R. A. S. McAlister, The Latin & Irish Lives of Ciaran [Translations of Christian Literature / Lives of the Celtic Saints, Series V] (London: SPCK [Macmillan] 1921).
Doubtless much of the importance of Ciaran is reflected back from the outstanding importance of his great foundation - the monastic university, as it is fair to call it, of Cluain maccu Nois (in an English setting spelt Clonmacnois), on the shore of the Shannon. But this cannot be the whole explanation of the esteem in which he was held; it must be at least partly due to the memory of his own character and personality.
Such a conclusion is indicated if we examine critically the Lives of this saint, translations of which are given in the present volume, and compare them with the lives of other Irish saints. In studying all these documents we must bear in mind that none of them are, in any modern sense of the word, biographies. A biography, in the proper definition of the term, gives an ordered account of the life of its subject, with dates, and endeavours to trace the influences which shaped his character and his career, and the manner in which he himself influenced his surroundings. The so-called lives of saints are properly to be regarded as homilies. They were composed to be read to assemblies of the Faithful, as sermons for the festivals of the saints with whom they deal; and their purpose was to edify the hearers by presenting catalogues of the virtues of their subjects, and, especially, of their thaumaturgic powers. Thus they do not possess the unity of ordered and well-designed biographies; they consist of disconnected anecdotes, describing how this event or that gave occasion for a miraculous display.
It follows that to the historian in search of unvarnished records of actual fact these documents are useless, without most drastic criticism. They were compiled long after the time of their subjects, from tales, doubtless at first, and probably for a considerable time, transmitted by oral tradition. It would be natural that there should be much cross-borrowing, tales told about one saint being adapted to others as well, until they became stock incidents. It would also be nothing more than natural that many elements in the Lives should be survivals from more ancient mythologies, having their roots in pre-Christian beliefs. Nevertheless, none of these writings are devoid of value as pictures of life and manners; and even in descriptions of incredible and pointless miracles precious scraps of folk-lore are often embedded. In most, if not in all, cases, the incidents recorded in the Lives are to be criticised as genuine traditions, whatever their literal historicity may be; few, if any, are conscious inventions or impostures. 
In the Lives of Ciaran there are many conventional incidents of this kind, which reappear in the lives of other saints. In the Annotations in the present edition a few such parallels are quoted; though no attempt is made to give an exhaustive list, the compilation of which would occupy more time and space than its scientific value would warrant. But there are certain other incidents of a more individual type, and it is these which make the Lives of Ciaran especially remarkable. They may well be genuine reminiscences of the real life, or at least of the real character of the man himself. Thus, there are a number of coincidences, clearly undesigned (noted below, p. 104) consistently pointing to a pre-Celtic parentage for the saint. Again, the saint's mother is represented as a strong personality, with a decided strain of thrawnness in her composition; while the saint himself is shown to us as distinguished by a beautiful unselfishness. This, it must be confessed, is very far from being a common character of the Irish saints, as they are represented to us by the native hagiologists; and in any case the character-drawing of the average Irish saint's life is so rudimentary, that when we are thus enabled to detect well-defined traits, we are quite justified in accepting them as based on the tradition of the actual personality of the saint. In other words, so deep was the impression which the man made upon his contemporaries during his short life, that his memorabilia seem to be, on the whole, of a more definitely historic nature than are those of other Irish saints.
There is, however, a disturbing element which must be kept in mind in criticising the Lives of Ciaran. He was the son of a carpenter, and he was said to have died at the age of thirty-three. It is quite clear that these coincidences with the facts of the earthly parentage and death of Christ were observed by the homilists - indeed the author of the Irish Life says as much, at the end of his work. They provoked a natural and perhaps wholly unconscious desire to draw other parallels; and if we may use a convenient German technical term, there is a traceable Tendenz in this direction, as is indicated in the Annotations on later pages. It is not to be supposed that even these apparently imitative incidents are (not to mince matters) mere pious frauds; they may well have come into existence in the folk-consciousness automatically, before they received their present literary form. But such a development could hardly have centred in an unworthy subject; there must have been a well-established tradition of a Christ-likeness of character in the man, for such parallels in detail to have taken shape. 
The homiletic purpose of these documents is most clearly shown in the Irish Life. This was written to be preached as a sermon on the saint's festival [this day to-day, § 1], at Clonmacnois [he came to this town, § 34: a fragment of the cask remained here till recently, § 36: here are the relics of Ciaran, § 41. Similarly the First Latin Life, § 35, calls the saint Our most holy patron]. The actual date of the Irish sermon is less easy to fix; the language has been modernised step by step in the process of transmission from manuscript to manuscript, but originally it may have been written about the eleventh century, though incorporating fragments of earlier material. The passage just quoted, saying that a certain relic had remained till recently, may possibly indicate that the homily had been delivered shortly after one of the many burnings and plunderings which the monastery suffered; in such a calamity the relic might have perished. The prophecy put into Ciaran's mouth, that there would be great persecution of his city from evil men in the end of the world [Irish Life, § 38] seems to relate to such an event: it is very suggestive that exactly the same exprestion great persecution from evil men (ingrem mór ó droch-daoinibh) is used in the Chronicon Scotorum of certain raids on the monastery which took place in the year A.D. 1091; and that on the strength of an old prophecy there was a belief in Ireland that the world was destined to come to an end in the year 1096, as we learn from the Annals of the Four Masters under that date.  It must, however, be remembered that a date determined for a single incident does not necessarily date the whole compilation containing it.
The text of the First Latin Life (here called for convenience of reference LA) is found in an early fifteenth-century MS. in Marsh's Library, Dublin . It has been edited, without translation, by the Rev. C. Plummer in his most valuable Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae ( Oxford, 1910) vol. i, pp. 200-216. The translation given in this volume has been made from Plummer's edition, which I have collated with the original MS. 
The text of the Second Latin Life (LB) is contained in two MSS. in the Bodleian Library (Rawl. B 485 and Rawl. B 505, here called R1 and R2). Of these R2 is a direct copy of R1, as has been proved by Plummer, in his description of these manuscripts.  As to their date, there is no agreement; the estimate for R1 ranges from the first half of the thirteenth to the fourteenth century, R2 being necessarily somewhat later. The Life of Ciaran contained in these MSS. has been used by Plummer in editing LA, and extracts from it are printed in his footnotes. It has not, however, been previously printed in its entirety, and a transcript made by myself is therefore added here, in an Appendix.
The text of the Third Latin Life (LC) is contained in the well-known Brussels MS., called Codex Salmaticensis from its former sojourn at Salamanca . It is of the fourteenth century. This was the only continuous authority at the disposal of the compiler of the Bollandist life of our saint; he speaks of it in the most contemptuous terms. The life of Ciaran in this manuscript is a mere fragment, evidently copied from an imperfect exemplar; there seems to have been a chasm in the middle, and there is a lacuna at the end, which the scribe has endeavoured to conceal by adding the words Finit, Amen. The translation here given has been prepared from the edition of the Salamanca MS. by de Smedt and de Backer, cols. 155-160.
The Irish Life (here denoted VG, i.e. Vita Goedelica) was edited by Whitley Stokes from the late fifteenth-century MS. called the Book of Lismore.  The numerous errors in the Lismore text may be to some extent corrected by collation with another Brussels MS., written in the seventeenth century by Micheál ó Cléirigh. Stokes has indicated the more important readings of the Brussels MS. in his edition. The scribe of the Lismore Text was conscious of the defects of his copy: for in a note appended to the Life of our saint, he says, It is not I who am responsible for the meaningless words in this Life, but the bad manuscript - i.e. the imperfect exemplar of which he was making a transcript.
There were other Lives of the saint in existence, apparently no longer extant. Of these, one was in the hands of the hagiographer Sollerius: for in his edition of the Martyrologium of Usuardus ( Antwerp, 1714, p. 523) he says, Querani, Kirani, uel Kiriani uitam MS. habemus. uariaque ad eam annotata, quae suo tempore digerentur. This promise he does not appear to have fulfilled; the Bollandist compiler, as we have just noticed, had no materials but the imperfect Salamanca Life, and was forced to fill its many gaps as best he could, by diligently collecting references to Ciaran in the lives of other saints. Another Life of the saint seems to be referred to in the Martyrology of Donegal; under the 10th May that compilation quotes a certain Life of Ciaran of Cluain (i.e. Clonmacnois) as the authority for a statement to the effect that the order of Comgall [of Bangor, Co. Down] was one of the eight orders that were in Ireland . It would be irrelevant to discuss here the meaning of this statement; its importance for us lies in the fact that the sentence is not found in any of the extant Lives, so that some other text, now unknown, must be in question.
Ciaran of Clonmacnois was not the only saint of that name. Besides his well-known namesake of Saighir (Seir-Kieran, King's Co. ), there were a few lesser stars called Ciaran, and there is danger of confusion between them. The name reappears in Cornwall, with the regular Brythonic change of Q to P, in the form Pieran or Pirran. This Pieran is wrongly identified by Skene  with our saint; a single glance at the abstract of the Life of St. Pieran given by Sir T.D. Hardy  will show how mistaken this identification is. A similar confusion is probably at the base of the curious statement in Adam King's Scottish Kalendar of Saints, that Queranus was an abot in Scotland under king Ethus, [anno] 876 and of Camerarius' description of him as abbas Foilensis in Scotia . 
The four documents of which translations are printed in this book relate almost, though not quite, the same series of incidents. There is a sufficient divergence between them, both in selection and in order, as well as in the minor details, to make the determination of their mutual relationship a difficult problem. We must regard all four as independent compositions, though based on a common group of sources, which, in the first instance, were doubtless disjointed memorabilia, preserved by oral tradition in Clonmacnois. These would in time gradually become fitted into the four obvious phases of the saint's actual life - his boyhood, his schooldays, his wanderings, and his final settlement at Clonmacnois. It is not difficult to form a plausible theory as to how the systematisation took place, and also as to how the slight variants between different versions of the same story arose. The composition of hymns to the founder and patron would surely be a favourite literary exercise in Clonmacnois. In such hymns the different incidents would be told and re-told, the details varying with the knowledge and the metrical skill of the versifiers. There are excerpts from such hymns, in Irish, scattered through VG: and LB ends with a pasticcio of similar fragments in Latin. As a number of different metres are employed, both in the Irish and in the Latin extracts, there must have been at least as many independent compositions drawn upon by the compilers of the prose Lives: and it is noteworthy that there are occasionally discrepancies in detail between the verse fragments and their present prose setting. Most probably the prose Lives were based directly on the hymns; one preacher would use one hymn as his chief authority, another would use another, and thus the petty differences between them would become fixed, perhaps exaggerated as the prose writer filled in details for which the exigencies of verse allowed no scope. It is probably impossible to carry the history of the tradition further.
In order to facilitate comparison between the four documents, I have divided them into incidents, and have provided titles to each. These titles are so chosen that they may be used for every presentation of the incident, however the details may vary. The titles are numbered with Roman numerals, whilst the successive incidents within each of the Lives are numbered consecutively with Arabic numerals. The Harmony of the Four Lives, which follows this Introduction, will make cross-reference easy.
No modern biography, no edition of the ancient homiletic Lives, of Ciaran could be considered complete without a history of Clonmacnois, through which being dead he yet spake to his countrymen for a thousand years. It was the editor's intention to include such a history in the present volume; and this part of the projected work was drafted. But as it progressed, and as the indispensable material increased in bulk, it became evident that it would be impossible to do justice to the subject within the narrow limits of a volume of the present series. A slight or superficial history of Clonmacnois would be worse than none, as it would block the way for the fuller treatment which the subject well deserves. The materials collected for this part of the work have therefore been reserved for the present: it is hoped that their publication will not be long delayed.
2: The Bollandists long ago remarked as the special characteristics of Irish Saints' Lives, their doubtful historicity, their late date, and their continual repetition of stock incidents. (“At priusquam id agam, lectorem duo uniuersim monitum uelim; primum est, quod Hibernorum sanctorum acta passim dubia sint fidei, et a scriptoribus minime accuratis ac aetate longe posterioribus conscripta; alterum est, quod in iisdem frequens occurrat rerum simillimarum narratio, quas uariis sanctis adscribunt, ita ut nescias cui tuto adscribi possint. - Acta Sanctorum, September, vol. iii, p. 372).]
4: The end of the world is not actually mentioned in the Annals, but the expected plague referred to was undoubtedly the apparition of the mysterious Roth Ramhach, or "oar-wheel," an instrument of vengeance that was to herald the end of all things. For the references to this prophecy see O'Curry's Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History (index, sub voce "Roth Ramhach"), and the present writer's Study of the Remains and Traditions of Tara ( Proceedings Royal Irish Academy , vol. xxxiv, sect. C, p. 231 ff.).]
5: The following corrections may be noticed. Page 201 of printed text, line 7, for Et cum read Cumque. Same page, line 24, for factum read factam (“sic). Page 202, line 6, after vitulum add ilico canis famelicus iruit (“sic) in uitulum. Same page, line 25, after fregit add et fracto capite effussoque cerebro canis periit. Same page, line 33, after narrabant add hoc. Same page, lines 35, 38, for vaccam read vacam. Page 203, line 35, for Angeli read Angli. Same page, line 39, insert et after generis. Page 204, line 7, Innsythe appears to be written in the MS. as one word. Same line, insert uidit before zabulum. Same page, line 18, after flumen add et ibi mersum est. Page 205, line 32, read est ostensum. Page 206, line 18, after libri add ad locum. Same page, line 32, after manducans add in illa die. Same page, line 38, read Kyaranus. Same page, line 40, read Maelgharbh. Page 207, line 13, after recepit add ipse. Page 208, line 16, for complebit read implebit. Page 209, line 23, delete et after clamor; and in the next line for impediebant read -bat. Page 211, line 14, insert in before istis. Same page, line 16, read loco isto. Same page, line 40, read edifficio. Page 212, line 2, read edifficiorum. Page 213, line 10, after ignem insert nostrum. Same page, line 21, for ipsi read ipsum. Same page, line 37, after paciencie insert nostre. Page 214, footnote 3, note that the first "uas" is struck out. Same page, footnote 7, the first "sanctus" is expuncted.]
* * * * *
A Harmony of the Four Lives of Saint Ciaran
A. Ciaran was born A.D. 515. The first section of his life, his Childhood and Boyhood, may have covered the first ten or twelve years of his life - say in round numbers 515-530. Fifteen incidents of this period are recorded, which are found in the Lives as under -
The boyhood legend probably consisted originally of the five incidents common to all, II-V, IX. It is noteworthy, however, that LB transfers V, IX, to a position after the second phase of the Life. This is possibly due to a misplaced leaf in the exemplar from which our copies of LB are derived. X-XIII, variants on the theme of XIV, are probably interpolations in LA, and VIII, a valuable fragment of folk-lore, is an interpolation in VG. VI and VII are conflations of two varieties of one incident, as is pointed out in the Annotations. These observations will show how complex is the criticism of the Ciaran tradition.
B. The second phase of the life is the Schooling of Ciaran at Clonard; perhaps about 530-535, still using round numbers. This part of the life is most fully told in VG; it is very fragmentary in all the Latin Lives. There are thirteen incidents -
C. The third phase may be called the Wanderings of Ciaran. From Clonard he made his way to the monastery of Ninnedh on the island in Loch Erne now called Inismacsaint (it is to be noted that VG knows nothing of this visit). From Loch Erne he went to Aran, thence (after a visit to Saint Senan on Scattery Island ) to his brother's monastery at Isel, a place not certainly identified. After this he removes to Inis Aingin, now Hare Island in Loch Ree, which is his last halting-place before reaching his goal at Clonmacnois. There are twelve incidents. The first forms incident 13 of LC, which then breaks off; this text therefore no longer requires a special column. The wander-years end with 548, the year of the saint's arrival at Clonmacnois.
The difference of opinion as to the setting of incident XXXIII is to be noted. Also noteworthy is the absence of any reference to a second visit to Senan, though such is postulated in the lives of the latter saint.
D. The fourth phase covers the time - according to all our texts a few months, according to other authorities some years - intervening between the foundation of Clonmacnois and the death of Ciaran. The traditions of LA and VG here run along the same lines; LB is curiously diverse. There are in all twelve incidents, namely -
[End Introduction; for remainder of text, go to Gutenberg Project > R. A. S. MacAlister [online].