The Laois man who was elected pope

An Irishman’s Diary: Durrow might look to Moneygall

Moneygall may boast a US president, but Durrow, Co Laois has a special claim to the papacy. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Moneygall may boast a US president, but Durrow, Co Laois has a special claim to the papacy. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh


Heard the one about the fellow from Laois who was elected pope? Not many people have, which is perhaps remarkable in a country with a long tradition of loyalty to Rome and to things papal, at least until fairly recently.

It happened in the 6th century, AD 523 to be exact. And by coincidence this fellow’s name was also Benedict. This Laois-born Benedict was born in Durrow around 460 – about 30 years after the death of St Patrick. Okay, it wasn’t called Laois then. It wasn’t even called Queen’s County. But Durrow was on the way to being a place of some celebrity.

Benedict’s Durrow is not to be confused with Durrow in Co Offaly where the peripatetic and energetic St Columba founded his monastery. Some remains can be seen on the site, about four miles north of Tullamore.

Both place names, however, derive from the same Irish root – Daru – “The Place of Oaks”. Now, Durrow in present day Co Laois, has associations with another St “Columba” (later Abbot of Clonenagh and who died in 548). But he is not the St Columba of Durrow, Co Offaly and Iona (died 597). I know this is a bit confusing.

Anyway, our Benedict left Durrow at an early age to study under St Fintan (died 594) at Clonenagh, which is located just off the present N7 trunk road, about half way between Portlaoise and Mountrath. Later, he became a follower of the great saint of the west of Ireland, St Enda.

It is recorded in Colgan’s The Life of Saint Endeus that Enda, who died in 530, went to Rome in 522. He was accompanied by Benedict, then in his 60s, who had come to be acknowledged as a man of particular saintliness. On August 6th 523, while they were still in Rome the Pope – Hormisdas – died after a papacy that had lasted almost nine years.

The elders of the church (they hadn’t invented the title of cardinal yet) met to elect a successor. Hormisdas, from Campagna, had been a very successful pope, bringing the eastern and western churches together in harmony after the damaging Acacian Schism. Interestingly, he had been married and his son, Silverius, went on to follow his father into the job in due course.

But this is to get ahead of the story. Back to Benedict from Durrow.

Such was the reputation that Benedict had acquired for prayer and great sanctity while visiting Rome with St Enda, that he was nominated as pope five days after the death of Hormisdus. Initially, it seems, he agreed to accept the role, and proposed taking the name of Pupeus for his papacy. Preparations were put in train for his installation and messages were sent to the church leaders in other cities announcing the glad tidings.

However, it seems that he had not got his lines straight with Enda, who said he was going back to Galway. Benedict now started to get cold feet. He withdrew to pray and having done so announced to the elders that he would not take up the job and was withdrawing his consent, his would-be papacy having lasted just two days. The elders were naturally disappointed but they called another consistory and elected Pope John I on August 13th in his place. Enda and Benedict set off for Ireland. Whether Benedict returned to Clonenagh or continued to follow Enda we do not know.

John’s papacy lasted less than three years, until 526. Unhappily, the litany of popes does not contain Benedict’s name and the Catholic Encyclopedia merely records that John was elected after an interregnum of seven days.

Durrow is now bypassed by the Dublin-Cork motorway. But it is a pretty village, now officially a Heritage Town, and well worth a diversion. Castle Durrow is a fine hotel and there are good local pubs. Sheppard’s, facing the village green is one of the country’s leading auction houses for antiques and objets d’art .

But there is nothing to acknowledge the village’s most famous son – the only Irishman ever to be elected pope. The Durrow folk need to take a lead from their near neighbours in Moneygall who, after all, can only claim a US president.