St. Kevin and the Blackbird: A Reflection by Dublin Campus Minister Ryan McNelis

Author: Ryan McNelis

Screen Shot 2022 11 18 At 2

Ryan McNelis graduated from Notre Dame in 2021 with a BA in economics and minors in theology and data science. After graduation, he moved to Ireland to serve as the campus minister to hundreds of Notre Dame students studying in Dublin for the 2021 - 2022 academic year. In that year, Ryan also completed an MA in chaplaincy and pastoral care at Dublin City University. He has since returned to his home city of Pittsburgh and is working as a quantitative analytics development program analyst at PNC Financial Services. He reflects on his pilgrimages to Glendalough with Notre Dame study abroad students and his year as campus minister at the Dublin Global Gateway.

At the outset of each new semester, Notre Dame students studying abroad in Dublin are brought on a pilgrimage to Glendalough. Less than an hour from Dublin, Glendalough is a glacial valley sliced into the mountains of County Wicklow. The valley contains gorgeous hiking trails; two cold, blue lakes; breathtaking panorama views; and, most famously, the ruins of Christian monastic communities dating back to the sixth century.

Tradition holds that the first Christian community at Glendalough was established by St. Kevin, who lived and prayed in one of the valley’s small mountainside caves. (“St. Kevin’s Bed” is still visible above the surface of the Upper Lake.) Monks flocked to join Kevin, whose unceasing prayer and communion with all life in the valley gained renown even during his own lifetime. An enduring legend that captures Kevin’s unique spirituality tells of his encounter with a blackbird, which landed on the holy man’s outstretched hand while he was in prayer. Unwilling to disturb the creature, Kevin resolved to remain in prayer until the bird took flight. He continued to pray—kneeling, arms outstretched—even as the little bird built and tended to its nest on his hand. He prayed until the bird’s eggs hatched and fledglings took flight.

Seamus Heaney, the great twentieth century Irish poet, mythologized this story in his poem, “St. Kevin and the Blackbird” (1996). As the campus minister at O’Connell House, I begin each retreat to Glendalough by reading an excerpt from this poem:

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands 
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

Screen Shot 2022 11 18 At 2

Heaney’s poem is the perfect image of my year as the campus minister at O’Connell House. When I read his words, I am the blackbird, grateful to rest and work in safe hands that will patiently support me. In Kevin—prayerful, resolute, self-giving—I see the faces that make up O’Connell House. My time in Ireland has been defined by the people who so consistently pour out care and support to the students that enter O’Connell House’s blue door, and who have doled out the same care to me in the same generous measure.

The care that defines O’Connell House takes many forms. In a given day, it might be a conversation with Ciara at the front desk. I’ll warm the back of my legs against the radiator as we critique and debate Irish film and TikTok trends with equal ferocity. It may be a joke cracked by Maggie, perhaps after we both lunge for the same coveted coffee mug moments before a Monday morning meeting. On many days, it’s the quiet and selfless service that Robert extends to staff and students alike, ranging from steady words of affirmation to a hot cup of chicken broth brought to a sick friend. Just as often it’s Eimear’s kind instance on knowing just how I’m doing, or Kevin’s casual wisdom cut with biting commentary on the latest GAA match. In so many small and momentous ways, these people create a community in which I feel seen and loved.

In the poem, Kevin’s patience with and care for the blackbird allows her to tend to her nest, to mirror the saint’s care and patience to her own young. In some small way, I think the O’Connell House community has had the same effect on me. If I have met any need here in Ireland—if tea and biscuits on a Wednesday night after class has kindled some small sense of community amongst our students, or if a quiet space for reflection or conversation that I have created has allowed a moment of peace amid the often-joyful, occasionally-exhausting whirlwind of a semester abroad—it is because I have mirrored the community I have been invited into and the constant care I have been shown.

I have only ever read the first half of Heaney’s poem to students at Glendalough—the image of the saint holding the bird and her nest. The final three stanzas always struck me as too abstract, or maybe too melancholy for a hike through the green, sunlit valley. But after a year spent serving as the campus minister in this place, and especially as I begin to glance towards my return to the United States, I am beginning to recognize the image of Kevin contained in the poem’s final lines:

Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river, 
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

I recognize St. Kevin and his posture of ceaseless self-gift in the people who surround and support and care for me each day here in Dublin. My prayer is that I will have the courage and the faith to mirror them, to tend to my nest and those in it, until and even after I have flown.

Learn more about programs in Dublin.