Life of St. Abban

i. (1) Once upon a time an eminent king assumed the headship of Leinster, whose name was Cormac. He had a wife named Milla, and she was own sister to Bishop Iubar. And it so befell that she was pregnant, and at the time of her delivery she sent word to her brother, Bishop Iubar. And when Milla saw her brother, she said:

Bishop Iubar to my aid!
It is he who knows my secrets;
Let him ask forgiveness of my sins;
Sharp pains have overtaken me.

And the bishop said:

Bishop Iubar is before thee,
Sharp pains have overtaken thee;
Thou shalt bear a noble wondrous son;
May the King of the elements aid thee!

(2) At the prayer of the holy bishop the woman bare a son without pain or travail; and he was baptized, and the name Abban was given to him. And he was sent to be fostered, and to be instructed in feats of strength and valour1 with a view to his succeeding his father in the kingdom; but it was of no avail.

(3) Whatever was recited to him of the words of God he would recite, and he remembered the Scripture without any trouble or committing to memory. The grace of God rested manifestly upon him; nor was this wonderful, seeing that Patrick, when he first landed in Leinster, prophesied of him, as did many other saints.

(4) And his fosterers were astonished at Abban's mode of life; and they took him with them to his father and mother, and declared to them that Abban had no desire to shape his acts with a view to the succession, but (only) to follow the true God and the Catholic faith.

(5) And his father and his mother entreated him to remain as their heir, but it was of no avail. Everything is nought, said he, save God. And he was imprisoned, and chains put upon him, and he was put into2 the hostages pit. But the next morning they found him free without chain or fetter on the green of the fort. And when they saw that they had no power over him, they allowed him to follow his own will. And he returned to the abode of his fosterers.

ii. (6) One day when Abban was with his foster-mother's calves, a wolf came to him. God commanded, said Abban, to help neces sity. Eat this calf, said he, for thou art hungry. The wolf ate it, and thanked Abban for its meal. (7) But the other youths were grieved that the calf should have been devoured [by3 the wolf, and they went to complain of Abban to his foster-mother], and Abban was afraid of his foster-mother. Ah Jesus! said he, who didst create this calf without any material; create it now out of the material that is left of it here. The calf arose and joined the other calves, and bleated and frisked along with them. And Abban's fosterers went to the queen and king and told them of these miracles. We are willing, said they, that he should worship Him who wrought these miracles for him.

iii. (8) Abban went to Bishop Iubar, his mother's brother; and the bishop welcomed him for his godliness even more than for his near relationship to himself. Abban was then twelve years old. Iubar had many a saintly [pupil], and many a noble church. But he had one church that he loved above them all in an island on the south side of Leinster, named Beggery.

iv. (9) Iubar went to Rome, and he begged Abban to stay and superintend the monks till his return. But Abban did not wish to do this, but to set out for Rome with Iubar, and he wept so that his shirt and breast were wet. Iubar called him, and he laid his head on his breast, and fell asleep; and Iubar went on board unobserved by Abban. And when he awoke he saw the ship in the offing, [so that it seemed to him almost like an airy cloud,] and he was sorely grieved thereat. Ah Jesus! said he, prosper my way to yon boat. Thou didst cause the Red Sea to ebb, and nothing in the world is difficult for Thee. Lead me to worship Thee.

(10) He arose and set out over the sea, and angels were clearly seen on either side of him, and the spectators were uncertain whether heavenly wings "had grown upon him, or whether he were walking like a man. The ship stopped for him on the sea, and the crew were astonished, until Iubar told them that it was for Abban that the ship delayed.

(11) Abban went on board, and they land in Italy, and go to a heathen city called Padua. And they were asked: Whence have ye come? and in what direction are you going? We are Irish, said they, and we are journeying to Rome, to receive the benefit of the reward which God promised to His people. What is that? said the king, and what say ye of our gods? Gods deaf and dumb are yours; without power to help themselves or any one else. Show us some miracle of your own God, said the king; kindle this lamp with your breaths without any fire, or else ye shall have an evil death forthwith. And Iubar and his company breathed on the lamp in turn, and it was. not kindled. Now Abban was sleeping then from the effects of his journey; and they wake him, and he breathed on the lamp, and it was kindled at once.

v. (12) The wife of the king died that very night; and on the morrow the king came to the, saints, and begged them to raise his wife, and he would receive baptism. To Abban has God granted to do this, said Iubar. Abban prayed over the woman, and roused her from death. And the king and his wife and all their people there upon received baptism.

(13) Help this country, said the king. There is a venomous monster preying on it, both men and cattle [daily]. It has the shape of a lion; and I once led the people of the country to expel it, and it killed three hundred warriors of them, and remained in its own lair ravaging us [daily]. Abban took some of them with him as guides to the place where the monster was, and (then) they went back again, for their fear did not allow them to do more than point it out from a distance.

(14) The venomous monster with its huge4 sting came to meet Abban. I enjoin on the part of Jesus, said Abban, that the soul which God placed in thee, with which thou hast done deeds of evil, depart from thee, and that the frightful sting which thou hast vanish. The soul (of the monster) departed at the saint's word. And the inhabitants spread through the country to their own homes and dwellings praising God.

vi. (15) The king went to the saints. We have a lake, said he, with venomous monsters on it, which ravage the country, and we would fain have your help against them. They went together to the brink of the lake; and the monsters came to meet Abban, and lay down beside him, and licked his feet, [and did obeisance to him]. I command you, said Abban, in the name of the Trinity, to go into a small corner of yonder lake, and to live on its fish, and to remain there [continually] without injuring any one at all. And they did so; and they are still seen in that corner at the end of every seventh year,5 to show that they remain there in fulfilment of Abban's word.

vii. (16) The saints went on to Rome with the benedictions of the people, and they also blessed the people. [After accomplishing their pilgrimage in Rome] they went back to Ireland.

(17) Patrick and Bishop Iubar and Abban went in a ship on Loch Carman; and they saw a huge monster by their side with a hundred heads, two hundred eyes, and two hundred ears, and it stirred up a violent storm on the sea, bringing the gravel to the surface, so that the ship was sinking. Patrick and Bishop Iubar went on to the benches of the ship to pray God to help them.

(18) Abban stayed behind, for he did not consider his prayers com parable to those of the other saints; and the storm did not abate. An angel said above them: Take Abban to you, for it is to his prayer that has been granted the repelling of yon monster. And Abban was brought to them, and he prayed to God and repelled the monster, and it was not known whither it had gone. And it was the devil who had caused the monster to come to them in that form to destroy the saints. The sea then became calm, and they landed on the strand of their choice.

viii. (19) Abban was once by the shore, and saw a sea wave of enormous size coming towards him, and it towered above the land, and struck the shore at the place where he was, but came no further. Abban laid his staff upon the wave, and mounted on it, and the staff carried him on the wave out into the deep sea, and many devils came around him. Now, said they, we will take vengeance on thee for all the wrong [and persecution] which thou hast wrought on us, in carrying off our people from us by thy subtlety and fantastic jugglery; and then they heard the voice of an angel above them. (20) Be off, said he, to the depth of hell, where ye shall abide for ever. And they did so; and Abban was upon his staff all the time. Thou shalt be, said the angel, for three hundred and seventeen years serving God without there being any power to assail thee, and (then) thy soul goes to the presence of the Trinity, and till the end of doom men will be the better for this voyage which thou hast made. God has given to thee power over the sea such as He never gave to any one before. No one who goes to sea in coracle or ship shall fail to return safe, if he recites (this couplet) thrice in the name of the Trinity: "The coracle of Abban on the water, And the fair company of Abban in it."

And thrice shalt thou go to Rome.

ix. (21) One day Abban was walking by the shore of the harbour; and saw three ships in port starting for Rome. He went to them, and entered one of them to join in the pilgrimage on which they were bound; and there were fifty men in each ship. They got out on to the high sea, but they could not move in any direction. They remained thus for a long time, and marvelled greatly at it, till they heard the voice of an angel above them: This is the cause of your (trouble), said he, that ye have no head or abbot over you. There is a fitting abbot for you there, said the angel, [ and his name is Abban. We do not know the man, said they. Cast these lots among you, 1 said the angel,] and the one on whom this lot shall fall, offer to him the headship of you. And the lot fell upon Abban, and they did obeisance to him; and they had a prosperous voyage till they reached Rome.

(22) In Rome they were met by one who used to give first night's entertainment to every pilgrim who entered Rome; and he took them to his house, and Abban was greatly honoured by him. And the men marvelled at the special treatment which he gave to Abban without knowing him. An angel pointed him out to me, said the goodman of the house. That is no wonder, said they, (for) we were compelled to remain motionless on the sea, till we did obeisance to him. Gregory conferred priest's orders on him, and made him an abbot.

x. (23) And they set out to return to Ireland; and he fell in with two armies that were on the point of joining battle, with their spears couched and swords drawn one against the other. Abban went between them. In the name of the Trinity, said he, cease from this madness which possesses you, and exchange the worser deed for a good deed. They laid aside their anger, and made peace and concord, and they remained in quietness and amity thenceforth. And Abban went to Ireland, taking the benediction of these armies with him.

xi. (24) He went on to Connaught, and built three noble churches there. And he went back to Crich Eachach Coinchinn in the district of Corco Duibne. Many holy churches then were sained by Abban. And he blessed Boirnech, and gave it to Gobnat. And he [blessed Cell Aithfe on Magh Coinchinn and gave it to Finan; and he] prophesied of Finan sometime before he was born,6 and assigned Cell Eachach Coinchinn to him.

(25) And he blessed Cu'l Collainge, and Bri' Gobhann, and Cell Cruimthir, and Cell na Marbh; and he blessed Cluain aird Mobecoc, and Cluain Finnglaisi, and left Beccan there, and many other churches; and he left officers of Holy Church in each one of them.

xii. (26) Abban went into Eile, and the king and the people of the country were holding a fair, and they were heathen; and Abban came sowing the word of God among them. What is God? said the king. The fashioner of heaven and earth, who knows both past and future (lit. everything that has come and that has not come). Tell me, said the king, that big stone yonder on the hill, is there more of it in the earth or above the earth? And Abban told him. And slaves of the king were sent to raise it out of the earth, and it was found to be as Abban said. And the king and his country accepted baptism thereupon.

xiii. (27) There is a venomous monster in this country, 1 said the king, shaped like a cat, with fiery head and tail, bigger than the calves of our kine, and with teeth like a dog s. [ I promise thee on the part of God, that] it shall not do harm to any one of this country, said Abban. And the monster happened to meet him one day by the river Brosnach, and licked his feet, and lowered its horrible bristles [and its venomous sting, and did obeisance to him]. And he took it with him, and put it into a lake near by, to live on fish [and lake water]. And he commanded it not to injure any [man or beast thenceforth]; and this was fulfilled.

(28) Now the king was old at this time, and he had no heir except a daughter whom his wife bore that very night. And he requested Abban to baptize her. And he perceived the sadness of the king at having no heir. If God pleases, said Abban, thou shall have an heir. Nay, said the king, that is impossible for me owing to my age. 1 Abban took the infant in his hands, and prayed earnestly to God that the king might have an heir; and the girl that he immersed in the font he took out as a boy, and laid it in the king's bosom. Here is thy son, said he. And the king was exceeding glad, and so were the people of the country, at these miracles. And Abban and the king parted in great amity, and Abban went to Ros mac Triuin.

xiv. (29) One day Abban was on the bank of the Siuir, and the river was in flood. The (water at the) ford subsided before Abban, leaving (merely) dry stones. There were innumerable godly people with Abban at the time. Take your way here, said he. They did so, and Abban followed them, and a young lad with him, whom he did not notice; and the stream overwhelmed him. They did not miss the lad till they were at refection the next day. Abban went to the stream and raised the child from the river bed, without a wet spot on his hair or raiment.

xv. (30) One day Abban's shepherds were tending their flock, when they saw wolves coming to them. Let them alone, and tend them, said Abban, and the wolves did so, and they it was that acted as his shepherds as long as he lived.

xvi. (31) Cormac son of Diarmait, king of Úi Cennselaigh came to ravage Camross, a monastery of Abban s. Some of his host went into Abban's kitchen, and carried out on to the green a bushel measure which was there, but they could not set it down, for their hands clave to it. The king and his host were frightened, and sent for Abban, and begged him to show mercy to them in the strait in which they were. Abban made the sign of the cross with his hand7 over them, and the bushel fell from them; and the land round about the place was given to Abban, and Abban returned with the benediction of the country.

(32) Night fell upon him, and it was cold and dark, and they could not move a step on the way. An angel came to meet them, with a bright taper in his hand, and he placed it in the hand of Abban; and Abban guided them by the taper till they reached their own monastery. He found the angel waiting for him there in the church, who took the taper from his hand, and they parted from one another.

xvii. (33) One day Abban seeing a dumb man coming towards him to seek his help, made the sign of the cross [in the name] of Jesus on an apple which he had in his hand. Eat this, said he; the sick man did so, and was whole of every disease that he had.

xviii. (34) Another day Abban saw a man who was paralysed, and wanting a hand and a foot. He entreated Abban for love and pity to help him. Be whole, said Abban, in the name of the Trinity; and at Abban's word he was (whole).

xix. (35) One day Abban saw a man who had been attacked by leprosy, who begged his help. I entreat God to help thee, said Abban; and God did so at the word of the saint.

xx. (36) There were two chiefs8 in Abban's neighbourhood who were at variance with one another. They had arranged a day of battle on a certain plain, where they were face to face. The tribes to which the chiefs belonged sent to Abban to come and help them.9 He betook himself to cross-vigil10 to God with a view to this; and he obtained his request, so that they could not wield their weapons or attack one another, but became peaceful at Abban's word.

xxi. (37) There was a certain distinguished wright in Abban's neighbourhood, who used to execute work for every saint in his time. And he was blinded through the reproaches of the saints, owing to the high prices which he charged them, and the excessive wages (which he extorted). He was called Goban. Abban went to ask him to build a monastery for him. He said that it was impossible for him to do so, as he was blind. Abban said to him: Thou shalt receive thy sight while thou art at the work, but it will depart when the work is finished. This came true. And the name of God and of Abban was magnified thereby.

xxii. (38) A dumb man came to Abban for his help. He said: O Jesus, who didst once give speech to a brute beast, the ass, give utterance to this man, said he. And it was done thereupon as he requested.

xxiii. (39) Now Abban's monks had many kine, and one of their herdsmen came to him and said that he had a parti-coloured cow, more beautiful than any earthly cattle, but it was barren, and had never yielded milk or calved since it was born. He thereupon blessed the cow, and it bore twin calves coloured like itself, and11 vessels scarcely sufficed for its milk; and it continued so without abatement all Abban's lifetime, but failed afterwards.

xxiv. (40) Once on a time a congregation of monks in Abban's neighbourhood came to him to inquire as to their (future) life and (the place of) their resurrection, and to be taught and instructed by him. There were a hundred and forty clerks of them. Abban did as they requested, and thereupon they bade him farewell.

There is no finit here to the life of Abban.12


1 to be instructed in strength and skill and valour, and the practice of every feat St.

2 into prison as a criminal St.

3 Passages and words within square brackets are taken from St.

1 hideous St.

5 and they frequently raise their heads in that corner, to show, &c. St.

6 And Finan prophesied the coming of Abban some years before his birth St. (reversing the relation of the two saints).

7 with his staff St.

8 proud soldiers St.'

9 sent to beg Abban to intervene St.

10 i.e. prayer with the arms stretched out in the form of the cross. St., more conventionally: 'he prayed earnestly to God to stop this rapine.'

11 and it was not easy to find in the one place pails sufficient for its milk St.

12 A later note in St. says: I am not sure whether this is the end of the Life; and clearly it is not.

"The Life of St.Abban". Bethada Naem nÉrenn, vol. II. ed. & trans. Charles Plummer. Oxford: 1922.