On May 3 we celebrate the feast of Saint Conleth, first Bishop of Kildare. The following account of his life has been distilled from Canon O'Hanlon's Lives of the Irish Saints, Volume 5, pages 69-95. A post on the description by Cogitosus of the tombs of Saint Brigid and Saint Conleth at Kildare can be found at my other blog Trias Thaumaturga here.
ST. CONLETH, OR CONLAID, BISHOP AND PATRON OF KILDARE DIOCESE.
[FIFTH AND SIXTH CENTURIES.]
The exact time of this saint's birth has not been recorded, nor do we know whether he was born of Christian parents. His first name is said to have been Roincenn; in the Acts of St. Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, he is variously called Conlath, Conlaeth, Conlaith, Conlaid, and Conlian. These names are also Latinized under various forms. The Martyrology of Donegal informs us, that Roincenn was his first name, and it states, that he descended from the race of Laeghaire Lore, son to Ugaine Mor. From this Laeghaire Lore, who was. monarch of Erin, the Leinster men are also descended.
The earliest notices we can find regarding him gives us to understand, that St. Conleth lived the life of a recluse, and continued the occupant of a cell. This was situated, in a southern part of its plain, on the right bank of the River Liffey. We are informed, that besides his distinctive reputation for extraordinary sanctity, Conleth was also gifted with a prophetic spirit. Tradition has yet faithfully preserved that exact spot, where St. Conlath lived. It is known, now, as Old Connell, near the present town of Newbridge, and it is located in the county of Kildare. His former chantry lay less than a quarter of a mile from the River Liffey, on its southern and right bank. It presents every appearance—even in its dismantled and neglected state—of dating back to the most remote period of our ecclesiastical history.
It is no easy matter to determine that exact spot, where the first interview between St. Conlaeth and St. Brigid took place. The most minute account of this meeting, remaining on record, is substantially as follows. A certain saint, whose proper name was Conlaidus, came to visit St. Brigid, from among a people, dwelling not far away from her ; as he had a great desire to have an interview with this holy and renowned Virgin. Having such a purpose in view, Conlaid set out in his chariot, and accompanied by a boy. On his arrival at St Brigid's nunnery, all her sisters received this pious recluse, with the greatest possible respect and attention. According to the custom of those times, a warm bath had been prepared for their guest; then a banquet was served up, with all the accessories of a simple, yet hospitable entertainment. When these offices of charity and courtesy had been duly performed, St. Brigid received her pious visitor, and then brought her nuns, introducing them to their holy guest. All her sisterhood welcomed St. Conlaeth, with a kindly and cordial greeting. He remained with the religious community for some days. He piously instructed the nuns, through his edifying counsels, and he planted in their hearts those germs of Christian virtues, which were destined to bear fruit in abundance, when the Lord of the vineyard proposed to gather His harvest. Then, St. Conlaeth bade them adieu, and desired his chariot to be prepared, for a return to his own habitation. A boy in attendance was ordered to put their yokes on the necks of his horses. Before starting on this journey, however, the chariot-wheel became loose on its axle ; yet, no danger was apprehended, for Conlaeth appears to have been unaware of this fact, at the time of parting from St. Brigid. This illustrious abbess came out from her nunnery, to take leave of him, when he had ascended the vehicle. Conlaeth then asked her to extend her holy hand, and to bestow her blessing on him, that so he might felicitously prosecute his journey. The sainted Abbess gave both himself and companion her blessing, with a sign of the cross. The pious recluse discovered, afterwards, how fortunately he had escaped from accident. Although a wheel was loose on its axle, the chariot nevertheless bore himself and his attendant safely to the end of their journey. On alighting from the vehicle, St. Conlaeth gave heartfelt thanks to God. He likewise extolled the merits of St. Brigid, to whose blessing he attributed this almost miraculous preservation.
These incidents are briefly related, in the Third and Fourth Lives of St. Brigid. In these Acts, it is said, that the attendant of Conlaeth, when yoking the chariot, forgot to place the rosetae as a security against the movement of the wheels. Thus, it may be seen, how the holy eremite had been enabled to return home, under circumstances of more than ordinary difficulty and danger. The route of St. Conlaeth homewards lay probably across that well-known plain, denominated the Curragh of Kildare, now deemed the finest common in Europe, and containing three thousand acres of land.
In the Life of St. Tighernach, it is related, that a certain nobleman, of Leinster origin, who was named Cormoc, had adopted him for a foster-son. Soon afterwards, taking his youthful charge, as the companion of his journey, that chief prepared for a return towards his home ; but, on their way, both entered Kildare, the city of St. Brigid. This holy virgin intimated to her nuns, as distinguished guests were about to visit their house, that they should cordially and hospitably receive those visitors. St. Brigid met them, and taking the infant gently into her arms, she called him by the name of Tygernach, at the same time, declaring him to have descended from a royal pedigree. She asked St. Conlaid, or Collaid, the bishop, to baptize him. After this event, the foster-father with his adopted son went to his own place,where he carefully tended the child.
It is expressly stated, in the Fourth Life of St. Brigid, that this holy virgin selected St. Conlaeth to be the first bishop over her newly established city of Kildare. It is probable, this pious man lived in retirement, not far from the place. This circumstance, connected with his first introduction to St. Brigid, her influence with other Irish bishops, as likewise his own great virtues and merits, may have contributed to point him out, as one eminently suited to fill the position to which he was elevated. There can hardly be a doubt, regarding St. Conlaeth having been the first prelate over that See, notwithstanding some statements of certain writers, that other persons had there preceded him, in such an office. According to these, Lon, or Lonius, had been the first bishop there ; Ivor, or Ibhar, was the second prelate ; and then Conlius or Conlaeth succeeded as the third. By most of our early ecclesiastical writers, we are told, that Conlaeth was an illustrious man, adorned with every virtue, and that the Almighty had been pleased to effect great wonders through him. He appears to have been called from his solitude, almost immediately after his first interview with St. Brigid, to receive episcopal unction and jurisdiction over the newly-established See of Kildare. A great increase in the number of applicants for admission to St. Brigid's religious institute, at this venerable spot, as also the increasing size and population of a rising city, required the presence and ministrations of a bishop, in the opinion of its renowned Abbess.
Conlaeth is expressly called first bishop of Kildare, by Cogitosus ; and, it is evident, from this same writer's words, there neither was, nor could have been, a bishop in that place before his time. Until the period of Conlaeth's appointment, or a short interval before, it is probable, there had hardly been a house on the present site of Kildare; nor was a bishop required, until the formation of a new town, and the establishment of a local religious institute, required his supervision and residence. It is probable, the new See had not been erected, for at least a few years after the foundation of St. Brigid's nunnery, and not earlier than a.d. 490. The Cathedral of Kildare is said to have been first founded by St. Conlian, in the year of Christ 503, and to have been dedicated to St. Brigid. This is an assumption, however, for which no certain data can be fixed. It is likely enough, St. Brigid exerted herself with a corresponding zeal and energy, in the erection of its first church ; but, this had not been dedicated to her memory, at least during the lifetime of St. Conleth.
We know, that St. Brigid survived him for a few years. Over the convents of St. Brigid, which were established throughout Ireland, St. Conleth and his successors in the See of Kildare, are said to have exercised a special jurisdiction. Yet, regarding this matter, our historians seem to have supplied no conclusive evidence. In the opinion of some writers, before this bishop's appointment to Kildare, its religious institution had been attended, in manifold capacities, by a priest named Natfroich, also called her charioteer. This priest remained with St. Brigid all his lifetime, as a spiritual companion or chaplain to the holy Abbess, which office he is thought to have discharged, under the episcopacy of St. Conlaeth. Whilst at their meals, it was apart of Natfroich's duty, to read for St, Brigid and her nuns, in their refectory. He probably attended her, moreover, on many of those important journeys undertaken to serve the interests of her religious order.
The pious Conlaeth has been represented, as officiating in the double capacity both of Abbot and Bishop - this is probably to be explained, by regarding him as having charge—at least for some time—over a community of monks at Old Connell, after he had been appointed to preside over the See of Kildare. We are not informed, by whom he had been consecrated bishop ; but, it is probable, that a sufficiently numerous attendance of bishops honoured the occasion of his investiture bytheir presence. St. Fiach of Sletty, the principal bishop of Leinster, with Ibar and Erc, and perhaps Maccalleus—all friends of St. Brigid — were then living. It is supposed, also, that St. Bronus, of Cassel-Irra, mentioned in some of her Lives, and who seems to have paid her a visit while she was in Connaught, might have come to Leinster, at this time. As he is said to have owed the exculpation of his character, from a charge brought against him in the presence of many bishops, and before a great assembly, to the kind interposition and miraculous powers of St. Brigid ; no doubt, he would have wished to manifest his attention and gratitude towards her, if time and opportunity allowed him to assist at this consecration of St. Conlaeth.
In the Acts of St. Brigid, it is related, that certain poor persons came to the holy Abbess asking for alms, at a tune when she had nothing to bestow, except vestments, used by St. Conlaeth, for celebration of the holy sacrifice of Mass. These vestments, which were in her custody, she gave them ; and, when the holy bishop approached to offer up the sacrifice of propitiation at the usual time, he declared it would not be practicable to consecrate the body and blood of Christ without his vestments, which were missing. St. Brigid prayed to God with great fervour. The Almighty was pleased to reward her charity, by the performance of a wonderful miracle. As a special gift of heaven, vestments, exactly resembling those given away, appeared immediately, and these the bishop assumed. All, who were cognizant of the circumstance, gave thanks to God. We are told, in the two first Lives of St. Brigid, that those vestments were of various colours, and that they had been procured from Italy. They were generally worn by St. Conlaeth, on Sundays and on festivals of the Apostles. It is also said, that those vestments used—after the former ones had been bestowed on the poor—were brought to Bishop Conlaeth, in a two-wheeled chariot. Such accounts as the foregoing, taken from the acts of our ancient saints, frequently serve to illustrate former social usages and habits of life, at least during and before the period when the biographer wrote.
It has been very satisfactorily shown, that the goldsmith's and lapidary's art had been brought to great perfection, at a very early period, in Ireland. Indua, St. Conleth, had probably been a worker in metals before his religious retirement, for he was distinguished as St. Brigid's " chief artificer," according to a gloss on the Felire Oengus. The word Indua denotes an artist in gold, silver, and other metals. Ancient Irish ecclesiastics of the highest rank considered it a suitable occupation, to work as artificers in the manufacture of reliquaries, shrines, pastoral staffs or croziers, bells, covers for sacred books, and other ornaments, suitable for churches and for their minsters.
The authority of a Scholiast on the Felire of St. Oengus makes Ronchend the first name of Chondlaeid or Candla and he was called Mochonda of Daire, according to the same writer. It seems very probable, that the Daire alluded to must be identified with the present Kildare. From the foregoing statements, it would appear, that Machonda, Rondchend, Condlaed, or Candla, is one and the same person. It is stated, also, that this bishop of Kildare's name stands for Cundail Aedh, rendered "Aedh the Wise." Classed among St. Patrick's disciples—perhaps it should be more accurate to say contemporaries— is Coeltan, or Conlaid, Bishop of Kildare. Without suificient evidence, it has been asserted, that St. Conleth had previously visited either Italy or Brittany, and had brought from there those ecclesiastical variegated vestments, to which allusion has been already made. That success attending the first attempts of St. Conlath, in diffusing a knowledge of the Gospel, must have been as gratifying to St. Brigid's heart, as it was profitable to the eternal well-being of our pagan progenitors, in the district where he desired to labour. However, he chose rather to live and serve God in retirement.
In his Life of St. Brigid, Cogitosus does not expressly name the anchorite, who was selected by the abbess of Kildare, to undertake as bishop the spiritual care of her church. It seems evident, that Conleth was the prelate here alluded to, for he was contemporary with the holy virgin. The subsequent part of the narrative, however, removes any doubt on the subject. St. Conleth is not only styled a bishop, but a prophet of God, by two other writers of her Acts and, he is expressly named Conlianus, who was chosen by her, as the first bishop, for her city at Kildare.
..We have now traced St. Conleth's imperfectly known Acts, through some changing years of his venerable life. Let us next consider the mysterious workings of Providence, at the close of his existence. Virtuous labours and a useful missionary career were brought to a term, by a doleful and violent —yet not by an unprovided or untimely—death, if we are to credit somewhat remote accounts. The most reliable record we have been able to meet with, regarding St. Conleth's death, is given in the celebrated Feilire Tract of St. Oengus the Culdee, and which is contained in the old Manuscript, called the Leabhar Breac. There only the most simple allusion is made to his death, at the 3rd of May, with a eulogium, that he was "a fair pillar". A scholiast on this passage, however, undertakes to explain more particularly the cause and manner, as also the exact locality, of Conlaid's end. He mentions a journey Conleth was about making to Rome, against the persuasion of St. Brigit, who was presumed to have a prophetic forecast of its failure and fatal termination. He would not be dissuaded from his purpose, however, and this act of disobedience towards the holy Brigid is said to have been the cause of an accident on the way. The Rev. Dr. Todd deems the holy bishop probably felt a natural desire to revisit Rome, to procure a new set of pontifical vestments, for the more solemn celebration of Divine service; the former ones having been bestowed, as an alms, on behalf of the poor. He thinks, also, St. Conlaed's artistic skill and taste may have formed a strong motive with him, to visit Rome, even in opposition to St. Brigid's commands. The holy man seems to have journeyed onwards from his own place towards the sea. We are next informed, that wild hounds or wolves eat him at Sechai Condlad, at the side of Liamain, in Mag Laighen, or the plain of Leinster...
There can be no reasonable doubt entertained, that the thickly wooded and wild mountainous districts, in the plains of Leinster, were at that time infested with wolves, lying in wait for lonely and adventurous travellers. Whatever may be thought concerning the mode and place for this saint's death, we may take it for granted, the commentator has inserted an absurd popular tradition, which referred his violent end to a disobedience of St. Brigid's wishes, and especially to her prayers.. Probably, we may find the rationale of the foregoing account, and it may consist solely in these facts ; viz., that for special good reasons of his own, St. Conleth may have designed a journey to Rome ; that St. Brigid might have warned him of danger to be apprehended on the way, especially if he undertook the journey without sufficient protection, or alone; and that the sad event of death, occurring in the manner described, fully justified her prescience, her fears and her warnings. The year for this latter occurrence was 519, in the sixteenth year of King Muircheartach's reign, according to the Annals of Ulster, and of the Four Masters. The Annals of Tighernach refer his death to the year 520. St. Conleth's remains are said to have been at first buried in Killeen Cormac. It would appear, however, that the bones—and probably other relics—of St. Conlaeth, had been recovered and conveyed to the former place of his abode. No doubt, St. Brigid took special care, that his sacred remains should be interred or enshrined, with all that religious reverence and honour, due to the distinguished virtues and merits of her holy bishop and counsellor.
We are told, by Cogitosus that his remains were interred, near the high altar of the great church at Kildare; and, in the year 799, according to the Annals of Ulster, the relics of Conlaid or Conlaoi were placed in a shrine of gold and silver. Under the year 836, it is recorded, that the Danes plundered and burned the noble abbey and churches at Kildare, taking with them the rich shrines of St. Brigid and of St. Conleath. In a previous part of this biography, it may be seen, that such an account apparently conflicts with a local tradition. However, it is possible, a translation of St. Conlaeth's remains may have taken place ; for, while some portions of his relics may have been preserved at Old Conall, other parts had possibly been enshrined at Kildare. It is probable, that this reliquary had been destroyed or removed, during one of the Danish or northern incursions, with which this city had been frequently visited. But, the foregoing object of art, with its much prized contents, had been long preserved and exposed, for the admiration and veneration of Christians at Kildare. The place where he lived, Old Connell—known too as Condail of of the Kings—was under the special patronage of St. Conleath. Possibly, a considerable portion of his relics were preserved in it; for, according to local tradition, his remains were deposited within the cemetery.
All our Irish Martyrologists place his festival, at the 3rd of May, the date assigned for his death. In the Metrical Martyrology of St. Oengus the Culdee, and known as the Feilire-Oengus, at this date, and when recording his death, it is stated: Bas Conlaid, cain-aige, " The death of Condlaid, beautiful pillar." The name of this holy bishop is written Roncend, in the Martyrology of Tallagh, at the 3rd of May. This Roncend is not a distinct saint from Conleth, who is venerated on this day, and whose first name, as we have already seen, was Roincenn. We read, in the Martyrology of Donegal, likewise, that a festival was celebrated, in honour of Roincenn, on this day.