Saint Lawrence O’Toole and His Irish Heart

November 14th marks the memorial of Saint Lawrence O’Toole, Lorcán Ua Tuathail in the original Irish (1128 – 1180) was an Irish monk, abbot and, eventually, Archbishop of Dublin, helping to establish the Church in Ireland in line with the rest of Europe, at the dawn of the high Middle Ages – the era of cathedrals and chapters, universities and colleges, orders and friars. He was canonized in 1225, the year that saw the birth of Thomas Aquinas. I have something of a devotion to this Celt, not only as a fellow member of his race (one grandmother was an O’Brien, the other a Shields, while my grandfathers were Meenan and Reilly), but Saint Lawrence is the patron of the ‘other’ parish in the town in which I live.

Like all saints, he lived an ascetical life, controlling his body and its wayward desires. He never ate meat, fasted on Fridays, and drank almost no wine. He always provided for his guests, however, and would join them in their feasts, hiding his own abstemiousness, sipping water that was coloured to look like wine.

Lawrence had his exterior struggles: First, with the invading Normans, who were ravaging the coastal towns. And, like Thomas, Becket, whose contemporary he was, he had his controversies with the energetic English king, Henry II, as the latter strove to extend his dominion over all of ‘Great Britain’, including Ireland, and that tension continues into our own day. In one of those ironies of providence, a madman did try to murder Bishop O’Toole, as he prayed on the very spot in Canterbury’s great cathedral (centuries before its usurpation by the Protestants) where Becket had been martyred by minions of the king, hoping to send his grace to an early grave, and heavenly reward. But Lawrence survived the blow to the head, without apparent ill-effects.

(As an aside, I too prayed on that very spot, reciting a whole Rosary, but no one, sadly, tried to martyr me. An opportunity missed, I suppose).

Lawrence died while on a mission to England and France, dying ironically in the land of Normandy, which had also been dominated by the erstwhile ‘men from the north’. His relics are rather dispersed: His grave in France; his head in England, but his heart in Ireland, in Christ Church cathedral, whose construction he began and oversaw, but which now belongs to the Protestant ‘Church of Ireland’. Although not much for relics, they have kept his heart, fittingly enough. It was stolen in 2017, by thieves who thought the relic had ‘cursed their family’ causing ‘mental illness’. Quite the contrary, one would think. The sanity of the saints is what brings us back from sickness and death, of mind and body. In fact, miracles abounded soon after death, and likely continue to this day, if we had but a smidgen of faith, and eyes to see.

Lawrence’s Heart in Christ Church cathedral

A tip led to the heart being found in a park, and now resides in its resting place, until the Christ that Lawrence loved so much should come again, and reunite all those relics in the resurrection.

Saint Lawrence O’Toole, ora pro nobis!