St. Colman's Ducks

Patrick Weston Joyce

The old church of Templeshanbo in Wexford, from which the surrounding parish has its name, lies about three miles from the eastern base of Mount Leinster. It was anciently called Shanbo-Colman (Colman's old tent or booth) from St. Colman O'Ficra, the founder and patron, who lived in the seventh century, and who was held in great veneration there during the long lapse of years that the monastery continued to flourish after his death.

There is now a large graveyard attached to St. Colman's old church, and another about two hundred yards off. Between the two is St. Colman's holy well which was formerly much frequented by pilgrims in honour of the patron on his festival day, the 27th of October. But no pilgrim ever makes his "rounds" or prays there now: the well has lost its reputation: even St. Colman's festival day is quite forgotten.

At this spot there was in former days a large pond supplied from the well, where for ages after St. Colman's death a number of ducks were kept, which were believed to be under the saint's special protection, and on this account were regarded with affection and treated with great tenderness. They were quite tame and took food from the hand, never flying away at the approach of pilgrims, and never avoiding the gentle familiarities of the people.

Nothing could harm them: and the legend tells us in particular that it was impossible to cook them. Not that any of the good people of Templeshanbo would dare to molest or even frighten them; and the insane thought never entered into any one's head to kill and cook them for food. But as they were so tame, persons fetching water from the pond on a dark night—so the legend goes on to say—sometimes by an unlucky chance brought one of them away in the vessel without knowing it, and threw the contents, bird and all, into a pot over a fire to be boiled. Whenever this happened no matter how the people heaped on wood, or how long the fire was kept up, the water still remained as cold as when it was taken from the pond; and in the end the little duck was found not in the least harmed, swimming about unconcernedly on the top. It was of course brought back to the pond: and after this the water in the pot got heated and boiled without further trouble.

This is indeed a marvellous relation: but the version given by Giraldus is more marvellous still: and the birds, as he states, were not the common domestic ducks but the small species of wild duck commonly called teal. He tells us that if any one offered injury or disrespect to the Church, to the clergy, or to the ducks themselves, the whole flock flew away and betook themselves to some other lake at a distance. Soon after their flight the clear water of the pond grew muddy and putrid, emitted a foul smell, and altogether became quite unfit for either man or beast to use. They never returned till the offender was punished according to his deserts; and the moment they alighted on their old place, the water became clear and wholesome as before.

A kite once carried off one of these ducks and perched with it on a neighbouring tree. But the moment he set about killing his prey, his limbs grew stiff, and he fell to the ground dead before the eyes of several persons who happened to be looking on; while the duck flew back unharmed to its companions.

On another occasion a hungry fox seized one of them on a cold frosty evening, near a little cell dedicated to the saint that stood on the shore of the pond; and he ran into the cell with it to have a comfortable warm meal. But in the morning the brute was found lying on the floor choked, while the little duck was alive and well, with its head out of the fox's mouth and its body in his throat.

We find according to certain old authorities, that in the remote little island of Inishmurray in Sligo Bay, where this same Colman was also venerated, there were tame ducks under his protection as in Templeshanbo, about which the very same story was told—that it was impossible to cook or harm them. From these facts and legends we may gather that St. Colman O'Ficra had an amiable love for birds, and that he kept a number of them as pets, ducks being his special favourites. And in memory of the good old man, the custom was affectionately kept up in both places by his successors. If we are allowed so much of a foundation to rest on, it is not hard to account for the growth of the marvellous part of the legend. The legend of St. Colman's ducks is now altogether forgotten in the neighbourhood; which is to be regretted; for the people would be all the better for a memory of it.

Many of the Irish saints were fond of animal pets; and this amiable trait has supplied numerous legends to our literature. St. Patrick himself, according to Muirchu's seventh-century narrative, showed them a good example of tenderness for animals. When the chief Dare gave the saint a piece of ground at Armagh, they both went to look at it: and on their arrival they found there a doe with its little fawn. Some of St. Patrick's people made towards it to kill it: but he prevented them; and taking up the little animal gently on his shoulder, he brought it and laid it down in another field some distance to the north of Armagh, the mother following him the whole way like a pet sheep.

Giraldus records that when on one occasion St. Kevin of Glendalough had his hands stretched out in prayer, palms up, through the little window of his cell, a blackbird laid her eggs in one palm and sat on them; and when the saint at last observed the bird, after his prayer, be remained motionless in pity; and in gentleness and patience he held on till the young ones were hatched and flew away. St. Columkille had a pet crane which followed him about like a dog while he was in Iona; and St. Brendan of Clonfert had a pet prechaun or crow. But I suppose the oddest pet of all was the one kept by Marvan, a holy hermit, the brother of Guary the Hospitable, king of Connaught in the seventh century—namely a white boar. Of this Marvan and his white boar many strange stories are told.