A Place full of Angels

Coolbanagher church

Coolbanagher church

Here here! It was a cracking day for exploring the countryside last week and I finally had a chance to visit Coolbanagher [Cúil Bennchair in Irish], the place where Óengus received inspiration for writing his martyrology. What little we know of this event and of Óengus’ connection to Coolbanagher is recorded in the Prose Preface to the Félire. The Prose Preface was written at a much later date than the text itself, with the purpose of providing information about the Félire and about Óengus. It contains short anecdotes about Óengus’ life and the people he interacted with, as well as an explanation of the metrical structure of the Félire. It is therefore a very valuable record.

The section on ‘place of composition’ in the Preface names three locations associated with the composition or the writing of the Félire: Coolbanagher in Mag Rechet (Morette) in the territory of the Uí Fáilge, the monastery of Tallaght, and the monastery of Clonenagh. Óengus is believed to have lived for a time in both Tallaght and Clonenagh, but no such claim can be made for Coolbanagher. Instead, Coolbanagher is described as the place where Óengus was first inspired to compose the Félire [see also About Óengus]. This appears to have happened more or less by chance, while Óengus was passing through. Stokes translated the passage in MS Laud Misc. 610 as follows:

Once Óengus went to Cuil Bennchor in Mag Rechet: he saw a grave there, and all between heaven and the ground over the grave was full of angels. So he asked the priest of the church: “Who has been buried in yonder grave?” “A wretched old man who was in the place,” says the priest. “What good used he to do?” says Óengus. “I used not to see any special good done by him,” says the priest. “What thing at all used he to do?” says Óengus. “He recounted the saints of the world,” says the priest, “such of them as he remembered, on lying down and getting up, as is the custom of all ex-laymen.” “O my God of heaven,” said Óengus, “whosoever should compose in poetry a song of praise for the saints, great were his guerdon therefor, since grace of yon greatness came upon the ex-layman.”  (Stokes, 1905, pp 7, 9, from an Leabar Breac)

This little anecdote gives us a back story for how the text came to be, but it also tells us something about the purpose for which it was composed. According to the text, Óengus was particularly impressed by the apparent reward for recounting the saints of the world every morning and night, probably all the more so because the man in question was an ‘ex-layman’. That is, an athláech was someone who had lived a secular life first and dedicated himself to the church at a later time in life. The presence of angels over his grave was a sure indicator that whomever had been buried there had gone to heaven and, in all likelihood, had achieved a certain level of sanctity. The notion that angels visit the graves of the saints was well-established in early medieval Ireland. Óengus’s interest in the reward for reciting the saints, that is, attaining heaven, is also reflected in the Félire. In this text, Óengus does not merely commemorate the saints, but he invokes them in order to ask for their blessing and their help in attaining heaven. This is the special focus of the Epilogue, in which he writes:

Cech nóeb bói, fil, bías
co bráth, brígach fodail,
i coimthecht Críst credail,
ro bet ocom chobair.
Every saint who has been, is (and) shall be
up to Doom – a mighty division!
in company of holy Christ,
may they be helping me! 
                              (ll. 289-92, Stokes 1905)

 

The site described in the text is normally identified as the Coolbanagher church and graveyard (now in ruins) just off a side-road off the R419, not far north from the 19th-century St. Brigit’s hospital. The ruins of former Coolbanagher Castle are visible across the road. Of course, when I visited, there was no sign of angels hovering over one of the graves—but then, such skills are normally attributed to exceptionally saintly persons, such as St. Columba. The walls of an original rectangular stone church with chancel (attached later) are still visible, as are some of the graves. According to early twentieth-century record, the graveyard was still in use in the nineteenth century, but had fallen into a serious state of disrepair by the start of the twentieth.

Cross slab in Coolbanagher church

Cross slab in Coolbanagher church

Inside the chancel you can see an early Christian cross-slab fixed to the north wall. It has a “Greek cross” with T-shaped terminals (the outer ends of the cross) carved into it. Apparently the slab was used as a plinth stone at some point during the various building stages of the church. The slab is not the only indication that the site was already in use in the medieval period. Some early medieval masonry is still visible in parts of the wall and excavations in the 1990s revealed sherds of medieval pottery. It is impossible to say now whether the site was indeed active in the ninth century, but it certainly appears to have been in active use throughout the Middle Ages and possibly even up to point it was burned down in 1779.

 

 

 

Would you like to know more?
The Prose Preface
Two versions of the Prose Preface were printed and translated in Whitley Stokes, The Martyrology of Óengus the Culdee, Henry Bradshaw Society, 1905. (Also, a hint–watch this site! There will be more on the Preface soon.)

Coolbanagher
To find out more about the archaeology of Coolbanagher, you can read the full NMI entry (LA008-014001-4).
Would you like to visit this site? The coordinates are: 651403 703251.