The Legend Of Saint Galonnek
Source: Breton Legends
Saint Galonnek was a native of Ireland, as, indeed, were almost all
the teachers in Brittany of those days, and called himself Galonnus,
being evidently of Roman origin. But after he had left his native land,
and the fame of his good deeds had spread far and wide, the Bretons,
seeing that his heart was like one of those fresh springs of water
that are ever bubbling beneath unfading verdure, changed his name to
Galonnek, which signifies in their language the open-hearted.
And, in truth, never had any child of God a soul more tenderly
awakened to the sufferings of his fellow-men. No sorrow was beneath his
sympathy; but it was like the sea-breeze, springing with each tide,
never failing to refresh the traveller weary on his way, or to fill
the sails of the humble fishing-boat, and bring it safe to land.
His father and mother were people of substance, and though themselves
buried in the darkness of paganism, spared not the tenderest solicitude
in the education of their son. He was placed under the instruction
of the most learned masters Ireland could afford, and above all, had
the honour of being a pupil of St. Patrick, then found amongst them
like a nightingale in the midst of wrens, or a beech-tree towering
above the ferns on a common.
Under his teaching the boy grew up, learning only to regard himself in
the person of God and his neighbours; and with so fervent a love for
souls did the holy apostle of Ireland inspire Galonnek, that at the
age of eighteen he had no higher wish than to cross over to Brittany,
and preach the kingdom of Heaven to sorrowful sinners.
His father and mother, who had then long since been converted,
desired to throw no hindrance in the way of his accomplishing this
pious work; but embracing him with tears, they bade him God speed,
assured that they should meet again once more before the throne of God.
Galonnek took his passage in a boat manned by evil-disposed sailors,
whose design was to plunder him; but when they discovered that
the holy youth was possessed of nothing but an iron crucifix and
a holly-staff, they turned him out upon the coast of Cornouaille,
where they abandoned him, helpless and without provisions.
Galonnek walked about a long time, not knowing where he was, but
perfectly tranquil in his mind, certain that he was in his Master's
kingdom. The sea that roared behind him, the birds that warbled in
the bushes, and the wind murmuring in the leaves, all spoke alike to
him, each with its own peculiar voice, the name of that Master whose
creatures and subjects they were.
He came at length, towards evening, to a part of the country lying
between Audierne and Plougastel-des-Montagnes, and there finding
a village, he seated himself on the doorstep of the first house,
awaiting an invitation to enter.
But, far from that, the owner of the house bade him rise and go
away. Galonnek then went to the door of the next house, and received
the same inhospitable order; and so on from door to door throughout
the village. And from the expression every where used to him, zevel,
this village was afterwards called Plouzevel, literally, people who
said, Get up.
The saint was preparing to stretch his weary limbs by the roadside,
when he perceived a cabin which he had not yet noticed, and drew near
It was the dwelling of a poor widow, possessed only of a few acres
of barren land, which she had no longer strength to till. But if the
fruits of her land were little worth, those of her heart were rich and
plentiful. So tenderly generous was her charity, that if any one asked
her for a draught of goat's milk, she would give him cream; and if one
begged for cream, she would have been ready to bestow the goat itself.
She received Galonnek as if he had been her dearly-beloved son, long
absent, and supposed dead. She ministered to him of the best she had,
listening with devotion to his holy teaching; and having already
charity, the very key of true religion, she was ready to embrace with
all her heart the faith of Christ. So early as the very next morning
she begged the grace of baptism; and Galonnek, seeing that the love
of her neighbours had already made her a Christian in intention,
consented to bestow it. But water was wanted at the moment of the
ceremony; and St. Galonnek going out, took a spade, and digging for
a few moments in the old woman's little courtyard, there sprung out
an abundant fountain; and he said,
"By the aid of this water your barren land will become fertile meadows
covered with rich grass, and you will be able to feed as many cows
in your new pastures as you have now goats browsing on your heath."
This miracle began to open the eyes of the villagers; and they gave
permission to Galonnek to take up his abode in a forest which stretched
in those days from Plouzevel to the sea-shore. There the holy disciple
of St. Patrick built himself a hut of turf and boughs.
One day whilst praying in this oratory, he heard the hoofs of a
runaway horse; and leaving his devotions to see what was the matter,
he saw a knight thrown from his horse amidst the thicket.
Galonnek ran to his assistance; and having with much difficulty
carried him to his hermitage, he began to bathe his wounds, to dress
them with leaves for want of ointment, and to bind them up with strips
torn from his own gown of serge.
Now it chanced that this knight was the Count of Cornouaille himself;
and he was found presently by the attendants, whom he had outstripped,
peacefully sleeping on the saint's bed of fern. But behold, when
he awakened, that saint's prayers had stood instead of remedies,
and all his wounds were healed.
And whilst all stood astonished at this miracle, St. Galonnek said
"Do not be so much surprised; for if by faith mountains may be moved,
why should not charity heal death itself?"
The count, filled with wonder and delight, declared that the whole
forest should become the property of the man who had done so much
for him; and not that only, but that he should have as much good
meadow-land as could be enclosed within the strips he had torn from
his gown to bind the wounds, each strip being reduced to single
threads. Thus Galonnek became the owner of a whole parish; and a
proverb arose, which is still current in those parts, That it is
with the length of a benefit received one must measure the field
Yet Galonnek was none the richer, notwithstanding the noble liberality
of the count. All the income of his estate was given to the poor,
whilst he still lived on in his leafy hermitage. But as many young men
were attracted from the neighbourhood by his reputation for holiness
and learning, he built many other cells beside his own; and thus from
his school in that solitary glade the light of the Gospel went forth
in time through all the length and breadth of the country.
It was amidst the perfume of wild-flowers, beside the murmuring brook,
that Galonnek taught his pupils. He would teach them to understand
somewhat of the providence of God by making them observe the tender
care with which the little birds prepare a downy nest for offspring
yet unborn. He would point out to their attention how the earth yields
moisture to the roots of trees, how the trees become a dwelling-place
for thrushes and for finches, and how these again make musical the
forest with their cheerful strains, to illustrate the advantage and
necessity of mutual benevolence and brotherly love. And when need was
to stimulate their efforts or their perseverance, he would lead them
to behold the ant, unwearied in her toil, or the constant woodpecker
whose tiny bill achieves the scooping of an oak.
But this teaching did not confine him in one place; and wherever he
went his presence was as that of a star in the midst of darkness.
Now in those days the inhabitants of Brittany still exercised the
right of wrecking, or in other words, reserved to themselves the
privilege of plundering any unfortunate vessels thrown upon their
coasts. They spoke of the sea as a cow given to their ancestors by
God, and that brought forth every winter for their benefit; thus they
looked on shipwrecks as a positive blessing.
One night, during a heavy storm, as Galonnek was returning to his
forest from the sick-bed of a poor man, he saw the dwellers on the
coast leading a bull along the rocks. His head was bound down towards
his fore-legs, and a beacon-light was fastened to his horns. The
crippled gait of the animal gave an oscillating motion to the light,
which might be well mistaken at a distance for the lantern of a ship
pitching out at sea, and thus deceive bewildered vessels, uncertain
in the tempest of their course, into the notion of yet being far from
shore. Already one thus treacherously beguiled was on its way to
ruin, and might be seen close upon the rocks, its full white sails
gleaming through the night; another moment and it would have been
aground among the breakers.
Galonnek rushed amidst the peasants, extinguished the false beacon,
and reproached them for such treachery. But they would not listen to
him, and prepared to rekindle the light. Then the saint cried,
"By all your hopes in this world and the next, have done! for it is
your own brethren and children that you are drawing to destruction."
And whilst they stood uncertain, God kindled up the sky with flashing
lightning; and beholding the vessel as if it had been noonday, they
saw that it was indeed a Breton ship.
Terrified by the dangers to which they had exposed themselves, they
all fell down at the saint's feet; the women kissed the hem of his
garment with floods of tears, as if his hands had rescued their sons
from the depths of the sea, and all with one voice exclaimed,
"But for him we should have become the murderers of our friends
"Alas, those whom you have already lured to death were equally your
neighbours and your friends," replied St. Galonnek; "for we are
all descended from Adam, and have been ransomed by the blood of the
The peasants, deeply moved, perceived their guilt, and promised to
renounce this custom of their fathers.
Much about the same time, the country of Pluguffant was ravaged
by a dragon, which devoured whole flocks with their shepherds and
dogs. In vain had the most courageous men banded themselves together
to destroy it. The ferocious monster had put them all to flight; and
now nobody dared to stir out of doors to lead his cattle to water,
or go and work in the fields. As soon as Galonnek knew this sad state
of things, he set out for the court of the Count of Cornouaille,
and asked there which knight was the most valiant before God and
man. Every voice declared him to be Messire Tanguy de Carfor, who
had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre, and killed more than a
thousand Saracens with his own hand.
Galonnek desired him to gird on his sword and armour, and to come and
fight the dragon, which God had given him a mission to destroy. Carfor
instantly armed himself, and accompanied the saint to the monster's
den, from which he came out, howling frightfully at their approach.
Carfor hesitated in spite of himself at so unwonted an appearance;
but Galonnek said to him,
"For your soul's sake, messire, have confidence in God, and you shall
kill this monster as easily as a gadfly."
Thus encouraged, the knight advanced to the attack, and with scarce an
effort pierced the dragon three times through with his sword, whilst
the saint called upon the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity.
Galonnek also freed the country from many other scourges, such as
wolves, reptiles, and mosquitoes with fiery stings; and being now old
enough to receive holy orders, he was ordained by St. Pol; and built
a little chapel beside his oratory, where every day he celebrated Mass.
Meanwhile the leafy cells around him multiplied so fast, that at
last they were united in a monastery, called by Galonnek Youlmad,
or the house of good desires.
He was engaged in drawing up a rule for this monastery, when he was
interrupted by a disturbing rumour which arose in the neighbourhood.
It was said that a woman clothed in red, and with a ghastly
countenance, had taken passage in a fishing-boat from Crozon. She
landed near Poullons; and when questioned as to her name on departing,
she had replied that she was called the Lady of Pestilence. And, in
fact, it came to pass, that within a very few days both men and animals
were smitten with a contagious disease, which carried them off after a
few hours' illness. So great was the mortality, that wood sufficient
for the coffins could not be found; and for want of grave-diggers,
the corpses were laid to rest in furrows hollowed by the plough.
Those who were well off gathered all their effects together in wagons,
and harnessing all the horses they possessed, drove away at full
speed to the mountains, which the pallid woman had not passed. But the
poorer people, who had no means of conveyance, and were unwilling to
leave their little all, awaited their doom at home, like sheep lying
down to rest around the butcher's door.
In this extremity, however, they were not abandoned by Galonnek. He
went from hut to hut, carrying aid or consolation. Linen for shrouds
and wood for coffins might indeed be wanting; but he swathed the
fever-spotted dead in leafy twigs, and bore them in his own arms
to consecrated earth, laying them down tenderly as sleeping infants
in their cradle-bed. Then planting a branch of yew, and another of
blossoming broom, he entwined them in the form of a cross, and set
them as an emblem on the grave; the yew symbolising the sorrow which
underlies the whole course of life, and the blossoming broom the
transitory joys which gleam across it. And it is said, that when at
last the pestilence was stayed, these holy crosses covered a space of
three days' journey. So many generous and pious acts had spread the
fame of Galonnek both far and wide, and all Cornouaille was inflamed
with devotion. Persons came from all parts to the convent of Good
Desires to listen to his teaching, to ask his prayers, and to offer him
gifts; but these the saint only accepted for the purposes of charity.
"The priest," he used to say, "is only as a canal, which serves to
carry water from overflowing streams to arid barren plains."
Another of his sayings was, "God has given us two hands; one with
which to receive His good treasures, and the other to administer the
same to those who need."
And thus, although the neighbouring nobles had loaded him with
presents, his monastery and church were radiant only with his good
actions. He was accustomed to sleep upon an osier hurdle, and wore
nothing better than a gown of faded serge. But all this external
poverty threw out with stronger lustre the brightness of his hidden
worth; and Galonnek was like one of those caskets made of earth or
bark, in which are treasured rubies and carbuncles.
The see of Cornouaille becoming vacant, Galonnek was summoned with
one voice to fill it. He was anxious to refuse; but St. Pol himself
came to find him out, and said to him that God's stars have no right
to conceal themselves in the grass, but must take their places in
the firmament. Then St. Galonnek resigned himself; but when the
moment came for leaving the turfen oratory, where he had spent the
best part of his life, his heart became so heavy that he burst into
tears, and cried aloud, "Alas, how shall I become worthy of the new
office which my brethren impose upon me?" Then, falling on his knees,
he prayed most fervently until God put strength into his heart. When
he arose, he took the humble chalice he had been accustomed to use,
his sole possession, save the memory of his good deeds, and went on
foot to the capital of Cornouaille, where he was consecrated Bishop.
Here began for St. Galonnek a new life of courage and self-denial. He
had to fight for the poor against the rich, for the weak against
the mighty. When his friends and disciples beheld him engage, all
unprotected, in these dangerous struggles, even the most courageous
were at times dismayed; but Galonnek would say with a smile, "Fear not,
my friends, their weapons cannot touch me. God Himself has forged
for me a breastplate with the tears of the sorrowful, the miseries
of the poor, and the despair of the oppressed. Behind this armour I
can feel no hurt. Blows can only do us mischief by glancing across us
at any of those who have taken up our cause; for from our very heart
distils a balsam that can heal as they come all the wounds inflicted
Moved by the sight of so much virtue, many powerful noblemen, who had
hitherto persisted in idolatry, came to ask of Galonnek instruction and
the grace of baptism; but he would only grant this favour in reward for
some good work. If any one had sinned, and came to seek for absolution,
Galonnek would give him for a penance some virtuous action to perform,
some charitable service to his fellow-men. He taught them to regard
God as the surety for recompenses merited but not received, to invest
their lives in Paradise, to break every tie which holds the soul in
bondage, that it may spring forward with unfettered flight in the
love of God and man.
About this time the Count of Cornouaille died, and was succeeded by
his son Tugduval. He was a conceited, vain-glorious youth, who could
not endure the least contradiction, and had not yet lived long enough
to find that life is an instrument on which the first chords we strike
are invariably false.
So unjust had he shown himself in many instances to the townspeople
and gentry, that they banded together and drove him from the city. But
Tugduval asked assistance from the Count of Vannes, and soon returned
with an army to which the rebels could offer no resistance. Multitudes
were slain in battle, and the survivors taking refuge in the city,
were besieged there by the count.
He rode round the city-walls, like a hungry wolf parading a sheepfold,
swearing never to forgive one of the rebels, or those who had given
So battering-rams were brought, and raised against the walls; and
when once a passage was forced, he mounted his war-horse, and ordering
every soldier to take a naked sword in one hand, and a lighted torch
in the other, he rushed at their head into the affrighted city.
But Galonnek had seen the terror of the conquered people, who only
looked for fire and sword; and coming out of the cathedral, with
all his priests in procession, bearing crosses and all their sacred
relics, he came the first to meet Tugduval, his bald head uncovered,
and his chalice in his hand.
The young count, astonished, checked his horse; but Galonnek went
straight up to his saddle-bow, there paused, and said in a gentle
voice, "If any will devour the flock, he must begin by slaying the
shepherd. I am here at your mercy, and am ready to purchase with my
blood forgiveness for the rest."
At the sight of this holy old man, whom he had early been taught
to reverence, and at that voice which had always sounded like a
benediction, Tugduval felt his rage dissolve away; and letting fall
his sword, he bent over his horse's neck, and kissed devoutly the
chalice carried by St. Galonnek. At that instant all the soldiers,
as if touched by the same emotion, put out their torches, and turned
their sword-points to the ground, crying as with one voice, "Quarter,
quarter for all!"
The young count waited not a repetition of this prayer; but dismounting
hastily, he followed the Bishop to the cathedral, where the conquerors
and the conquered joined in songs of thanksgiving to God.
This was the last great act of St. Galonnek's life. A very few months
after, he felt his strength decay, and knew that his end was near. He
did not, however, on that account relax in his good works. Returning
one day from a visit to a poor widow bereaved of her last son, he
suddenly found himself unable to proceed, and sat down to rest upon
a stone by the wayside. There a pedlar from the mountains found him,
some time after, sitting motionless; and thinking that he slept,
the man approached him, when he saw that he was dead. Judging from
the poverty of his apparel, the pedlar took him for a hermit of the
neighbourhood, and out of Christian charity wrapped the body in his
mantle for a funeral shroud. A shoemaker's wife, who lived a few
steps off, contributed an old chest to serve as a coffin, so that
Bishop Galonnek came to his grave like a beggar.
But the truth was soon discovered by the miracles which were wrought
at his tomb; and the body being taken from the earth, was carried with
great state to the city, and buried at the foot of the high altar in
the cathedral. St. Pol was requested to write an epitaph upon him;
but the apostle of Leon replied that none but an archangel could
compose one; so they merely covered the grave with a plain granite
slab, on which was carved the name of Galonnek.
Ages have passed away, and yet this stone still remains, and thither
the Breton mothers come to lay their new-born babes one instant on
its consecrated bosom, whilst they repeat the usual form of prayer:
"Saint Galonnek, bestow upon my child two hearts. Give him the heart
of a lion, that he may be strong in well-doing; and give him the
heart of a turtle-dove, that he may be full of brotherly love."
The feast of St. Galonnek is celebrated on the 1st of April, when
the buds of the hedgerows are bursting into leaf, and "the time of
the singing of birds is come."
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