Posted by: anna | September 25, 2010

St Ailbe (Elvis), bishop of Emly

Today (12 September) we commemorate St Ailbe (Elvis), bishop of Emly (6th C).  Yes, here we are, St Elvis. Would any Irish readers like to contribute a pronunciation? My IPA isn’t very good but it looks like AL-vuh, with al as in ‘you can call me Al’ rather than ‘all’. However, on further investigation it seems that Irish has secret ys, like Russian, so it’s really AL-vyuh. I might have guessed that – Grainne is pronounced GRON-yuh. But I didn’t. Anyway – from Baring-Gould & Fisher:
S. AILBE, B. OF EMLY. (a.d. 527.)
[Irish Martyrologies. The Acts are fabulous and late, and quite unworthy of confidence. Unfortunately the Bollandists do not print them. They represent Ailbe as in Ireland before S. Patrick, a statement contradicted by Tirechan and the Tripartite Life of S. Patrick and Joscelin.]
Ailbe was the child of a slave girl of one of the petty Irish princes, by a man named Olenais. When he was born he was exposed to be devoured by wild beasts, by order of the prince. But, says the legend, a she-wolf took compassion on him, and carried him to her lair, and suckled him along with her cubs.
One day a huntsman lighted on the cave where the young wolves were, and was amazed to find among them a beautiful child. He took it in his arms and carried it home, followed by the she-wolf, howling and snapping at his cloak.
And long, long afterwards, when Ailbe was bishop, there was a great wolf-hunting party in Emly, and an old grey she-wolf, pursued by the huntsmen, fled to the bishop, and laid its head on his breast.
“I will protect thee, old mother!” said the bishop, drawing his mantle round the aged beast. “When I was little and young and feeble thou didst nourish and cherish and protect me, and now that thou art old and grey and weak, shall I not render the same love and care to thee? None shall injure thee. Come every day with thy little ones to my table, and thou and thine shall share my crusts.”
And so it was. None ventured to lift a spear against the aged foster-mother of the bishop; and every day she and her little ones came to his hall, and sat, and ate what he gave them.
Ailbe, according to Tirechan, was ordained priest by S. Patrick. When yet a heathen, his soul yearned for better things, and as, when keeping sheep, a Christian priest heard him praying with eyes uplifted to heaven for light and grace, he took the boy and taught and baptized him. Joscelin reckons Ailbe among the disciples of S. Patrick.
The legendary life, which unfortunately the Bollandists have not printed, and which is yet, so far as I am aware, unpublished, contains many wonders. S. Ailbe wished once to give to the king of Munster a hundred horses ; so he went to the top of a mountain, and prayed, and a cloud arose out of the sea, and came to the mountain top, and then burst, and from its womb issued a hundred noble steeds.
The accurate annals both of Ulster and of Innisfallen place the death of Ailbe in the year a.d. 527.
How delightful that the boy raised by a wolf turns into first a shepherd of sheep, and then a shepherd of souls! This is not unique in saints’ lives; I’ll add a tag ‘wolf’. Had I world enough and time, I’d make a subject index of saints’ lives – it would be interesting from a sort of academic point of view to compare common features. So far the only one is ‘enraged pagans’ ,which makes me chuckle in a completely inappropriate way.
  • Brigit at Under the Oak reproduces a translation of an Irish poem about many of the well-known Irish saints, including Elvis, which I think is a very interesting insight into early Irish spirituality.
  • celt-saints including lots of other Ailbhe links
Troparion of St Ailbe tone 4
When Ireland’s Enlightener returned to his native land he found thee, O holy Ailbe, preaching the Faith at Emly,/ where at the bidding of an Angel thou hadst built a church./ O wise shepherd of souls and glorious ascetic,/ O friend of animals, and fellow missionary with the illustrious Patrick, pray to Christ our God that we might also become bastions of Orthodoxy/ and a shining example to our fellow countrymen, drawing them away from ignorance and error/ and into the true Faith that all our souls may be saved.
Holy St Ailbhe, pray to God for us.

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