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Surrounded by Saints

Priordy Penmon / Penmon Priory © Jean Williamson

"What's with all the 'Llan's?"

It's the first thing most visitors notice, when driving into the country.

Wales is "the land of Llans," where roughly half of all place names -- over 600 by one St Tysilio churchcount -- begin with the prefix "Llan."   (It means roughly "enclosed area" or "parish," the land surrounding a church.) In general, the Welsh people named their towns after their churches - and they named their churches after their saints.

Their  saints. Not Rome's, not England's. Back in the fifth century AD, canonisation (the choosing of saints) was a local, democratic process. If a person lived an exemplary life, doing good and perhaps founding a church, then the locals might just declare him a saint.

Then they'd remember him in songs and stories, passed down orally from one generation to the next.  There wasn't any need for official recognition. As the historian Jane Cartwright writes, "In Wales sanctity was locally conferred."

Stories That Live ForeverCarreg Leidr

A millennium and a half later, very little evidence remains for these local saints --but the stories live on, colourful as ever.

Take St. Tyfrydog (pronounced "Tuv-ree-dog"), for instance. According to legend, he founded a church (which became the centre of the village called Llandyfrydog) on Anglesey around the year 450.

A few years later, a man stole the church's precious, ornate bible, stashing it in a sack on his back. The preacher caught the thief, and as punishment, turned him to stone. 

Hard to believe?

To this day, nearly 1700 years later, there's an upright stone in a field about a mile from the church. It's about 4 feet high, with a lump on its "back." Locals call it Carreg Leidr (Stone Thief) and the road that goes from the church to that field is called Lôn Leidr (Thief Lane). 

"The Dark" and "The Light" Meet in the Middle            

Just down the lane from here lies the well of Clorach, at the centre of the island and at the centre of another immortal story.  Around the year 500, the two most well known local saints, Seiriol and Cybi, met at Clorach every week.

As the story goes, Cybi, walking eastward almost 20 miles from his retreat on Holy Island, faced the morning sun and grew tanned. He became known as "Cybi the Dark." Seiriol, traveling westward from Penmon, away from the morning sun, became "Seiriol the Light."

A true story? Again, that's hard to say. Seiriol and Cybi were probably real people, but the story of their weekly walk may have been invented later, or -- perhaps more likely -- the St Cybi tilestory actually predates the saints. It's quite possible that, like other relics of the previous pagan era, the story was so well loved by locals that the Christians "borrowed" it, transferring to their saints a much older lesson about the interplay of dark and light, two halves of a larger whole.

Pabo, The Retired Warrior Saint

Just down the road again, the parish of Llanbabo remembers its founder, St. Pabo.  According to a few scant records, Pabo was born the king of a large tribe in northern Britain, around the year 450. As a king, he fought many battles against the Picts and the Scotti (Irish raiders who would eventually settle the area that became Scotland).

The story goes that Pabo retired from his throne about 470, converted to Christianity, and came to Anglesey to spead the faith. On the island, he founded a church and a monastic community, and even a saintly "dynasty" of sorts - three of his grandsons also became Welsh saints: Asaph, Deiniol, and Tysilio.

Eilian makes the blind see - and a deer leap

At about this same time, the Pope supposedly sent another missionary to North Wales, all the way from North Africa.  Eilian, his family, and all his farm

Deer leapcattle arrived by ship, landing on the North Anglesey coast around the year 450. Some say that, if you go to Porthyrychain at low tide, you can still see the saint's cattle's hoof marks in the ground.

The Prince of Gwynedd (and Anglesey) at that time was Cadwallon Lawhir, whose men stole Eilian's cattle. For this crime the monk struck Cadwallon blind. But Cadwallon then showed some remorse, so Eilian restored his sight. In exchange, Cadwallon said he would grant Eilian as much land as a deer could cover before being brought down by a
pack of hounds.

So Eilian released his pet deer, who sped across the fields. The dogs gave chase, but the deer kept going for miles, until it reached a gorge near what is now Porth Amlwch. With the dogs closing in, the deer somehow leaped across the wide gorge. So Cadwallon was forced to grant Eilian a huge domain.

During his lifetime Eilian became well known as a healer of eye ailments, and people came from across the island to wash their eyes in his well. And even today the gorge near Amlwch is called Llam y Carw ("Deer's Leap").

Walk in the Footsteps of Saints

Whether these stories are "true" in the strictest sense, their long endurance bears witness to the power of the saints' personalities and to the reverence of the local people, who retold the tales for centuries.

And it's not just the people who seem to hold gently the memory of saints. It's also the landscape, which in many places remains nearly pristine. The gentle hills covered in grass and sheep, the sheltered valleys, the dramatic headlands -- so many appear today just as they might have when Dwynwen first arrived, or Eilian or Seiriol. 

Even now, a visitor, walking up quietly through an open field on a calm spring morning, can behold simple Llanbabo church just as a medieval pilgrim might have. She can walk the path that Pabo trod, sit in the glade where he sat, feel the same soft breeze float by. For modern pilgrims, Anglesey remains rich with sacred spaces. 

-- by Susanne Intriligator