Ireland, an island so often ascribed as ‘the land of saints and scholars’ played a key role in the preservation and advancement of the Christian faith and higher education in Europe during the early medieval period, in no small part due to the efforts of Saint Cillian.
For centuries, the need to either spread or freely practice their religion has been a major motivating factor for those choosing to leave these shores.
Europe was a dramatically different place in the mid-7th century. Following the decline and collapse of the Roman Empire in the West a vast array of (mainly pagan) people had begun to settle across the continent. In Eastern Europe the Turkic Avars were the dominant force in the Carpathian Basin, and the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire was battling the new forces of Islam in Egypt and the Levant. In the West the Frankish Kingdom was expanding, the former Roman province of Britannia was divided into five separate kingdoms ruled by the Saxons and Angles with Brittonic and Celtic fringe states on the western seaboard and Ireland itself was a mosaic of minor Gaelic kingdoms known as túatha.
Each túath usually had a religious foundation located within its boundaries and these monasteries became the principal centres of learning within pre-urban Ireland. It was at just such a foundation, the famous School of Ross (Where St. Brendan the Navigator had previously taught) in western Cork that Cillian of Mullagh (Cavan), later St. Killian of Würzburg, received his religious education.
In was here no doubt that he was also imbued with his sense of missionary obligation. Many of his contemporaries were re-establishing Christianity in what is now Great Britain; founding monasteries mainly across the northern part of the island and converting local rulers and in AD 686 he would have the opportunity to join their ranks. Cillian, by this time reportedly already a bishop and abbot, left from Kilmacillogue harbour, Tousist, Co. Kerry where he is said to have established a monastery, with eleven companions and travelled to Rome, via Flanders and Gaul.
Once in Rome he met with Pope Conon who confirmed his consecration as Bishop and commissioned him and his companions, Presbyter Colman and Deacon Totnan, to spread the word of God among the people of Franconia. Bishop Cillian travelled north to the Franconian town of Würzburg which he would use as his base for proselytising in the region. The town was also then the seat of the local pagan ruler, Duke Gozbert. Cillian successfully converted the duke but not his wife, Geilana who was also the widow of his brother.
Cillian declared their marriage unlawful as he felt it was a violation of contemporary church scripture. By doing so he became a deadly enemy of the Duchess Geilana and we are told that when Gozbert was away from the town she:
“Ordered her soldiers to go to the square where the Irish evangelist was fishing for souls and behead him.” – Ó Domhnaill, Fadó: Tales of Lesser Known Irish History, (2013).
His companions, Colman and Totnan were also beheaded and all three bodies were burnt at the royal stables. However the heads of the missionaries were saved and later inlaid with jewels and proclaimed relics by Boniface, missionary-bishop for Germania in AD 752. They can be viewed in the crypt of The Cathedral of St. Killian, Würzburg which was built on the site of their martyrdom.
Today St. Kilian’s feast day (July 8th) is still widely celebrated in southern Germany and he is the diocesan saint of Würzburg and Heilbronn. A Würzburg bridge in the city also bears his name and prominent statues of the saint and his companions line its sides. St. Killian’s statue is depicted holding a golden sword and wearing a bishop’s mitre while he points to the heavens.
A two week festival, the Kiliani-Volkfest is held from July 1st-17th in Talavera and has become the largest annual event in the region with street parades, marquees and a solemn procession in which the martyred saints’ relics are carried through the city.
In the Roman Catholic Church Cillian is now the patron saint of sufferers of Rheumatism as well as wine growers in Franconia and shepherds in Italy and Thuringia. In Ireland a heritage centre, Áras Chillian, which was joint-funded by the diocese of Würzburg and the parish of Mullagh, Cavan has been opened in his honour. He has also been made the patron saint of the parish of Tousist, Co. Kerry, his place of departure and a pattern day is held every year on his feast day there. Finally in 1989 to mark the 1300th anniversary of his martyrdom the Irish and German postal services issued a joint stamp bearing the likeness of the saint and his two companions.
St. Cillian’s story and legacy is one shared by countless other Irish missionaries. Having spent his entire life up to the age of 46 in Ireland, he felt called to leave his homeland and spread the word of God beyond the boundaries of Christendom; a dangerous frontier vocation which he was aware could well cost him his life. Regardless he carried out his mission with bravery, assured that his cause was just, challenging the established status quo and fearlessly expunging his beliefs to those both high and low. His work also paved the way for future missionaries to the region and established links between Ireland and Bavaria which still exist to this day.
He is currently featured in the EPIC Ireland’s ‘Belief’ gallery.