Book of Saints and Heroes - Andrew Lang

The Charm Queller

Senan, the son of Gergenn, was seven days old when his mother went to the well to draw water and carried him with her. Though it was autumn, the sun shone hotly, and the pitcher of water was heavy, so the woman stopped and plucked some ripe blackberries which hung over the path. But Senan, who always showed wisdom concerning the things of life, lifted up his voice, and said to her:

'O mother! it is not right to eat at this time. Will not the meal be cooked and my father be waiting when we reach the door? Leave then the berries on their stalks.' And the woman listened to her son's words.

Now Senan's parents had two farms, and sometimes they lived at one and sometimes at the other. And whenever they wished to change they bade Senan their son go before to see that all was ready. Always Senan had a comfortable house for them, and sheds for the cattle they drove before them, and a yard for the fowls, and everything that they needed. For he loved to give help, and none knew how to do it better than he.

But once it happened that Senan had not gone to the farm as he had been bidden to do, for a neighbour was in trouble and wanted counsel. As soon as his mother beheld him enter the house, when she thought he was far away, she was angry and spoke hard words, telling him that nought would be prepared, and the fault would be his.

'Small use you are to us,' she ended in wrath. But Senan only smiled at her.

'Be at rest, O mother!' he said. 'Fear not, you shall have what is needful;' and as they journeyed towards the farm they beheld the sheds and the house and the tools, which they had left behind, flying past them through the air; and the things settled themselves down, each in its own place.

Other miracles were done by Senan before he had yet reached manhood, but they are too many to tell. The time was now near when he should become a priest, though he knew it not, and this is how that came to pass.

Gergenn, his father, one day bade Senan take the oxen out of the farm in the west, and drive them towards the farm in the east, and Senan got ready to do his bidding. The way was long, and at nightfall they still had far to travel, for oxen go slowly. Senan was puzzled where he should leave the oxen till the morning, for the tide was full, and it would be many hours before he could drive them along the sands. Glad was he then, when he perceived the fortress of Machar close by, for surely, he thought, there will be a courtyard there, where my beasts may shelter. So he commanded the beasts to lie down where they stood and await him, while he knocked at the door of the house.

Now Machar was not in the fort on that night, and the steward whom he had left in charge spoke rude words to Senan and refused him entrance, and Senan returned to where his oxen lay and sat beside them till the tide should flow out again; and as soon as the sands were clear he called the oxen to rise up and go, and he himself followed behind them, the waves washing his heels as he went. He was angry and sore at the way in which he had been treated at the fortress of Machar, and he said to himself as he followed his oxen over the sands:

'I have done this work long enough. Henceforth I will do that of a priest,' and as he spoke he broke the spear he held in his hand to drive away the wolves, and he tied the two pieces into a cross and set it firmly in the ground beyond high-water mark; then, kneeling beside it, he made a vow.

After that, he rose and went his way, not knowing that during the next night the fortress of Machar was plundered by robbers and the wife of Machar carried captive.

Leaving the oxen with his father, Senan journeyed to a holy man named Cassidan, who made him a priest, and taught him his psalms, and the rules which were to guide him through life. But if he expected to escape from herding cattle, greatly was he mistaken, for he found that every man in the school of Cassidan took his turn in driving the cows and calves that belonged to the church to pasture; and though the beasts went quietly enough with all others, as soon as Senan called them from their sheds into the fields a spirit of evil seemed to take possession of them. When he collected the calves on one side to drive them into a meadow by themselves, the cows would follow after them, and go each one to her own calf, and when he collected the cows on the other side the calves would run after them, each one to its own mother. This they did many times, till Senan drew a line with his staff on the ground between them, and neither dare step over it.

Then he took out his Psalter and learnt his psalms, till the hour came for the cows to be milked.

In that year a great famine fell upon the land, and robbers went about plundering the people. On a certain night one robber said to another, 'Let us go, when it grows dark, to the mill of Cell Manach where a solitary man grinds corn; and easily can we slay him, and bring home enough corn to last us many weeks.'

'We will do that,' answered his companion, and they set out forthwith. In the door was a hole, and through the hole the robbers peeped, and in the mill they saw not one man but two;  and one was reading, and the other was grinding the corn. Now the man who was reading was Senan.

'What shall we do?' the robbers asked each other. 'Shall we enter and attack them?' but the wiser answered,

'No; for if we are two, they are two also. Let us wait until the miller, who is grinding the corn, goes back to his home with the corn he has ground. We can then kill him and carry off his sack. As for the other fellow I do not know who he is, only that he is of another household from the miller, and will go his own way.'

So they hid till the grinding was ended, and Senan who was reading his book lay down and slept. But the man who was grinding the corn did not sleep. By and bye the dawn broke and the sun rose, and still no one had left the mill. Then Senan got up and opened the door, and the robbers entered and spoke to him, saying: 'Who was with you while you were reading and sleeping, and where is he?'

At that Senan looked at them and made answer—'He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.'

And the robbers understood that it was Christ Himself who had come there to protect Senan His servant; and they repented, and left off doing evil.

As Senan had passed his days in his father's house working on the farm, when he went to live with Notal in the school after he became a priest, he was given, as has been told, the charge of the beasts and of the daily food required for everyone. This was how he came to visit the mill on the night when the robbers went to attack it, for the owner, whom he had thought to find there, was a friend, and often Senan helped him in his work. In the house of Notal there was a mill likewise, and there Senan ground the corn to be made into bread. This he generally did at night, after milking the cows.

'Give me, I pray you, a candle,' he said one evening to the cook; 'I need one to grind the corn, and there are no more left.'

'The new candle-wicks are not yet dipped in the tallow,' answered the cook; 'but take this, it may serve you for the present,' and Senan took the candle he held out and went into the mill.

At the end of a week the cook remembered about the candle, and thought to himself that it must have been burnt out long ago, and he wondered how Senan had got another. So curious was he, that he ran to the mill and looked through the keyhole and beheld Senan sitting by the candle, reading, while the mill ground of itself.

Great was his surprise, but he said nothing, and crept away; and the next night he came again, and again beheld Senan reading by the candle and the mill grinding alone. Thus it happened thrice, and the third time the grinding was finished, and Senan gave the candle to the cook, and the candle was as long at the end of the week as it was at the beginning, which thing was truly a marvel.

By this time the fame of Senan had spread far and wide, and many were the people who flocked to his presence, some for one reason and some for another, but mostly to ask him to come and live amongst them. When Notal, his counsellor, knew of their desire he sent for Senan, and bade him listen to the words of the multitude and to choose a place where he might dwell, at any rate, for a while. So, much against his will, Senan obeyed the voice of Notal, and went for awhile to Inniscorthy.

After Senan had preached some time to the people of Inniscorthy he left them, and journeyed from one town to another, founding churches. At Inis Mor, or the 'great island,' the monks drew water to be used for the church from a well that was in a rock near by, and one evening they came to the Bishop and told him that the water had been defiled by a woman who had washed her child's clothes in it.

'That is an evil deed,' said the Bishop when he heard of it, 'and evil will come of it.'

Then spoke Libern, the son of Dail: 'The son of the woman has gone from her over the edge of Ireland,' for the boy was playing on the cliff and his foot slipped, and he fell down into the water. As soon as the news reached his mother, loudly did she wail, and hastened to Senan and told him what had happened to the child, and Senan was wrath and went to the Bishop.

'O Setna,' said he, 'it is you and Libern also who, in revenge for the defiling of the water, cast a spell on the boy, and are the cause of his death. Go, and let Libern go with you, and leave him to do penance on a rock in the midst of the sea, and find the child and carry him to his mother.' So with shame in his heart the Bishop did as Senan bade him, and left Libern on the rock, and sought the boy, whom he found at the bottom of the tall cliff playing with the waves, which laughed about him; and the child laughed too, and gathered up the white foam in his hands and sucked it, for he thought it was the milk, fresh from the cow, which foamed and bubbled. The Bishop was glad when he saw the boy and knew he was still alive, and, lifting him in his arms, bore him to the boat and brought him to Senan, and Senan carried him to his mother.

'The Lord has forgiven Libern,' said Senan to the Bishop, 'for the sea has left the rock dry. Fetch him, therefore, and bring him hither.'

Thus Libern came off the rock, knowing his sin had been pardoned, and humble of heart stood before Senan.

'Can we find water here, O Senan! if the well is defiled?' asked he, and Senan answered:

'Thrust the crozier which is beside your foot into the earth, and water in abundance will gush out.' So Libern thrust in the crozier and water gushed out as Senan had foretold, and the spring is called 'The well of Libern' unto this day.

Senan was sitting on the flagstone in front of his house when Raphael the Archangel appeared before him.

'Behold the island that is in the midst of the sea,' said Raphael. 'God has set there an awful monster to keep it, so that no sinner should enter therein; but now you are to go there and found a church, and the monster shall be cast out, lest it frighten those that follow you.'

'What is timely to God is timely to me,' answered Senan, and then the angels that were with Raphael took up the flagstone with Senan upon it, and bore him across the sea to a high hill in the middle of the island, and there they left him, and went to seek the monster.

St. Senan and the Angels

"Raphael and the Angels carry St. Senan to the Island."

Greatly marvelled the monster when it beheld the angels in the guise of men approaching, for never before had it seen a living creature upon the island; and as it went swiftly to meet them, the earth trembled under its feet. Fearful and wonderful was that beast to look upon: a horse's mane was on its neck, and in its head a single eye, crimson and angry. The feet of it were thick, and its nails of iron, so that sparks of fire flew out of the rocks as it passed over them, while its breath scorched the grass and flowers which grew in the cracks. Its tail was borrowed from a whale, and its body seemed as long as the island itself; and when it entered the sea, the water boiled and fizzled from the heat that proceeded from it.

The monster moved quickly past the angels and drew near to the place where Senan was awaiting it, its mouth open wide so that the saint could gaze right into the middle of it. But he raised his hand, and made the sign of the cross, and the beast stopped and was silent.

'Leave this island, I command you,' said Senan, 'and see that you do no hurt to any, wherever you may go.'

Then the monster turned and entered the sea and swam across to the land, and from that day forth it harmed no one.

Now when news reached the King of that part of the country that Senan was dwelling in the island, and had caused the monster to abandon it, he was very wrath, and bade the brothers of Senan—Coel and Liath—go and cast out the saint. But when they landed and found Senan he refused to do their bidding, saying that the King claimed what was not his, and had no power to thrust him out.

'If you will not come for our asking, we shall have to make you,' said they, and they took his hands and dragged him down the cliff. There Liath loosed the hand he held, but Coel dragged him over the stones of the beach till his bones were wellnigh broken.

'Why do you not help me?' asked Coel in anger, and Liath answered:

'I will not do it, and I grieve for the harm I have already caused him.'

'Why,' asked Coel again, 'should you forfeit your own lands—for the King will assuredly take them from you—rather than thrust this man from a place which is none of his?'

'Because it is easier even to leave Ireland than to do ill to Senan,' replied Liath; and without him, Coel could not prevail over Senan, so he entered the boat with Liath and sailed away from the island to his home; and as he stepped through the door of his house, his foot slipped and he fell, striking his head against a sharp corner so that he died, and soon his children died also and his lands fell to Senan. When Liath saw that, he returned and told Senan what had happened, and of the death of Coel.

'You did well,' answered Senan, 'not to join Coel in his strife with the will of God, for had you done this, you also would be lying dead and your children likewise, as Coel's children are lying.'

As soon as the King's steward heard these tidings, he hastened to tell his master, who was very wrath, and sent for his wizard to take counsel with him about the matter; and when it was laid before him, the wizard answered:

'Be not troubled concerning this, O King! for I will cast a charm over Senan, and either he shall die or he shall yield the lands up to you.'

'So do,' replied the King, 'and I will reward you.'

After that the wizard went to the island and to the spot where Senan dwelt, and chanted spells against him, bidding him give up the land lest evil should befall him. But Senan cared nothing for his words, and said that he had charms which were stronger than any the wizard could cast, and that he might do his worst. This angered the wizard, and he threw a spell over the sun, so that thick darkness settled on the face of the island; but Senan charmed away the darkness, and the sun shone bright as before. After that the wizard conjured up a storm, and the air was rent with thunders and lightnings; but Senan caused the storm to cease, and it hurt no one. More spells the wizard cast, but never could he prevail against Senan, and at last he said:

'I go out of this island to a place you know not, but by and bye I will come again.'

'You will never come again,' answered Senan, 'and it will not be lucky for you in the place to which you go,' and his words angered the wizard a second time, and he charmed a mist to cover the land, so that Senan might not tell whither he went. Safely he reached an island which lay across the sea, but in the night the wind blew the waves so that they covered the island, and all that dwelt in it were drowned and the wizard likewise.

Donnan, the son of Liath—Senan's brother—came to the island to learn reading and the rules of the church in the school of the monks. One day Donnan was bidden by Senan to go down to the shore, to cut seaweed for him. So Donnan called two little boys who were at the school also, and they climbed over the rocks, which stretched far out into the sea, where the seaweed grew thickest.

'I will go back now,' said Donnan after a while, 'for I have work to do; and when that is finished I will return for you and the seaweed, which you have gathered.'

Then he rowed back to the land, but as soon as he got out of the boat a wave carried it away, and there was no other on the island.

On the rock the boys sat waiting, and they watched the sea creeping closer and closer till it touched their feet, and gently it floated them off the rock and they were drowned; and on the morrow after the tide was high, their bodies were found lying on the sand, and they looked happy and peaceful as if they slept.

When their father and mother heard this, they hastened to the shore, and raised a great cry, 'Give us back our children, O Senan the Saint!'

Then said Senan:

'Go, Donnan, and bid the boys arise,' and Donnan hastened to the sea and beheld the boys lying there, and called to them:

'Arise, and speak unto your parents, for thus are you bidden by Senan.' At his words the boys stood up and, turning to their parents, they said 'An ill-deed have you done, bringing us out of the land we had reached.'

Wonderingly their mother answered: 'Why? Would you rather stay in that land than come home to us?'

But the boys cried with one voice: 'Though the whole world were given us, and all the glory of it, it would seem a prison after the land from which you have summoned us. Keep us not here; but it will be granted that, for our sakes, you shall suffer no sorrow.'

So they died; and their bodies were buried before the convent where Senan dwelt.

At length the time came when it was made known to Senan that the day of his death drew near. He kept silence, and revealed it to none, but hastened to finish the work which had been given him, that none might be left undone. When all was completed he bade farewell to his friends, and lay down, waiting.

'Let my body lie here till dawn,' he said to his monks, and they did as he bade them; and in the dawn they rose up and carried it out, and buried it with great honour.