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 (St. Íte). 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.”
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 in her dream symbolized the gifts of the Trinity and that these gifts would guide her throughout her life.
Abbess: At the age of sixteen Ita 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.
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 and he 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.
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.
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.
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.
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