Baithéne mac Brénaind

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Saint Baithéne
Born 536
Died c. 600
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church
Feast October 6

Baithéne mac Brénaind (or Saint Baithen) was an Irish monk, specially selected by Saint Columba as one of the band of missionaries who set sail for what is now Scotland in 563.

Born in 536, the son of Brenan, he was an ardent disciple of Columba, and was appointed Abbot of Tiree, a monastery founded by Saint Comgall of Bangor. Saint Adomnán, in recording the death of ₥Columba, tells us that the dying words of the Apostle of Iona, as he was transcribing Psalm 53, were: "I must stop here, let Baithéne write what follows". Baithéne had been looked on as the most likely successor of Columba, and so it happened that on the death of that great apostle, in 596, the monks unanimously confirmed the choice of their founder. Baithéne was in high esteem as a wise counsellor, and his advice was sought by many Irish saints, including Saint Fintán of Taghmon.

Abbey St Bathans in Berwickshire (south east Scotland) may be named after him.

Most of what is known about him comes from Adomnán of Iona who wrote a biography of Iona's founder, St Columba, in which he included many stories about Baithéne. There is also a medieval text called the 'Life of St Baithene', which is very brief and appears to be based on Adomnan's writing; the oldest known text of this work also is not older than the 13th century.[1]

His feast is celebrated on October 6. Originally the community at Iona celebrated Baithene and Columba together on the same feast day, which was on June 9.


Baithéne was the son of Brénainn mac Ferguso, who was the brother of the father of St Columba , making Baithéne a first cousin of Columba. Both he and Columba were great-grandchildren of Niall of the nine hostages, and were born into the family of Cenél Conaill branch of the Northern Uí Néill. They were thus both part of one of the ruling families of Ulster.[2]

He had a brother named Cobthach who was also a companion of Columba in his exile and who with Baithene was listed as among the twelve who accompanied Columba when he came to Britain.

Companion to Columba[edit]

Baithene accompanied Columba throughout all his years in exile in Britain. When Columba was Abbot of Iona, Baithene helped him administer the daughter-houses at Tiree and Hinba. He also had some role as overseer of the work at harvest-time at Iona.[3]

Adomnan recorded many stories about him.

In one story, there was a very sinful man who came to Iona to request being a monk there, but Columba had foreseen how wicked this man was and said he should not be allowed to come. But when the man came, he said he wanted to see Columba, and Baithene said that the man should be allowed to do penance and quoted the scriptures. To this, Columba responded that the man had murdered his brother and debauched his mother. When the man finally met Columba, Columba told him that he could do penance by living among the British for twelve years without returning to Ireland, but Columba foretold that he would not fulfill this and instead would return to his sinful ways and head to perdition. And the man did exactly as Columba foretold, going not to Britain but back to Ireland, where he was murdered.[4]

In another story, Baithene asked Columba to give him a monk to help him go through the psalter and look for mistakes. Columba told him that there was no mistake in the psalter except that the letter I was missing in one place. And they went through the psalter and found that it was just as Columba had said.[5]

Another time, Adomnan mentions that Baithene once visited the island of Eigg.


Baithene served as prior over a monastery connected to Iona on the island of Tiree. The name of the place where his monastery was located on Tiree was 'Mag Luinge'. The monastery seemed to be a house for penitents from Iona. Some historians have thought that it may have supplied food to Iona.[6]

Adomnan recorded a story about a voyage he took to the island, when Columba first told a monk who was heading to Tiree that he should not sail directly from Iona to Tiree, because a great whale would frighten him, but his did not listen to his advice and took the direct route, and a huge whale came out of the water and almost destroyed the boat, which terrified those in the boat. When Baithene departed the following day to Tiree, Columba told him about the whale, and Baithene responded that both he and the whale were in God's power, to which Columba responded 'Go in peace, your faith in Christ will shield you from danger'. And so Baithene then took the direct route and the whale came out of the water which terrified all in the boat, except Baithene, who used his hands to bless the sea and the whale, and the whale then went down into the water.[7]

Another story that Adomnan recorded held that Baithene and Colmán Elo both approached Columba one time to ask him to pray for a favourable wind on their respective journeys to Tiree and Ireland. Columba said that in the morning the wind would be favourable to travel to Tiree and in the afternoon the Lord would change it to make it favourable to travel to Ireland. And it happened just as Columba said.[8]

Another story that Admonan recorded held that one time Columba encountered an army of demons on Iona, and he fought them with the help of angels, such that the demons fled from Iona. But after they fled, they then went to Tiree and attacked the monks there, including the monastery at Mag Luinge headed by Baithene. While many in the other monasteries died from diseases, which were caused by the demons, only one monk in Baithene's monastery died and the rest were protected because of their prayer and fasting.[9]


Baithene also seemed to have some role in managing the monastery on the island of Hinba, although Adomnan recorded less about this.

In one story, Adomnan claimed that Columba went to Hinba and relaxed the penitential rules on one occasion. However, one monk named Neman refused to abide by the relaxation. Columba rebuked him and said 'Neman, Baithene and I have allowed a relaxation in the diet and you refuse it. But the time will come when in the company of thieves in the forest you will eat the flesh of a stolen mare'. This monk eventually left the monastery and went back into the world, and one day found himself among thieves eating such meat.[10]

Abbacy of Iona[edit]

He only reigned as Abbot in Iona for three years, as his death took place in the year 600, though the "Annals of Ulster" give the date as 598. Perhaps the true year may be 599. He was chosen as successor by Columba- Irish monasticism did not follow the Rule of St Benedict which gave the monks the right to elect their own abbot.

Many of the subsequent abbots of Iona came from the same family in Ulster as Columba and Baithene. The holding of monasteries within particular families would also be seen as an abuse in subsequent centuries that the church would work to root out.

Adomnan records a story about him that says that Fintán of Taghmon came to the abbey after Columba died to request to be a monk there, but Baithene refused, instead claiming that Columba had foretold his coming to the abbey and Columba had instructed that he must be turned away and sent back to Ireland, so that he could found an abbey there. Fintan wept when he heard this and agreed to what was told him, and he returned to Ireland to create a monastery there instead.[11]


The "Martyrology of Donegal" records the two following anecdotes. When Baithéne partook of food, before each morsel he invariably recited Deus in adjutorium meum intende. Also, "when he worked in the fields, gathering in the corn along with the monks, he used to hold up one hand towards Heaven, beseeching God, while with the other hand he gathered the corn".

Baithéne of Iona is generally known as Baithéne Mór, to distinguish him from eight other saints of the same name—the affix mor meaning "the Great". He wrote a life of his master, and some Irish poems, which are now lost, but which were seen by Adomnán.

Some writers assert that Baithéne of Iona is the patron of Ennisboyne, County Wicklow, but this is owing to a confusion with Saint Baoithin, or Baithéne mac Findech, whose feast is commemorated on 22 May. Another Saint Baoithin, son of Cuana, whose feast is on 19 February, is patron of Tibohin, in Elphin.


  1. ^ Adomnan of Iona Life of St Columba. Penguin Books, 1995
  2. ^ Adomnan of Iona Life of St Columba. Penguin Books, 1995
  3. ^ Adomnan of Iona Life of St Columba. Penguin Books, 1995
  4. ^ Adomnan of Iona Life of St Columba. Penguin Books, 1995
  5. ^ Adomnan of Iona Life of St Columba. Penguin Books, 1995
  6. ^ Adomnan of Iona Life of St Columba. Penguin Books, 1995
  7. ^ Adomnan of Iona Life of St Columba. Penguin Books, 1995
  8. ^ Adomnan of Iona Life of St Columba. Penguin Books, 1995
  9. ^ Adomnan of Iona Life of St Columba. Penguin Books, 1995
  10. ^ Adomnan of Iona Life of St Columba. Penguin Books, 1995
  11. ^ Adomnan of Iona Life of St Columba. Penguin Books, 1995
Preceded by
Abbot of Iona
Succeeded by