Saint Flannan

Feast day December 18

Saints Stories for All Ages

Ireland and Scotland both honor St. Flannan. He was educated by monks, stayed close to nature, made a pilgrimage to Rome, was appointed bishop, wandered about preaching, and worked miracles. All that makes him a classic Celtic saint.

The son of Turlough, a Celtic chieftain, Flannan was educated by a monk who also taught him farming. His biographer says he learned how to “till, sow, harvest, grind, winnow, and bake for the monks.” Against the advice of relatives, Flannan decided to undertake a pilgrimage by sea to Rome. Following the lore of other saints in Celtic literature, legend says that he floated miraculously to Rome on a stone. There the pope consecrated him as the first bishop of Killaloe.

Flannan led his diocese by traveling about teaching and preaching. His charismatic eloquence even persuaded his elderly father to become a monk under St. Colman. When Turlough asked Colman to bless his family, the abbot predicted that seven of his descendants would be kings. Fearing that kingship might fall on him, Flannan prayed for a physical deformity that might prevent it. His biography says that his face became disfigured with scars and rashes.

As bishop, Flannan sometimes forcefully intervened to pacify petty clan wars. Once he had negotiated a truce between two chiefs, which one of them broke a year later by invading and destroying the other’s land. Flannan addressed the robber chief in the following no-nonsense fashion: “What, falsest of men, do you intend to do? Why have you deceitfully broken faith? Turn back! Repent!”

The faithless chief bent obstinately on plunder replied: “If the fleetness of my horse enables me to outstrip you I will neither wait for you nor obey you.” So Flannan cursed the horse and it died. Then he said: “Most perfidious prince, because you have violated your promise and have trampled on all laws, human and divine, none of your family shall survive you.”

The saint’s curse terrified the robber-prince, who flung himself at the feet of St. Flannan and begged pardon. The saint did not deny to the robber-chief the pardon he always extended to expressed sorrow for an offense and promise of amendment. But this pardon given to himself personally did not satisfy him. He was uneasy because of the utterance of the saint against his posterity. Weeping and bowed down, he addressed St. Flannan thus: “My father, you have often preached that all crimes are forgiven through repentance. I beg you not to have my family become extinct with me. Take back the prophecy pronounced against my children and descendants. And I promise to pay you a yearly tribute and to devote myself and mine to your service and that of your successors for ever.”

In the spirit of forgiveness and mercy, the saint blessed the children so that they should not suffer for their father’s sins. But he did so on condition that they should observe the promise of their father. The exact date of Flannan’s death is not known, but it probably fell in the last quarter of the seventh century.

from Voices of the Saints, by Bert Ghezzi

Image credit: St. Flannan's Oratory in Killaloe by Jim Dempsey, 2012. Public Domain via Wikimedia.