In among official histories lie stranger tales. They’re passed on to us with many variations from their journey through the years. As time passes, it becomes harder to know whether these tales are true, but they may tell us something about the people who passed them on, and about us, who read them.
Fifteen centuries ago, a hot-tempered noble Irishman left his home. He had quarrelled, and that quarrel had led to a battle. Many men were killed, and in penance, he left his native land, travelling to a remote island off the coast of Scotland with some companions. His name was Colm Cille, later known as Saint Columba.
Among his twelve companions in exile was a kinsman, sometimes described as a brother, sometimes as a son. His name was Odhrán, also known as Odran or Oran in English, and in Latin as Otteranus or Otteran. He had spent the first forty or so years of his life in Silvermines, County Tipperary, where he built a church, and was abbot of a monastery. In 563 he went into exile with Columba.
They travelled in a simple, wicker boat, covered with leather to keep out the sea, looking for a place to land where Ireland could no longer be seen. They found it in Iona, a small island in the Inner Hebrides, off the West Coast of Scotland. This was to be their base for spreading the Gospel among the pagan Scots, and would later become a major centre for learning and monasticism in the British Isles.
First, though, a chapel was needed, for these were men of God, and must have a place to pray. They set to work, building up walls but, every morning, found the walls had been torn down. Though they tried, they could not get the walls to stand, and then Columba heard a voice. The walls would never stand, it said, until a living man had been buried beneath the foundations. The awful fate fell, willingly or unwillingly (the story varies) to Columba’s brother-son Odhrán. He was buried under the earth, still living, and the walls were built on top of him, sealing him in his tomb. This time, the walls stood.
Some days after this, Columba wanted to see the face of the relative he had sacrificed. He, and some of his brother monks, located Odhrán beneath the earth, dead, it seemed. Then his eyes twitched open, and dead Odhrán spoke…
There is no Hell as you suppose, nor Heaven that people talk about!
No God, no judgement, no hereafter – the monks were amazed, and Columba, bitterly angry. He cried out,
Uir, uir, air suich Odhrain! mun labhair e tuille comhraidh!
“Earth, earth, on Oran’s eyes, lest he further blab!” With that, Columba grabbed soil to cover Odhrán up again, and to silence him forever. Just before he did so, Odhrán whispered to him,
The way you think it is may not be the way it is at all.
The dead monk was hastily reinterred, and the chapel completed above his grave. Today, he still lies beneath Rèilig Odhrain, the oldest graveyard on Iona.
A strange story indeed! St Odhrán’s feast-day is 27th October but, from this story, it might be better placed on the 31st! Is it true? Well…probably not. The story isn’t mentioned in the Vita Columbae, written by Adomnán a century after Columba’s death, nor in what we have from Baithéne mac Brénaind, Columba’s successor on Iona. As you can see, though, the fullest information we have about Columba comes considerably after his death, and was written in praise of him, the holy saint. Holy saints are not supposed to bury people alive, nor make human sacrifices to propitiate the spirits of the earth, as presumably happened here. So, it could be that this story, complete with a dead man’s denial of God and the afterlife, was omitted – it doesn’t fit into an official, Christian narrative.
Then again…human sacrifice is an odd thing for a group of devout Christians to do, particularly an educated one like Columba. It is not something permitted, but it is relatively common in folklore and in other religions. Sacrifices – usually of animals, but sometimes of humans – were made when new buildings were being built, as a safeguard against evil and a ward against bad luck. The tale itself has similarities with the legend of the building of Dinas Emrys, where a child sacrifice was recommended to stop dragons demolishing the walls every night. In fact, there is quite a bit of this sort of story in folklore – reflecting ancient practice, or else ideas in the dreams of those frustrated with their building projects, perhaps!
Ultimately, the truth or falsehood of the legend is unknowable. It was too long ago, in a time with too little attestation of anything, and fifteen centuries of retelling the story may have completely changed it from its origins in any case. But, of course, the reason the story has been told and retold is because it is interesting – and it is because of being interesting that I have written about it myself!
So here’s to the possibly-sacrificed St Odhrán, about whom we know extraordinarily little apart from this legend, and that he was a monk, and former abbot in Ireland. He is remembered today as the first Christian to be buried on Iona, and has a chapel named after him there, presumably on the site of the original. Iona itself is a very rewarding place to visit, and in the graveyard of Rèilig Odhrain rests 48 Kings of Scotland, 8 Kings of Norway, one unknown French King, and Odhrán himself.
O Father Otteran, thou wast the first
among the saintly Columba’s disciples to repose
and be laid to rest in the blessed soil of Iona.
As in thy life thou didst live only for Christ
we pray thee to intercede for us that we may follow thee into the way of salvation.
- The Silencing of St Oran – Nihil Obstat
- A Hebridean Version of Colum Cille and St. Oran – Folklore (part article)
- Human Sacrifice in Legends and Myths – D. L. Ashliman
- In Relig Odhráin – Neil Gaiman poem (YouTube)
- The Grave of St Oran – An animation of a Neil Gaiman poem, still in production
- The Walled-Up Wife: A Casebook – Alan Dundes (Google Books)
- Human Sacrifice – Wikipedia
- Oran of Iona – Wikipedia
- Columba – Wikipedia