St. Kieran and His Dun Cow

(Sixth Century)

Kieran of Clonmacnois was born in the province of Connaught, Ireland. The son of a cartwright, he attended the monastic school conducted by St. Finnian at Clonard, in County Westmeath. St. Finnian’s school was so noted for its instruction in literature and art that he is said to have had 3,000 students enrolled at one time.

Of all the students at Clonard, the most notable were twelve men who became monks and founded monasteries elsewhere: the “Twelve Apostles of Erin.” One of them was St. Kieran.

Determined to set up a monastery of his own, Kieran set out on a journey with several companions to find the best spot.

At one point they came to a very beautiful place called Ard Manttain. The companions favored this as a site. But Kieran rejected it precisely because it was so beautiful. “If we live here,” he said, “we shall have much of the riches of the world, and few souls will go from us to Heaven.”

Finally they arrived at a locale in County Offaly on the banks of the River Shannon. This site pleased him, so it was here on January 25, 545, that he founded the monastery of Clonmacnois. The monastery became noted for its literary undertakings and for the beauty of its art works. But the saint himself witnessed only its beginnings. He died seven months later, apparently still less than forty years old.

It seems that the more popular a saint, the more stories are told – or invented – about him. Kieran of Clonmacnois was one of those very legendary people.

Even as a boy, the legends tell us, Kieran worked many rather odd miracles, like raising a horse from the dead and changing water into honey. Once he used his miraculous power to tease his mother, Darerca. Darerca was dyeing some cloth blue, and he apparently got in her way, so she sent him out of the house. May there be a dun stripe on them," he wished rather vengefully. Lo and behold, when the cloths came out of the dye, the blue was striped with murky brown. Darerca put the material back into the dye. This time it came out all white! Then Kieran called a halt to the miracle, but with one last trick. When his mother dipped the fabric the third time, it was indeed all blue.

St. Kieran had a lesser dispute with Darerca when aged fifteen. He told his parents that he wanted to go to St. Finnian’s school, and asked them to give him a cow for his support. Darerca refused. So Kieran made the sign of the cross over a brownish gray cow in the family herd. The cow followed him the rest of his life, no matter where he went. She became known as the “Dun Cow of Kieran.”

The real Kieran developed into a spiritual giant. When the time came for his death, we are told, Kieran asked to be carried out-of-doors and laid on the earth of a certain hill. From there he looked up to heaven and said, “Awful is this road upward!” The monks with him tried to reassure him: “Not for you is it awful.”

Kieran came back, “Indeed I do not know that I have transgressed any of the commandments of God, yet even David the son of Jesse and Paul the Apostle dreaded this way.”

He happened to be lying on a stone, which was naturally uncomfortable. The monks wanted to take it away so that their abbot could rest easier. Instead, he asked them to put it under his shoulders. “He that shall persevere to the end,” he said, “shall save his soul.” He died moments later.

Yes, we can’t trust ourselves to the very moment we die. Only if we hold the faith to the last breath will the angels carry us up, as they did young Kieran of Clonmacnois.

--Father Robert F. McNamara