Who Was St Ailbhe?
St Ailbhe comes from an uncertain and controversial period of Irish history. There is evidence that he is one of the first Christian missionaries in Ireland - before St Patrick! - but then the Patrician history contradicts this - perhaps with a political agenda? Who knows. Anyway, he is acknowledged to be the patron saint of the current Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly located in south central Ireland comprising parts of Counties Tipperary and Limerick. He is probably the founder of the first, ancient cathedral at Emly. A typical "history" of him can be found on the Cashel and Emly Archdiocese website, which tells us that Ailbhe was able to save the wolf (see name list item above) when she was to be killed and that the wolf thereafter ate from his table. (See also the Wikipedia entry for Ailbe.)
Learned information appears in a translation of the Life of St Declan of Ardmore which clearly states that Ailbhe and Ciaran (both now Saints) preceded Patrick in the Irish mission, that the Life of St Patrick affirms this, that St Patrick came to Ireland only slightly after Ailbhe and Ciaran as a superior to them in the Catholic hierarchy. Unfortunately, the Life of St Declan contains obvious contradictions, so these facts are controversial. The Life of St Declan, by the way, appears to establish Declan as another of the pre-Patrician Irish Christian missionaries. Other candidates for membership in this elite corps are Ibar, Brigit, Senan, "perhaps Mac [son of] Cairthinn" (see Life of St Senan). Another example of the confusion rampant here is evidenced by the Celtic baby name list item above which claims St Ailbhe lived in the 6th century. This is consistent with the website entry above for the Cashel and Emly Archdiocese which lists 528 as his death year. The website points out that this contradicts the claim that he preceded Patrick who was in Ireland in the 5th century. But the Life of St Declan goes on and on about just how and when Ailbhe, Declan, Ibar, and Patrick met and interacted, both in Ireland and in Rome before that.
The best information I have found comes from The Flowering of Ireland: Saints, Scholars & Kings by Katharine Scherman, Little Brown & Co, 1981 (reissued 1999 for St Patrick's Day). Excerpts:
p 83: "But he [Patrick] had predecessors. Through the nimbus of myth that surrounds early Irish church history there emerge four holy figures who were there when Patrick came. ... Not much remains to us but the names - St Ciaran of Saighir and Ossory, St Ailbe of Emly, St Ibar of Beg Erin and St Declan of Ardmore - and some lively legends of their miraculous activities."
pp 84-85: "The figure of St Ailbe is almost as nebulous as that of St Ciaran. His life is said to have spanned 167 years, from 360 to 527. He is probably a composite: the saints of early years, the recording of whose deeds was dependent on the spoken word of recent converts steeped in the magic and mysticism of their pre-Christian youth, tended to blend together. Their deeds, later recorded in writing by monks themselves enveloped in the climate of unquestioning faith, took on a cloudy aura, and several saints merged into a single hyperbolic monument to saintliness.
"Ailbe was born to a maidservant in the house of Cronan, lord of Eliach in County Tipperary. Cronan, for reasons unrevealed, disapproved of his birth and directed that he be exposed to 'dogs and wild beasts, that he might be devoured' The baby was found by a wolf, who tended him until an unidentified passerby, possibly a Christian from Britain, noticed his beauty and his potential Christian grace, and took him away to be reared in the faith. After study and consecration in Rome, Ailbe was directed by the pope, along with 'fifty holy men from Ireland,' presumably recently converted followers, to proselytize the heathens in an unrecorded corner of Europe. Then, like 'a sagacious bee loaded with honey,' he embarked for Ireland with his companions in an unseaworthy boat. By blessing the sea, he brought them all serenely to port in northern Ireland, where he converted the king, Fintan, and brought back to life Fintan's three sons, slain in battle.
Note : "Quotations concerning the life of St Ailbe throughout this chapter are from Rev John O'Hanlon, Lives of the Irish Saints" [which I have not been able to find complete: 10 volumes, Dublin: J. Duffy & Sons, 1875; vol. 6 was on Google Book the last time I checked].
"St Ailbe traversed Ireland, as did St Patrick after him, converting as he went, and at last settled in Emly, County Tipperary, near the place of his birth. There he founded a church and a school, and promulgated the 'Law of Ailbe,' supposedly the first codification of ecclesiastical rule in Ireland. In the huge span of his life he was friend to many holy men, including, of course, St Patrick, who reputedly named him archbishop of Munster. When he was very old he wished to retire to Tyle (Thule), the island that is now Iceland, to flee worldly honors and to meditate among the holy hermits already established on that bleak shore. But King Aengus of Munster (converted by St Patrick) refused permission and placed guards at the seaports so he could not escape his responsibilities to the multitudes of his adoring followers. Ailbe is called 'the second St Patrick,' and he may be one of those whose deeds and persons fuse into the great shadowy form of Ireland's patron saint."
p 86: "In Rome he [St Declan] had met Ailbe, already prominent, and they had formed a deep friendship that was to last their lives."
p 94: "Apocryphal as are most of the stories around the hazy figure of Ireland's patron, it is historical fact that the framework of a Christian organization modelled loosely on that of Rome began to take shape under the aegis of a single or composite strong, vibrant personality. It started, probably, when Patrick went to challenge the heathen stronghold of Cashel. (This was the seat of King Aengus, the over-king of Munster, which was one of Ireland's five provinces and at that time, with Tara, the most powerful.) Cashel was the traditional rival of Tara ... and Patrick knew that the conversion of its king was just as important for his mission as the convincing of king Laoghaire at Tara. The eloquent young man succeeded where his elders, Ireland's first four holy men, had failed. Aengus became one of his strongest supporters, and Cashel was the site of Ireland's first meeting of ecclesiastics, as Patrick summoned to him Declan, Ibor, Ailbe and Ciaran for the disposition of local ecclesiastical affairs."