This image of five monks in a boat is based on a carving on a stone pillar in the southwest of Ireland. The Kilnaruane Stone is near the town of Bantry in West Cork. The two metre tall pillar originally had a Celtic cross at its top. The pillar is carved with various Christian images on all four sides. On one side there is a vertical boat with a helmsman and four oarsmen in a sea of crosses. It is believed the pillar dates from the sixth century, about the time that St. Canice lived.
A boat of this design is called a currach in Irish, and such boats are still made to this day. Currachs are made with a wooden frame covered in leather. The scene may depict the voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator, a contemporary of Canice. St. Brendan is believed to have sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in a currach with several monks and reached what we now call Newfoundland. His voyage took place almost one thousand years before Christopher Columbus’ voyage of discovery.
St. Canice was a friend of the famous St. Columba, also known as Collumcille – the dove of the Church. St. Columba founded his great seat of learning at the island of Iona off the western coast of Scotland, where Canice visited and helped him.
One story tells of Canice and Columba climbing into a small currach and rowing across a lake together. Another is the famous story depicted in the stained glass window of St. Canice’s Church, telling how Canice saved Columba and his men from a storm at sea by his prayers.
The multi-coloured covers that Rosemary Whitehead and her homeless friends made for the church kneelers incorporate so beautifully the motif of the curragh and the waves that threatened it. They daily remind us of the power of Canice’s prayer.
The image of Christians rowing across the water has many classical allusions. It can be interpreted as Christ on the Sea of Galilee with the apostles or as a spiritual voyage that all people must take. The boat can be seen as the medium between the water and sky, heaven and earth, or life and death. Irish monks in a currach is certainly a sight that would have been familiar to St. Canice.