If your name is Eugene, Owen, or even Tyrone (from Tír Eoghain, the land of Eugene), then you probably know about the saint whose festival falls on 23 August. The following extract from Canon O’Hanlon’s Lives of the Irish Saints (published 1875) was my introduction to this first bishop of Ardstraw.
UNDER the ceaseless labours of blessed Patrick, Ireland soon became a favoured spot in the vineyard of the Church, when sainted men, like the Apostles of old, left all things at his preaching to follow Christ. Princes and nobles were not ashamed to lay aside the pomps of royalty, and to put on the humbler garb of the Christian missionary. Tender virgins were crowding to the cells of Brigid—the Mary of Erin—and consecrating their lives to the service of God and of His poor. Those were truly the ages of faith, when churches and monasteries rose as if by magic on every mountain and in every valley ; when the music of sacred hymns and of Divine psalmody was borne on every breeze, and when that golden era foretold in burning words by Isaiah of old seemed to be fully realized in this Island. “The land that was desolate and impassable, shall be glad, and the wilderness shall rejoice, and nourish like the lily.” Whether viewed in a political or religious aspect, Derry is a spot dear to the heart of the annalist, for hallowed reminiscences cluster round it, and the golden glory of bygone days sheds still their lustre on the See of Eugene and the city of Columkille. From immemorial ages, the “place of the oaks ” was sacred ; for here, even the Druids, it is traditionally held, had one of their most famous colleges. From the Holy Island—for such formerly Derry was—went forth the royal poets, the sage legislators, the learned astronomers, and the well-instructed annalists. There the mystic rites of Druidism were once studied, and there in after times the young aspirant to the priestly dignity underwent his long and arduous novitiate.
The festival of St. Eogan or Eugene dates from a very early period in the Irish Church, and it was held on this date. The learned hagiologist, Colgan, had intended to publish the Acts of St. Eugene, at the 23rd of August, as may be inferred from his list of unedited Manuscripts. However, these Acts of St. Eugenius, bishop of Ardsrata, are preserved in the Burgundian Library at Bruxelles. They have since been edited and published s by Carolus de Smedt and Joseph de Backer, Bollandist Fathers, under the auspices of the Right Hon. John Patrick, Marquis of Bute. At the 23rd of August, the Bollandists present us with Acts of St. Eugene, by some anonymous writer. A previous commentary is added, with several notes, by Father William Cuper, S.J. These Acts were composed as a panegyric on the saint, and evidently they were intended to serve as a sermon for his festival. Briefly, too, does Bishop Challoner enter his record at this day. The Rev. Alban Butler has a short article in reference to him at this same date, as likewise the Rev. S. Baring-Gould, and the Petits Bollandistes. The Life and Acts of St. Eugene are involved in much obscurity, since the most ancient memoir we possess seems to have been written centuries after his period, and it abounds in legends. Still, it must be observed, there are certain coincidences that correspond or are not irreconcilable with synchronous persons, times and places, as gleaned from independent records.
Eugene belonged to a Leinster family, on the paternal side. He sprung from the race of Laeghaire Lore, son to Ugaine Mór, from whom the Leinstermen are descended, according to the O’Clerys… We are informed, that Cainnech of Leinster was father of Eugenius, while his mother is named Muindecha, and she belonged by race to the territory of Mugdarnia, in the present county of Down. The illustrious St. Kevin ot Glendalough was a near relative…
While yet of tender years, Eugene, with a great number of other boys and girls, received his early education with the youthful Tighernach, in the school at Clones. From that place, the child was carried away captive to Britain by marauding pirates, and Tighernach also shared this captivity. We are informed, that the holy and wise Neunyo, also called Mancenus, and who was in Rosnat monastery procured their liberation from the King of Britain. Afterwards, he took charge of their religious training, and he found them to be docile students. For some years, they were under the tutelage of St. Ninnian, together with a holy youth named Corpre, who was afterwards bishop of Coleraine, in Ireland. A second time, Eugene, with his companions, was carried into captivity and brought to Brittany—supposed to be in Gaul —as the pirates were from this latter country. They were detained as slaves in Armorica, by a Gallic King, who obliged them to work in a mill. The passion for reading was still strong with the three holy youths, Tighernach, Eugene and Corpre ; but one day, while thus engaged, the milling business appears to have been suspended, when the king’s steward surprised the students, and roughly ordered the work to proceed. When he left, the youths piously besought the Almighty, to give them a respite from labour, and an opportunity for reading. Instantly, the Angels of God appeared, and kept the mill-wheel revolving, while the youths were reading. When the king was informed about this circumstance, he declared that they should return to Rosnat monastery to continue their studies. Having thus recovered miraculously their freedom, they were again restored to their beloved master, giving thanks to God for the favours bestowed on them. After obtaining his liberty from the king, Eugene studied for some years in the monastery of Rosnat. At length, with the earnest recommendation and prayers of his monks, Nennius was induced to sail for Ireland, with both of his disciples, Tighernach and Eugene. They founded monasteries afterwards in the territory of Lagenia, now Leinster.
It was on this occasion, that Eugene established the monastery of Kilnamanagh, in Cualann—the modern district of Wicklow—and he there led a life of sanctity, mortification and prayer. Over that house he presided as Abbot, for fifteen years, enjoying a character without stain or reproach. There, too, he moulded the minds of many most illustrious prelates and saints, of whom not the least distinguished is said to have been his nephew, Coemghen or Kevin, who, for his singular and unearthly beauty, was stated by the legend to have been baptized by an angel.
In obedience to a Divine admonition, Eugene set out for the north to preach the Gospel. Still, it was with some degree of regret; especially as his monks sorrowfully asked him who should be their Abbot, if he departed from them. Their holy superior replied: “Let each one of you become Abbot, and prior, and minister; I, although absent in the body, shall be with you in spirit. I shall hear what you say, even when spoken in whisper, and still more when you speak aloud.” About the same time, St. Tighernach left Leinster, and in conjunction with St. Eugene, he founded a celebrated monastery at Clones, otherwise denominated Gaballiunense ; while another religious domicile was founded at a place, the Latin equivalent of which is Sylva humilis. Both of those holy prelates continued that tender affection and firm friendship they had early formed as school-fellows; and as their respective places were not very far apart, they often enjoyed each other’s society, and formed a spiritual alliance in their companionship. Seeking a suitable place to fix his own residence, Eugene, the son of Cainech, in obedience to orders received, established a monastery at Ardstraw. This is at present the name of an extensive rural parish, and it is merely an anglicized form of the ancient Ard-straha which means the height by or near the bank of the river…There, too, it is believed, that St. Eugene established a primitive See, after he had been consecrated a Bishop.
Considerable doubt exists as to the precise year of his coming to Tyrone; for while some represent him as having been the disciple of St. Patrick, others with more probability assert, that he was the contemporary of St. Columkille, St. Kevin, and St. Canice. This appears the more certain, from the date of his death, which the Irish authorities fix at a late period in the sixth century; while the year 617, or 618, of the Christian era, has even been stated for that event, by some of our annalists… In the monastery at Ardstraw, Eogan led a most holy life, being distinguished for his miracles and for a spirit of prophecy.
It is stated, that Eugene was living, about the year 570. Having attained a mature term of years, and a full measure of merit in the sight of God, he was happily called out of this world, some time in the sixth century. Having been seized with a grievous infirmity, which grew on him day by day, calling his monks around him, he received Extreme Unction and the Holy Viaticum, with sentiments of the most pious resignation. When such religious rites had been administered, his monks separated into two choirs, and standing, they alternately chaunted appropriate psalms. During that pious and solemn celebration of the Divine Office, Angels received the soul of Eogan, and bore it to Christ, whom he had so long and so faithfully served. It is most generally allowed by our writers, that St. Eugene of Ardstraw died some time in the sixth century although other authorities have prolonged his life to the seventh. The Annals of Clonmacnoise state, that Eugene died so late as a.d. 618…
The published Martyrology of Tallagh, at the 23rd of August, inserts a festival in honor of Eoghan, Bishop of Arda Sratha. Somewhat differently spelled is that entry, in the Book of Leinster, at x. of the September Kalends. He is recorded, in the Martyrology of Donegal, at the same date, as Eoghan Bishop, of Ard-Sratha, in Cinel Moain, in Ulster. It is generally thought, that he died on the 33rd of August; for then his festival occurs in all the Calendars. In the Diocese of Derry, the feast of this holy Patron is celebrated on that day for a Bishop and Confessor, as a Double of the First Class with an octave.
…Like the charming flowers, that cover the face of our fair Island on each returning May-day, and whose places and forms soon fade even from our view, are many of our holy countrymen. The fragrance of their virtues however remains, and after death again they arise and bloom in a state of immortality, while their remembrance is still treasured among our best inheritances. Their examples yet inspire us to labour for the heavenly crown. We should bear in mind to attain such a reward, that four things especially concur in justification : the infusion of grace, the motion arising from grace and free-will, contrition and the pardon of sin. The saints had an early intuition of God’s purpose to make them vessels of election; they corresponded with the Divine call with alacrity and zeal; they were humble and contrite; while such dispositions were sure to give them place among the true followers of Christ on earth, and a high degree of happiness and glory among the beatified in Heaven.