St. Ilar the Fisherman
Commemorated January 13th, 14th or 15th 1
For this installment of Visitations, we must delve into deeper obscurity than the previous essays on Welsh hagiography. While St. David is still widely remembered, and to a lesser degree St. Padarn, the mysterious figure of Ilar appears only as a shadowy name with no solid evidence to guide the researcher. As the above sequence of dates attests, it is not even clear to historians the date of his original veneration. Furthermore, his feast has lapsed and vanished from the calendars of both the Anglican and Roman Churches. Suffice it to say, he is entirely unknown to the Christian East.
Yet, somehow, this forgotten figure captured the imagination of Arthur Machen, who placed Saint Ilar prominently within his modern cycle of the Sangraal. Though we fail to find any historical vitæ, we are nonetheless provided one by the Welsh writer in his novel, The Secret Glory (1922). And perhaps, we can even catch glimpse of him in the region of Llantrisant.
So, what can be known about this enigmatic person within and outside Machen’s peculiar canon?
The Historical Record
It can be said that the confusion for the historical figure begins with the name Ilar, the Welsh equivalent of the Latin Hilarius, which, in turn, is rendered as Hilary in English. No doubt, this fact has served to conflate the obscure saint with the better-known Hilary of Poitiers, a beloved and venerated figure throughout ancient Christendom. Serving as a bishop in France during the fourth century, St. Hilary defended Trinitarian orthodoxy against the Arian heresy. His popularity contributed to the founding of many churches in his name on both the Continent and across the Channel. Importantly, his feast day is fixed as January 13th.
Looking to the scant historical record, we find Ilar mentioned in the Iolo Manuscripts, a curious and partly-forged document. In it, we find him listed among other saints: “Saint Ilar, who came to this Island with Cadvan; and whose church is in Morganwg.”2 St. Cadvan, or Cadfan, was a successful missionary to Wales from Brittany. Some sources list Ilar as traveling with him, Padarn and other Breton immigrants. These associations place Ilar during the fifth century.
Most authorities repeat the little information we have so far encountered, so for our purposes, it be would helpful to focus on one example, more robust than most. In the following excerpt by Sabine Baring-Gould, we find a vividly detailed illustration for the confusion of Ilar with other saintly figures. He comments:
“The late documents printed in the Iolo Mss. give two Welsh saints of this name. One, an Ilar who came to this island with Cadfan, and has a church dedicated to him in Glamorganshire, by which is evidently meant S. Hilary, near Cowbridge. … The other, Ilar, son of Nudd Hael, by whom, of course, is intended Eleri, the son of Dingad ab Nudd Hael, the Elerius of the Life of S. Winefred by Prior Robert of Shrewsbury, and the patron of Gwytherin, Denbighshire.” 3
And here, Baring-Gould elaborates on a church named after our mysterious saint:
“The only church that can, with any degree of certainty, be said to be dedicated to Ilar is Llanilar, in Cardiganshire, with which he is associated under the name Ilar Bysgotwr, or the Fisherman. But this church is also claimed for S. Hilary.” 4
This ancient church still stands and can be visited by the informed pilgrim. (There, one may observe the above stained glass image of St. Ilar.) Unfortunately, the text does not offer us any reason for the certainty of the dedication. So curiously, as the previous quote underscores, the parish is considered under the patronage of Hilary of Poitiers, and it is celebrated as such today. In his brilliant archaeological study on the settlements of Celtic saints, Bowen supports the patronage of Llanilar with Ilar, and without mentioning Hilary, but again, it is simply stated and unexplored.5
Returning to the text, we find a comment on the possible date of Ilar’s observance, as well as a growing list of titles:
“In the sixteenth century Demetian Calendar (S), which gives Ilar on the 15th, he is called Ilar Ferthyr, or the Martyr, with the addition, “or rather Droedwyn,” that is, “the White-footed.” 6
And finally, Baring-Gould reports on a Welsh poet of a rather late period and his interest in the figure of Ilar. This last bit of information allows us to speculate that the recognition of Ilar lasted at least until the Reformation era.
“Lewis Glyn Cothi, in the fifteenth century, invokes his protection for the subject of one of his poems, and alludes to his festival as ‘Gwyl Ilar hael a’i loer hir,’ ‘the Festival of the generous Ilar with his long moon.’” 7
Such are the minute glimmers of light we may perceive in the darkness of time. But, despite this paucity in the historical record, the reader may find Ilar beautifully illuminated by exploring a modern Sangraal Cycle.
“The Life of Ilar” according to Arthur Machen
With the possible exception of Teilo, no other saint receives the space or focus in the work of Arthur Machen as does the mysterious Ilar. Most easily, this can be witnessed in a novel, The Secret Glory (1922), which stands as Machen’s mystical epic of the Graal. Before the novel’s publication, Machen published several sections from it in the Academy journal in 1907-8. In one such portion, entitled Levavi Oculos, the young protagonist Ambrose Meyrick receives the story of the long-forgotten Ilar from his father. The following lengthy excerpt is taken from the recently published Darkly Bright edition which serves as a focused study on the text. Here, it will allow us to see the image of Ilar through Machen’s evocative and powerful prose.
So they made strange pilgrimages over the beloved land, going further and further aﬁeld as the boy grew older. They visited deep wells in the heart of the woods, where a few broken stones, perhaps, were the last remains of a famous hermitage. “Ffynnon Ilar Bysgottwr—the Well of Saint Ilar the Fisherman,” Nicholas Meyrick would explain, and then would follow the story of Ilar; how no man knew whence he came or who his parents were. He was found, a little child, on a stone in a river in Armorica by King Alan, and rescued by him. And ever after, they discovered, on the stone in the river where the child had lain, every day a great and shining ﬁsh lying, and on this ﬁsh Ilar was nourished. And so he came with a great company of the saints to Britain, and wandered over all the land.
“So at last Ilar Sant came to this wood, which people now call St. Hilary’s Wood, because they have forgotten all about Ilar. And he was weary with his wandering, and the day was very hot; so he stayed by this well, and began to drink. And there, on that great stone, he saw the shining ﬁsh, and so he rested, and built an altar, and a church of willow-boughs, and offered the sacrifice, not only for the quick and the dead, but for all the wild beasts of the woods and the streams.
“And when this blessed Ilar rang his Holy Bell and began to offer, there came not only the prince and his servants, but all the creatures of the wood. There, under the hazel-boughs, you might see the hare, which ﬂies so swiftly from men, come gently and fall down, weeping greatly on account of the Passion of the Son of Mary. And beside the bear, the weasel and the polecat would lament grievously in the manner of penitent sinners, and wolves and lambs together adored the saint’s hierurgy; and men have beheld tears streaming from the eyes of venomous serpents when Ilar Agios uttered Curiluson with a loud voice, since the serpent is not ignorant that by its wickedness sorrow came to the whole world. And when, in the time of the holy ministry, it is necessary that frequent Alleluyas should be chanted and vociferated, the saint wondered what should be done, for as yet none in that place was skilled in the art of song. Then was a great miracle, since from all the boughs of the wood, from every bush, and from every green tree, there resounded Alleluyas in enchanting and prolonged harmony; never did the Bishop of Rome listen to so sweet a singing in his church as was heard in this wood. For the nightingale, and thrush, and blackbird, and blackcap, and all their companions are gathered together, and sing praises to the Lord, chanting distinct notes, and yet concluding in a melody of most ravishing sweetness; such was the Mass of the Fisherman. Nor was this all; for one day, as the saint prayed beside the well, he became aware that a bee circled round and round his head, uttering loud buzzing sounds, but not endeavouring to sting him. To be short, the bee went before Ilar, and led him to a hollow tree not far off, and straightway a great swarm of bees issued forth, leaving a vast store of wax behind them. This was their oblation to the Most High, for from their wax Ilar Sant made goodly candles to burn at the offering; and from that time the bee is holy, because his wax makes light to shine upon the Gifts.”
This was part of the story that Ambrose’s father read to him; and they went again to see the Holy Well. He looked at the few broken and uneven stones that were left to distinguish it from common wells; and there in the deep green wood on the summer afternoon, under the woven boughs, he seemed to hear the strange sound of the saint’s bell, to see the woodland creatures hurrying through the wood that they might be present at the Offering. The weasel beat his little breast for his sins, the big tears fell down the gentle face of the hare, the adders wept in the dust; and all the chorus of the birds sang: “Alleluya, Alleluya, Alleluya.” 8
As the excerpt shows, Ambrose is given a brief hagiography which contains several important features which coincide with the historical sources. Firstly, Machen echoes Ilar’s suggested origin as Armorica, an older designation for the Brittany region of France, and that he traveled with other missionaries. Secondly, Machen specifically used Bysgottwr, the Fisherman, to describe Ilar rather than Ferthyr (Martyr) or Droedwyn (White-footed). The significance of this choice will be seen later. And finally, the conflation with St. Hilary and the resultant obscurity of Ilar is acknowledged. Beyond these points, we enter new territory.
Machen grants Ilar a miraculous beginning, elevating the mere historical gaps in the figure’s life to the height of apophatic mystery. Truly, hagiographies often contain miracles, and so, the inexplainable event of reoccurring fish points to the sanctity of Ilar while binding him further into the imagery of a Fisherman. For the last point, we may turn to The Sangraal essays, where Machen further outlines this imagery:
“Students of the Graal legend know that the keeper of the Graal in the romances is the ‘King Fisherman,’ or the ‘Rich Fisherman’; students of Celtic hagiology know that it was prophesied before the birth of Dewi (or David) that he should be ‘a man of aquatic life,’ that another legend tells how a little child, destined to be a saint, was discovered on a stone in the river, how through his childhood a fish for his nourishment was found on that stone every day, while another saint, Ilar, if I remember, was expressly known as ‘The Fisherman.’” 9
These essays, as well as Levavi Oculos, were written under the influence of Machen’s researches into the Graal legends. Therefore, a progression of thought and creativity can be inferred. Separate elements found in the excerpt of this essay are combined to deepen the narrative of Ilar’s story.
In addition, Ilar is given aspects common to many better-documented Celtic saints, including a holy well and a bell of mystical power. In regards to the former, such sanctified watering places honeycomb the isle of Great Britain,10 and to the latter, many figures such as Sts. David and Teilo are reported to carry such artifacts. By doing so, Machen elevates the importance of Ilar to that of better-known Welsh saints. Interestingly, our author places Ilar’s holy site within a “Hilary’s Wood,” which may serve as a hieroglyph for Wentwood, a place of deep personal and literary importance to Machen who grew up within sight of its eaves.
In the “Mass of the Fisherman,” we are treated to a beautiful and brilliant description of Ilar celebrating a liturgy, and this informs us of crucial elements concerning Machen’s conception of this holy person.
Most obviously, Ilar has been ordained to the priesthood. Belonging to the clergy, of course, is not a requirement for sainthood, but it is for serving the Holy Mysteries. Would Ilar have been consecrated in Armorica? Or possibly, may he have received holy orders after coming to Britain from one in his company? Machen does not comment on this aspect, but clearly implies that Ilar had been endowed to celebrate the Sacrament.
Most importantly, we should consider the outward grace displayed in Ilar’s liturgy, and therefore, what it reveals interiorly. Many details are centered upon the piety of the woodland animals, and while this aspect is in itself miraculous, and a highlight of the story, it may be more correct to view the phenomenon in its proper context. We are told that a royal family are among the attendants, and therefore, along with Ilar—a man especially sanctified to celebrate the Holy Mass—may serve as a cypher (or hieroglyph) for mankind’s central role. The various animals perform as adorers or penitents before their Creator, and yet others, such as the bees, serve man in his work of glorying God. In a particularily vibrant example, we witness a symbol of the unseen choir of Angels in the voices of the birds. Here, Machen reveals worship for what it is—a cosmological event in which all creation, and with man at its center, celebrates communion with God.11
From the skill involved in this depiction, it is tempting to believe that Machen achieved access to rare manuscripts. That may certainly be possible when considering the skills of this poor researcher. A yet more attractive scenario is the notion that Machen had received an oral tradition, perhaps from his own father. Similar ideas have been expressed.12
However, the real answer may likely be more prosaic. Using his knowledge of Celtic saints and the aesthetic tradition of their hagiographies, Machen crafted a new story to suit his purposes. In fact, that may be the reason for his efforts concerning Ilar. Utilizing a more famous saint, such as David, would actually be less believable, because his life is better known. Instead, Machen likely chose an obscure figure to serve as a canvas, and by doing so, created a convincing bit of fiction. And, this is not an unheard-of technique, as the problematic Iolo Mss. and surviving verses of fifteenth century Welsh poets suggest. And finally, a contemporary of Machen, Arthur Christopher Benson, delighted in creating fully fictional saints’ lives from whole cloth.13
The sequence from Levavi Oculos presents Ilar at his most clear and prominent in Machen’s work. Yet, he is also found in a later and equally enigmatic story, where the imagery of the Fisherman returns with hope and transfiguration.
St. Ilar as Bysgottwr
Students of the Graal legend know that the keeper of the Graal in the romances is the “King Fisherman,” or the “Rich Fisherman”; students of Celtic hagiology know that it was prophesied before the birth of Dewi (or David) that he should be “a man of aquatic life,” that another legend tells how a little child, destined to be a saint, was discovered on a stone in the river, how through his childhood a fish for his nourishment was found on that stone every day, while another saint, Ilar, if I remember, was expressly known as “The Fisherman.” 14
In this quote from The Great Return (1915), we see once again the writer’s Graal studies absorbed into his fiction. Noticeably, however, Machen separates Ilar from the legend of an unnamed saint with a miraculous childhood. Rather, the focus of Ilar’s obscured identity rests solely upon the appellation of Fisherman. As the narrative of the novella is concerned with the return of the Holy Graal borne by three Celtic Saints, referred to as the Fishermen, this detail takes on major importance.
The identites of these figures form a central concern for this series, and with Sts. David and Teilo confidently assigned to their appropriate roles, the third person of this mysterious trinity offers more difficulty.15 In the essay on St. Padarn, a theory, based on thematic, hagiographical and historical bases, argued for his position as the third Fishermen. Admittedly, two issues conflict with this conjecture: 1) Machen doesn’t mention Padarn in either The Great Return or The Secret Glory; and 2) unlike David or Teilo, the third Fisherman does not bear any accoutrements which identify him as Padarn. Concerning this latter point, in the hagiographies, David is in possession of a portable altar, Teilo a bell and Padarn a staff or cloak. In Machen’s stories, the first two items appear in the hands of their prospective owners. The third figure carries only the Graal.
If the assignment of Padarn fails, then the most satisfactory substitute would be the mysterious Ilar. This would solve the difficulties presented above, as Ilar appears in both stories and lacks any mention of a special possession in the scant historical record. The title Bysgottwr and his vague, and therefore, malleable background affords an opportunity for Machen to cast Ilar in the role.
When considering this possibility, then it is Ilar, in priestly function, who holds up the awful and glorious Cup in the church of Llantrisant.16 And, this conclusion invites more thematic speculation. As the Mass of the Fisherman prepared young Ambrose for his own liturgical and mystical experience in the earlier tale, it also foreshadows the great Mass of the Sangraal, the culmination of the later story.
Written after the The Secret Glory, but published before it, The Great Return forms the asymmetrical climax to Machen’s modern Sangraal cycle.
Hidden and Unknown
Surprisingly, much has been written here on a saint we know so little about from history. However, the Church, both East and West, has cheerfully venerated numerous saints with as little a footprint as Ilar. In fact, the Church admits to the existence of saints entirely unknown to us; therefore, though Ilar may fail to appear on a calendar, that does not nullify his existence nor his purpose. For a time, he remains unknown and hidden. But in truth, St. Ilar will be brought forth as gloriously, even more so, than he has been shown in the fiction of Arthur Machen.
1 These dates correspond to January 26th, 27th and 28th on the Julian calendar.
2 Morganwg is the Welsh equivalent for Glamorganshire.
3 Baring-Gould, Sabine. The Lives of the British Saints, Volume III. (London; C. J. Clark, 1911). Page 299.
4 Ibid, page 299.
5 Bowen, E. G. The Settlements of the Celtic Saints in Wales. (Cardiff; University of Wales, 1954). Page 134-5.
6 Ibid, page 299.
7 Ibid, pages 299-300.
8 Machen, Arthur. Levavi Oculos. (Darkly Bright Edition, 2019). Pages 9-10.
9 Machen, Arthur. The Great Return. (Darkly Bright Edition, 2017) Page 80.
10 For more on holy wells, please refer to this article.
11 Contrast this situation with Machen’s 1917 novel The Terror, where man and the lower creation come into bitter conflict.
12 Hando, Fred J. The Pleasant Land of Gwent. (Newport, Uk; R. H. Johns, 1944). Pages 55-6.
13 Prime examples of Benson’s saintly tales are “Paul the Minstrel” and the title story from The Isles of Sunset (1904).
14 Machen, Arthur. The Great Return. (Darkly Bright Edition, 2017) Page 46.
15 An article on St. Teilo is forthcoming.
16 Llantrisant, the location for The Great Return, translates roughly as Church of the Three Saints. More information on the significance of this place-name can be found in the Darkly Bright edition, pages 123-130.