Saint Oran, also known as Odhron, Odhran, Odran and Otteran, proceeded Saint Columba as a Christian missionary in Iona. His death is recorded in 548 A.D.
Irish Martyrologies relate that he was a kinsman of St. Columba through their ancestor, Conall Gulban, and that he was variously described as a companion, brother or son of Columba.
It is said he was the first Christian to be buried in the ancient pagan cemetery on Iona. Norsemen carried their dead chieftains to be buried there. It is also the last resting place of 48 kings of Scotland, 4 Irish princes, 8 Norwegian kings, a king of France and many great Highland chiefs. Both Duncan and Macbeth, of Shakespeare’s Macbeth fame, are buried there.
The Vikings chose St. Oran, the titular guardian of their ancestors’ ashes, as patron of the city of Waterford in 1096 A.D. Later he was chosen as patron of the Diocese.
The legend of St. Oran begins with a chapel Saint Columba (also known as Colum Cille) wanted to build close to this sacred burial site. He was frustrated in his attempts to build, since the walls were destroyed every night. Finally, he was told by a voice that it could never be finished until a living man was buried in the foundation. So Oran was buried alive willingly, and the chapel was finished. He was promised that his soul will be safe in heaven. Some time after the burial Columba wants to see Oran once more and opens the pit under the chapel. When Oran sees the world he tries to come out again, but Columba has the pit covered with early quickly to save Oran’s soul from the world and its sin.
But the legend has several versions.
Here is a 19th century Herbridean version of Colum Cille and St. Oran by Mrs. M. Macleod Banks: “The story of St. Columba and the burial of St. Oran under the wall of the church in Iona is well known, and frequently quoted as an instance in the belief in the efficacy of Foundation Sacrifice. It is notably absent in Adamnan’s Life, and it is an ugly tale, but it is recorded by Skene and given in many collections of saints’ legends.”
“I will first quote a version fairly popular in Scotland, collected by Dr. Maclagan at Clachan, Kintyre, in 1894, as follows: Saint Columba had a son whose name was Odhran (Oran), from whom the chapel of St. Odhran has taken its name; tradition says that, when this chapel was in the course of erection, no matter what they would do or how well the work was done, every morning all that had been built the previous day was found thrown down.”
“At last a voice came to St. Columba, telling him the only way to get the chapel completed was to bury a living man under its foundation; without that, the voice said, the chapel could never be finished. Columba decided that no one could be better put under the foundation than his own son, and accordingly got him buried at once and proceeded to build on top.”
“One day, however, Odhran raised his head, and pushing it through the wall, said, ‘There is no Hell as you suppose, nor Heaven that people talk about.’ This alarmed St. Columba, and in case Odhran should communicate more secrets of the other world, he had the body removed at once and buried in consecrated ground, and St. Odhran never again troubled any one.”
In the version recorded by William Sharp (1855-1905), a Scottish poet, author and editor who also wrote under the alias Fiona MacLeod, he noted that St. Columba’s biographer, Adamnan, “never mentions the episode, nor even the name of Oran, nor is there mention of him in the book by Colum’s intimate friend and successor, Baithene, which Adamnan practically incorporated. On the other hand, the Oran legend is certainly very old. The best modern rendering we have of it is that of Mr. Whitley Stokes in his Three Middle-Irish Homilies, and readers of Dr. Skene’s valuable Celtic Scotland recollect the translation there redacted.”
“The episode occurs first in an ancient Irish life of St. Columba. The legend, which has crystallised into a popular saying, ‘Uir, Uir, air suil Odhrain! mun labhair e tuille comhraidh” – Earth, earth on Oran’s eyes, lest he further blab” – avers that three days after the monk Oran or Odran was emtombed alive (some say in the earth, some say in a cavity), Colum opened the grave, to look once more on the face of the dead brother, when to the amazed fear of the monks and the bitter anger of the abbot himself, Oran opened his eyes and exclaimed, “There is no such great wonder in death, nor is Hell or Heaven what it has been described.” (Ifrinn, or Ifurin–the word used–is Gaelic Hell, the Land of Eternal Cold.)
“At this, Colum straightaway cried the now famous Gaelic words, and then covered up poor Oran again lest he should blab further of that uncertain world whither he was supposed to have gone. In the version of Mr. Whitley Stokes there is no mention of Odran’s grave having been uncovered after his entombment. But what is strangely suggestive is that both in the oral legend and in that early monkish chronicle alluded to, Columba is representing as either suggesting or accepting immolation of a living victim to consecrate the church he intended to build.”
“One story is that he received a divine intimation to the effect that a monk of his company must be buried alive, and that Odran offered himself. In the earliest known rendering, “Colum Cille said to his people: ‘It is well for us that our roots should go underground here’; and he said to them, ‘It is permitted to you that some one of you go under the earth of this island to consecrate it.’ Odran rose up readily, and thus he said: ‘If thou wouldst accept me,’ he said, “I am ready for that.’…Odran then went to heaven.”
A modern version relates the tale this way: There is an old tradition that when St. Columba attempted to build a chapel for the worship of the Christian God, their work was impeded by an evil spirit, and it was not until the human victim was sacrificed and buried under the foundation that the building stood firm.
St. Oran, a faithful follower of St. Columba, consented to be buried alive in order to propitiate certain demons of the soil, who interfered with the attempts of St. Columba to erect a chapel. After three days, so it is related, Columba ordered the body of his friend to be disinterred, when Oran to the consternation and dismay of the assistants, declared that there was neither a God, a judgement or a hereafter. Oran ended his story with a bit of cautionary advice for his friend, Columba. Oran whispered, “The way you think it is may not be the way it is at all.” St. Columba, for fear of other and more direful revelations, ordered the earth to be once more shoveled over Oran.
In the Hebrides and Ireland, when someone mentions an uncomfortable subject, it is still common to silence them with the phrase, “Thow mud in the mouth of St. Oran.”
His feast day is October 27th.
The moral of this story is the same 15 centuries later. If even the most devoted follower of the faith reveals a revelation not in support of the preached version they are quickly silenced. And saints have their ugly or suspect actions edited out of their official biographies.