Foster Mother of the Saints of Ireland
Today is the feast day of Saint Ita of Kileedy. Ora pro nobis.
St. Ita of Killeedy is second only to St. Brigid among the female Saints of Ireland. Nearly everyone knows of St. Patrick, and many are familiar with St. Brigid, St. Columba, and St. Brendan the Navigator. Outside of the ‘auld Sod,’ except for those of Irish descent, few are aware of one of the more noted of Irish saints.
St. Ita born to a chieftain and a princess
St. Ita was of royal lineage. She was born around the year 470 near Fathlegg outside Waterford, to Kennfoeladd, a Deise chieftain, and Necta, a princess. By legend, her original name was Deirdre but because of her thirst (iota) for holiness or Divine Love she became known as Ita (also Ida, and Ite.)
Growing up wise, pure, and beautiful
From childhood, Ita exhibited holiness. She often prayed and fasted, and was benevolent and solicitous toward everyone and considerate in her speech. She displayed the six signs of womanhood that the Irish of old looked for in educated women: wisdom, purity, beauty, music, sweet speech, and embroidery.
When she reached the marriageable age, her father wished her to marry a noble young chieftain. After she had fasted for three days, an angel appeared to her father and told him to let her pursue her desire to enter the religious life. He consented to her (and Heaven’s) wishes, and Bishop Declan of Ardmore bestowed her veil upon her. The story is that the Devil acknowledged defeat, saying: “Alas Ita, you will free yourself from me and you will also free many others.”
St. Ita founds a convent
Accompanied by her sister, Fiona, St. Ita traveled to Hy Conaill in County Limerick to a place called Cluain Creadhail, which some have interpreted to mean “Meadow of Faith,” where she founded and became the abbess of a convent that attracted many Irish women to become nuns. It is now called Killeedy or “Ita’s Cell.”
A legend says she was directed to Killeedy by three heavenly lights; one at the top of the Galtee Mountains, the other on the Mullaghareirk Mountains, and the last at Cluain Creadhail. A local Irish chieftain wanted to give her a huge parcel of land, but Ita would accept only as much land as she needed for gardens large enough to grow fruits and vegetables sufficient to feed her fellow nuns and herself.
“Foster Mother to the saints”
In the old Celtic tradition, children were sent to her convent for fostering, leading St. Ita to found a school for young boys. Thus, St. Ita gained renown for being “The Foster Mother of the Saints of Ireland.”
Her students were said to have included the future Saints Fachtna of Ross, Pulcherius of Liath, Cummian of Clonfert, and Brendan of Clonfert, who later became known as St. Brendan the Navigator. Brendan’s Feast Day is May 16. (According to legend, St. Brendan made landfall in America five hundred years before Leif Ericson and one thousand years before Christopher Columbus.)
St. Ita tells St. Brendan what God loves — and hates — most
St. Brendan is said to have visited St. Ita between his voyages, seeking her advice and wisdom. Once he asked her what were the three things God loved the most and St. Ita replied, “A pure heart with true faith in God, a simple life with a religious spirit, and openhandedness inspired by charity.” When he asked her what were the three things God hated the most she answered, “A scowling face, obstinacy in wrong doing, and too great a confidence in the power of money.”
St. Ita works miracles
St. Ita worked miracles, healed, and prophesied. In one instance she is said to have re-attached a head to a man who had been decapitated, and another story recounts her living off food given to her from Heaven, recalling the manna given to the ancient Hebrews in the desert. In another story, a wise man lost his speech and came to St. Ita to be cured. Before she had even finished praying for him, the wise man was cured.
Once, a nun who was under her care committed the sin of fornication. When St. Ita asked her why she hadn’t guarded her virginity, the nun denied her sin, St. Ita then told her exactly where she had committed the sin and what had happened, after which the nun became contrite and did penance, knowing that Ita was a prophet.
The Death of the Saint
St. Ita died on January 15, circa 570. To this day, her grave in the ruins of Cill Ide, a Romanesque church in Killeedy where her monastery once stood, is always decorated with flowers.
There also is a holy well nearby, the water from which is reputed to have cured everything from smallpox to warts over the centuries. Children from the local school who go down to the well during school hours who say, “Bubble up, bubble up, Blessed well!” three times are said to have been cured.
A lullaby to the Infant Jesus was inspired by her: Some say she herself was the author, others say it was written by an anonymous 9th century poet inspired by her and her life. The lullaby is called “Jesukin.”
Lives my little cell within
What were wealth of cleric high
Al Jesu of the skies, who are next my heart through every night.
Jesu, more than angel aid,
Fostering not formed to fade
Nursed by me in desert wild
Jesu, Child of Judah’s Maid.
Unto heaven’s High King contest
Sing a chorus, maidens blest!
He is o’er us, though within
Jesukin is on our breast.
St. Ita has a strong following in Munster, especially in Waterford and Limerick, and many Irish girls are named after her. In the mid 1800s, Bishop Butler of Limerick obtained from Pope Pius IX a special office and Mass for her Feast Day, January 15.