Celts to the Crèche: Day 37
St. Brendan of Birr, Muirchú of Ireland, and
Moneisen of Britain
On this 37th day of our pilgrimage with the Celts to the Crèche, we are getting close to the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. Today we journey with the following three lesser known Celtic saints of great faith and courage.
St. Brendan of Birr was the founder of Birr Monastery about 540AD in central Ireland. He was a friend of St. Columba (see day 4 of Celts to the Creche) and St. Brendan the Navigator (see day 20 of Celts to the Creche). All three of these saints were considered as part of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.
Muirchú was a 7th c. monk in Leinster that was a biographer of the great St. Patrick of Ireland.
Moneisen, was born about 400AD and was a Saxon. She was the daughter of a British king who persisted in her search for God until her parents brought her to Ireland to be baptized by St. Patrick. As soon as she met St. Patrick and was baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit, she immediately crossed over the threshold to the other side of the thin veil and was buried right there.
Brendan of Birr, died 573 AD
This Brendan was different than his friend, Brendan the Navigator (Brendan of Clonfert). Brendan of Birr studied with St. Finian at the famous Clonard Abbey. Later, as the founder of the Birr Monastery, Brendan was also a friend and disciple of St. Columba. He represented him at the his trial at the Synod of Meltown in 561 AD concerning his role in Battle of Cúl Dreimhne. Brendan’s defense of Columba resulted in his being exiled instead of excommunicated. Brendan was one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.
Later, an important Synod was held at Birr in 697/8 AD, in which Adomnan succeeded in promoting a law protecting women, children, and the clergy from having to go to battle. In attendance at this Synod of Birr was the famous Adomnan, Abbot of Iona who wrote the biography of St. Columba. Bishop Coeddi of Iona was also a participant in this Synod along with numerous kings. Brendan died in 573AD and it is that St. Columba in a vision saw the soul of his friend Brendan of Birr being carried by angels to heaven. He said a special Mass of requiem for Brendan on the isle of Iona.
Brendan’s monastery later produced the McRegol Gospels. McRegol, who was a successor to St. Brendan, was a scribe, Abbot, and Bishop at Birr who died in 822 AD. According to a colophon on the final page of the gospel book, McRegol made a magnificent illuminated manuscript copy of the Four Gospels, the original of which is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. On the final page of the book there is wording: Macregol dipinxit hoc evangelium. Quicumque legerit et intellegerit istam narrationem orat pro Macreguil scriptori.’ (Macregol illuminated/colored this gospel. Whoever reads and understands the story, pray[s] for Macregol the scribe.)
The deaths of the Abbots of Birr were recorded in the Irish Annals including McRegol listed as dying in 822AD.
Muirchú, Biographer of St. Patrick, 7th c.
Muirchú (“the Sea-Hound”) called himself Muirchú moccu Machthéni, that is, ‘Muirchú descendant of Machthéine’. He was a 7th c.monk in Leinster in eastern Ireland. On the recommendation of Bishop Aedh of Slébte, he recorded one of the first biographies of the Irish St. Patrick entitled Vita sancti Patrici, ( The Life of Saint Patrick) and it became the basis for all the later Lives of Patrick. He used Patrick’s Confessio and Epistola along with popular stories of his own time about Patrick. Muirchú then dedicated this book to the Bishop Aedh of Slebte, who not only encouraged the Life of Patrick to be written, but he was also the patron for the work. Muirchú, along with Bishop Aedh, are both recorded as having been among the ecclesiastics who attended the Synod of Birr in 697 or 698 A.D. This “Life of Patrick” by Muirchú and another “Life of Patrick” by Tírechán are both included with a variety of other texts in the Book of Armagh.
Moneisen of Britain, mid 5th c.
This courageous young woman, Moneisen (Monesan), is only known to us by a chapter written about her in Muirchú’s Life of St. Patrick in the Book of Armagh. He entitled this Chapter 27: Of the Death of Moniesen, the Saxon Lady.
English translation of Chapter 27 of Muirchú’s The Life of Patrick
“Of the Death of Moniesen, the Saxon Lady“
And so I shall endeavor, if the Lord will, to narrate a few [more] of the many miracles performed by Patrick, bishop and eminent teacher of all Ireland.
Once upon a time, when all Britain was numb with the chill of unbelief, there was a noble daughter of a certain king, and her name was Moneisen [Monesan]; and she was filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit. When someone sought her in marriage, she did not consent; and, though bathed in tears, she could not be forced against her will to adopt what was the lower life. For she was wont — amidst blows and floods of tears — to ask her mother and her nurse to tell her who was the maker of the orb by which the whole world is lighted up; and she received an answer from which she ascertained that the maker of the sun is He whose seat is the heaven.
When she was constantly urged to join herself to a husband in the bond of matrimony, she used — illuminated by the brightest light of the Holy Spirit — to say, “I will on no account do this thing.” For she sought through nature the Maker of the whole creation; following in this respect the example of the patriarch Abraham.
Her parents, having taken advice given to them by God, heard of Patrick as a man who was visited by the everlasting God every seventh day; and they journeyed to Ireland with their daughter, looking for Patrick; and they found him after seeking for him with much toil. And he began to question them as if they were neophytes.
Then the travelers began to cry aloud and say, “We have had to come to thee, compelled on account of our daughter who is earnestly desirous to see God.” Then he, filled with the Holy Ghost, raised his voice and said to her, “Dost thou believe in God?” And she said, “I believe!” Then he washed her with the sacred laver of the Spirit and water. And almost immediately afterwards, falling on the ground, she yielded up her spirit into the hands of the angels. She was buried where she died.
Then Patrick prophesied that after twenty years her body would be reverently born from that spot to a church hard by. And this afterwards came to pass; the relics of this maiden from beyond the seas are venerated there to this very day.
Feast Day of St. Brendan of Birr, November 29 (died 573AD)
Feast Day of Muirchu, June 8
St. Brendan of Birr is remembered as a Celtic saint who is considered to be the prophet of Ireland and one of the great Twelve Apostles of Ireland. Yet, most of us, like the faithful followers of Christ, Moneisen and Muirchú will never experience sainthood, much less, be remembered by many except our family members and dearest friends. Yet, each of our lives is important. We were conceived and born for a reason. We are God’s beloved children.
My congregations over the past several years have celebrated the birth of their fellow members and church guests at the first of each month. We speak of what a great blessing and gift they were to their families when they were born and that the universe needed them. The whole congregation then reads a special blessing to each celebrant. Along with the blessing, each birthday celebrant receives a tealight candle resting in a seashell. The candle reminds them that they were born to be light in this darkened world. The seashell reminds them of their second birth when they were born again through baptism into new life. We too like Moneisen receive baptism, not from St. Patrick, but from a local pastor or priest. This newly baptized one died right at his feet and was buried there. Her life and light still shines over the hundreds of years and so will ours.
Bodleian Library. Luna. MacRegol or Rushworth Gospels.
The Book of Armagh. Original book is digitized and the pages may be turned. www.confessio.ie
The Book of Armagh. Full-text. archives.org at Cornell University.
Fouracre, Paul, ed. The New Cambridge Medieval History. Volume 1, c.500-c.700. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Heimann, Jean. St. Brendan of Birr, Abbot and “Prophet of Ireland.” Catholic Fire. November 29, 2103, updated December 12, 2016.
Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham University. Adamnan: Life of St. Columba.
“Muirchu.” Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 39.
Muirchú. Life of St. Patrick.
The Northumbrian Gloss of the Gospels. (information on the 10th c. Anglo-Saxon gloss addition to the MacRegol/Rushworth Gospels).
Richter, Michael. Medieval Ireland:The Enduring Tradition. Dublin, Ireland: Gill & Macmillan, 2005.
Sellner, Edward C. “Monesan” in Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, rev. and expanded. St. Paul, MN: Bogwalk Press, 2006.
Sharpe, Richard. Adomnán of Iona: Life of St Columba. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995.
Undiscovered Scotland. Adomnán of Iona: Biography