Ailbe of Emly
Roman Catholic Church|
Eastern Orthodox Church
|Patronage||Munster, the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly, wolves|
Saint Ailbe (Irish pronunciation: [ˈalʲvʲə]; Latin: Albeus), usually known in English as St Elvis, (British/Welsh) Eilfyw or Eilfw, was regarded as the chief 'pre-Patrician' saint of Ireland (although his death was recorded in the early 6th-century). He was a bishop, confessor and later saint. Little that can be regarded as reliable is known about Ailbe: in Irish sources from the 8th century he is regarded as the first bishop, and later patron saint of Emly in Munster. Later Welsh sources (from the 11th c.) associate him with Saint David whom he was credited with baptizing and very late sources (16th c.) even give him a local Welsh genealogy making him an Ancient Briton.
The life of Ailbe is included in the Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae (VSH), a Latin collection of medieval Irish saints’ lives compiled in the 14th century. There are three major manuscript versions of the VSH: the Dublin, Oxford, and Salamanca. Charles Plummer compiled an edition of the VSH based on the two surviving Dublin manuscripts in 1910. William Heist compiled an edition of the single Salamanca manuscript in 1965 Oxford professor Richard Sharpe suggests that the Salamanca manuscript is the closest to the original text from which all three versions derive. Sharpe's analysis of the Irish name-forms in the Codex Salamanticensis showed similarities between it and the Life of Saint Brigid, a verifiably 7th-century text, leading him to posit that nine (and possibly ten) of the lives were written much earlier, c. 750–850. He further proposed that this earlier Life of Ailbe in the Codex Salmanticensis was originally composed to further the cause of the Éoganacht Church of Emly. In the same century, the Law of Ailbe (784) was issued, possibly in response to the Law of Patrick 
The later lives of the Dublin collection go further and make Ailbe the principal 'pre-Patrican' Saint of Ireland (the others are Ciarán of Saighir, Declan of Ardmore, Abbán of Moyarney and Ibar of Beggerin or Beggery Island)  The Dublin Life of Ailbe asserts that Munster was entrusted to him by St Patrick, while to similar effect, Ailbe is called a "second Patrick and patron of Munster" (secundus Patricius et patronus Mumenie) in the Life of Saint Declán of Ardmore. According to Dagmar Ó Riain-Raedel, the Lives of Ailbe, Declán, Ciarán and Abbán in the Dublin Collection reflect the need of the Munster houses to offer some counterweight against the Patrician dossier promoted by Armagh, even though they do not deny the national importance of St Patrick.
Further material is provided by the lives of related saints such as Patrick. All include numerous miraculous events and obvious inconsistencies and anachronisms. In fact the earliest mention of the name Ailbeus would seem to be in Tirechan's late 7th century Life of Saint Patrick  although this seems to be in reference to a different 'Ailbe', a priest associated with the Ui Aillello, in Connaught, latterly known as 'Saint Ailbe of Sencua (Shancoe in County Sligo)'. Other early mentions of Ailbe are in the 8th century Navigatio Brendani ("Voyage of Saint Brendan")  and in the Martyrology of Tallaght and Martyrology of Oengus from the early years of the 9th century  The Navigatio describes the visit of Saint Brendan to an 'island of Ailbe' where there is a monastery, of whom the 'patriarchs' are Patrick and Ailbe. Ailbe is also mentioned in the Vita tripartita Sancti Patricii or 'Tri-Partite Life of Saint Patrick' of the late 9th century.
In a legend that goes back to the weirdest Vita, or 'Saint's Life', Ailbhe's father fled King Cronan before the child's birth and his mother's servants—ordered by the king to put the baby to death—instead placed him on a rock in the wilderness where he was found and nursed by a she-wolf  Long afterwards, when Ailbe was bishop, an old she-wolf being pursued by a hunting party ran to the bishop and laid her head upon his breast. Ailbhe protected the wolf and thereafter fed her and her cubs every day from his hall. Ailbe was discovered in the forest by visiting Britons: these British foster-parents were said to have planned to leave him in Ireland when they returned home but were constantly and miraculously unable to make the passage until they consented to take him with them. They then took Ailbe with them when they returned to Wales (Vita Albei 2).
A tradition also going back to the earliest Vita (Vita Albei 9) held that he went to Rome and was ordained as a bishop by Saint Hilary who was then pope. Upon being ordained in Rome, he was said to have fed the people of the city for three days before returning home. At the end of his life, a supernatural ship came and he boarded to learn the secret of his death. Returning from the faerie world, he went back to Emly to die and be buried.
The earliest Vita states that Saint Ailbe was baptised by Palladius (Vita Albei 2), something that might be compatible with the tradition that made him a 'pre-Patrician' evangelizer of Ireland (since Palladius was recorded as having been sent to Ireland in 431, most likely before Patrick's time). The year of his death – 528 - that is recorded in the 'Annals of Innisfallen' (compiled at Emly probably in 1092), is not, however, compatible with a 'pre-Patrician' career. It may well be, though, a reflection of the fact that many such obits (records of the date of death) of Irish saints were retrospectively added to the annals.
Ailbhe was said to have founded the monastery and diocese of Emly (Irish: Imlech), which became very important in Munster. He was said to have been responsible for King Aengus's donation of island lands for Saint Enda's monastery.
The Life of Saint David, written by Rhigyfarch in the late 11th century, states that Ailbe baptized Saint David, the patron saint of Wales. In Welsh traditions, he then fostered the boy while serving as bishop of Menevia (present-day St David's) before leaving to missionize southern Ireland.. He was also regarded as the founder of Llanailfyw or St Elvis in Pembrokeshire,
Late Welsh sources  give him a British ancestry. Thus the 16th c. Achau’r Saint records “Eilvyw a Dirdan Saint Breudan” (variant : “Breudain”) while a 16thc. Manuscript of Bonedd y Saint records “Ailvyw vab Dirdan”. This would make him a descendant of Guorthemir (Modern Welsh: Gwerthefyr; English: Vortimer the Blessed), and a cousin of saints David, Cybi, and Sadyrnin. This genealogy is almost certainly fictitious but it may be significant that he was thought of as having a British origin, while the epithet Saint Breudan (if not for 'Brittany') might conceivably suggest some kind of special symbolic link with 'Britain'.
That the connection with Saint David goes back a long way, in any case, is demonstrated by the fact that in the earliest Irish Vita (perhaps of the 8th c.) an incident is described in which Ailbe prophesies that a pregnant woman will give birth to a famous bishop, David (Vita Albei 21) That the links between Pembrokeshire and Ireland go back to the fifth century is well known, meanwhile. As Dagmar Ó Riain-Raedel has noted, at that time “the settlements of the Déisi and Uí Liatháin of East Munster in South West Wales established an important link between Britain and Ireland” and, one might add, specifically between Pembrokeshire (and so potentially 'Menevia' or Saint David's) and the Munster in which Emly may have been an early significant centre.
As noted above the earliest Irish Life records that Ailbe was taken by Britons from Ireland to Britain and could therefore be seen as coming (back) from there to Ireland before performing his missionary work. Arguably this might have been a story invented to reconcile his Irish birth with an enduring tradition of his actual British origin
Possible Pre-Christian Origins
Professor Pádraig Ó Riain suggests the cult of Saint Ailbe may have pre-Christian origins. The name Ailbe figures quite extensively in a context of Irish folk tale, with its likely origins mainly in pre-Christian pagan mythology. For instance Ailbe was the name of the 'divine hound' in "The Tale of Mac Da Thó's Pig"  associated with the Mag Ailbe or 'plain of Ailbe', where stood a Lia Ailbe, or 'stone of Ailbe'. The 'divine hound' Ailbe defended Leinster, the chief centre of which was Aillen, whose female eponym, Aillen, owned a marvellous lap dog Ailbe, according to the 'Metrical Dindsenchas'.To these 'canine' associations one might compare the tradition which identified Ailbe’s father as ‘Ol-chu’ (‘Olcnais’ in Vita Albei 1), ‘great-hound’, as well as the (likely related) story of the infant Ailbe being cared for by a she-wolf
An ‘Ailbe Grúadbrecc’, meanwhile,was the daughter of Cormac mac Airt (premier mythical Irish king) and a wife (as her sister Gráinne) of Finn (= literally, ‘white’) or Fionn mac Cumhaill in the Tochmarc Ailbe, Echtrae Cormaic maic Airt  and "The Burning of Finn’s House". Ailbe was also the name of several of Finn’s fianna (comrades in his band), and their women in Acallam na Senórach  and Duanaire Finn. An Ailbe was also daughter of Mider, son of the Dagda. 
The name "Ailbe"
The name Ailbe was explained in the Vita Albei as derivative of ail 'a rock' and beo, 'living'. In the words of Baring Gould and Fisher  this is “a very doubtful etymology”. It is clearly related to the story of his being exposed behind a rock after his birth, before being cared for by a wolf (Vita Albei 2)  and looks very much like a folk-etymology. Nevertheless, we can note a sporadic association of Ailbe (as saint or mythological figure) with ' rocks' (Irish ail). The Lia Ailbe (stone of Ailbe) on the Magh Ailbe (plain of Ailbe) may be in origin tautological, while a Sliabh Ailbe was associated with a legendary figure Ailbe in Duanaire Finn. The Inbher Ailbhine mentioned in Tirechan's Vita Patricii (Tirechan 5.2) may contain ail, ‘a rock’, according to Watson. It is at a “marvellous stone altar ( = prominent rock with religious associations ) on the mountain of the Ui Ailello” where Patrick was said to have installed the second St Ailbe (of Sencua) - probably at the old site of the church of Shancoe, County Sligo, where a large rock overlooks a well:. This might all be best explained by a typical process of sound assimilation of ail 'a rock' to the name ail-be.
The root albho- 'white, bright' as in Latin albus, 'white' appears to figure in the names of various deities or semi-deities, or names with likely mythological associations: hence the Mons Albanus. Albula as an old name for the Tiber and the legendary Alba Longa in Latium; the Germanic deities Albiahenae  the semi-divine prophetess, Albruna mentioned by Tacitus (Vulgar Latin Aurinia: Germania 8) or the spiritual or demonic beings from the Germanic world, which are represented in modern English by the word, ‘elf’; the Alphito which was recorded as the name of an ‘ogress’ or ‘nursery bugbear’ and might well have been appropriate to an earlier strata of Greek gods; and possibly the ‘R̥bhus’ of Indian mythology and the Rhig Veda. This root may also be found in the names of Celtic deities such as Albarinus, Albocelo  (if they do not contain Latin Albus) and possibly the deity Albius recorded in a single inscription from Aignay-le Duc,.
However the root albho- 'white, bright' does not figure in Irish or in fact in any of the extant Celtic languages. It may figure in the Celtic language of ancient Gaul (as in the names above) but there it may in fact have been borrowed from the ancient Ligurian language (the root is very common in place names from ancient Liguria). There does, however, appear the root albi(i̭)o-, 'world' in the Brittonic Celtic languages: as seen for instance in Wesh elfydd, 'world, land'. In fact this root has convincingly been argued to be related to the root albho- 'white, bright'  and it certainly appears in the Gaulish divine name albio-rix (“king of the world”, parallel to Dumno-rix and Bitu-rix of similar meaning) . However it does not appear in Irish, with one sole exception: the Irish name for 'Britain', that is the Irish version of the name Albion found in ancient sources as the oldest recorded name for Britain. This appears in Irish as Albe-, Alpe- and Albu, Alpu. There is, however, no obvious explanation for this name to appear in the form ailbe and the root albi(i̭)o- would not take that form in Irish, according to the way that language normally developed. The i, in the ai of Ailbe, is not a full vowel but represents an audible ‘glide’ before a palatised l. This palatised l, with i-glide is not found in Irish Albu, 'Britain'.
All of this renders the precise form of the name Ailbe, in Irish, arguably, somewhat mysterious.
Interpretation as a localised version of the cult of Saint Alban
Philip Thornhill  has argued that the Irish cult of Ailbe represents in origin a localised version of the cult of the British martyr Saint Alban. The latter is explained as being rooted itself in pre-Christian religion or mythology but also as bearing some relation to Albion as the ancient name for Britain and designed to serve as a symbol for the corporate identity of the Britons in the new Christian era. It will have been, according to this argument, to some extent a 're-invention' designed to serve a political purpose in unifying the Britons, probably under the dominance of Verulamium (the modern Saint Albans) where the cult of the martyr Alban was most probably based.
Critical to the theory is the interpretation of the Elafius mentioned in the Vita Germani, or Life of Saint Germanus, as a mis-hearing, in a garbled version of the story of Saint Germanus's visit to Britain, of the name Albios or Albius, as an alternative name for Albanus – the latter possibly representing a later version of the name, perhaps introduced by Germanus. A Celtic Albios or vulgar Latin Albius, pronounced in a British-Celtic way, would have given – so Thornhill argues – a name Ailbe, if borrowed into Irish. The ei in the Welsh form (Llan)eilfyw would be explained by the process of i-assimilation, a feature of the development of the Brittonic Celtic languages and a process which would have been underway by the 5th century. The change from a to ei by the effect of the following i (i-assimilation) would be typical of the North West (latterly Welsh) dialects of the ancient British language – and it is likely the cult would have spread from nearby Wales to Ireland. The l with i-glide seen in Irish ailbe would have been the nearest Irish equivalent to the ei- in a Brittonic name Eilbhios < Albios/us undergoing i-assimilation.
Thornhill quotes Prosper of Aquitaine who reports the sending of Palladius (said in the Vita Albei to have baptised Ailbe) in 431, a few years after Germanus visited the cult centre of Saint Alban in Britain in 429.
For the 'British connections' of the cult of saint Ailbe see above. It might be possible that the name was introduced by an actual (missionary) Briton named Albios/us but that would leave the occurrence of the name in early Irish literature and folk tale hard to explain. Thornhill argues that these medieval sources represent not only ancient pagan mythology but also syncretic influences that might have been at work from the 5th century onwards. The name Ailbe would have entered into the folk tradition through the displacement of an original pagan cult at Emly which it may have become identified with and through the typical pagan-mythological, probably solar, associations of the root albho- which may have had their equivalent in Irish tradition. Thornhill points in particular to a likely assimilation to the pagan (probably solar) deity Aillil or Aillen, connected with the Ui Aillelo associated with the second saint 'Ailbe of Sencua', the warrior Aillil on whose chariot the head of the 'divine hound' Ailbhe ends up being impailed and the female eponym of Aillen, near the Mag Ailbhe, whose marvellous lap-dog was called Ailbhe. Thornhill suggests that a parallel assimilation occurred in Britain to the Al- of Alauna (a Celtic toponym and theonym) and related names, and that a typical outcome of this assimilation was the element El- found in several Brittonic saints' names. He also compares the Navigatio's 'island of Ailbe' to the 'island of Britain' or Albion as (so he argues) associated with Albios/Albanus.
In Emly, there is a Catholic church dedicated to St Ailbe which dates to the late 19th century. An ancient and weathered Celtic cross in its churchyard is known as "St Ailbe's Cross". The early 19th-century church of St Ailbe is now used as the village hall. A 9th-century monastic rule, written in Old Irish, bears his name.
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