Illuminations:  St. Enda of Aran: The Father of Irish Monasticism

Illuminations:  St. Enda of Aran: The Father of Irish Monasticism
By:  J. Michael Finn

On March 21, four days after the feast day of Ireland’s patron Saint Patrick, the Catholic Church honors Saint Enda of Aran.  In the Irish language he is known as Naomh Éanna (pron: neev ay-uh-nuh).

Enda was born around 450 AD in what is now the province of Ulster.  He was born an Irish prince, the son of Conall Derg of Oriel  (Oriel was an ancient territory in south-east Ulster that included south County Armagh, north County Monaghan and Omeath in County Louth).

According to the story, when his father died, Enda succeeded him as king and went off to fight his enemies. The warrior/king Enda was converted to Christianity by his sister, Saint Fanchea of Rossory, an abbess.

Enda visited Fanchea, who tried to persuade him to lay down his arms and adopt a more peaceful life. He agreed, if she would give him a young girl in the convent for a wife.  She pretended to agree and he renounced his dreams of conquest and decided to marry; however, the girl Fanchea promised to him died and she forced him to view the girl’s body, to teach him that he, too, someday would face death and judgment.

The Priest King
Faced with the reality of his death, Enda decided to renounce his kingship and study for the priesthood. Whether this story of Enda’s conversion to Christianity is true remains unclear to historians.

Enda then went to Scotland, where he obtained an education at the monastery and school called Candida Casa, founded by St. Ninian at Whithorn.  It was there he became a monk and was ordained a priest.

Because he is one of the earliest saints of Ireland, it is presumed that he studied in Scotland due to lack of monastic sites in his native land.  It is also recorded by some sources that he was ordained in Rome while making a pilgrimage there to venerate relics of the Apostles.

About 484 AD he petitioned King Aengus of Munster – who was married to another of Enda’s sisters – to grant him land for a monastic settlement on the Aran Islands. Located off the western coast of County Galway, three rocky islands make up the Aran Islands.  

Aran Islands

From west to east, the islands are: Inis Mór (pron: in-ess more, the big or great island); Inis Meain (pron: in-ess maan or the middle island); and Inis Thiar (pron: in-ess hear or the eastern island).  The three islands stretch across the mouth of Galway Bay.

Enda established the monastery at Killeaney on Inis Mór, which is generally regarded as the first Irish monastery. He began with about 150 disciples. After founding Killeaney, he also established a monastery in the Boyne valley, and several others across Ireland. Along with St. Finnian of Clonard, he is known as the Father of Irish Monasticism.  

At Killeaney the monks lived a very hard life. Their day was divided into fixed periods for prayer, manual labor, and sacred study. Each community had its own church and its village of stone cells, in which they slept either on the bare ground or on a bundle of straw covered with a rug.

The monks took their meals in silence. They were not permitted to have a fire in their stone cells, no matter how cold the weather. Enda initiated the “no fire” rule based on the fact that Christ was born in an unheated stable.  What was good enough for Christ, Enda prescribed, was good enough for his monks.

Enda divided the big island into two parts, one half assigned to the monastery of Killeaney, and the western half to any of his disciples who would “erect permanent religious houses on the island.” Later he divided the island into eight parts, in each he built a “place of refuge” where all on the island who had nowhere to go could find shelter and care.

The monks obtained their own food and clothing by the labor of their hands. Some fished around the islands; others cultivated patches of oats or barley in sheltered spots between the rocks. Others ground grain or kneaded the meal into bread, and baked it for the use of their brothers.

They spun and wove their own clothes from the wool of their own sheep. They drank neither wine nor mead, and they were allowed no meat, except for small portions that were given to the sick.

Enda’s Land: The Land of Saints
During his lifetime, Enda’s monastic settlement on the Aran Islands became an important pilgrimage destination, as well as a center for spreading Christianity to the surrounding areas. At least two dozen canonized saints have been associated with Enda and the Aran Islands. 
Among these were Saint Brendan the Navigator, who was blessed there before leaving on his famous voyage; Saint Jarlath of Tuam; Saint Finnian of Clonard; and Saint Colmcille of Iona, who called the monastery the “Sun of the West.” 

Saint Ciarán of Clonmacnoise came there as a youth and would have remained there for life except for Enda’s recognition that his true work was elsewhere. Enda ordained him a priest and advised him to build a church and monastery in the middle of Ireland.

Ciarán is said to have walked to the future site of the monastery at Clonmacnoise with his pet cow. After the cow’s death, in great old age, the monastic manuscript Book of the Dun Cow was bound in her skin. An early chronicler of Enda’s life declared that it would “never be known until the day of judgment, the number of saints whose bodies lie in the soil of Aran.” 

Enda’s monastery flourished until Viking times. Much of the stone was ransacked by Cromwell’s men in the 1650s for fortifications, so only scattered ruins now remain on the island.  Cattle, goats, and horses now huddle and shiver in the storm under many of the ruins of old walls where the monks once lived and prayed.

St. Enda’s School
Enda’s influence even extended to our own time.  Patrick Pearse, the leader of the Easter Rising in 1916, had long been critical of the educational system in Ireland, which he believed taught Irish children to be good Englishmen.  In modern times, Pearse established St. Enda’s School or Scoil Éanna (pron: skuhl ay-uh-nuh), which he opened on September 8, 1908, in Cullenswood House, Ranelagh, a suburb of Dublin. 

In 1910, Ireland’s first bilingual school relocated to The Hermitage in Rathfarnham, Dublin. It operated until 1935. Today the Hermitage stands as the Pearse Museum, dedicated to the memory of the school’s founder.

St. Enda himself died in old age, around the year 530 AD.  In addition to being recognized as the Father of Irish Monasticism, Enda is honored as the Patron Saint of the Aran Islands.  Many monastic ruins, holy wells, churches and stained-glass windows preserve his memory on the Aran Islands and around Ireland.

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected].

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