Posted by: anna | July 12, 2010

St Cocha of Ross-Benchuir

Today (29 June) is the feast of the holy glorious and all-praised leaders of the Apostles, Peter and Paul.

Also today, we commemorate St. Cocha, abbess of Ross-Benchuir (6th C). I have already posted about her as St Ladoca of Cornwall, but this may help to clear up some of the confusion I felt then! it’s all to do with spelling, especially the vagaries of Welsh and Cornish monastic orthography… From Miss Dunbar:
St. Cocchea, or Concha (2), June 29, July 29. (6th century). Foster-mother of St. Kieran of Saigir. She presided over a nunnery in Ireland, and Kieran used to go there every Christmas night to celebrate Mass, after having done so in his own community. Colgau. Lanigan, iii. 306.

and from Baring-Gould & Fisher, vol 2 pp.139ff; see also p.47 for a family tree, as she had holy siblings as well:

S. CIWA (CUACH or KEWE), Virgin, Abbess

Ciwa occurs on February 8 in the Welsh Calendars ; in Cotton Vesp. A. xiv (of the early thirteenth century) as “See. Kigwe virg.’,” and the Prymer of 1618 as ” Ciwa,” and on the same day in the Exeter Martyrology of 1337, “Item in Cornubia Stae. Kywere virginis,” {i.e. Ciwa the Virgin – ‘wyry’), by Bishop Grandisson, and also in the Calendar of Nicolas Roscarrock. In those of the Welsh Prymer of 1546, and Peniarth MS. 219 she is entered by mistake on February 6.

The Welsh genealogies know nothing of her, which shows that most probably she was not of Welsh origin. The church of Llangiwa or Llangua, in Monmouthshire, now dedicated to S. James, is generally supposed to have been dedicated to her. It occurs as Lann Culan in the Book of Llan Dav (p. 216), in the grant by Cynfyn, son of Gwrgant, in the time of Bishop Cerenhir, about the ninth century, and as Languwan and Langywan in the fourteenth century additions to it (pp. 318, 320). In the Norwich Taxatio, 1254, it is spelt Lagywan.

In Cornwall she is patroness of a church in the parish of Lannow (Lan-ciw), now called after her S. Kewe. Docwin or Cyngar was the patron of the church, and Lannow is at some distance from the church town, but he has been superseded as titular Saint of the parish.

In 1370, owing to both her chapel, which had been removed to the churchyard of the parish church, and the latter having been polluted, the Bishop of Exeter issued a commission to John, Bishop of Commagene, acting as his deputy, to reconcile both.

Carew calls the parish Lanowseynt. In Domesday the manor is called Lanehoc, in the Exeter transcript Lannohoc.

Kigwa or Ciwa is almost certainly Cuach, the nurse of S. Ciaran, and a notable abbess in Ireland.

In the Irish Calendars she is commemorated on January 8, instead of February 8. The transfer in the Welsh and English Calendars is probably due to her having been confounded with Coynt, or Quinta, a virgin martyr who is given on February 8 in the Roman Martyrology. Cuach’s name is given also as Coiningean (Coin the Virgin), or Coincha, and as Coinche she was easily identified with Coint or Coynt {Quinta) . On February 8 Whytford gives “the feast of S. Coynt a virgin and martyr, that bycause she wolde not worshyp ydolles was drawen by ye heles or feet thrugh ye cite, and so they brake her bones and tare her flesshe tyll she dyed.”

Grandisson, who gives S. Kywere on February 8, also gives S. Cuaca V. on June 24. Roscarrock calls her Kewe, Kue, and Kigwe, but he also calls her Cota, following Capgrave, who misprinted John of Tynemouth’s Coca as Cota. Roscarrock says she was the “ghostlie childe of S. Piran, and lived an austeer and solitarie life on an island or a Rock in the sea to which he had often access, without shippe or boote, going miraculously dry foot on the water to administer the sacraments unto her, and he also raised to life her priest called Geranus, quenched the fire that was burning in her house by prayer, and interrupted the carnall love that was between her mayd and his servant in sorte as the mayde was stricken with blindenes and remained soe, and his man did seaven years of penance in Banishment and Studie.”

Here Roscarrock owes his information to the Life of S. Piran in Capgrave.

She occurs in the Tallagh and Donegal Martyrologies on January 8, but also on June 6 ; O’Gorman also on June 6, as ” Cocca whom I love ” ; also on June 29 ; and on January 8 as ” dear modest Cuaca.” She occurs also as Coiningean on April 29 in nearly all the Martyrologies. She acquired the name “Wolf-girl” from a malformation of one nail of her finger, caused by an injury to it, but on account of which it was fabled that she had been suckled by a wolf. 

There can, however, be little doubt that Coinche or Coiningean is the same as Cuach, for in the Latin Life of S. Ciaran she is called Cocca, and in the Martyrology of Donegal she is spoken of as a nurse to Ciaran, whereas in the Irish Life she is called Coinche. In the Drummond Calendar is given, on April 29, ‘Apud Hiberniam Natale Sanctorum Confessorum Coiningin et Fiachna.’ In the Felire Oengus on April 29.

No Life of the Saint is known to exist ; but all that can be found concerning her has been collected by Colgan in his Acta SS. Hiberniae under January 8. It is mainly derived from the Lives of her foster son Ciaran of Saighir.

Cuach was daughter of Talan and Coemel. But there is some doubt about the name of the father, who is given by MacFirbis as Fergus MacRoich. It is probable that Coemel was twice married. Her brother Caiman and her sister Atracta are numbered among the Saints. The latter was veiled by S. Patrick.

The family belonged to the small tribe of Cliu Cathraighe, which occupied the northern slopes of Mount Leinster. This little clan was converted, about 430, by S. Isserninus, whereupon Enna Cinnselach, king of the district, drove them from their possessions into exile, and Isserninus accompanied the tribe into banishment. The persecution lasted after the death of Enna in 444. He was succeeded by his son Crimthan, who, like his father, was a pagan. However, in 458 S. Patrick succeeded in converting and baptising him, and the Apostle used the occasion to urge him to restore the exiles. This he consented to do, after they had been in banishment near on twenty years. Where they had tarried we are not told, only that it was somewhere in the south. As Cuach was the nurse or foster-mother of S. Ciaran, she must have been among the Corca Laoighe in southern Munster.

We cannot set down Ciaran as born later than 446, and we may suppose that when the exiled families of the Hy Duach and Clan Cliu met in banishment, an intimacy sprang up between them, and in token of this amity, the newly-born Ciaran was given to the still young Cuach or Ciwa to nurse and to love.

Certainly Ciaran was with her for longer than the period of unremembering infancy, for he ever held Cuach in the deepest and tenderest affection.

He himself was not baptised till he was thirty, but she was an exile for the faith, one of the first Confessors for Christ that the island possessed, and she must have impressed the religious character on Ciaran’s mind. The summons to return came in 458, or perhaps a little later, and then Ciaran parted with his nurse. He was then not over twelve, and he was destined not to meet Cuach again for many years.

On her return to the land of her fathers, her two brothers and her sister embraced the religious profession. It is probable that this had been part of the agreement ; on these terms only had Crimthan, king of the Hy Cinnselach, permitted them to come back.

For some reason unrecorded, S. Patrick did not veil Cuach, but handed her over to MacTail, whom he consecrated Bishop and placed at Kilcullen. Bishop MacTail was to instruct Cuach in religion, but ugly reports circulated relative to his undue intimacy with her, and his clergy denounced him for it – apparently to Patrick ; what was the result is not related. Nothing further is known of Cuach till Ciaran arrived at Saighir, which was about the year 480, when she unreservedly placed herself in his hands. She became the head of two establishments for women, one at Ross Benchuir in Clare, the other at Kilcoagh (Cill-cuach) near Donard. Persuaded by S. Patrick, Crimthan, king of the Hy Cinnselach, had restored the Clan Cliu Cathraighe to their land. They ill repaid his liberality. In 484 they joined cause with the Hy Bairrche against him, and Eochaidh of the Hy Bairrche killed Crimthan, who was his grandfather, with his own hand. Several battles followed, at Graine in 485, another in 492, in which Finchadh, king of the Hy Cinnselach, was slain.

It is told that when ploughing time came, Ciaran was wont to lead forth a team, bless it, and send the oxen across country to the settlement at Ross Benchuir. They arrived without a driver, and remained lowing outside Cuach’s walls till she received them. Then, as soon as her ploughing was accomplished, she said to the oxen : “Depart to my foster-son again.” Whereupon the beasts started of their own accord and went across country to Ciaran. This they did every year. Translated out of its fictional adornments into plain fact, this resolves itself into a simple transaction. Ciaran attended to Cuach’s farming arrangements, and managed the annual ploughing for her, not at Ross Benchuir, but at Cill-Cuach, which was nearer to Saighir.

At Kilcoagh by Donard is her Holy Well, Tubar-no-chocha, at which stations were formerly made. The cill is mentioned in a grant of 1173 to the Abbey of Glendalough as ” Cell Chuachae.” S. Coemgen was probably a nephew, though represented in a pedigree of the Saints as her half-brother ; but this is chronologically impossible.

On Christmas Eve S. Ciaran said Mass at midnight, and at once departed from his monastery, and walked to that of Cuach, and communicated her and her nuns, and then returned in the morning to Saighir. This would seem to show that for a while Cuach was superior of Killeen, near Saighir, where he had at first established his mother. The same conclusion may be drawn from the escapade of S. Carthagh, his pupil, who seduced one of Cuach’s pupils and by her became a father. This also points to close proximity of the houses.

Near Ross Benchuir was a rock in the sea to which Cuach was wont to retire at times for prayer. Ciaran is reported to have stepped on to a stone and to have employed it as a boat in which to cross the water to her. Here again, under a fable a simple fact lies concealed, that he was wont to visit his old nurse in her island hermitage, and

there minister to her in holy things.

One day Ciaran went with a great crowd (multa turma cum eo) to the cell of Cuach, and they were given as a repast a pig’s shoulder. ” And out of that shoulder he made corn, honey, fish and ale.” Proably here we have a misunderstanding – she gave him what she had, a shoulder of bacon, and that had to serve the party for lunch in place of the corn, honey, fish and ale they had reckoned on.’ His turma consisted of nine hundred and forty men, so that the poor little community was hard put to it to feed such a host.

Geran, or Cieran, was the priest of Cuach, and when he died, S. Ciaran restored him to life again. One day her monastery caught fire through carelessness, Ciaran himself extinguished the flames, the writer says, through the sign of the cross, probably by throwing buckets of water over the fire.

At what date Ciaran removed to Cornwall we do not know. It was due to an arrangement with the kings of Munster, that he should surrender the abbacy to Carthagh, who was of the royal family, so soon as this dissolute youth should have reached the age of discretion and have gained experience. Almost certainly Ciaran would induce his nurse to accompany him, to become the head of societies for women in the country to which he migrated.

Ladock in Cornwall is probably Lan-ty-Cuach, and was one of her houses. The patronal feast is observed there on the first Thursday in January, and this fairly agrees with her festival as marked in the Irish Calendar, January 8.

In the Episcopal Registers the church is given as Ecclesia Sancta Ladock, Bronescombe 1268, Quivil 1281, Grandisson 1330, 1337 ; Brantyngham, 1372, 1373, 1391 ; there is consequently no justification in Mr. C. Borlase supposing that the church was dedicated to a male Saint, S. Cadoc. Ladock is on one side of the dorsal ridge of Cornwall, and Perranzabuloe, the foundation of S. Ciaran, on the other. They are about nine miles apart.

But the principal foundation of Cuach in Cornwall was apparently Lanowe. To the north lies high bleak land, with poor soil over slaty rock, rising some five hundred and fifty feet above the sea. This high land drops suddenly, forming a step, and this step is cleft with gullies or combes down which murmur streams to the richer land below. One of these, clothed in gorse and coppice, with spires of lichened rock rising above it, has on the east side a platform of warm red friable rock, dominating the lower land, but sheltered by the hills from the prevailing north-west winds. An ancient watercourse has been cut, leading a stream from the brook to this terrace, where it fills a pool and supplies farm and fields with water. Here is Lanowe, the original site of Cuach’s church and monastery. In her day all the high land to the north was covered with oak forest ; and tradition has it that it was infested by a wild black boar, that ravaged the pastures and with its tusks gored men and beasts.

S. Cyngar, or Docwin, locally called S. Dawe, lived where is now the parish church, and Cuach visited him, but he refused to see her till she had tamed the wild boar. Nicolas Roscarrock, who relates the tradition, says that she did this, and then he opened his cell door and conversed with her. The tradition of the place, at the present date is, that five parishes united to hunt the boar and at last slew it ; whereupon Kewe (Cuach) moved the site of her church from Lanowe to where is now the parish church, a place less exposed to the ravages of wild beasts. ‘

In this faint and faded form we have perhaps a reminiscence of the old tale of the Twrch Trwyth, and the depredations of the Irish Gwyddyl on this coast.

In the church windows are the arms of Cavell of Trehaverick, Arg. a calf passant sable ; but the villagers persist in believing these black heraldic calves to represent the wild black boar of tradition.

The site of S. Kewe is one of the sweetest and loveliest in Cornwall – a narrow valley enfolded by hills, where trees and flowers luxuriate, the haunt of song birds, and where the stream from Lanowe, joined by another, has swollen into a brook much frequented by the azure kingfisher. The church is singularly stately and beautiful, and contains much old glass of the finest quality.

In one of the side windows is a figure, presumably of S. Kewe, crowned, with waving golden hair. But Ciaran’s little nurse-girl never wore a crown on earth, hers was to be one eternal in the heavens.

She is thought to have been buried at Killeen Cormac, near Dunlavin in Wicklow. The name Killeen, like the other by Saighir, points to a foundation by Liadhain, Ciaran’s mother. There are several churches in Ireland that look to Cuach as a foundress, and she must have been very active as an auxiliary to S. Ciaran. Kilcock in Kildare was the most flourishing of these. An interesting account of Killeen Cormac, with its ancient graveyard and Ogam inscriptions, is given in Shearman’s Loca Patriciana, 1882.

Kewestoke in Somersetshire, though now dedicated to S. Paul, by its name seems to indicate S. Ciwa as its original patron.

In Brittany, she seems to have had a monastery near Cleguerec. This place was apparently an Irish Colony, for the church was under the invocation of S. Brigid, indeed the parish. Ferret, taken from it, bears her name in its Breton form. Here, up to 833, was a little monastery, Lann-ty-Cocan, which in that year was made over to the abbey of Redon, and ceased thenceforth to exist. The place was then called Du Cocan or Ty Coca. The act of transfer was registered in the church porch in the presence of the Mactiern Alfrit, and was written by S. Convoyo, abbot of Redon. In the following century it was devastated by the Northmen and was never refounded. The monastery probably stood by the beautiful lake, des Salles, to the north-east of which rise well-timbered heights. The stream that feeds the lake flows on between hills and through forest to expand once more in the Etang des Forges, and then discharges into the Blavet.

Lobineau supposed that the monastery was of SS. Ducocae. That is of the two Saints of the same name, Duae Coccae, the Cuach of June 6, and the Saint of the same name on June 29 – though he gives only July 29. But it is much more probable that Ducocca is Ty-Cuacha, as such is the form the name assumed in Cornwall after Lan,
at Ladock.
Bishop MacTail, concerning whose intimacy with Cuach scandalous reports circulated, died in 548, according to the Annals of the Four Masters, but it is not easy to allow him so long a life, as he succeeded to be Bishop of Kilcullen about 460, following Isserninus.

If Ciaran died about 530, we would suppose that his foster-mother departed this life some years earlier.

The Holy Well of S. Kewe exists on the glebe in the parsonage grounds at S. Kewe. It is in sound condition, but of no structural interest.

Nicolas Roscarrock makes S. Docwin, whom he calls Dawe, to be living as a hermit in the parish, and he says that according to popular tradition she and S. Dawe were sister and brother.

Leland calls her Cua. “The family of Cavell in S. Cua paroch at Trearack.”


Holy St Cocha, pray to God for us.


  1. Happy Feast DAy! Enjoy!

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