Emerald Isle

The Tale of Colman Mac Duagh

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle

The Saint who befriended man and beast

Saint Colman was a famous Saint in early Irish Christianity, being born a prince not long after Saint Patrick brought the faith to Ireland in the first place. Despite his royal lineage however, his birth was no easy matter, for the druids had prophecised darkly that he would be a great man and surpass all others of his clan!

His pregnant mother Rhinagh saw the look in his father's eye, brooding and jealous, and feared that he might do something terrible while deep in his cups, sop one dark night she escaped and fled into the woods. But the king noticed her absence, and his hunters caught up with her and tried to drown her in the Kiltartin river by tying a stone around her neck!

But she survived and was washed to the shore, and the rock with rope marks can still be found near that spot. She wished to have him baptised into the new faith that was spreading like wildfire through Ireland, so she took him to a priest for the baptism, but there was no water nearby. Fearing to return home, for she was still hunted, she said a prayer and from the dry earth bubbled up a fresh spring!

Colman was baptised, and that fountain remains to this day as the miraculous well of Colman Mac Duagh. Rhinagh gave him over to the monks to raise and went on her way.

Saint Colman's life was marked by many miracles – one Easter morning he found himself without food, having only as piece of chicken and a few herbs to divide between himself and his servant. Colman saw his servant was starved after the Lenten fasting, so he prayed for something to eat.

No sooner had he finished than dishes loaded with rich food and cups sloshing with wine floated through the trees, landing gently before them, so Saint and servant set to it with great delight! However the feast was followed shortly afterwards by King Guaire and his retinue who had been just about to eat it themselves when it flew away from under their noses!

And that is why the slabs of limestone nearby are called Bóthar na Mias, or the road of the dishes today.

Far from being upset, King Guaire was amazed and told Colman to build a monastery nearby, so he walked until his cincture fell off, and that he took as a sign.

At the monastery Colman had a pet rooster who served as an alarm clock at a time before there were such modern conveniences. The rooster would begin his song at the breaking of dawn and continue until Colman would come out and speak to it. Colman would then call the other monks to prayer by ringing the bells. But the monks wanted to pray during the night hours, too, and couldn't count on the rooster to awaken them at midnight and the small hours of the morning.

So Colman made a pet out of a mouse that often kept him company in the night by giving it crumbs to eat. Eventually the mouse was tamed, and Colman asked its help!

“So you are awake all night, are you? It isn't your time for sleep, is it? My friend, the cockerel, gives me great help, waking me every morning. Couldn't you do the same for me at night, while the cockerel is asleep? If you do not find me stirring at the usual time, couldn't you call me? Will you do that?”

It was a good while before Colman tested the understanding of the mouse. After a long day of preaching and travelling on foot, Colman slept very soundly. When he did not awake at the usual hour in the middle of the night for Lauds, the mouse pattered over to the bed, climbed on the pillow, and rubbed his tiny head against Colman's ear, although not enough to awaken the exhausted monk.

So the mouse tried again, but Colman shook him off impatiently. Making one last effort, the mouse nibbled on the saint's ear and Colman immediately arose – laughing! The mouse, looking very serious and important, just sat there on the pillow staring at the monk, while Colman continued to laugh in disbelief that the mouse had indeed understood its job.

When he regained his composure, Colman praised the clever mouse for his faithfulness and fed him extra treats. Then he entered God's presence in prayer. Thereafter, Colman always waited for the mouse to rub his ear before arising, whether he was awake or not. The mouse never failed in his mission.

The monk had another strange pet, a fly. Each day, Colman would spend some time reading a large, awkward parchment manuscript prayer book. Each day the fly would perch on the margin of the sheet. Eventually Colman began to talk to the fly, thanked him for his company, and asked for his help too.

“Do you think you could do something useful for me? You see yourself that everyone who lives in the monastery is useful. Well, if I am called away, as I often am, while I am reading, don't you go too; stay here on the spot I mark with my finger, so that I'll know exactly where to start when I come back. Do you see what I mean?”

So, as with the mouse, it was a few weeks before Colman put the understanding of the fly to the test. He probably provided the insect with treats as he did the mouse – perhaps a single drop of honey or crumb of cake.

One day Colman was called to attend a visitor. He pointed the spot on the manuscript where he had stopped and asked the fly to stay there until he returned. The fly did as the saint requested, obediently remaining still for over an hour. Colman was delighted. Afterwards he often gave the faithful fly a little task that it was proud to do for him. The other monks thought it was such a marvel that they wrote it down in the monastery records, which is how we know about it.

But a fly's life is short. At the end of summer, Colman's little friend was dead. While still mourning the death of the fly, the mouse died, too, as did the rooster. Colman's heart was so heavy at the loss of his last pet that he wrote to his friend Saint Columba. Columba responded:

“You were too rich when you had them. That is why you are sad now. Trouble like that only comes where there are riches. Be rich no more.”

Colman then realised that one can be rich without any money.

It is said that Colman declared that no person nor animal in the diocese of Kilmacduagh would ever die of lightning strike, something that appears true to this day.

Kilmacduagh can be found on the map below!

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