Walking across the water

Asserting the rights of women in the sixth century

It can be tempting to think that women demanded and received equal rights only recently. The life of St. Cannera (also known as Cainder, Conaire and Kinnera) of Inis Cathaig proves that such struggles also took place in 6th-century Ireland.

We know of St. Cannera only from the life of St. Senan, leader of an abbey on Inis Cathaig or Scattery Island in the Shannon Estuary off the coast of Kilrush, County Clare (far western Ireland).

Senan, who was born in about 488, became a missionary and founded a church at Enniscorthy, County Wexford (eastern Ireland), in about 512. He then went to England and France. He returned to Ireland in about 520 and founded additional churches before settling at Inis Cathaig. Senan eventually became an abbot-bishop.

Cannera was an anchorite or hermitess at Bantry (southern Ireland). One night while praying, Cannera, who was nearing death, had a vision of all the churches in Ireland. She saw a tower of flames rising toward heaven from each church, with the highest and straightest coming from Inis Cathaig. Cannera resolved to go there, “that my resurrection may be near it.”

She walked day and night until reaching the river. When no one would take her to the island, because women were not allowed, she walked across the water.

Once there, she told Senan of her vision. He would not let her in the abbey because the monks believed their journey to holiness required them to stay away from women, whom they likened to Eve.

Cannera reminded Senan that Jesus was often with women, who served and cared for him and his apostles, so he and his monks should do likewise.

“Christ,” she said, “is no worse than yourself.” Plus, she said, “Christ came to redeem women no less than to redeem men.” She also cited St. Paul, who said “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Senan reluctantly agreed to give her the last rites and bury her on the far edge of the island, warning her that waves would wash away her grave. That would be up to God, she replied.

Although Cannera’s grave was not washed away, it is partially under water. A flag marks the spot.

Lest we be too hard on St. Senan, he did found two convents for nuns and was visiting one when he died.

Sailors believe pebbles from the island protect against shipwreck.

Sources: catholic.org; hagiomajor.blogspot.com; saints.sqpn.com; saintpatrickdc.org; stcanera.tripod.com; wikipedia.org.

Staley is a retired editor of The Compass.

St. Cannera

When: died c. 530

Where: Ireland

What: Anchoress

Feast: Jan. 28