Saint Brynach

By Terry John Calendar

On 7th April, we celebrate St Brynach’s Day. You may be wondering who he was, for outside Pembrokeshire he is little known, yet in the past many stories were told of this holy man who lived in the north of the county at Nevern.

Brynach was born in Ireland some fifteen hundred years ago and is often referred to as Brynach Wydell, Brynach the Irishman. When he learned of the fame and sanctity of St David, he decided to move to Wales. Legend states that he travelled to Pembrokeshire via Brittany and that he sailed across the sea on a stone.

His arrival in the county may have been expected, for he was met by a group of women who attempted to seduce him, perhaps hoping to prove that he was an ordinary lustful mortal and no saint.

Brynach fled, his sanctity intact, but almost fell victim to a gang of assassins, who were determined to drive Irish settlers out of the county.

This may be a version of another story, which related that the daughter of a nobleman tried to seduce him and when he refused her, she sent men to kill him. He was wounded but was cured at a holy well known as the Redspring.

This may be the spring known as Ffynnon Goch, the Red Well, in the parish of Llanfair Nantgwyn, which Brynach is said to have visited and where the source of the Eastern Cleddau rises at Waun Cleddau. Another suggested location for Redspring is at Haverfordwest, where there is a Red Gate and a Red Hill, but if the Redspring ever existed there, it has long since vanished.

Brynach made his way to Llanboidy, where he found refuge in a cowshed. From there, he travelled on to  Cilmaenllwyd, meaning “the shelter of a grey stone”, then went on to Llanfrynach, he built an oratory close to a spring of water. His journey then took him to the village known today as Henry’s Moat and so to Pontfaen, before finally settling at Nevern.

Other legends say that, before he came to Pembrokeshire, he served as a chaplain and soldier at the court of King Brychan, the ruler of what is now Breconshire. The two men became firm friends; indeed Brynach acted as the king’s “soul friend”, a position  that combined the roles of advisor, confessor, teacher, confidante and priest. Brynach is said to have married Cymorth, one of Brychan’s daughters.

Upon his arrival in Pembrokeshire, Brynach was given land by Clether, the local king, who was one of his wife’s relatives. This small plot, where the present church at Nevern now stands, was close to the hill top fortress where Clether lived. A stream, which still runs past the church, formed the boundary between the sacred enclosure where Brynach lived, and the secular lands of his benefactor. In later centuries, Clether’s fortress was taken over by the Normans, who built a motte and bailey castle on the site.

Clether may well have been a real historical figure. An ancient stone set into a window sill inside the church records in both Latin and Ogham someone named Clutar. A list of the early kings who reigned over this part of Wales in the fifth century AD, mentions a ruler named Clotri or Clutorigi. The name could be a version of Clutar, so the stone in the window sill just might be a direct link with Brynach and his patron.

One of the most famous legends concerning St Brynach tells us that he frequently climbed to the top of Carn Ingli, the Cairn of Angels, the hill overlooking the modern town of Newport. There, within the encircling walls of the Iron Age settlement that crowns the peak, Brynach conversed with angels, receiving from them God’s messages. He was often accompanied by St David, and the two friends spent many hours in prayer.

Just as St David’s special bird and symbol was a dove, St Brynach is associated with the cuckoo. Each year on the 7th April, the cuckoo was said to sing first in Nevern before any other place in West Wales. It was said to alight on the top of the great Celtic cross still to be seen in Nevern churchyard and so regular was its appearance that during the medieval period the priest would not begin to say mass until it arrived.

One year during stormy weather it did not appear on time, so the priest and his congregation waited as the minutes and hours ticked by. Then, at last, the cuckoo fluttered down to perch on the cross, but it was clearly exhausted and before it could utter a note of its song it fell dead. Those who witnessed its demise were convinced that it had battled through vicious weather, determined to sing at Nevern as its ancestors had done before.

The great cross of St Brynach dates to the late 10th or early 11th century, but its origins are steeped in legend. St David himself was said to be carrying the cross to Llanddewi Brefi from his monastery which stood where St David’s cathedral was later to be built. He was invited to rest at Nevern by St Brynach and the cross has remained where he placed it ever since - although another story relates that he swapped it with St David in return for a loaf of bread.

The other feature of Nevern churchyard that must be mentioned is the famous “bleeding yew”. A blood red sap oozes from the trunk of this venerable tree, one of several which line both sides of the path leading from the churchyard gate to the church door. Many centuries ago, a monk was hanged from the tree for a crime which he swore he had not committed. As a sign of his innocence he foretold that the tree would bleed  forever after.

When St Brynach died, he is said to have been gathered up by angels from the top of Carn Ingli and transported to Heaven.



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