With St David’s Day tomorrow, St Piran’s on Thursday and St Patrick’s in a couple of weeks’ time, this has to be the month of the Celtic saints. To the greater glory of St Euny, my local saint, I shall be forced to devote the next three blogs to the subject.
Who were the Celtic saints? Saints were supposed to have been roaming around in the early middle ages causing all sorts of mayhem while confronting pagans and serpents alike. They were men and sometimes women, Christian missionaries, suffering for their faith, performing miracles and founding churches during their hectic voyaging up and down the seaways of Celtic Britain.
What truth can be gleaned from the scanty historical record is more prosaic. Some saints may well have taken to their boats (or millstones or leaves). The life of Samson, written in the late 600s, suggests he crossed Cornwall on his way from Wales to Brittany. However, most saints’ lives were written up much later, from the ninth century onwards, centuries after their subjects had died, and are much less credible. Although people liked to think that ‘their’ saint personally founded ‘their’ church, it’s more likely that the saint’s cult migrated, not the saints themselves.
The great age of the Celtic saints was the period between 500 and 700, a time when Christianity was spreading across the Celtic world. This was probably also the time cults began to spread, transferred from monasteries to daughter churches. Maybe a relic or two, the supposed teeth or a fragment of a saint’s bone for example, would accompany the cult, to be proudly displayed in a shrine in the church.
Saints often had their holy wells, to which people would head to seek healing. Certain saints had particular specialisms; for example, St Cadoc was good for intestinal worms. Meanwhile, if you had a sick pig, St Sancred was the chap to pray to. They would also have had their special days when services were held, feasts were prepared, relics were proudly paraded around the parish and sometimes the saint’s play was performed at the local plain an gwarry.