Irish Lit: St. Kevin’s Miracles

By Dr. Jeanne Colleran

Saint Kevin, the sixth century Glendalough saint, was an ascetic and hermit who slept on stones, ate little but herbs and roots, prayed in freezing water, and wore mostly animal skins. He spent much of his time wandering the woods or meditating in a cave so low he could not stand up in it. His regimen did not seem to have affected his health: he died at age 120.

 Perhaps that last bit should tip us off that there are very few facts really known about Saint Kevin. He is part of the ‘second order’ of Irish saints, a term that derives from an effort around 750 by an anonymous author to describe the rise of Christianity.

The first order were the church founders, St. Patrick and early bishops; the second order were the monastery builders. Initially, Saint Kevin was reluctant for the CEO job: he preferred his barefoot, berry-eating ways. His cave had a lakeside view, and  he even had a devoted otter who retrieved his dropped breviary from the water and brought him the occasional fish.

But as fate, or more correctly, providence would have it,  a cow wandered into his cave one day and began to lick his clothes or feet (accounts vary). One lick and the cow gave as much milk as fifty cows. Naturally, the curious farmer followed the animal to Kevin’s cave where he was instantly converted.

Soon the farmer brought the rest of his family to be baptized. Since converting pagan and getting rid of druids and their miscreant followers was the church’s aim of the day, Kevin realized he needed to get back onto the grid (such as it was).

Alas his plan to build his monastery on a nearby tract of land was temporarily foiled by the local pagan King O’Toole (full disclosure: might be my relative—it is my grandmother’s maiden name). But for reasons of his own (read: weird) King O’Toole was inordinately fond of an old goose he had. In exchange for making the goose young again, which Kevin did handily, the King granted the land.

In addition to the usual run of miracles like restoring sight to the blind and healing people having fits, Kevin’s other miracles were fairly location specific. He rid the neighborhood of a dragon water monster; he got a bunch of willow trees to produce apples, and he commanded nettles to beat off a local lass with impure designs on him.

Harsher accounts say he drowned the woman, but the evidence is sketchy. All in all, Kevin chalked up more of the requisite miracles, had a nice group of friends like Columba and Kieran of Clonmacnoise, stopped skylarks from waking everyone up too early with their noisy warbling, and was an all-around nice fellow.

So, Seamus Heaney wrote a poem about him. But Heaney didn’t choose to write about any of the saint’s great miracles, though the story he tells is admittedly improbable.

The poem describes the time Kevin was praying in his wee cell with his outstretched holy (and no doubt very skinny) arms when a bird nested in his palm. Ever the gentleman (except for the nettled lady), Kevin holds still until the ladybird hatches her young and they all fly away. He writes:

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a 
crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

 Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and 
fledged and flown.

So, with that story told, just like it happened, right in the middle of it all (why he starts with “And”),  Heaney thinks about it a bit more and invites us to speculate further (another “And” and another four tercet stanzas which we recall (?!) from sophomore literature are three-line  stanzas often more somber in tone that can be either rhymed or unrhymed). Heaney writes:

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time 

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of 

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

Heaney himself has told listeners what his poem is about (in this you tube video He says it is based “on the sense of doing the right things for the reward of doing the right thing.” 
What is this right thing Seamus Heaney is praising? First there is profound pity for the creatures of the world, the bird in the first part of the diptych, in the second, Kevin himself. The reader is called to see Kevin’s pity and then to pity Kevin himself.

Saint’s lives, when measured by their miracles, may strike wonder (or skepticism) but they are exceedingly difficult to actually emulate: it’s very hard to stop early morning birdsong, or increase milk production fifty-fold, or de-age a goose.  But Heaney is more interested in compassion than in miracles.

Poor Kevin is “in agony all the time.” If he is not in pain from the neck to the fingertip, it is only because the “underearth” has “crept up through him,” deadening his pain but also connecting the saint to the soil, and hence to grace-filled humility. Kevin prays St. Ignatius’ prayer (an anachronism that Heaney knows we will recognize), and his body has itself become the prayer.

Bone-tired Kevin persists, he does not fail the burden of pity or love or generosity. Saint Kevin’s life story may not be known factually, but his spirit, as Heaney has recorded it, surely is.

“Saint Kevin and the Blackbird.”  Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level, 1996
A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland, 1906

Find this column and other Dr, Colleran Irish Lit Columns HERE!

Dr. Jeanne Colleran

*Dr. Jeanne Colleran, Ph.D is Professor Emeritus of English. At John Carroll University she served as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and as the Provost and Academic Vice President. At Loyola University of Chicago, she worked with the Loyola Rule of Law Institute in the School of Law.

A scholar of modern and contemporary literature, she has published a book, an edited collection, and some three dozen articles concerning literature and society. She has lectured in Ireland, South Africa, England, United States, France, Canada, Belgium, and The Netherlands. She taught undergraduate and graduate courses in Irish Literature. She may be reached at [email protected]


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