Venerable Ita of Limerick, “Foster-mother of the Irish Saints”

Commemorated: January 15/28

Saint Ita (also known as Itha, Ida, Ide, Deirdre, Dorothy) is the second most popular Irish woman saint after St. Brigid. She is venerated in Ireland by Orthodox and Catholic believers to this day. However, her life was written several centuries after her repose.

The future saint was born in about 480 into a Christian family near the present-day town of Waterford in the county of the same name—situated in the Munster province in the southeast of Ireland. Her father was a local chieftain. The girl was baptized with the name “Deirdre”). From childhood she was distinguished by her zeal and desire for the ascetic life. Everyone noted a special purity, meekness, kindness, presence of the grace of God and holiness in the child. To the great amazement of the adults, the future abbess observed a very strict fast from her cradle. One night her parents saw that their little daughter’s bedroom for some while was filled with an unusual fire which was understood to be divine grace.

When Deirdre was 16, she left her home together with her sister Fiona in order to lead a holy life and serve God to the end of her days. First her father opposed the saint’s decision as he wished to marry her to a nobleman, but due to the prayers of her daughter he was brought to his senses by an angel and gave her permission to become a nun. She was soon tonsured by St. Declan, Bishop of Ardmore and received in monasticism the name “Ita”, which, according to tradition, means “craving for holiness”. Thus, Ita with her sister (who afterwards took the veil as well), guided by three unearthly pillars of light (a symbol of the Holy Trinity), reached the place predestined by God, where she was to found a convent and rule it until her death. The local ruler offered Ita a large area of land for her community, but the saint humbly asked him to give only 4 acres of land for her nunnery that she then carefully cultivated.

So in the wilderness the holy woman founded Killeedy Convent near Limerick in present-day County Limerick (situated in Munster in the south-west of Ireland), becoming its first abbess. The convent was situated at the foot of a mountain and it was the first monastic community founded in that district. The name “Killeedy” means “cell, or church of Ita”. The original name of this site presumably meant “the meadow of faith”. The convent of Killeedy was noted for its particular veneration of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Tradition holds that St. Ita, who also had a keen interest in music, composed a famous lullaby to the Infant Christ which is used to this day.

A stained glass image of St. Ita inside RC Church of the Mother of God and St. Kieran at Ballylooby, co. Tipperary A stained glass image of St. Ita inside RC Church of the Mother of God and St. Kieran at Ballylooby, co. Tipperary
At her convent Ita opened a school for children and young people where numerous young men from various parts of Ireland were sent by their parents to be educated. It was said that St. Ita raised, or “fostered” many future Irish saints, so she has popularly been known as “the foster-mother of saints of Ireland.” Among the saints who studied under St. Ita were Sts. Brendan the Navigator of Clonfert, St. Mochoemoc (her nephew), St. Cumian and St. Fachanan. Later biographers claim that St. Brendan the Navigator was a close spiritual child of St. Ita and often visited her throughout his life between his sea voyages to obtain advice.1 The great missionary St. Columbanus visited her convent as a young man for counsel. According to legend, once on the feast of Nativity of Christ, after praying, St. Ita was miraculously transferred to the Clonfert Monastery where St. Brendan gave her Holy communion.

St. Ita used to say that the Lord loves three things in a Christian most of all: faith in God with a pure heart, a spiritual Christian life with simplicity, and generous love; but the Lord especially dislikes in us the following things: a gloomy face (according to another variant: hatred in our hearts), persistence in sin and excessive reliance on money.

St. Ita - a stained glass St. Ita - a stained glass
St. Ita had a special gift: she combined the qualities of a caring mother and a skilled spiritual guide. The holy and loving Abbess Ita never left her convent, unlike St. Brigid, her great contemporary, who founded many convents and used to travel extensively. St. Ita’s austere and simple life and thirst for holiness attracted many women to her from the Emerald Island, and they entered her community in large numbers. Thus was fulfilled the prophecy that her parents had received many years before: that many people’s souls would be saved through St. Ita. Following the example of their spiritual mother, the convent sisters generously helped the needy and the elderly, cared for the sick, taught and cared for children. Manual work was encouraged in the community as well: the convent had a wonderful vegetable garden; it also owned a dairy at some distance from Killeedy.

Kilmeedy church, county Limerick Kilmeedy church, county Limerick
From infancy and until her death, St. Ita led an extremely severe, ascetic life, with daily hours-long prayers, prostrations, days-long fasts, vigils and church services; the rest of her time she devoted to the care of those who sought her aid. Angels and saints miraculously appeared to her more than once and conversed with her. It was even said that on a certain occasion food was delivered to the saint directly from the heavens. Like many other Celtic saints, St. Ita from time to time retreated to seclusion and prayed absolutely alone for a long time (some sources say she built a tiny cell of thatch and wattle for herself just outside the nunnery for silent contemplation for several hours a day). Many came to her convent, seeking spiritual advice, instruction and consolation. There were many cases of miraculous healing of sick people through the intercession of St. Ita. Once by the force of her prayer St. Ita raised from the dead one of her relatives who had fallen in battle. Another time she restored the sight of a blind man (the second sister of Ita named Nessa also healed St. Fachanan, mentioned above, from blindness). On another occasion the abbess healed a learned man from dumbness.

The Saviour abundantly bestowed on St. Ita the gift of wisdom. Interestingly, she gained her great wisdom not from learned books or experience of secular life (that she, in fact, did not have), but from her meditations on Divine things, her humble Christian life, meek and silent kneeling prayers and tears day and night. Already during her life Irish people from all corners of the island venerated St. Ita as a saint. Many of them desired to visit her convent despite the long distances and journeys—just to see this venerable woman, a living saint. St. Ita became known as a wonderworker, she possessed the gifts of spiritual discernment and clairvoyance and was famous for her prophecies.

Altar of the Kilmeedy church Altar of the Kilmeedy church
St. Ita is especially venerated in Munster, and first of all—in Limerick and Waterford. She is often called “the white sun of the women of Munster”, “the Brigid of Munster.” There where St. Ita was born and founded her convent a number of churches are dedicated to her and several localities bear her name. One of the professional football teams in Ireland is named after St. Ita whose image is seen on their crest. She is the patron-saint of the Catholic Diocese of Limerick and patroness of a Catholic parish church in Chicago (USA).

St. Ita lived an extremely long life, dying at the age of 90. Feeling that her end was near, she gathered her convent sisters, invoked the blessing of the Lord upon all of them as well as on all the priests, monks, nuns and laypeople in the surrounding region. This holy abbess passed away in the Lord following a torturous illness in about 570. The veneration of this saint spread all over Ireland; in the eighth century the learned monk Alcuin mentioned St. Ita in his poem dedicated to the saints of Ireland. The convent of St. Ita in Killeedy, a great centre of holiness and learning, existed till the ninth-century Viking raids. Soon after it had been destroyed for the first time by pirates in 845, a new church was built on the same site but this too was destroyed in the early tenth century.

Raheenagh church, county Limerick Raheenagh church, county Limerick
Feenagh church, co. Limerick Feenagh church, co. Limerick

Only minor ruins survive of the once famous and important convent of St. Ita in Killeedy which is now a parish in County Limerick. This site, however, remains a destination for pilgrimages to this day. The supposed grave of St. Ita (now marked by a modern shrine with a statue of the saint) is located nearby. Locals and pilgrims frequently decorate it with flowers, and a solemn Catholic service is celebrated annually on January 15 in surrounding churches with different festive events dedicated to the holy patroness. Next to her grave there is a partly surviving ancient holy well associated with Ita: its full name is “the holy well of my little Ita.” Its water once healed many children from smallpox and other diseases and nowadays there have been cases of healing of local schoolchildren from warts. Tradition says that the well here first gushed forth during St. Ita’s lifetime. St. Ita is the patroness of children (especially of those studying), pregnant women, and those with various eye diseases.

Ashford church Ashford church
Ashford church altar Ashford church altar

Two villages stand very near to the site of St. Ita’s former convent: Ashford and Raheenagh; the holy abbess is venerated here to this day and each of these villages has a church dedicated to St. Ita. In County Limerick there is also a village with the touching name of Kilmeedy which means “church of my little Ita”. According to tradition, here the saint built her first church before moving to Killeedy. Parish churches in Kilmeedy and the neighbouring village Feenagh (meaning “a wooded place”) are dedicated to St. Ita as well. “Ita” is still a girls’ baptismal name in Ireland.

Holy Mother Ita, Wonderworker of Limerick and all Ireland, pray to God for us!

Dmitry Lapa


1 Later authors claim that St. Ita was the literal foster-mother of a great Irish saint - Brendan the Navigator, who, one year old, was baptized by St. Erc who entrusted him to the care of St. Ita and stayed at her convent till the age of 6. However, this is chronologically impossible, given the fact that St. Brendan was some 5 years younger than St. Ita. The holy well where St. Erc baptized St. Brendan still exists: it is situated in an idyllically quiet place at Tubrid (Ardfert, County Kerry). Close to the well there are an ancient tiny pilgrims’ chapel and an altar with three figures—those of Sts. Brendan, Erc and Ita. Nearby is a grave which is known as “the grave of St. Ita, foster mother of St. Brendan”. Though the latter is untrue, because St. Ita is buried in Killeedy, the spiritual link between these two saints is clear.
Ioakim Romanovich Khabibullin6/15/2016 11:05 am
SING, sing ye a maiden holy,
And pure as the driven snow,
A saint of our sainted island
Serving God long ago.

Oh, she had riches and suitors
Where royal Decies stood,
But gave up all for a lover
Who shed for her His Blood.

"Depart", cried a voice, "from kindred,
And from thy father's lands;
Make haste to a distant region,
Where dark-browed Loochar stands.

Wild warriors there shall build thee
A home by the mountain side;
Hy-Connaill bloom as a garden,
And bless thee far and wide. "

And clansmen and maidens gathered
Around that white-robed dove;
And the land served God as a virgin,
All, all of that virgin's love.

O, gem of our Church, fair Ita,
Maid of our worship and love,
Pray for our priests and people,
Saint of the heavens above.

Sing, sing ye a maiden holy,
And pure as the driven snow,
A saint of our sainted island
Serving God long ago.
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