Killaspugbrone, Bishop Brón & Coney Island
Miracle at Coney
For years following the 'miracle at Coney' the incident on Sligo's Coney Island became known as the Day of the Rabbits. Cana in the Holy Land might have it’s changing of water into wine, and Bethsaida its Miracle of the loaves and fishes, but what was that compared to the Miracle at Coney? Mind you when one realizes that rabbits didn’t officially come to Ireland until the Normans brought them in the 12th century, the Miracle at Coney was doubly astonishing. When this incident happened the Normans were still running around herding goats and rabbits, living in mud huts and minding their own business somewhere in Europe. They had not yet beaten their ploughshares into swords.
A foul deed
Like so many things in Ireland the story begins with St. Patrick. Following a disappointing visit to Calry where, not alone did he fail to Christianize the people who lived there, but to add insult to injury had his pet deer eaten by the natives, Patrick headed off in high dudgeon for fresh and hopefully more productive fields. The story was handed down for centuries. Joe Neilan of Sligo town remembered hearing it from his father:
“Ye killed the deer that followed us from Tara, an’ I was fond of that deer”, the holy man declared when he found all that was left of his pet. "Well,” says he, “I’ll lave Calry but remember this, ye’ll always be poor people here. From Monday morning till Saturday night it’ll be from hand to mouth with ye.’’
With that, he left Calry in disgust.’
Off down the road with him and:
“I’m going to Coney Island now,” says he, “and I’m going to build a church there on the very point of it, and I’m going to call that church Killaspugbrone. It’ll be the first church consecrated in the west of Ireland and I’m going to put Bishop Brón in charge of it. He’s a native of this district here, a native of Coolera under Knocknarea.”’
What's for dinner?
Patrick travelled on and when he came to Coney Island he was hungry and tired. He came to the house of a family called Mulcladhaigh, or 'Stone' in English. Presenting two rabbits to the woman who greeted him he asked her if she would be good enough to cook them for his dinner.
The woman had heard about Patrick and she didn’t like a lot of what she heard. Who could blame her for being suspicious of this foreigner with his new ideas about an even more foreign God. Didn’t she already have a religion? Wasn’t Crom her God?
‘“Ye’re supposed to be a saint,” she says, “we’re not saints here, we’re pagans, and when you leave we’ll still be pagans, we don’t believe in your Gospel!”’
Patrick was hungry and not in the humour for a religious debate. First things first. He could preach the gospel later when he had a full belly.
“Will ye cook the rabbits for me anyway,” he says, “we’re hungry.”
“I’ll cook the rabbits alright for you,” says the woman.
She took the two rabbits out to the back of the house, gutted them and washed them. They were fine fat rabbits. While she was skinning them she came to thinking she’d like to have them for her own dinner. They’d make a better meal for decent people than this rambling preacher. What she had was cats, lots of cats.
So she hit on an idea.
She caught two of the cats, killed them and cleaned them. When she was finished you couldn’t tell which was a cat and which was a rabbit!
Joe picks up the story:
‘She went over an’ put all into a big pot on the fire. She put a red twine, homespun wool, around each of the necks of the rabbits and dropped the two rabbits into the pot along with the cats. While the rabbits was boiling she put a few vegetables into the pot along with the rabbits an’ the two bloody oul’ cats. After a while she poked the rabbits to see if they were done:
“Now they’re boilt,” she says, “ye can have your dinner.”
‘Course it was in Irish she was talking; there was no English in them days. She lifted the two cats out of the pot an’ she went over to a big dresser in the kitchen. She took down two big wooden plates an’ she put one whole cat on a plate for St. Patrick along with vegetables an’ whatever else.
St.Patrick looked at her, he had a suspicion of her, an’ he looked at the ’rabbit’ that was on the big plate. What did he do but put the sign of the cross over the rabbit an’ as soon as he did the bloody oul' cat jumped off the plate and out the door. There was two dogs in the house an’ away with them after the cat. He went over to the pot and put the sign of the cross on it and out jumped that cat too and out through the door. Away with them and the two dogs and the two cats disappeared an’ never was seen after.
St. Patrick looked at her again and he says:
“Woman Stone he says, ye have a heart of stone an’ this island is called after you: Inishmulcladhaigh, Stony Island, Inishmulcladhaigh the Island of the Mulcladhaighs. Well, forever ye’ll be pagan. Unless when I have the church in Killaspugbrone finished that I’ll be able to get ye baptised.
Fate of the Mulcladhaighs
The very day the church was finished, the minute Patrick went into it, his tooth fell out an’ they called that tooth Fiachal Padhraig, St. Patrick’s tooth. That tooth was enshrined an’ it was the greatest shrine that ever was in Ireland. It’s above in Trinity College in Dublin.’
The woman was awed when she saw what Patrick had done with the cat and how her trickery was exposed. Full of remorse for the trick she had played on Patrick the she came to him to him the next day:
‘”I think I’ll be baptised a Christian,’ she said, ‘but the rest of my family won’t. We argued and argued all night to no avail, but I see your point, I’ll become a Christian.”’
When she was baptised Patrick looked at the rest of the family and pronounced a curse:
“‘You’re here for generations on this island,’ he said, ‘and the island is called after you Inishmulcladhaigh, but there’ll never be one of your name a clergyman. Nor will there ever again be four of your name in this townland to carry a corpse. There’ll come a time when there won’t be one of your name on Inishmulcladhaigh again, an' that’ll be very soon.’
Patrick’s curse came to pass. Tradition has it that before he left Sligo the Mulcladhaighs had all died out.
Part 2: BISHOP BRÓN OF COOLERA
And now Paul Burns takes a more scholarly look at Bishop Bron's associations with Sligo:
Most residents of Sligo town are aware that St. Patrick founded a church on the western edge of the Coolera peninsula, a church called Killaspugbrone. This means Church of Bishop Bron (Cill-Easpaig-Bron).
But who was this Brón?
Many believe that Brón was a native of that area. The source for the claim seems to be Bishop O’Rourke’s History of Sligo published in 1889. In his 'The Life and Writings of St. Patrick', written slightly later in 1905, Dr. Healy disagreed. He said that Tirechan, one of Patrick’s earliest biographers, implied that the three bishops Patrick met near Aughris Head—Brón, Mac Rime, and Muredach--were natives of that area. Healy associated Mac Rime, who probably was the son of Brón (the word “filium” is used) and Muredach with the Bratho (now the Borrach) river and Corcaghbeg or Corcaghmore townlands through which the river flows. Healy suggested that an old fort in nearby Ardnabrone, Skreen parish, was Bron’s family home.
After this meeting Patrick, Bron, and a disciple named Mac Erca crossed Ballysadare Bay to Coolera where Patrick traced out a church site for Bron. Thus Killaspugbrone came into existence.
Meeting of the Saints
It is not clear where or when Patrick first met Brón. Dr. Healy follows Tirechan’s account that has Patrick making one long seven-year journey through Roscommon, southeast Sligo, Mayo, then back into western Sligo. If so, several mentions of Bron and Mac Erca are out of order:
According to The Tripartite Life of St. Patrick, when Patrick was near Shancoa in southeast Sligo en route to Mayo, he told his disciple Benen that Brón, the monk Olcan, and Patrick’s pupil Mac Erca were coming toward him along the Strand of Eothaile on Ballysadare Bay.
When at Magh Selce (in Roscommon) Patrick carved the name of Jesus into a rock in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. Brón of Cashel Irre was named as one of the bishops who witnessed the event.
When Patrick was near Crosspatrick in Co. Mayo he met Erc Mac Dregain and baptized his sons. He chose one of them, Mac Erca, to train for the ministry under the care of Brón Mac Icni (of Sligo) and Olcan (of Kilmore Moy).
Sligo historian Henry Morris discounted the seven-year journey theory and believed that Patrick made several shorter trips into the Sligo area. This theory is more logical because one or two of the incidents described in the previous paragraph could have occurred on an earlier trip, and Patrick’s meeting with Brón, Mac Rime, and Muredach near Aughris, and his continuation on to Coolera with Mac Erca, would fit chronologically.
To put the above incidents in order, the baptism of Mac Erca in Mayo occurred first; Patrick telling Benen about Brón, Mac Erca, and Olcan heading his way had to be second; and Patrick’s journey from Aughris to Coolera with Mac Erca had to be third.
What we can gather from these out-of-order incidents is that, in keeping with Morris’s theory, Patrick made several trips to Sligo and Mayo, and he must have known Brón long before meeting him near Aughris and establishing the Coolera church. Unfortunately, putting this in order does not add much to our knowledge of Bron’s origins or early relationship with Patrick.
The following is excerpted from a pamphlet that Henry Morris published in 1930 entitled "St. Patrick in Co. Sligo.":
"The Tripartite also tells that Patrick met Bishop Bron in Tireragh: 'The holy Bishop Bron, of Caisel Irre came to him, and the holy Mac Rime of Cell Corcu Roide, and there he wrote an alphabet for them.' Mac Rime, who afterwards became a bishop, was a son of Bishop Bron. Probably Rime was his mother's name. He was of Cell Corcu Roide, the Church of the Race of Roide, which has been identified by Dr. Healy with the townlands of Corkaghmore and Corkaghbeg near Aughris."
Brón's remains at Corcaghbeg?
The Four Masters said Brón “died in the year 511 and is venerated on the 8th of June in Caiseal-Irra in the country of Tir-Fiachra.” Where he died and where he was buried are not certain. His remains could be at Killaspugbrone, or they may be in Ardnabrone townland, Skreen. This is purely speculative, but a few years ago Sligo’s only ogham stones (pictured right, size c40 inches X 15 X 8), inscribed MACI---, were found in Corcaghbeg, Templeboy parish, near where Patrick met Brón and his son Mac Rime.
Could Brón Mac Icni's remains be there?
Restless waves pet the cliff where the graveyard
is creating a life of its own,
and the April winds blow through the ruins
of the church at Killaspugbrone;
and the clouds gather over the grassland
that so leniently covers the dead,
and each daffodil, lifeless and withered,
is despondently hanging its head.
But the sun finds his way through the nimbi
like the silk moth that breaks through the floss,
and a skylark sits perched on a gravestone,
and it merrily sings on the cross;
before long it ascends to the heavens,
but I still hear its voice from the skies
as it sings of that day of redemption
when the dead and the daffodils rise.
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