Samthann (d. 739), saint and abbess of Cluain Brónaig (Clonbroney, Co. Longford), was the daughter of Diamrán of the Ulster Dál Fiatach and of his wife Columba, who is not otherwise known. Unlike many other Irish saints, a historical person can be discerned under the layered weight of legend. She is recorded in near-contemporary documents in association with the reformist Céli Dé movement. Despite her gender, Samthann was, apparently, a respected figure among the Céli Dé. She was admired for her extreme religious asceticism and as a giver of practical advice. She died in Clonbroney in 739; her feast-day was celebrated on 19 December.
The actual saint tends to be overshadowed by the wonder-working Samthann of the later medieval Life: it draws on the image of Samthann as an ascetic, but it eagerly embellishes the spare outlines of her career. According to the Life, she was fostered by Crítán, king of Cairpre in northern Tethbae (in Co. Longford). Clonbroney lay within Tethbae and it is likely that this convenient fosterage arrangement was meant to underpin symbolically the good relations between church and dynasty. It also explains how an outsider from Ulster could have become so prominent, but its actual historicity is doubtful. Crítán successfully arranges an aristocratic marriage for Samthann. God, however, intervenes to stop the unwanted consummation of her marriage by sending down a fire from heaven that appears to burn the house where she is staying. While the inhabitants of the house rush out to prevent the divine but illusory blaze, Samthann escapes. When challenged by Crítán, the saint declares that she wishes to be the bride of Christ rather than the bride of a man.
As ‘bride of Christ’, Samthann embarks on a religious career. She enters the monastery of Urney (on the borders of the present counties Donegal and Tyrone), a detail that is likely to be factual. There she excels at administrative duties, later becoming the abbess of Clonbroney. That church was under the governance of the nearby male monastery of Granard and, ultimately, of Armagh. Unusually, most of the Life is set in and around the actual confines of the monastery; a significant proportion involves the building projects initiated by the saint. This emphasis suggests that the Life's original audience included the nuns of Clonbroney. The Life does not eschew the unlikely or the miraculous. Samthann has power over nature and over men. She frees captives and is admired by the high-king, Niall Frossach (qv) (d. 778). The ascetic saint is transformed into an effective political activist. Medieval Irish saints could not afford to be ordinary: this convention dictated the image of the literary, if not the real, Samthann.