Every self-respecting cryptozoologist knows – or should know – about the famous encounter claimed for St Columba and the Loch Ness monster during the 6th Century AD (its specific date varies from one authority to another). Having said that, in reality the encounter apparently took place not in the loch itself but in the River Ness – so the creature in question may not have had any bearing upon the cryptids allegedly frequenting the loch, but may simply have been a vagrant sea creature of known form, such as a bearded seal or possibly even a walrus.
Anyway, regardless of its specifics, this encounter is, as I say, a very famous one in the annals of cryptozoology.
Far less famous, however, yet no less interesting, is the 'other' encounter between a British saint and a British lake monster (by which I mean a saint and a lake monster from the British Isles, a geographical term embracing the major islands of Great Britain and Ireland plus the many smaller islands collectively surrounding them) – which is the subject of this present ShukerNature blog post.
Born Crónán mac Bécáin sometime during the late 6th Century or early 7th Century AD (his age upon death is unrecorded but he is known to have died on 30 March 637 AD), St Mochua as he became was a notable early Irish saint. After completing his education at Bangor, he was reputedly led through many regions of Ireland by a miraculous fountain that could move of its own accord, and during that time he performed a considerable number of miracles himself. One of these involved a lake monster.
At one point during his fountain-guided travels, Mochua crossed the River Shannon and entered the territory of Omania (aka Hy-Many) in the province of Connaught, where he visited Kellach, who was the son of Ragallus, king of Connaught. During Mochua's stay, Ragallus went out hunting a stag, which in order to escape pursuit, leapt from a steep precipice on the shore of a lake and swam to a large rock, jutting forth above the lake's waters like a small island, where the creature sought sanctuary. Different reports cite different lakes (or loughs) as being the one in question here – including County Galway's Lough Ree, Lough Cime or Cimbe (aka Hackett), and Lake Raminium.
According to traditional legend, Mochua had stated that God would safeguard anyone who was bold enough to dive into the lake and swim after the stag, so with Ragallus's permission one brave man did precisely that, reaching the rock-island and killing the stag. When he attempted to swim back to the lake's shore with his slain quarry's carcase, however, a water monster that lived in this body of water and was held in great dread by the populace on account of its murderous nature suddenly rose up from the depths and promptly devoured the hapless swimmer.
When this happened, Ragallus angrily chastised Mochua, as his prediction had seemingly failed to come true, but in response Mochua confronted the monster and prayed – whereupon the monster abruptly vomited forth the swimmer, who was alive and totally unharmed. Moreover, never again did this great water beast attack any other swimmer. Ragallus and his subjects duly gave thanks to God for this miracle, and Mochua was afterwards greatly revered here.
Whether any such monster truly existed or whether this is just a hagiographical legend is unclear (who knows, it may even be derived directly from the earlier one featuring St Columba). And even if it did exist, there does not appear to be any description of the creature on record that might allow a serious attempt to be made at identifying its species.
Reconstruction of the Lough Nahooin horse-eel – one of several horse-eels reported in modern times from the lakes of County Galway in Connaught - based upon eyewitness accounts (© Orbis Books)
Nevertheless, bearing in mind that the loughs of Connaught, including Ree, have featured prominently in modern-day reports of Irish freshwater monsters, notably those of the sinuous horse-eel variety, it is an intriguing story, and perhaps even one of bona fide cryptozoological relevance and precedence.
Check out my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995) for additional details concerning Irish horse-eels.