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As, according to the Annales Cambria, Arthur died in 537, this incident, if it ever did occur, took place too early for Aidan, the disciple of David, afterwards Bishop of Ferns, to have been the Maidoc of the story.
The materials for the life of this remarkable man are obtained from a very unsatisfactory biography, more than ordinarily surcharged with the miraculous lement, and containing anachronisms. Of this several MS. copies exist, with slight variations. It is contained in the Codex Kilkenniensis, but wanting one folio. Another copy is in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin (E 3, 11). Another in the Franciscan Convent, Dublin. Another again in the Burgundian Library, Brussels (2324-40, fol. 33). It is on this that the Life in the Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists has been composed (the original is not printed), September 12, iv, pp. 26–31. But this is the Life in the Codex Salmanticensis, published in Acta Sanctorum Hibern., Edinburgh, 1888.
Further material is obtained from the Life of S. Patrick, that of S. Cieran of Saighir, and those of S. Colman of Dromore, S. Columba of Tir-da-glas, S. Declan and S. Findchua.
Among the most glaring anachronisms are these. Ailbe is made a convert of S. Palladius before the coming of S. Patrick, about 439, and is reported to have visited S. Samson at Dol in or about 550. He is represented as one of the prepatrician prelates of Ireland, and yet as receiving a grant from Scanlan Mor, King of Ossory, 574-604. But the historical impossibilities concern mainly his early life, and his period can be pretty accurately determined by that of the princes with whom he was brought into contact, and by that of his disciples, who belong to a generation later than himself. According to the Welsh genealogies Ailbe or Elfyw was a son of Dirdan, a “nobleman of Italy,” probably of Letavia, Armorica, often confounded with Latium. His mother was Banhadlen, or Danadlwen, daughter of Cynyr of Caergawch, and sister of S. Non.1
i Iolo MSS., pp. 107, 141, 144; Myv. Arch., p. 418. Mab Elfyw is the name of a commote of Cantref Mawr in Ystrad Tywi, Carmarthenshire, but it probably did not derive name from him.
This would make him belong to the same generation as S. David.
But the Irish have a strange and improbable account of his origin. His father was named Olchu or Olchais, who was in the service of Cronan, a chieftain of Eliach, now Eliogarty, in Tipperary. His mother was a maidservant in the household, who loved Olchu, “not wisely but too well.” Olchu, on finding that she was about to become a mother, and fearing the wrath of the chief, ran away. On the birth of the child, Cronan ordered the little bastard to be exposed, and it was cast behind a rock, where a she-wolf took pity on it and suckled it. Many years after, when Ailbe was a bishop, he was present one day at a wolf hunt, when one old grey beast fled for refuge under his gabardine. “Ah, my friend !” exclaimed Ailbe. “When I was feeble and friendless thou didst protect me, and now I will do the same for thee.” 1
He was found by a man named Lochan, who gave him the name Ailbe from the rock (ail) under which he lay ; the she-wolf, however, whined and was sore troubled to lose her nursling ; but“ Go in peace," said Lochan to the beast, “ I shall keep the boy."
A few years later Lochan gave the child to be fostered by some British who had settled in Eligoarty, perhaps at Ballybrit, which was a part of the territory of Eile O'Carroll in Munster.? Lochan was son of Laidhir, one of the Aradha, a Leinster tribe settled near Lough Derg, and his mother was a kinswoman of Olchu, the child's father.
Whilst Ailbe was with the Britons, his opening mind received ideas, and he became thoughtful ; he loved to look on the spangled heavens and to question the origin of the starry host. “Who can have formed these lights ? ” he inquired. “Who can have set them in their places, and ordered the sun and moon to run their courses ? O! that I might know Him!”
A Christian priest overheard him thus speaking, and took and baptised him, after having given him suitable instruction. It is possible that the Irish story may have been invented to explain his name, as Ajlbe might be supposed to derive from ail, a rock, and beo, living. A very doubtful etymology, but sufficient for the starting of a fable.
1 Vita in Cod. Sal., col. 235.
3. “ Cum ergo hanc prudentem orationem sanctus puer Albeus orasset, Palladius de propinquo audiens eum, salutavit illum, et secundum sui cordis deside
It will be seen from the Irish story, the childhood of Ailbe is said to have been passed among Britons. There can be little doubt that a good many from Wales did pass over into South Ireland, and especially members of the Brychan family or clan, indeed if any reliance can be placed on the Tract on the Mothers of the Saints ten of the reputed sons of Brychan and two of the daughters founded churches and received a cult there.1
Moreover, two of the sisters of S. David, daughters of Sant and S. Non, were honoured there, Mor as the mother of S. Eltin of Kinsale, and Magna, mother of Setna.?
That intermarriages between the Irish and the British were by no means rare may be judged by the story of S. Lomman. Patrick landed at the mouth of the Boyne, and proceeded up the country, leaving his nephew Lomman to take care of the boat. After awaiting the return of his uncle eighty days, Lomman ascended the river to Ath-Trim and was taken into the house of Fedlimid, son of Laogaire, King of Ireland, who received him hospitably, because his wife was a British woman, as had been also his mother. 3 It is, accordingly, by no means necessary to regard the Irish story and the Welsh account as referring to different persons. The only thing to be rejected is the story of the illegitimate origin of Ailbe, and his being found under a rock.
It would seem that the British with whom Ailbe was were not very perfect Christians, for they took no trouble to instruct him in rudimentary truths, and it was but by chance that a priest took him in hand. After a while the British settlers resolved on returning to their native land, and intended leaving Ailbe behind ; but, finally, moved by his entreaties, they consented to take him to Britain with them.
How long he remained in Britain we are not told, nor where he was, but he is known in Wales as Ailfyw or Elfyw, who founded a church, now a ruin, called S. Elvis, in Welsh Llanailfyw, or -elfyw, near S.
rium, docuit eum in hiis omnibus et baptizavit illum." Vitæ SS. Hib., col. 237. The copy quoted by Ussher is not quite the same : “Quidam Christianus sacerdos missus a sede apostolica in Hiberniam insulam multis annis ante Patricium ut fidem Christi ibi seminaret,” etc., Ussher, ii, p. 781.
i Loca Patriciana, Geneal. Tab. vii.
2 Mor and Magna may be the same, as Magna is said to have been the mother of Maelteoc, perhaps the same as Eltin.
3 Todd, S. Patrick, pp. 257-62, from the Book of Armagh.
David's, consequently near where lived his aunt, S. Non. This foundation cannot, however, have taken place till much later.
Before long Ailbe felt a desire to prosecute his studies abroad, and to visit Rome. His adventures on the continent form a tissue of fable and absurdity, and it is doubtful whether any historic truth underlies this part of the story, which was thrust into his “Life” for a set purpose, as we shall presently see.
According to the legend he studied the Scriptures under a Bishop Hilary at Rome. The Bollandists suppose that this was Pope Hilary (461-8). But Bishop Hilary is not represented in the story as pope, for Clement is spoken of as being the then ruling pontiff, and there was no such Bishop of Rome after Clemens Romanus who died circa 100 and Clement II (1046–7). According to the story, Ailbe sought consecration as bishop from Clement, but the Pope refused to put his hand between heaven and so sacred and gifted an individual as Ailbe, who was accordingly consecrated by angels. All that can be gathered from this is that he did not receive episcopal consecration from the Roman Church but in some monastic establishment. The story was, however, invented for a purpose.
In the eleventh or twelfth century, the kings of Munster and Connaught were desirous of having archbishops in the south of Ireland, that their bishops might not be subject to Armagh, the archbishop of which was generally a clansman of the Northern O'Neils. They accordingly set up an agitation among the clergy of the south, to claim to have archbishops of their own. In order to support this claim, the story was fabricated that the south of Ireland had been evangelised at least thirty years before the arrival of S. Patrick, and that by the instrumentality of bishops consecrated at Rome. For this purpose also the lives of the four bishops, who were supposed to have preceded Patrick, viz. Ailbe, Ciaran, Ibar, and Declan were interpolated, with the result that havoc was made of their chronology. The interpolator of the Acts of S. Ailbe thought he would do better for his hero than have him obtain commission from the Pope ; he made him receive that direct from heaven. On his way back to Ireland from Rome, Ailbe founded a religious colony, where not stated, and preached to the Gentiles and converted many. He did more; he struck a rock, and thence issued four rivers which watered the whole province. In the monastery there founded he left the sons of Guill. Dr. Todd supposes that it was to Gauls that Ailbe preached, and that he filled his religious houses with their sons. But the meaning does not seem to be this. Immediately after making this foundation he went, says the author of the Life, to Dol and visited S. Samson ; and his monastery was near where was a great river. There is a gross anachronism in making Ailbe visit S. Samson at Dol, for that Saint was not there till about 546.1 But the writer seems to have had an idea of whereabouts his hero did spend some time. The sons of Guill (Meic Guill) 2 were probably German, Gibrian, Tressan, Helan, Abran, and others who visited S. Remigius at Rheims, about 509.3 We are disposed to think that the visit of Ailbe to the Continent did not take place as early as represented in the Life, but rather at this period.
1 “ Albeus Romam perrexit ibique apud Hylarium episcopum divinam didiscit scripturam” (Vita SS. Hib., col. 240). According to the legend he meets with lions in the woods as he is on his way to Rome; and Bishop Hilary set Ailbe to be his swineherd for three years.
2 Todd, S. Patrick, pp. 220-1.
As these Saints have left their traces along the Rance and the upper waters of the Vilaine, we may suppose that Ailbe's settlement was in these parts. We have evidence of a colony of Irish saints in these parts in the fact of churches there with Irish dedications. Next we have Ailbe in Menevia. Entering a church, he found the priest unable to proceed with the Sacrifice, a sudden dumbness had fallen on him. Ailbe pointed out the cause. A woman in the congregation bore in her womb one who was to become a great bishop, in fact, S. David ; and it was unbecoming that a priest should celebrate in the presence of a bishop.4
The same story is told in the Life of S. David by Rhygyfarch, and the priest there is said to have been Gildas, as also in the Life of Gildas by Caradoc of Llancarfan.6 As Patrick is said to have prophesied the birth of S. David thirty years previously, when on his way to his great mission in Ireland, we see at once an anachronism in making Ailbe a pre-Patrician Apostle of Ireland.
Ailbe remained in Menevia till David was born, his cousin if we accept the Welsh genealogies, and it was he who baptised and fostered him. He now returned to Ireland, and, instead of landing in Water
1“ Deinde venit Albeus ad civitatem Dolomoris (Dol-mor) in extremis finibus Lethe " (Letavia=Llydaw). Vitæ SS. Hib., col. 244.
2 O'Gorman, Martyr. July 30.
4. “Ideo non potes offere quia hec mulier habet in utero episcopum ; hic est David Cilli Muni. Sacerdos enim coram episcopo non debet, nisi illo jubente, celebrare." Vitæ SS. Hib., col. 245.
5 Lives of Cambro-British Saints, p. 120.
7" Pater filium suum ipsum David obtulit sancto Albeo in eternam." Vitæ SS. Hib., col. 245. In the Vita S. David he is called Heluus.