Skip to primary navigation Skip to content Skip to footer
Back to Blog

The Journey of St. Senan – Rediscovering the Forgotten Footsteps of a Spiritual Luminary

a statue in front of a large rock

(Written by Morgan Roughan)

They used to say that Ireland was “The Land of Saints & Scholars”.  A boast that is accurate as our history in this field of spreading Christianity is unparalleled. We grew up listening to the exploits of St’s Patrick, Brendan the Navigator, Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, Colmcille who fought the Lough Ness Monster along with many more.

One man however seems to have slipped into obscurity over the centuries. He was a man whose guidance was sought by Brendan of Birr, Ciaran of Clonmacnoise as well as Aiden of Aran and Aidan of Lindesfarne.  Regarded as one of the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland”, Senan is reputed to have founded at least 5 Christian communities in Ireland as well as in France, England and Wales. So who is St. Senan and why did he embark on a life dedicated to the spread of Christianity?

Image of the well path leading down to Teampall na Marbh on Scattery Island

Well Road on Scattery Island

Senan was born in 488 AD in Molougha. His parents, Erchan and Congella were described as pious people which at that time was unusual as much of the West coast of Ireland was still under traditions and rule of the Celtic way of life where Druids were held in high esteem. It is said that while giving birth Congella held on to a bush and it blossomed even though it wasn’t in season and it became known as “Congella’s Bush.

One day, while carrying him in her arms, his mother picked some berries and ate them when to her surprise the child spoke to her, saying “Is Moch a longann tú, a mháthair. (You have an early appetite mother) to which she replied, “ Is sean a labhraíonn tú a leanbh. (You have old talk my child) and so he got the name Seanáin (little old man).

Tobar Senan (St. Senan's Church) on Scattery Island

Another story goes that he was walking with his mother they became very thirsty so he pulled some rushes and squeezed them until water came flowing from them to form a lake then called Lough Shannan or St. Senan’s lake, now known as Molougha lake. An old prophecy has foretold that if this lake forms into the shape of a fiddle it would signify the end of the world.

Senan’s parents must have been of high standing as they not only owned land in Molougha but also in Tracht Termainn and it was here as a young man while tending to cattle the Shannon estuary cut him off from the mainland. He prayed to be saved and God told him to stretch out his staff and when he did a pathway formed to get him to safety where he said, “Sufficient for me is the length of time that I have been at this layman’s work” which many believe was his calling from God.

Initially he was educated by Cassidan a monk from South –West Cork before moving to the monastery of Kilnamanagh under the guidance of Natalis. It was here they say that he “Took the Cloth”.

Senan has a longing for travel and education and encouraged by Natalis he set out and founded his first church on an island in the Slaney river which is now Enniscorthy before moving across the Irish Sea to Cornwall and founded another community in the town now called Sennen very close to Lands End. Later he sailed to France and landed at Brest and founded another community near there in place called Plouzanne (Town of Senan).  Later he went to the monastery of St. Martin Tours where he was inspired by the life story of St Martin and he helped spread devotion to him.

Finally Senan arrived in Rome and studied further before being consecrated a bishop there.

Finishing his studies the returned to Ireland but on the way back he called to his friend St. David of Wales who presented him with a crozier and it is said that he founded another community there called Liansannen.  Finally Senan came back to Ireland and founded another settlement on the River Lee in Cork at Inniscarra before coming home to Clare, initially to the islands on the Fergus Estuary before moving to Mutton Island off the coast of Quilty and then Bishops Island Kilkee before arriving on Inis Cathaigh in 532.

Ard an Aingeal (Hill of the angles) on Scattery Island

Ard an Aingeal (Hill of the angles) on Scattery Island

When he arrived on Inis Cathaigh Senan had to defeat a dragon like creature to get onto the island, he arrived on the highest point Ard na nAingeal having been brought there by the Arch Angel Michael who helped him defeat the serpent or Cathach.  Afterwards the Celtic Chieftain MacTail sent one of his Druids to dispatch Senan but before he could land on the island the Druid stopped on a rock when a tidal wave came and washed him away. To this day “Druids Rock” can bee seen at very low tides between Scattery and Hog islands.

The shoreline on Scattery Island with island cottages and Teampeal na Marbh

Senan unfortunately has been described as a Misogynist because of his stance of not letting women on Inis Cathaigh, he did set up the first convent in west Clare near Querrin called Kylenagallach for women to worship.

His encounter with St Cannara from Bantry is legendary where he didn’t want to let her on to the island to be buried, until she pointed out to him that God sent his son to earth for women as well as men, and that Jesus suffered and died for women as well as men. Senan then allowed her to be buried at the low water mark now called Lady’s Grave.

Contrast that encounter with the miracle of Scattery where Mrs. Corbett from the mainland was almost paralysed in middle age and asked to be brought into St. Senan’s grave which was forbidden, but she persisted and the morning after she was there she walked back to the village on the island. When questioned she said she saw a figure dressed as a bishop over her stretcher who asked why she was there and she replied she was asking Senan to intercede on her behalf to God. The figure then asked if she was afraid, and she said how could she be afraid when Holy St. Senan was watching over her.

The graveyard on Scattery Island with Teampall na Marbh in the background

St. Senan often overshadowed by more widely recognised saints, played a significant role in spreading Christianity throughout Ireland and beyond From his miraculous birth to his travels across Europe, his journey was marked by divine intervention and profound encounters. Despite controversies surrounding his stance on women, Senan’s lecacy endures, and he continues to be venerated. Let us all remember his unwavering dedication to his faith and his remarkable contributions to Christian heritage in Ireland.