O’Carroll’s Warning

Patrick Kennedy
1891 (2nd Edition)

Somewhat more hasty was the proceeding of another saintly architect.

St. Declan, when he was building the great round tower at Ardmore in Waterford, was much annoyed by the chatter and questions of an inquisitive woman (the colour of her hair is not recorded).

So just as the cap was being placed on the lofty building, he took a shovel that happened to be at hand, and putting it under her feet, skilfully pitched her to the summit, where her skeleton was afterwards discovered in situ!

In the monastery of Innisfallen there flourished, in the days of Brian Boroimhe, a remarkable scholar, by name Maelsuthain O’Carroll, who enjoyed the honour of being confessor and private secretary to the Irish Alfred.

There is a specimen of his handwriting extant in old Latin (Irish letters), made in the year 1002, in the Book of Armagh, in the presence of King Brian himself, on occasion of one of his visits.

The object of the entry was to confirm the supremacy of the Archbishop of Armagh over him of Cashel, and the other Irish dignitaries.

The translation is subjoined.

The curious may see the original in the College Library, at folio 16 of the book:—

St. Patrick, going up to heaven, commanded that all the fruit of his labour, as well of baptisms as of causes and of alms, should be carried to the Apostolic City, which is called Scotice (in Gaelic) ARDD MACHA. So I have found it in the book-collections of the Scots (the Gael). I, Calvus Perennis (Mael-Suthain, bald for ever), have written this in the sight of Brian, Emperor of the Scots; and what I have written, he has determined for all the kings of Maceriæ (Stone Fort, Cashel).”

This same churchman and scholar is supposed to have commenced the annals of the monastery in which he dwelt.

Here is the legend attached to his memory:


Three Ulster students spent some time under him, and at last they formed a design of performing a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

They asked his permission, which he granted on one condition.

“You will die,” said he, “before you return. And now give me your solemn promise that, when your spirits are freed from their mortal bonds, you will not ascend to heaven till you come and announce to me the time of my own death, and whether I shall obtain eternal happiness or not.”

“We make that promise,” said the three together.

They died at Jerusalem: and when St. Michael was about to conduct their spirits to heaven, they mentioned the necessity they were under of returning to their preceptor, and making the revelation demanded.

“Go,” said he.

They appeared before the great scholar, and thus revealed his destiny:—

“You have made changes in the canon—you have been incontinent—you have neglected to sing the Altus[1] for seven years. In three years you shall die, and hell is your destination.”

“Not so,” said the frightened man. “I will never more make a letter of alteration in the canon; I will lead a pure life; I will sing the Altus seven times every night; I will turn with true contrition to my Maker. Is it not written, ‘the impiety of the impious, in whatever hour he shall turn from it, shall not injure him’?”

So he changed his practices: he lived a mortified and pious life; and at the end of the three years, on the day of his decease, he was again visited by the three spirits who, in the appearance of doves, came to give him an assurance of salvation, and bring comfort to the assistants at his death-bed.


[1] The Altus is a hymn in praise of the Holy Trinity (still extant) composed by St. Colum Cillé in his monastery at Iona. O’Carroll had a beloved and pious son, for whose recovery from illness he had got the Altus seven times solemnly chanted. The youth, however, died the death of the just, and the father never sang the hymn again till after the warning.