Kevin of Glendalough is a member of the second order” of ancient Irish saints. The details of his life are more legendary than historical (charming though!), but he has remained popular through the ages.
A descendant of the kings of Leinster, the saint was baptized Coemgen. Coemgen (Anglicized into Kevin) means “the well-begotten”.
Kevin certainly lived up to that name spiritually. Sent at the age of seven to be educated by Irish monks, he took a liking to the monastic life, and when his schooling was done he decided to become a hermit. An angel, says the story, was responsible for showing him a lofty cave accessible only by water at the end of Glendalough, the beautiful Valley of the Two Lakes in County Wicklow. The cave is now known as “Kevin’s Bed”. Here he devoted his life to prayer and self-denial, living on water and herbs.
It was a lonely life; still we are told that “the branches and leaves of the trees sometimes sang sweet songs to him, and heavenly music alleviated the severity of his life.” Perhaps it was in this cave, too, that Kevin learned to play that harp of his that would long remain a treasured relic. (When he later wrote his monastic rule, it was composed in verse. Possibly he even set it to music on the harp.)
After seven years a farmer named Dima discovered the fur-clad ascetic in his hideout. Kevin yielded to Dima’s persuasion to go to the place in the valley that came to be known as Disert Coemgen. Here disciples soon gathered around him and talked him into being their religious superior. For a while, the legend says, a friendly otter would daily bring a salmon to feed the abbot and his monks. Then one day the thought entered the head of farmer Dima’s son that he could make a fine pair of gloves out of the otter’s pelt. The otter seems to have sensed peril, for after that day he disappeared and the monks had to seek provisions elsewhere.
Perhaps it was lack of available food that decided Father Kevin to move farther up the glen, at the junction of two sparkling streams. Here he established his permanent monastery. He is also reported to have made a pilgrimage to Rome around this time to bring back the blessing of the pope to his community.
It was at the new site that Kevin and his monks started to erect the first rough churches, cells and round tower that would make the settlement a center of pilgrimage, and its very ruins a memorable sight up to the present. Abbot Kevin, though he was apparently never ordained a priest, was in his own day a drawing card to countless visitors. Many lovely stories are still related of this amiable ascetic.
One story tells us that King Colman of the Faelain, having lost his earlier sons by deaths that he blamed on evil spirits, entrusted his next infant son, Faelan, to the care of the saintly abbot. Now, the monastery had no cows to provide milk for the child. But Kevin, encountering a doe, commanded her to nurse the little prince along with her fawn. The doe obeyed. When that source of nourishment ceased, somehow St. Kevin ordered a she-wolf to take over the task. The wolf also complied. As a result, Colman’s son grew up strong and hearty.
Other boys were likewise sent to the monks to be educated. On a certain day one of them asked for an apple. The monastery had no more apple trees than it had cows, but Abbot Kevin blessed a clump of willow trees and, lo and behold, the willows began to bear apples! Four centuries later these miraculous trees were still producing “St. Kevin’s apples,” and they were in demand all over Ireland.
Kevin also planted a yew tree at the door of what would be, from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, the cathedral church of Glendalough. This yew was revered as a special heritage of the saint until 1835, when a neighboring landowner chopped it down for use in making furniture. Devotees of St. Kevin hastened to collect every last chip of the wood as relics of the venerable founder.
Widely noted though he was, St. Kevin was always a hermit and a pilgrim at heart, and disliked being tied down. Even in his old age he had a yearning to make just one more pilgrimage. However, when he mentioned his desire to a wise old man, the aged one replied, “Birds do not hatch their eggs when they are on the wing.” Kevin took that as a sign from God that he should stay put, and he did. He is said to have been 120 when he died at Glendalough in 618. The feast of St. Kevin (June 3) is observed throughout Ireland, and he is the principal patron of the archdiocese of Dublin. Of late, Kevin has become increasingly popular as a Christian name for not only boys of Irish families, but of other nationalities. Even blacks and Native Americans! The “Well-begotten” would be pleased with that, I think.
–Father Robert F. McNamara