St. Ultan was the Bishop of Ardbraccan, near Navan, in Meath in the seventh century. His feast day is the 4th September. His life and death is recorded in most of the Annals and in the Martyrology of Aengus.
Ardbraccan (Irish “Hill of Breacan”) is an ancient place of Christian worship taking its name possibly from a St Breacan who was his predecessor there. It was an important ecclesiastical, even diocesan, centre in the middle ages. Ultan succeeded St. Breacan as the Bishop of Ardbraccan.
It is acknowledged that Ultan was a holy, learned, practical, kind and inventive man, possibly a pupil of St. Declan. He lived an austere life eating herbs and drinking water. He illustrated his own manuscripts including his works on St. Brigid, and was known for his writing of latin hymns. In the the Féilire of Aengus the Culdee he is mentioned as “the great sinless prince in whom the little ones are flourishing: the children play greatly round Ultan of Ardbraccan.”
There was a breakout of the Yellow Plague (Buidhe Ghonaill) in Ireland, England, Scotland and many countries across Europe. It was known to affect adults (rather than children) and many mothers and fathers died leaving orphaned children. Ultan brought starving helpless children to his monastery, fed and cared for them. At one time he had up to 150 children in his monastery. He is credited with creating the first feeding bottle using cows teats and filling them with milk. He educated and fed poor students.
Inspired by the story of St Ultan’s care for children, medical doctor and political activist Dr Kathleen Lynn established St Ultan’s Infant Hospital in 1919 at 37 Charlemont Street in Dublin. Her work with Dublin’s inner city poor led her to open up a hospital specifically for mothers and infants in response to high infant mortality rate in the city, extreme poverty and living conditions at the time. It was the only hospital in Ireland entirely managed by women. Every year, the hospital organised a pilgrimage and a pic-nic to the site of St. Ultan’s well in Ardbraccan. The hospital closed in 1984.
Ultan ended his days on one of the Aran Islands, where his tomb slab was discovered. He died on 4 September according to The Annals of Clonmacnoise in the year 653.
He is now regarded as the patron Saint of paediatricians. It was claimed that in 784 relics of St. Ultan were taken by the Danes and what became of them is a mystery.
Ardbraccan Church built mid 18th century with the 14th century tower of the old St Ultan’s Church behind it. Photo © Navan Historical Society
St Ultan’s, 37 Charlemont Street, Dublin, in 1919. (Teach Ultáin Infant Hospital)