Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Coemgen - Wikisource, the free online library (2023)

COEMGEN, Saint (498–618), of Glendalough, popularly St. Kevin, was the son of Coemlog, who was eighth in descent from Messincorb, from whom the territory of Dal Messincorb, on the borders of Wicklow and Wexford, derived its name. He and his wife Coemell were Christians, and placed the child Ooemgen under the charge of Petroc, a Briton, with whom he remained five years. Then, 'seeing much grace in the boy, 'they entrusted him to the holy seniors Eoghan, Lochán, and Enda. The first named was probably of the same race as himself, being seventh in descent from Messincorb (Oengus, cxxxii). Lochán and Enda were of Cill na Manach, in the Fothartha of Leinster, near the river Dodder. Here a young girl having shown some liking for him, Coemgen flogged her with nettles to signify his desire to avoid female society. When his education was in progress he made an excursion one day to a mountain valley in which were two lakes, and resolved to settle in the upper part where the lake was narrowest, and the mountains closed in on both sides. The place was originally known as Gleand dé, the valley of God, but afterwards became famous as Gleann-da-locha, the valley of the two lakes, or Glendalough. Living here in a hollow tree, he subsisted on herbs and water for some time, until his retreat was discovered by a cowherd, and those in whose charge he was placed came and took him home. The next we hear of him is with the hermit Beoan, who seems to have been the Beoan, son of Nessan, who was of Fidh chuilinn, now Feighcullen, in the county of Kildare. In course of time he went with the consent of his tutor to Lughaidh of Tir da craob, now Teernacreeve, in the county of Westmeath, by whom he was admitted to the priesthood, and then directed to go forth and found a 'cell' or small church for himself. Proceeding in quest of a suitable place, he settled at Cluain-duach, the situation of which is not known, and after some time returned to his own country with such of his monks as chose to accompany him. Once more he resorted to Glendalough. Here in the lower part of the valley, at the confluence of two streams, he erected a monastery which afterwards became the fruitful parent of many monasteries and cells throughout Leinster. This is now known as the Lady Church, and his tomb was shown there within the last century. Having seen the institution firmly established, he withdrew again to the solitude of the upper valley, about a mile from the monastery, where he constructed for himself a small abode (mansiunculum), in a narrow place between the mountain and the lake where the forest was dense. This was one of those round or oval buildings common in many parts of Ireland, and from their form known as ' beehive ' houses. The ruins of this building may be traced at a little distance from the Rifert Church at Glendalough. He gave orders that no one should bring him food or come to him except on the most urgent business. 'Four years,' we are told,

'he remained here in fasting and prayer, without fire or proper shelter, nor is it known how he subsisted.' His monks, following there, erected a cell on the south side of the upper lake between it and the mountain, which was known as Disert Coemgin, the desert or hermitage of Coemgen. This is now known as the Rlfert Church, or the church of the graves of the kings. By the influence of many saints who assembled for the purpose, he was induced to leave his hermit life and to dwell with his monks in this cell. Again, however, overcome by his absorbing passion for solitude, he left them, and built himself a rude shelter of branches and twigs, where he lived quite unknown. One day the huntsman of Bran dubh, king of Leinster, in pursuit of a wild boar, entered his solitude, the boar having rushed for shelter into his little hut. During the tumult St. Coemgen remained in prayer under a spreading tree, while 'many birds perched on his hands, arms, and shoulders, or flew about him singing.' To the imaginative spirit of St. Coemgen it seemed as though ' the branches and leaves of the trees sometimes sang sweet songs to him, and celestial music alleviated the severity of his life.' It seems to have been during this retirement that he took refuge in the cave since known as 'St. Coemgen's bed.' Here he had a narrow escape from being killed by the fall of an overhanging rock, but was warned in time, divinely as he thought, to leave it. To this occurrence allusion is made in the 'Calendar of Oengus Céle dé: '

Free me, Jesu, for I am a thrall of thine,
As thou freedst Coemgen from the falling of the

Now and then, however, the thought would occur to him to leave this rugged district, which then appeared to him the 'fit abode of demons;' but he regarded such a feeling as a suggestion of Satan. Eventually he was admonished by an angel, according to the usual statement on such occasions, to remove to the east end of the smaller lake, 'where there was an abundance of earthly goods,' and a site having been made over to him, he erected a church and consecrated a cemetery there, and in course of time this settlement grew into 'a great city' whose fame extended far and wide.

One of the observances practised at his monastery during the festival of St. Patrick was the recital of St. Patrick's hymn. According to Tighernac, who flourished at the close of the seventh century, two of the honours paid to the memory of St. Patrick in his time throughout Ireland were ' to sing his hymn during the whole time of the festival, which lasted three days, and to sing his Irish chant always.' The latter was the Irish hymn called the ' Feth Fiadha,' and also the ' Lorica ' (or corselet), from its supposed virtue in protecting against demons. The former was the Hymn of St. Sechnall in praise of St. Patrick, and it is probably the one referred to here, as St. Coemgen is represented as ordering it to be recited three times, viz. on each day of the festival. Soon after his settlement in his latest monastery he paid a visit to Usny Hill in Westmeath, where SS. Columba, Comgall, and Cainnech were assembled, and then went on to see St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, who, however, had died three days before his arrival. He would have again gone forth into the wilderness but for the remonstrance of a holy hermit named Garbhan, who told him ' it was more becoming for him to fix himself in one place than to ramble here and there in his old age, as he could not but know that no bird could hatch her eggs while flying.' Garbhan lived at Swords, not far from where Dublin now stands, and on leaving him he paid a visit on his way home to St. Mobhi of Glas Naoidhen, now Glasnevin, of whose monastery an interesting description is given as consisting of a group of huts or cells and an oratory, situated on either bank of the Finglas, or fair stream, now the Tolka, from which Glasnevin (the stream of Naoidhen) derives its name. At this time took place the invasion of Leinster by the king of Ireland, Aedh Mac Ainmire, in order to exact the boruma, or cow tribute imposed on Leinster by a former king of Ireland, which Bran-dubh, the reigning king of Leinster, refused to pay. When the invading army entered his territory he resolved to proceed to Glendalough to consult St. Coemgen as to the course he ought to pursue, and no doubt to encourage his followers by obtaining the sanction of the famous saint to his resistance. But St. Coemgen would not suffer him to enter the precinct of his sacred city. He was compelled to halt on the summit of the mountain on the south, where he received the saint's answer, 'A king by human right ought to fight for the country committed to his charge, if he cannot otherwise defend it.' This was enough for the warrior king. He met the forces of the king of Ireland and his northern allies at Dunbolg, now Dunboyke, near Hollywood, in the county of Wicklow, where he utterly defeated them, and slew and beheaded King Aedh. A curious description of the contest and the ingenious stratagem of Brandubh is given in the 'Annals of the Four Masters.' When at length St. Coemgen's end approached, he received the holy communion at the hands of Mochuarog, a Briton who lived

at Delgany, not far off, and passed away on 3 June 618, in the 120th year of his age, according to the usual account (Ussher). Among the numerous remains at Glendalough, besides those already mentioned, may be noticed St. Coemgen's house, known to Irish writers as Cro Coemgin, which combined the purposes of oratory and house, like St. Columba's house at Kells, and another small house called the priest's house, so called from several priests having been buried there. The doorway of this building is surmounted by a triangular pediment, in the tympanum of which is a sculptured bas-relief, of which Dr. Petrie gives an engraving (p. 250). The central figure, in his opinion, represents St. Coemgen, the patron of the place. It bears on its head a 'notched band or fillet,' which he thought might be the base of a mitre, of which the upper part was obliterated; but a glance at the engraving will convince the reader that it is really a crown; for it is known now that the bishops of the primitive Irish church wore crowns after the manner of the Greek church, and not mitres. The meaning of his name is 'fair offspring,' but it seems also intended as a play on the word caom, 'fair,' treated as a family name; for his father, mother, and two brothers had also this prefix to their names. His father, as we have seen, was Coem-log, and then we have this stanza:

Coem-án, Coem-gin, mo-Coem-og,
Three choema (lovable) sons of Coem-ell;
Good was the triad of brothers,
Three sons of a delightful mother.

He belonged to the second order of Irish saints, and in the parallel list of Irish and foreign saints in the 'Book of Leinster' he is coupled with Paul, the Egyptian hermit. He was undoubtedly one of the most famous of the hermit saints of the sixth century.

[Bollandist's Acta Sanct. vol. xix., Junii 3, p. 406; Book of Leinster, 350 a, 351 c, 370 c, d; Todd's St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, p. 430; Ussher's Works, vol.' vi.; O'Donovan's Annals of the Four Masters, i. 219; Petrie's Essay on the Round Towers of Ireland, 169-73, 245-50; Calendar of Oengus Céle dé, p. xcviii; Lanigan's Eccles. Hist. ii. 43, 44; Martyrology of Donegal, p. 143; Olden's Epistles and Hymn of St. Patrick, with the Poem of Secundinus, pp. 105, 110.]

T. O.


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