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Saint Oran of Iona & Mann

by Bernadette Weyde

Oran (aka Odhrán or Odran) preceded Saint Columba and is a descendant of Conall Gulban a 5th century Irish King who founded the kingdom of Tír Chonaill. His death is recorded in 548 and his grave was greatly revered in Iona. St. Odhrán’s feast day is on the 27th of October.

A native of the midlands, Odran remained in the area of North Tipperary for over forty years. He founded Kilmore Church in the parish of Silvermines. The name Kilmore comes from the Irish words ‘Cill Mhór’ which means “the big church” and is a reference to the church founded by St. Odran around the year 520 A.D. which was a wooden building. This wooden structure was later replaced by one of stone around the year 1,000 A.D. According to Irish tradition Odran served as abbot of Meath and founded Lattreagh.

In 563 he was one of twelve who accompanied St Colmcille to the lonely uninhabited island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland. He was the oldest of St. Colmcille’s twelve companions and was the first of them to die on Iona where he is buried. Columba saw devils and angels fight over Odran’s soul before it ascended into heaven.

Another legend tells that the chapel that Saint Columba wanted to build on Iona was destroyed every night. Finally he was told by a voice that it could never be finished until a living man was buried below. So Odran was buried alive willingly and the chapel could be finished. But one day he pushed his head through the wall and said that there was no hell as was supposed, nor heaven that people talk about. Alarmed by this Columba let Odran’s body be variously covered with earth more securely or removed with haste.

In a Hebridean version of this tale Odran is promised that his soul will be safe in heaven. Some time after the burial Columba wants to see Odran once more and opens the pit under the chapel. When Odran sees the world he tries to come out again, but Columba has the pit covered with earth quickly to save Odran’s soul from the world and its sin.

These legends are one of the few instances of foundation sacrifice in Great Britain. While the story of St. Odran’s self-sacrifice does not appear in Adamnan’s Life of Columcille, George Henderson says that the legend points to an ancient folk-belief, and sees a similarity with the Arthurian legend of the building of Dinas Emris, where Vortigern was counseled to find and sacrifice “a child without a father” to ensure that the fortress walls did not collapse.

The oldest remaining church on Iona is dedicated to Saint Odhran and the surrounding cemetery is called Reilig Odhráin in his memory.


The first Record of St. Oran in the Isle of Man

Up to the present there has not been seen a written document showing a dedication of a chapel to Saint Oran. His name occurs in the Irish Calendar written about 800 A.D. by Oengus the Culdee. Oran (Irish Odhran, `the pale faced one’) was a monk in Iona. He is stated to have been the first monk who died there.

After Columba’s death Iona was acknowledged as the head of all the monasteries and churches his mission had established. In the Isle of Man Iona was so regarded and Oran must have been a popular saint here.

We know from records that the great missionary Columba was at one time patron of Kirk Arbory, having ousted the earlier but less known Saint Cairbre. It might reasonably be expected that his friend and co-worker Oran — who was a leading missionary and church founder in the Isles — would also be similarly honoured in the south of the Island.


The Rental of Balladoole in 1743

The expectation of finding a dedication to Saint Oran has been fulfilled. In one of the documents of the Diocesan Registry in the Manx Museum there is a place-name entered in a document dated 1743 as follows: —

From the Diocesan Registry. Document No. 52. 1743

A Rental of Balladoole & Close Chiarn held by Mrs. Jane Stevenson Widow & John Stevenson Esqre Commencing at Michas 1743 & ending at Michas 1744 vizt:

To the Quarry folding KILL ORANE & Orchard Meadow…
£17 10s 5d

Kill Orane = Keeill Orane (keeill is a Manx Gaelic word for chapel)

(source: Unpublished documents A Manx Notebook; wiki; photo)

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