St Aedh: a powerful story of our time

Aedh was one of the O’Neill, descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages’ through his son Fiachaidh. Aedh grew up and worked on his father’s farm.  On his father’s death, Aedh’s brother refused to give him his rightful inheritance, Aedh then kidnapped a girl from his brother’s household to force the issue, but Illathan, Bishop of Offaly, persuaded him to let the girl go, and release his claim to the land.  Aedh stayed with the Bishop to study, became a monk and founded a monastery at Cill-áir in Westmeath.  He also lived near Sliabh Laigh (Slieve League) in Donegal. At Bunglass, there is a standing pillar and a small chapel connected to him.

In his lifetime, Aedh was a very powerful healer and peacemaker.  He is reputed to have miraculously cured St Brigid of headache. Such were his powers as a healer, his reputation grew after his death, and he was associated with aspects of the god Lugh.  It is said to that to invoke the name of St Aedh is sufficient to cure head pain. As a peacemaker, he was regarded as a prince of the Ui Néill, and acted in this role between Munster and the Uí Néill, (befitting his cross-border connection through his mother, Eithne, from Munster).

Aedh died in 589, of natural causes.  His resting place is at Killaghtee in Donegal, at a spot overlooking St Johns Point, where in his lifetime, he had an oratory.  A (later) medieval ruined church now stands there Amid the rough graveyard, stands a remarkable stone marking his grave. It is one of the oldest headstones in Ireland.  The stone marks the transition from inscribed slab to sculptured high cross in Ireland and so holds an important place in the development of Celtic art. The headstone is circular at the top, and has a cross which is carved in relief and is encircled.  There are also two small concentric circles at the centre of the cross.  Below this, and to the right, there is the outline of a triquetra.  The cross itself is unusual in shape. Some describe it as a Maltese cross, though it is remarkably similar to the Greek Orthodox cross. It is something of a tantalising mystery. Why the Greek cross, or even the Maltese cross in such a remote corner of Donegal?  Did the Ui Neill or the influence of Aedh, stretch further than Ireland at that time, out towards the Mediterranean?

Aedhs story too, is remarkable, a rise from being an illiterate farmer to one of the most powerful healers and peacemakers of his time, is significant even today.  We live in different times and circumstances these days.  We are beset by a faster pace of life, a time of sound bite politics, global economies, by fractured family breakdown, and communities divided by distance. But maybe, there is something deeper we can think about.  In this narrative, Aedh, the son of an illiterate farmer, a man a couple of generations away from the High King Ui Neill of Ireland, experiences losing his land and livelihood. Out of disaster, he finds his power as a healer and peacemaker. In this story, Aedh stands in the spotlight, the rest of us in the shadows. But all of us are defined somehow by our relation to that story, to our past history; to our culture. We come zooming in from the shadows to look and reflect on the role of our ancestors and how they shaped our future.

In our own minds, we sometimes create an idyll around what might have been.  In our minds, Ireland was more superior, more beautiful, more friendly, more musical, prettier and much, much holier than everywhere else.  We would not have had such a bad life if we had lived a couple of generations back.  But idyll doesn’t last. Nothing does. And history is rapid anyway. Aedh went back into the shadows of history, having changed the lives of those around him, and having left tantalising memories, with his successors marking his passing with an enigma of a headstone, the most innovative of its time.

He reminds us of the transient nature of our lives, going as he did, and within a generation, from the seat of dynastic power, to seeming illiteracy and loss of land and livelihood, only to re-emerge with something even more meaningful; more powerful. Today, we stand within one lifetime of WW2.  Then for many, it was a time without life, with the death camps, where life had no price.  We are three or four lifetimes from the great Famine in Ireland, where a life was cheaper even cheaper, than bread. And 400 years ago, the ruling dynasty of Gaelic Ulster ended on the Flight of the Earls, plunging our ancestors into seismic changes, where lives, and possession of land, counted for nothing.

Here in Ireland, we have seemingly tumbled into history from the time of the Flight of the Earls onwards. There has barely been time, neither for plan nor for strategy, save to avoid the fate of earlier generations. So perhaps, Aedh and his relationship within the Ui Neill clan provides us with kind of metre for the progress of Ireland, and of ourselves.  In our rapid and globalised space, we learn much, not just about Ireland and the Ui Neill, but about this whole, turbulent, interconnected world. And even if our contribution feels small, maybe, like Aedh, it only becomes more evident in hindsight.  Could Aedh have imagined, as he faced the lost of his inheritance and his livelihood, that he would go on to be a man of great healing power, and contribute so much more to his kin as a peacemaker; a prince. That he would progress into sainthood.

Meanwhile, although our recent history shapes us, like Aedh, we are not bound by it. To lose what you thought was yours by right is sad, and wrong. But whilst your culture, your kinship and your own sense of identity remains, tragedy is averted.

aedh headstonest johns pointIMG_1879

(With thanks to Professor Peter Kawalek, Manchester Business School, who provided the inspiration for this story)