Holy Island Coat of Arms Little-known Saints of the North
© Reverend Canon Kate Tristram
21. ST. NINIAN:
 
Ninian belongs to the fifth century, to that shadowy period called sub-Roman Britain, after the severing of official links with Rome. There are good grounds for thinking that he spent his youth in the neighbourhood of Carlisle. We know little of his life until he was made a bishop and sent to the area of Whithorn, then part of the British kingdom of Rheged. Such a move suggests a sending church, presumably Carlisle; it suggests also that there must have been Christians already in Whithorn as it was simply not the practice to send a bishop into the unknown, to spearhead a missionary movement. But once settled at Whithorn Ninian is said to have worked as a missionary among the Picts, and these would presumably have been those closest to the borders of the British kingdom in which he lived.
 
At Whithorn Ninian founded a church to be a Christian centre. It was not originally a monastery. But it is likely that his centre would have had a school. Since there was a great deal of traffic across the Irish Sea it is likely also that some of his followers were missionaries in Ireland. When the monastery was founded at Whithorn one story says that a certain Finnian was educated there, and then founded his own monastery at Moville in Ireland. Among his pupils was the young Columba, later to be the Abbot of Iona. So is there a link here with us, a human chain: Ninian, Finnian, Columba, Aidan?
 
We would need clearer evidence before we could be sure of it, but it is the sort of thing that might have happened in that age: and so, perhaps, it did!
 
22. GERALD OF MAYO :
 
Gerald was one of the English monks in the monastery at Lindisfarne at the time of the Synod of Whitby 664. When that Synod decided against Irish customs the Irish Bishop of Lindisfarne, Colman, and all the Irish monks from here decided to go back to Iona. With them went thirty of the English monks who did not wish to accept the Synod's decision, including Gerald. Bishop Colman then founded two new monasteries on the west of Ireland: one at Inishboffin for his Irish monks, and one at Mayo for the English. Gerald became Abbot of Mayo.
 
All kinds of strange stories were told about saints in those days, so here is one about Gerald which you certainly don't have to believe. A pagan Irish king had just one child, a daughter, who as a young woman became ill and died. He had heard that the Christians could do miracles, so he called in Gerald and his monks. But before they arrived he warned all those at his court not to say anything, but to let him do all the talking. When the monks came in the body lay shrouded on a bier. The king told Gerald that his only son, the hope of his kingdom, had just died: could the Christian God do anything? Gerald looked at the body, and then asked, 'Did you say son or daughter?' 'My son, my only son', insisted the king. Gerald turned back to the body and said, 'Whether you are son or daughter, I raise you as a son!', and a glowing, healthy young man arose!! Naturally that whole family, probably that whole kingdom, became Christian.
 
It's a good story.
 
It is interesting that the monastery at Mayo continued to attract English monks, even though on the west side of Ireland. Right up to the Reformation it flourished and was known as 'Mayo of the Saxons'. I don't know of any further connection with the monastery here. Indeed, the Irish monk who wrote Gerald's Life, and who give us the above story, had forgotten he came from the north. He knew he was English and connects him with Winchester, which perhaps was the only famous English city he knew by name.
 
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