Story of the forgotten Saint who was ‘the light of the world’

The ruined church at Glynn, where St. Patrick is reputed to have established a church in the 5th century
The ruined church at Glynn, where St. Patrick is reputed to have established a church in the 5th century

Saint Patrick has a strong connection with County Antrim and his ministry included the founding of churches locally, according to tradition.

There is a strong tradition that Patrick founded a church at Glynn and also at Kilcoan in Islandmagee, for example.

An ancient sandstone carved head on the church wall at St. Cedma's in Larne; it may relate to the ancient Church, which would have been well aware of the significance of Comgall of Magheramorne

An ancient sandstone carved head on the church wall at St. Cedma's in Larne; it may relate to the ancient Church, which would have been well aware of the significance of Comgall of Magheramorne

He was said to have founded an established at Glynn and then crossed on a ferry to Islandmagee to found a church there.

It is very probable that this was the case, given the local folklore, and also that the influence of Patrick was of no small significance in the ministry and faith of another saint, this one born at Magheramorne in 517 AD.

Unlike Patrick, who is one of elite group of the world’s best known saints, and who ministered and died in the 5th century, the name of St. Comgall is not a household name.

But at one time his name would certainly have been familiar in his native Antrim and particularly along the coasts of Antrim and Down.

Comgall was born at Magheramorne, the son of Setna, a Pictish warrior or noble, and Briga, his wife.

He was educated under St. Fintan at Cloneagh in County Laois, a man regarded as “The father of Irish monks” and who maintained a strict austerity in his faith regime, something which would be repeated by his slightly older student.

When Comgall founded his own abbey at Bangor, there was one meal per day, in the evening, silence and meal times and a strict personal routine followed by Comgall which included rising in the middle of the night to sing psalms while immersed in a nearby stream.

Singing was important at Bangor generally, and the Abbey became famous for its choral singing.

Bangor became a very famous ecclesiastical centre, with up to 3,000 monks being trained there and missionaries going across to Britain and to Europe; so significant was it that it became known as ‘the light of the world’.

Comgall himself became a missionary in Caledonia, accompanying St. Columba on a mission to convert the Picts, which in time helped unify the Picts and Scots, the two ancient peoples, through a common Christianity.

In addition Bangor had close links with Galloway; in 580 St. Dunnan a Cruthin of Bangor, was converting and labouring there. There had been population flow from the east coast of Ulster to the region, leading to the term ‘the Galloway Irish’ to describe those who lived there, so it was no surprise that monks would follow.

Indirect evidence of the Bangor monks is found in Pictish artwork – ornamental stones on the east coast of Scotland and England from Shetland to Durham.

Templecorran or Teambul Corra at Ballycarry is sited on a hilltop overlooking the North Channel to Scotland and the major ecclesiastical centre of Whithorn is just across, so it would not have been surprising if there had been links across the channel in ancient times.

The channel was a narrow one, and Comgall would have been familiar with the form of Caledonia in the distance, whether viewing it from Magheramorne or Bangor.

As to Comgall himself, we know about his pious and strict personal regime and also that he is supposed to have come from a noble family; his patron had been Cantigern, Queen of Dalaradia.

He died at Bangor in 603 AD at an advanced age and was interred in the grounds of the abbey. A few centuries later, however, Viking raids focused on the ecclesiastical sites renowned for their rich craft shops, and in the process of an attack at Bangor, Comgall’s tomb was disturbed and his bones scattered.

There are a few interesting aspects to his story.

One is that his father was called Setna, and according to local author the late D. J. McCartney, the area were Comgall was born was once called Magherasetna, suggesting the plain of Setna.

Another intriguing aspect is that the medieval parish church in Larne was called St. Cedma’s and that there is no official saint named Cedma in either the Roman Catholic or Anglican traditions, so this could be a corruption of the name Setna over the years.

An old sandstone head found in the vicinity of the church centuries ago and erected on the exterior wall may have depicted a Celtic figure from the period of Comgall, although it is believed that the figure represented a woman.

Sadly over the years this ancient stone has become so worn that it is now almost impossible to identity any longer.

There is an ancient church ruin at Ballypollard in Magheramorne whose site and size suggests it was of some significance and it was known as Cloughballyedward. No doubt those involved with it were aware of the story of the famous saint born somewhere in the vicinity.

In more modern times Comgall was remembered through the name of the local maintained secondary school, St. Comgall’s High in Larne.

But the closure of the school has removed that reminder of a Christian monk who sent out clerical ambassadors to Europe to spread ‘the light of the word’.

The saint responsible for making Bangor ‘light of the world’ is sadly all but forgotten.

But he was once a highly influential and significant figure within the early Christian Church, a man on a par with the great St. Columba and others.