On this day: St. Senan

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day we celebrate the feast of St. Senan (pronounced Shanawn), a 6th-century bishop, founder of Irish monasteries, most notably the one on Scattery Island in the Shannon estuary, and the patron saint of West Clare.

If you've ever landed at Shannon Airport, you've flown over Scattery Island and Senan's home town of Kilrush. In those last minutes before landing, you're flying low enough to see the round tower on Scattery Island, and the ferry crossing from Kilrush on the Clare side to Tarbert on the Kerry side, and maybe, if it's a sunny day, the dolphins.

Did Senan really exist? Did the tide flowing into the Shannon estuary really allow him a dry path on which to drive his father's cattle home? Did he really reprove his mother for eating berries? Did he really drive away the sea monster who had guarded Scattery Island since the creation of the world? Did he really rout a Druid with a rhyme?

"Thy damned spells light on thy head; I will be here when thou art dead."

Did Senan make a rule forbidding women to set foot on his island? Did St. Canera, knowing that her life was about to end, travel from her anchorhold in Cork to Scattery Island? Did her words convince Senan to allow her to come ashore to receive viaticum and be buried there?

"Christ is no worse than yourself. If he could find comfort in the presence of women, so should the monks. Christ came to redeem women no less than to redeem men and if women gave service and tended to Christ and his Apostles, why should the monks distance themselves from women?"

--from "St. Canera: Patron Saint and Early Irish Feminist," a blog about St. Canera Church in Neosho, Missouri, by "Joetown, Writer and Mom", 2006.

Senan administered the last rites to Canera and buried her on Scattery Island. Thomas Moore wrote one of his Irish Melodies about "St. Senanus and the Lady."

It seems likely that St. Senan was a masculinized and Christianized version of Sinann (pronounced Shannon), Goddess of the River Shannon. Like Senan's mother, whose son reproved her for eating berries, which she may have been doing in honor of Lugh, as in Dancing at Lughnasa, Sinann was drowned for eating hazel nuts to gain wisdom, knowledge and inspiration. Sinann, granddaughter of Lir, the Sea God, was a slayer of sea monsters. Her temple was on Scattery Island.

--See A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, by James MacKillop, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Click here to hear John McCormack singing "Where the River Shannon Flows".

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