Tuesday, November 14, 2006

St. Laurence O'Toole: The Famous Irish Saint with that Familiar Last Name

"God knows I have not a penny in the world." --St. Laurence O'Toole answering a Monk who asked, if he had written his will
Holy Land martyr to the Muslims (1391) and the first Croat saint - but who am I trying to fool? They're ALL great, but you really didn't think I'd pass on St. Laurence O'Toole, did you?

I know from our family history that "O'Toole" means "Son of the King" and indeed Laurence was. In fact, Laurence's father, Murtagh, had married an O'Byrne to unite these two great chieftain families - but this union was not strong enough to scare the ruthless king of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough, who raided Murtagh's land and took ten-year-old Laurence hostage. It is here the old biography contains (to me) some strange wording that people in those days apparently took for granted, "Laurence spent the next two years in a barren area near Fern, but when his father found out his son was being badly treated, he threatened reprisals if he wasn't returned ..." Again one wonders why Murtagh didn't threaten MacMurrough immediately after his son was kidnapped, but in any event Dermot complied and returned the boy to the nearest Bishop (in Glendalough) for transfer. However, when Murtagh went to retrieve his now twelve-year-old son, Laurence pulled a St. Patrick and told his father he wished to remain with the Bishop and become a monk. Dad agreed, and Laurence stayed.

We skip forward a few years, when O'Toole, now 25, was chosen Abbot of Glendalough and was almost named bishop too - until the studious Laurence pointed out that cannon law stated a bishop must be at least 30. In any event, within four months, Laurence's leadership was to be sorely tested - a severe famine overtook the nearby countryside and the people looked to the newly elected abbot for relief. Laurence attacked the crisis head on (according to some legends, with miraculous multiplications of provisions) and when the famine was over and (almost) no one had died, almost all hailed him as a hero.

Almost all. Of course, there were the usual suspects - warring chieftains and highway bandits from without, and lax or jealous clergy from within - who regarded the new man in the Abby as something less than a Savior. To try to remedy this situation, Laurence started something in the 12th century that is still being done today. First he went to pray in St. Kevin's cave, and then became a mediator in the mess that is English-Irish politics.

At first, King Henry II was overjoyed to work with so wise (and holy) an Irishman as Laurence. Henry had recently received a bull from Pope Adrian IV (the only English pope in history) to basically do whatever he had to get those warring Irish kings under control. But subduing the fighting Irish is never easy, so when Laurence persuaded Rory O'Conor, the greatest of Irish kings to sign a peace treaty with the English ruler, both the English and Irish seemed happy. But when Laurence went to pray at the Shrine of St. Thomas Becket to thank God for the pact, a would-be assassin attacked him and O'Toole almost suffered Becket's fate. But Laurence quickly recovered from the near fatal blow and then asked Henry II to pardon the man from his sentence of hanging, said Mass, and went back to Ireland.

But nothing good seems to last forever between these two countries. After visiting Rome in 1179 to attend the Third Lateran Council, Pope Alexander III gave Laurence permission to carry out even further clergy (and thus governmental) reform, and Henry, fearing he had another Becket on his hands, refused to see him, and O'Toole died before the issues were ever resolved.

Twenty years ago I would have been mainly asking St. O'Toole to pray for the resolution of the conflict between Northern Ireland and the mainland. But today it's more important to intercede (for the Fighting Irish of course; I'm picking up every saint along the way until we play Southern Cal on November 25th, especially the Irish ones) for Ireland itself, that these Irish who remain faithful to the pope have the courage to fight the damnable secular forces that are increasingly grabbing hold of what was once, thanks to Saints Patrick, Bridget, Laurence and the rest, the Lord's most loyal country. St. Laurence, pray for us!
While today is a special day for all O'Tooles, it is an even greater day for my brother, Larry. In fact, it is so special, I am hereby extending the celebration through tomorrow when I will pay tribute to him with a poem. So you all get to be honorary O'Tooles for an extra day ...


JimAroo said...

Wait a second.... my sainted mother, Mary O'Dea, God rest her Irish soul, told me that O'Dea meant son of the king. She never said anything about any O'Tooles....surely you're not saying my mother was fibbing?

Tom O'Toole said...

JimAroo - I was going from an old book I had on Irish names ... come to think of it, none of the names meant "son of a pig farmer" so perhaps they were putting a positive spin on some. Then again half the Irish clans seemed to be led by a king or a chieftain back then, so who knows. - God's grace & Mary's prayers, Tom.