St. Ita is considered second only to St. Brigid among the ancient women saints of Ireland.
Ita is reputed to have been a descendant of one of Ireland’s kings. She was born near the present city of Waterford in the province of Munster, and baptized under the lovely name of Deirdre.
When she became marriageable, Deirdre was courted by a noble suitor. In those days it was customary for the father to accept such a proposal. Deirdre, however, had already decided to become a nun. For three days she prayed that her father would see it her way. The prayer was granted, and she left home for the monastery with his blessing.
Exile from one’s birthplace was one of the self-imposed penances of the old Irish religious. Deirdre traveled to Hy-Conall in the western part of County Limerick. There she established the monastery where she would pass the rest of her life, surrounded by the many nuns who placed themselves under her guidance. The convent came to be known as Killeedy, that is, “Ita’s cell,” for on taking the veil she had adopted the religious name Ita. Not much is known in detail about her life as a nun. In general she gained a reputation for prophecy and miracle-working, and visitors came from afar to seek her advice.
St. Ita conducted a school for small boys. She must have been an inspiring teacher, for among her pupils were the future St. Fachtna of Ross, St. Pulcherius of Liath, St. Cummian of Clonfert, and St. Brendan of Clonfert. Brendan became known as Brendan the Voyager, because he sailed the Atlantic, perhaps even to America.
It is said that as a child Brendan asked St. Ita what three things God loved best. She replied, “True faith in God with a pure heart, simple life with a religious spirit, and openhandedness inspired by charity.” ‘”And what three things,” the child continued, “does God most dislike?” Ita said, “A face which scowls upon all mankind, obstinacy in wrongdoing, and an overweening confidence in the power of money.”
Sometime after St. Ita’s death her convent was superseded by a monastery of Benedictine monks. Their monastery is now also a ruin, but people still visit the tomb of St. Ita there and decorate it with flowers. She had won favor not only in Ireland but in Cornwall and even farther afield.
These ancient Irish saints were not canonized by the popes, for papal canonization was a later practice. A century ago, however, the bishop of Limerick received permission from Pope Pius IX to observe St. Ita’s feast on January 15. She is the patron saint of the diocese of Limerick.
History connects St. Ita with a lovely Gaelic lullaby in honor of the Child Jesus, “Jesukin”. Apparently she was not the author, as was long believed, but the ninth-century poet who wrote it was inspired by the gentle devotion of this motherly little nun. Here is the lullaby.
Lives my little cell within;
What were wealth of cleric high,
All is lie but Jesukin.
Nursing nurtured, as ’tis right,
Harbors here no servile spright,
Jesu of the skies, who are
Next my heart through every night.
Jesu, more than angel aid,
Fostering not formed to fade,
Nursed by me in desert wild,
Jesu, Child ofJudah’s Maid.
Unto heaven’s High King contest
Sing a chorus, maidens blest!
He is o’er us, though within
Jesukin is on our breast.
–Father Robert F. McNamara