St Coinneach (in earlier Gaelic, Cainnech) has emerged from this study as a very significant saint for at least South Uist. With two churches dedicated to him in the middle ages, at either end of the island (a lost Cill Choinnich at Àird Choinnich, and another at Beinn Ruigh Choinnich), the relative obscurity of both of these, and the proximity of a Beinn Ruigh Choinnich to Pabaigh near Loch Boisdale, may suggest that the cult of Coinneach as a saint on South Uist is of some age. Furthermore, the Life of St Cainnech, for which Gilbert Márkus has provided a new edition and translation with notes, may recount a story which takes place on Uist, there called insula Ibdona (see Clancy 2018).
The earliest references to the saint, from Adomnán’s Life of Columba, give him the ancestral name moccu Dalann, that is, one of the kindred of Dala. The Moccui Dalann, a sept of the Ciannachta, belonged to modern Co. Derry, so, like Columba, he was from the north of Ireland, though unlike him, he was not from a major ruling kindred (see DoSH ‘Cainnech mac Luigthig of Aghaboe’; Sharpe 1995, 262n68). Coinneach is associated in the literature about him primarily with his Irish foundation, at Aghaboe, Achadh Bó, in Co. Laois. This is certainly the foundation from which his Life seems to have been composed, perhaps in the 8th century. Adomnán, in his Life of St Columba of c.700 is the first witness we seem to have to Coinneach, and he presents him, alongside Comgall of Bangor, and Brendan of Clonfert, and Cormac ua Liatháin as a major monastic founder and contemporary of Columba’s (VC iii.17). He seems to have been a fairly exact contemporary--his death is recorded in 599 and 600 (AU 599.2, 600.1), though there is some uncertainty about his age then, and his date of birth.
For all his Life is predominantly based in Ireland, it does show him active in the Hebrides as well, including Tiree. More to the point, Adomnán’s Life of St Columba clearly associates him with miracles of the wind and sea (VC i.4; ii.13), perhaps suggesting that he had a prominent place in Hebridean tradition. Adomnán’s emphasis on Coinneach mostly being in Aghaboe when some of the miracles ascribed to Coinneach take place (e.g. VC ii.13), may be his way of deflecting the importance of a monastic founder--and his foundations--which in Adomnán’s day may have been seen as something of a competition for Columba and his monastic federation (see Herbert 2001). (It needs to be mentioned, even if to reject it, that Pádraig Ó Riain (1983) proposed that Coinneach and Columba were effectively the same person.)
A key location in thinking about this scenario is Lagan Choinnich, Laggan in Invernessshire, in a pivotal place along the Great Glen. Coinneach was also probably commemorated in Menteith; and we know he had a chapel in St Andrews as well (Stokes 1905, 222-3). But his strongest cult is Hebridean, with many churches dedicated to him throughout the southern Hebrides, stretching from Coll to Colonsay, with further dedications on Kintrye and in Lorne. There is a Cill Choinnich on Iona, and it may be that Iona was prominent in the promotion of Coinneach as a saint in the Hebrides. Alternatively, we may wish to wonder if Coinneach, or his successors, had not had some part in creating this network of Hebridean churches himself, and what role South Uist had to play in any such development. We should not worry too much about his strong attachment in literature to Aghaboe. After all, Columba too founded Irish monasteries, not least at Durrow, in the Irish midlands north of Aghaboe.
There is a series of early Gaelic poems, in the voices of both Columba and Coinneach addressing each other. These poems (often in quite obscure language) suggest a strong linkage in Gaelic tradition between the two, and the idea that accounts of meetings of mutual respect between the two were a major part of the literature. One of these poems is included below.
Ultimately, it can be asserted with some strength that Coinneach was an important Hebridean saint, and that his importance and connection with the Hebrides dates from the early middle ages, certainly by the 7th century. It is more difficult to be certain of how his presence in dedications in South Uist fits into this picture, but there is every reason to think these belong to an early period of church formation on the island.
Stories about Coinneach from Adomnán’s Life of St Columba
(translation William Reeves, 1874. Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy. Written by Adamnan, Ninth Abbot of that Monastery (Edinburgh) [with some slight adaptations] on Fordham University’s Medieval Sourcebook: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/columba-e.asp
VC i.4. Of the arrival of St Cainnech, the Abbot, who had been previously announced in prophecy by St. Columba.
AT another time, in the island of Iona, on a day when the tempest was fierce and the sea was exceedingly boisterous, the saint, as he sat in the house, gave orders to his brethren, saying, ‘Prepare the guest-chamber quickly, and draw water to wash the strangers’ feet.’ One of the brethren upon this inquired: ‘Who can cross the Sound safely, narrow though it be, on so perilous and stormy a day?’ The saint, on hearing this, thus made answer, ‘The Almighty has given a calm even in this tempest to a certain holy and excellent man, who will arrive here among us before evening.’ And lo! the same day, the ship for which the brethren had some time been looking out arrived, according to the saint’s prediction, and brought St Cainnech. The saint went forth with the brethren to meet him and received him with all honour and hospitality. But the sailors who had been with St Cainnech, when they were asked by the brethren what sort of a voyage they had had, told them, even as St Columba had predicted, about both the tempest and the calm which God had given in the same sea and at the same time, with an amazing distinction between the two. The tempest they saw at a distance, yet they said they did not feel it.
VC ii.13 (ii.12 in Reeves’ edition) Of another similar Peril to him at Sea.
At another time, also, when a wild and dangerous storm was raging, and his companions were crying out to the saint to pray to the Lord for them, he gave them this answer, saying, ‘On this day it is not for me, but for that holy man, the Abbot Cainnech, to pray for you in your present peril.’ What I am to relate is wonderful. The very same hour St Cainnech was in his monastery, which in Latin is called Campulus Bovis, but in Gaelic Ached bou [Achadh Bó, Aghaboe, Co. Laois], and heard with the inner ear of his heart, by a revelation of the Holy Ghost, the aforesaid words of St Columba; and when he had just begun to break the blessed bread in the refectory after the ninth hour, he hastily left the table, and with one shoe on his foot, while the other in his extreme haste was left behind, he went quickly to the church, saying, ‘It is not for us now to take time to dine, when the vessel of St Columba is in danger at sea, for at this moment he is lamenting, and calling on the name of Cainnech to pray to Christ for him and his companions in peril.’ When he had said this he entered the oratory and prayed for a short time on his bended knees; and the Lord heard his prayer, the storm immediately ceased, and the sea became very calm. Whereupon St. Columba, seeing in spirit, though there was a far distance between them, the haste of Cainnech in going to the church, uttered, to the wonder of all, from his pure heart, these words, saying, ‘Now I know, O Cainnech, that God has heard thy prayer; now hath thy swift running to the church with a single shoe greatly profited us.’ In such a miracle as this, then, we believe that the prayers of both saints had their share in the work.
VC ii.14 (ii.13 in Reeves’ edition) Of the Staff of St. Cainnech which was forgotten in the Harbour.
ON another occasion, the same Cainnech above mentioned embarked for Ireland from the harbour of the island of Iona, and forgot to take his staff with him. After his departure the staff was found on the shore, and given into the hands of St Columba, who, on his return home, brought it into the oratory, and remained there for a very long time alone in prayer. Cainnech, meanwhile, on approaching the island of Oidech [probably Texa?] suddenly felt pricked at heart at the thought of his forgetfulness, and was deeply afflicted at it. But after some time, leaving the vessel, and falling upon his knees in prayer on the ground, he found before him on the turf of the little land of Oidech the staff which, in his forgetfulness, he had left behind him at the landing-place in the island of Iona. He was greatly surprised at its being thus brought to him by the divine power, and gave thanks to God.
VC iii.17 (iii.18 in Reeves’ edition) Of the bright Pillar seen to glow upon the Saint's head.
ANOTHER time four holy founders of monasteries came from Ireland, to visit St Columba, and found him in the island of Hinba. The names of these distinguished men were Comgall moccu Araidi, Cainnech moccu Dalann, Brendan moccu Altae, and Cormac ua Liatháin. They all with one consent agreed that St Columba should consecrate, in their presence in the church, the holy mysteries of the Eucharist. The saint complied with their express desire, and entered the church with them on Sunday as usual, after the reading of the Gospel; and there, during the celebration of the solemn offices of the Mass, St Brendan moccu Altae saw, as he told Comgall and Cainnech afterwards, a ball of fire like a comet burning very brightly on the head of Columba, while he was standing before the altar, and consecrating the holy oblation, and thus it continued burning and rising upwards like a column, so long as he continued to be engaged in the same most sacred mysteries.
A Poem in Praise of Cainnech, in Columba’s voice:
From the Preface to Amrae Coluimb Chille in Rawl. B502:
(ed. Stokes 1899, 146-9; translation from Stokes with a few adaptations)
Colum cille cecinit:
Cainnech coem comarbba.
fescuir maitni mochtratha.
is menic ic croseclais.
mac huDalann dail.
Doss fina fial forglidi.
eo argait adamrae.
or derg fo neim.
sasad sluaig sochaidi.
sellat fri caem-Chainnech
do clannaib Cein.
Do marScottaib sciathbreccaib.
scel find forgclide,
ruire nad ró.
Cainnech caem cualammar.
Achaid buadaig Bóo.
Imrad Cainnig caratchoem.
ar itgi fria brathair.
barrd cathbuadach cain.
commur flatha firinni.
iar sentaid sirsaeguil.
mo choemChainnech cain.
Cainnech a dear successor,
fair heaven’s enclosure!
At evening, at early morning,
often at a cross-church
the dear descendant of Dála.
Vinebush generous, manifest,
wondrous brooch of silver,
red gold under splendour,
Sating of a multitudinous host,
they look at dear Cainnech,
of the clans of Cian.
To the great speckle-shielded Scoti,
a tale blessed and clear,
a prince who will not pass away (?),
We have heard dear Cainnech,
we have found a true apostle,
of victorious Achad Bó.
Thinking of Cainnech, friendly-dear,
for a prayer to his brother,
a bard battle-victorious, beautiful;
A meeting with the prince of righteousness
after a long life’s age,
my dear beautiful Cainnech.