A Perjurer's Punishment

Patrick Weston Joyce

When people were put on their oath in Ireland long ago, it was the custom to swear them on some relic of one of the great national saints, such as a crozier, a bell, a shrine, or a copy of the Gospels; or under the very hand of the saint himself if the affair happened during his lifetime. And it was universally believed that if a man swearing in this manner perjured himself, he was sure to be punished sooner or later by some sort of bodily disfigurement, or perhaps by madness, or illness, or death. The people retained this custom from a very early age down to our own day; and indeed it is doubtful if it has yet quite disappeared.[1]

One day in the year of our Lord 539, when the people were assembled at the great fair of Tailltenn in Meath (p. 30 above) a certain man named Abacuc had occasion to swear an oath; and St. Kieran the illustrious founder of Clonmacnoise, who happened to be at the meeting, was asked to be present. So he came and placed his open hand on the man's neck while he was swearing—a usual form of administering an oath in presence of a saint.

Regarding in no degree either his oath or the presence of the saint, the man swore to what he knew was false; but scarce had he finished the words when a gangrene broke out on his neck all over the place where Kieran's hand had touched it. It spread rapidly and ate its way into his neck; till at last towards the close of the same day his head fell clean off in presence of all the people.

He did not die on the spot however, as one would naturally expect; but the loss of his head brought him to his senses. He repented of his crime and craved the forgiveness of Kieran, who gave him in charge to some of his monks to be brought to Clonmacnoise. There he lived for seven years among the community, walking about openly without his head, signalling regularly for food, and swallowing it through his trunk.

This extraordinary story was at one time generally believed; and it is hard to conjecture how it could have obtained currency. Dr. Todd thinks it may have arisen from some figurative description of loss of memory or reason, or some ecclesiastical or spiritual defect. He quotes as a case in point the following story told in a note at the 4th of August in the Feilire of Aengus, about St. Molua and St. Comgall, both of whom lived in the sixth century, Molua the patron of Clonfortmulloe or Kyle in Queen's County (see p. 55 above) and Comgall the founder and patron of Bangor in the county Down.

As the two saints went together one day into a church, they were greatly astonished to see that they themselves and all the others in the church appeared without their heads. But Comgall after a time addressed the congregation and said:—"The reason of this is that my spiritual director (i.e. confessor, or soul-friend, as Irish writers say) is dead; so that I am without a head, and you are also without heads; for a man without a spiritual director is a man without a head." Comgall then appointed Molua his confessor; and immediately the two saints and all the others recovered their heads.

The Four Masters record the story of Abacuc in the following words:—"The beheading of Abacuc at the fair of Tailltenn, through the miracles of St. Kieran: that is, he took a false oath upon the hand of Kieran while the hand was on his neck, so that a gangrene took him in the neck and cut off his head." Here there is no mention of a man walking about without his head; and perhaps we may take the account as something near the truth. It was probably nothing more than a case of unusually virulent disease, which was gradually magnified by story-tellers among a simple credulous people into the present wonderful legend.

[1] See Carleton's story of "The Donagh." This custom prevailed in other countries as well as in Ireland. The leader will here be remined of the oath on the relics extorted by William of Normandy from Harold of England, by a trick.