Today (7 April) we commemorate St Brynach, abbot and confessor of Pembroke, who may well be confused with another Brynach or Brannock of Braunton, or may have been the same person… As with so many of the saints’ lives, there are conflicting theories about how the threads that are left may be woven together to create a more or less intelligible story of a life. From Stanton’s Menology
The authorities for the life of this Saint are, a Life in MS. Cotton., Brit. Mus. Vespasian A. xiv, a Life possibly drawn up in the tenth or eleventh century, and an epitome of the same in Capgrave’s Nova Legenda, which is really due to John of Tynemouth circ. 1360, whose MS. (Tiberius E. i) was partly destroyed by fire in 1731, but is still in most portions legible. From the minuteness of the local details it is obvious that it was composed by a Kemes man. Further information is obtained from the Welsh Genealogies of the Saints.
The Life seems to imply that Brynach was a ” son of Israel,” but this may mean no more than that he was of the true Israel of God, a Christian by family. The Welsh call him a Gwyddel or Irishman. He was “soul-friend ” (periglor, as it is in Welsh), – i.e., confessor and chaplain, to Brychan, the Irish conqueror and colonist of Brecknock, and came with him to Britain. He married Brychan’s daughter,
Corth or Cymorth, and by her had a son, Berwyn, and three daughters, Mwynen, Gwenan, and Gwenlliw.
Leaving his native land, Brynach went on pilgrimage to Rome to visit the tombs of the Apostles, and whilst there, according to the legend, slew a pestiferous monster. Returning from his pilgrimage he visited Brittany, where he remained for several years, but he has left there no permanent trace of his presence. Then he departed ; according to the legend he floated over the sea on a stone. This means no more than that, as was a common custom among the Celtic Saints, he carried his lech, or tombstone, about with him, even in his wickerwork boat, wherever he travelled.
He landed in the estuary of the Cleddeu at Milford Haven. The time was unpropitious. A great rising had taken place among the Welsh, aided by the sons of Cunedda and by Urien Rheged, against the Irish settlers and oppressors, and these latter were being expelled from Wales. Brynach was an Irishman, and was looked on with an evil eye. According to the legend-writer’s account, on his arrival he was much harassed by an impudent woman, who, when he did not respond to her advances, set assassins on him to murder him. One of these thrust a spear into him, and grievously wounded him, and the Saint would have been killed outright, but for the intervention of friends. Brynach went to the nearest spring, where he washed his wound, and the fountain thenceforth bore the name of the Redspring, and was for long regarded as holy.
This story must be read in a different light from that in which presented by the biographer. The woman who pursued the Saint was, in all probability, his wife Cymorth. The Brychan family was indeed Irish on the father’s side, but Welsh on that of the distaff, and in the political convulsion, this famUy endeavoured to side with the Welsh against the Irish. They were unsuccessful, and eventually were also expelled ; but at the time of the arrival of Brynach, Cymorth was very probably displeased at his return, and desired to be rid of him as compromising her position in her lands of Emlyn. With the account in the Life, agrees the still current legend that Brynach on his arrival first stopped at Llanbeudy or Llanboidy (the Church of the Cow-house) in Carmarthenshire, where he was denied other lodging than a cow-shed, and the Church bears a name significant of his reception. From thence he went to Cilymaenllwyd (the nook, or possibly, cell, of the grey or holy stone), also in Carmarthenshire, where he was refused shelter, and had to take refuge under a grey stone (maen Llwyd). At Llanfyrnach in Pembrokeshire, however, he was better received, and there he built his oratory and cell by a spring, and called it after his own name. The foundations of the chapel remain, a small rectangular structure at some distance from the parish church. The account of his settlement here is given with some detail by the author of the Life.
Brynach, leaving the place where he had been half-murdered, went to another on the banks of the Gwaun, the river that flows into the sea at Fishguard, and which gives to this town the Welsh name of Abergwaun. Here was a stone bridge, and the place is still called Pontfaen. But the opposition he met with drove him away. The legend-writer says that evil spirits made life’ there’ insupportable. Then he departed to the banks of the Nyfer, that flows through the valley of Nevern, above Newport ; but there he halted only four days. He and his companions cut down trees, but the Welsh inhabitants hauled them off as soon as they were hewn down. This compelled Brynach again to shift his quarters, and he moved to the banks of the Caman, and lighted a fire there, by which he and his companions spent the night.
Now the lord of that country was Clechre or Clether, his wife’s kinsman, advanced in years. God-fearing, and the father of twenty sons. Early in the morning Clechre rose, and seeing smoke rising where he knew there was no tref or farm, he sent his sons to inquire who had settled there without his leave ; for to light a fire on land without the consent of the chief was an act of possession-taking. The sons of Clechre came to where Brynach and his monks were crowded about the fire, and ordered them to the presence of their father. A recognition ensued, and the chief gladly welcomed Brynach, and requested him to give instruction to his sons. Then, moved by the exhortations of Brynach, Clechre departed to Cornwall, where he died. The stream Caman is the crooked brook that runs through a glen into the Nevern, and Clechre ‘s habitation was probably the castell on the little height
above, where the earthworks remain to this day.
Brynach settled at Nevern, a beautiful site, sheltered and commanding a noble view of Carn Ingli, to the summit of which he was wont to ascend, there to spend long hours in prayer, in the midst of the rude walls of the prehistoric fortress that crowns the mountain. There also, according to the legend, he received the visit of angels, and thence the name this bold peak has received. This was not the only foundation of Brynach. In spite of his being an Irishman, he so impressed the people with reverence that he was first tolerated, and then accepted as a man of God. He established churches at Llanfyrnach, and Dinas, as well as Nevern, in what is now Pembrokeshire. He was also the founder of churches or chapels at Henry’s Mote, and Pontfaen, near those already named, thus forming a continuous belt of establishments. Llanboidy in Carmarthenshire was also one of his settlements, and he had a foundation as well in Brecknockshire called after him Llanfrynach, and one in Glamorganshire, also called Llanfrynach.
The legend relates that he had a cow which gave such an abundance of milk that he greatly valued her, and committed her to the custody of a wolf, “which, after the manner of a well-trained shepherd, drove the cow every morning to her pasture, and in the evening brought her safely home.” He had, it would seem, a trusty wolf-dog, which the writer has converted into a wolf. On the occasion of Maelgwn Gwynedd coming south, to exact dues, he sent word to Brynach that he must prepare supper for him and all his retainers. This the abbot positively refused to do, lest thereby he should establish a precedent, and the kings should claim as a right to quarter themselves and their followers on him. Maelgwn was very wroth, and his servants seized the cow. Thereupon the wolf, or dog that tended her, came whining to his master. Brynach went to Maelgwn, recovered his cow, and arrived at a compromise with him. He agreed to receive the king and his company as guests, if the prince would not claim hospitality as a right. Maelgwn was a drunkard, but in Brynach’s monastery was constrained to drink only the water drawn from the stream, and his supper consisted of wheaten bread, and doubtless meat, but the wheaten bread was a luxury unknown where barley and oat-cake were the staple of food ; a legend attached to this distribution of wheaten loaves ; it was said that Brynach had gathered them off a tree. Maelgwn slept in the monastery, and next morning said to the saint, ” In the Name of God and our Lord Jesus Christ, I will exempt thee for ever from all royal tribute,” and he also made to him a grant of land that had been settled on by a monk named Telych, and which, apparently, Maelgwn took from this monk to make it over to Brynach. The Life gives no further particulars of Brynach save that he died on the seventh day of April.
It is somewhat remarkable that no mention is made of his having been in Devon, where was his notable foundation of Braunton, and where, according to William of Worcester and Leland,’ his body lay. We can hardly doubt but that his migration was due to the determination of the Welsh to be rid of all the Irish who had so long oppressed them, and that they compelled the ecclesiastics of that nation to leave, as well as the chieftains. Leland, in his Itinerary, says : “I forbear to speak of S. Branock’s cow, his staff, his oak, his well, and his servant Abel, all of which are lively represented in a glass window of that church (Braunton).” This has long perished. Of Abel nothing is known. The oak was fabled to have supplied the wheaten loaves. Whytford, in his Martiloge, calls the Saint Bernake, and says of him : ” In Englonde ye feast of Saynt Bernake, a gentylman of grete possessyon, which all he sold and went on pylgrymage to Rome, where by the waye he dyd many myracles. And when he came to England agayne he was of grete fame, and moche magnifyed, whiche to declayne and avoyde he liedde pryvily into South Wales, where he was assayled with the tentacyon and persecution of a lady in lyke maner as Joseph in Egypt, but with grace he vanquyshed and was of hygh perfectyon, many myracles, and had revelacyons and also vysyons of angels.” The son of Brynach, called Berwyn, is said to have settled in Cornwall, where a church was dedicated to him, and to have been slain in Ynys Gerwyn.
In Nevern churchyard, to the south of the porch, is a fine cross called Croes Fyrnach, about thirteen feet high, with elaborate interlaced ornamentation. William Gambold, in a letter dated September 18, 1722, wrote : ” This S. Byrnach was the Minister of that parish (Nevern), and a great Cronie of S. David. Now S. David, whenever he went from S. David’s to Llandewi brevi, always called at Nevern, and generally lodged a night with his friend S. Byrnach. But, one time, coming that way Byrnach discovered on David’s shoulder a prodigious large stone (draught enough for six yoke of oxen) carved
all over with endless knots, and on one side (among or underneath the knots) five or six characters now unintelligible, which stone David told his friend he designed for Llandewi brevi, as a Memorial of him: but was prevailed upon by Byrnach to give it him, and Byrnach fixed it on end on the south side of Nevern Church within a few yards of the church wall.” About this stone there is a tradition that the cuckoo is wont to first sound his note, perched thereon, on the day of the patron saint, April 7. ” I might well have omitted,” says George Owen, ” an old report as yet fresh of this odious bird, that, in the old world, the Parish Priest of this church would not begin Mass till this bird, called the Citizen’s Ambassador, had just appeared and begun his note on a stone called S. Brynach’s Stone, standing upright in the churchyard of this parish ; and, one year, staying very long, and the priest and the people expecting the accustomed coming—came at last, lighting on the said stone, his accustomed preaching place, and being scarce able once to sound his note, presently fell dead.”
For the determination of the date of S. Brynach we have not much to go upon. Maelgwn Gwynedd died of the Yellow Plague in 547 ; and the death of the Saint must have taken place some ten or fifteen years later, possibly even as late as 570. His symbol is a wild white sow with young pigs, as he is said to have founded the church at Nevern where he discovered a sow with her litter. Also stags are said to have drawn timber for him from the forest. Both are represented in Braunton Church on the bench ends and on the roof.
Troparion of St Brynach Tone 2
O holy Brynach, thou didst leave thy native Ireland/ to seek God in Pembroke’s solitude./ As thou dost now stand before Christ our God,/ intercede with Him, we pray,/ that He may have mercy on us.
Here is another saint with a cow dear to him! Many of the saints, especially those who withdraw from human company, seem to develop a close relationship with animals. And I am fascinated by the offhand explanation of ‘floating over the sea on a stone’ as a well-known trope of Celtic hagiography, never intended to be taken literally but rather a turn of phrase, all part of the telling of stories. If indeed many miracles can be explained away in such a manner, is there a whole repertoire of such tropes? Recurring descriptions of people or actions are certainly common in oral storytelling traditions, as mnemonics for the teller and a sort of shorthand, signs condensing knowledge and experience, for the listener – or later, reader – think of the epithets and kennings in Beowulf, and similar tropes in the Iliad or the Kalevala.
Holy St Brynach, pray to God for us.