. Ita is considered to be the foster mother of the saints of Ireland;  the patron saint of Munster; and the founding Abbess of Killeedy, which is the first known monastery in western Ireland. Her monastery and school were guided by  the simple Celtic type triad dictum, True faith in God with purity of heart, simplicity of life with religion, and generosity with love.

Early Life: Ita, was born about  480 and raised in the present day Drum in County Waterford.  She was a daughter of Faelan (Cennfoelad), King of the Desi and her mother was Necta.  Her sister was Nessa, the mother of St. Mo Chaemmoc.   She was baptized as “Deirdre,” but was given the nickname, Itha meaning “thirst” because of her thirst for God. Oengus called her “the white sun of the women of Munster.”

Stained Glass of St. Ita in St. Kieran's Church, Bally lobby

Stained Glass of St. Ita in St. Kieran’s Church, Bally lobby

Her Calling: Ita was said to embody the six virtues of Irish womanhood – wisdom, purity, musical ability, gentle speech and needle skills. She is also reported to have rejected a prestigious marriage for a life as a nun. One night in a dream, an angel appeared to Ita and she sought the meaning of the dream. The angel said that the stones symbolized the gifts of the Trinity and that these gifts would guide her throughout her life.

Abbess: At the age of sixteen she moved to Cluain Credhail (meaning Holy Meadow) in Limerick where she set up the monastery, Killeedy (“Church of Ita”).  She also set up another foundation called Kilmeedy (“Mo Ita”). Bishop Declan of Ardmore conferred the veil on her.

Legend has it that Ita was led to Killeedy by three heavenly lights. The first was at the top of the Galtee mountains, the second on the Mullaghareirk mountains and the third at Cluain Creadhail, which is nowadays Killeedy. Her sister Fiona also went to Killeedy with her and became a member of the community. Ita and her community spent their time praying, teaching the young and caring for the sick, the poor and the elderly. The community also had a dairy farm at Boolaveeda near Mountcollins, which was run by St Ita.

Ita’s Character Traits: Ita was said to be a prophetess with a  strongly individualistic character and a penchant for the austere life. When she decided to settle in Killeedy, a chieftain offered her a large grant of land to support the convent. But Ita would accept only four acres, which she cultivated intensively. This individualistic character must  have been a family trait as Ita’s nephew Dagan, became the Bishop of Wexford. He upheld his family’s Celtic traditions in the face of pressure from the Roman community at Canterbury. Bishop Dagan refused to sit down and eat with Archbishop Laurentius who succeeded Augustin as Bishop of Canterbury.

St. Brendan the Navigator from a German manuscript

St. Brendan the Navigator from a German manuscript

Ita’s Influence on Brendan the Navigator: The Killeedy double monastery had a school for boys and girls and one of Ita’s pupils was St. Brendan the Navigator (see day 20 of Celts to the Creche), whom Bishop Erc gave to Ita to care for when he was a year old. Brendan stayed at Killeedy until he was six years old. Brendan continued to stay in contact with Ita throughout his life and visited her between his voyages and always deferred to her counsel.

Like the Druids, Ita taught in triads. Brendan is believed to have asked her what three things God loved best and she answered: “Faith in God with a pure heart, a simple life with a religious spirit, and generosity with love.” She also told him the three things God most detested were a scowling face, obstinacy in wrongdoing, and too great a confidence in the power of money.

Her Influence: Numerous miracles are recorded of her. She is also said to be the originator of an Irish “Lullaby for the Infant Jesus” that is preserved in a 9th c. manuscript. An English version  was set for voice and piano by the American composer Samuel Barber. She influenced many of Ireland’s saints so she is often called the foster mother of Irish saints.

St. Ita's 20th c. shrine considered to be over the place of her burial

St. Ita’s 20th c. shrine considered to be over the place of her burial

Her Resurrection Day: Ita probably died of cancer, though contemporary chroniclers describe how her side was consumed by a beetle that eventually grew to the size of a pig. When she felt her end approaching she sent for her community of nuns, and invoked the blessing of heaven on the clergy and laity of the district around Kileedy. Ita died sometime around 570. Her grave, frequently decorated with flowers, is in the ruins of Cill Ide, a Romanesque church at Killeedy where her monastery once stood.

Ita’s Holy Wells: A holy well near Killeedy, almost invisible now, was known for centuries for curing smallpox in children and other diseases as well.

St. Ita's Well

St. Ita’s Well

In recent times, the water in the well was said to cure warts and children from the local school, who were suffering from warts, have gone to the well during school hours, to wash the afflicted part and having said the following words: “Bubble up, bubble up, Blessed Well!” three times, have been cured.

St Ita's well Tobar na Molt

St Ita’s well Tobar na Molt where it is said that St. Brendan was baptized by Bishop Erc.

Killeedy Church: The original church that was built within the grounds of the double monastery was built about 546. In 845 the Vikings burned Killeedy. A church was rebuilt on the monastic site after 845. However, Killeedy was raided again in 857 and 916. There are only ruins of this great church.


Feast Day January 15

Oh Triune God, three in One, help me to  follow St. Ita’s words:

“Faith in God with a pure heart, a simple life with a religious spirit, and generosity with love.” Amen.

St. It's Church at Killeedy in ruins.

St. Ita’s Church at Killeedy in ruins.


Some resources:

Earle, Mary C. and Sylvia Maddox. Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2004.

Ellis, Peter B. Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and Literature. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.

Harrington, Christina. Women in a Celtic Church: Ireland 450-1150. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Jones, Kathleen. Who are the Celtic Saints? Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2002.

Ó’Ríordáin, John J. Early Irish Saints. Dublin: The Columba Press, 2004.

Rees, Elizabeth. Celtic Saints: Passionate Wanderers. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Sellner, Edward C. Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, rev. and expanded. St. Paul, MN: Bog Walk Press, 2006.

Wallace, Martin. Celtic Saints. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1995.


About Pastor Brenda

Pastor Brenda is an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister. I am married with two grown awesome sons; and an equally awesome daughter-in-love; and two Maine Coon cats named for Celtic saints: “St. Fursey” and the paternal line of St. Columba, “Nialls.” Nialls is a gorgeous, huge, charming re-homed cat and he arrived with the name Niles. My pets must have Celtic/Anglo-Saxon names and since he seemed past the age to change his name...it became “Nialls.” My son asked me how to pronounce the cat’s new name and I said, “Niles.” As a former public and theological Library Director, I love doing research that has helped me in composing this Advent devotional. My research has been enriched by libraries, way too many books and journals purchased, and numerous pilgrimages to the places where these saints lived and worked and had their being. I cannot even begin to express what a great gift it has been to meet like-minded friends along the path who have generously and kindly shared their scholarship, knowledge, and enthusiasm for the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon saints. I often wonder if the saints have in some way been instrumental in introducing me to their friends on both sides of the thin veil. "Celts to the Creche" at www.saintsbridge.org. is one of my blogs. I have written of some of my pilgrimages and random musings at pastorpilgrim.wordpress.org. Some of my recent sermons can be found on YouTube under First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), San Angelo, Texas.
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