The bards, as poet-singers of their people’s history, occupied a special place in the society of ancient Ireland.
In the early sixth century a certain bard in County Derry, in the province of Ulster, fathered a son who was to achieve an even more important stature than his father–that of a monastic missionary, as one of the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland”, and as a saint. His name is variously spelled: Cainnech, Canice, Kenny, and Kenneth.
After becoming a monk and receiving ordination as a priest, St. Kenneth and three of his fellow students under St. Finian of Clonard– SS. Comgall, Kieran and Columba–went to Glasnevin Abbey to take advanced studies under its abbot, St. Mobhi. Then Cainnech moved about Ireland as a missionary, converting many to the Faith by his word and example. He also set up monasteries and churches. Best known of the monasteries was that of Aghaboe. He probably also established a monastery and church at Kilkenny, for the church and the city that arose around it were named after him. (Kilkenny means “Kenneth’s Church”.)
By ancestry, St. Kenneth was a Pict: a member of that puzzling people, probably Celtic, who lived principally in northern Britain, took up arms against the Roman invaders, and eventually allied with the Scots. Ancestry probably had something to do with his going over to Britain to preach to the pagan Picts. There he worked with his “schoolmate”, St. Columba (or Colmkille), who from his island mission of Iona on the west coast of Scotland became the apostle of Scotland. Kenneth and Columba both visited the Pictish king, Bude, then dwelling at Inverness. Legend says that when this ruler, still a pagan, menaced the missionaries with his sword, Kenneth, by a prayer, paralyzed his sword-arm. (Temporarily, we hope.)
The two Irish monks made many converts in Pict-land. Abbot Kenneth became widely known and revered in Scotland. Some of the monasteries and churches he created still bear his name: Cambuskenneth near Stirling; Kilchainnech on Iona; and Inchkenneth on one of the isles of the Hebrides. Thus he remains a popular saint in both Ireland and the land of the Scots, although the Irish prefer to call him Canice rather than Kenneth.
What was St. Canice/Kenneth like? Little is known of his personality. He was, however, referred to as “Luminous”. That probably means that he was naturally talented. Spiritually, it may mean that he was a charismatic figure.
As for his saintliness, there is a charming story that may illustrate it.
His dear associate St. Columba apparently made many trips across the Irish Sea between Ireland and Scotland. The same seems to be true of Kenneth. One time when the latter was in Ireland, Columkille and some companions were crossing the sea when a tempest arose that threatened to capsize their little vessel. The shipmates became frightened, but Columba told them not to be afraid. “God,” he said, “will listen to Kenneth, who is now running to church with one shoe to pray for us.” It would seem that God, at the same time, had revealed to Canice his friend’s response. For at that very moment, it was later learned, Canice had jumped up from the table and rushed off, half-shod, to the church. St. Columba’s boat, of course, made port.
They were great men, those early Celtic monks from the Isle of Saints and Scholars. Possessed, themselves, of a faith that was both firm and learned, they would eventually share that faith with the Germanic peoples of western Europe.
–Father Robert F. McNamara