St. Ailbe and the Wolf

Among the values that social courage can help us promote in our children are compassion, tolerance, caring and charity. These are the values we exhibit in the social realm in our behavior to others. Here is a wonderful legend from Ireland that demonstrates these values. Compare it to the legend of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio, or Androcles and the Lion. It also fits in the same tradition of foundling heroes we’ve discussed on this blog before.
Long and long ago in Ireland, almost so long ago the wood that built the first harp was still a green twig, a poor couple had a boy baby and couldn’t keep him – that’s how poor they were. Without knowing what else to do, they left him on a hillside and hastened away in shame. It wasn’t long after that that a she-wolf was trotting by, and her keen ears caught the sound of a cry. Her nose led her to a heather bush, and there lay a pink, furless pup, or so she thought. It wasn’t like her own pups, but she picked him up carefully – Ailbe was his name, though how was she to know it? – and brought him along back to her den to suckle him beside the others. Ailbe soon grew strong and hale, and ran four-legged with his brother wolves. If his wolf-mother sometimes thought him a strange creature with fur nowhere but his head, she loved him all the same.
Two years of wolf-life Ailbe had. Then (as fate would have it) a horseman was riding over the heath one day and spied the boy, running on all fours across the green. So far from human habitation they were that the prince (for he was a prince, as fate would have it) knew the child must be a foundling. He chased the little thing and caught him up, kicking and screaming and howling for his mother. The she-wolf, hearing her odd child wailing in fear, came bounding over the crest of the hill, and her four big grown wolf-sons with her. The prince took one look at the rushing pack and put his horse to the gallop, still holding the howling child. Mile upon mile the wolves chased the prince, their hearts bursting with the effort to rescue their brother and son. But the horse was a swift one (as fate would have it) and the wolves finally dropped with exhaustion, raising their last mournful howls as the prince disappeared over the horizon.
It took a while, as you can well imagine, for Ailbe to understand he was a human, and learn good human speech and walk upright. His new mother – third mother – the princess was kind and wise and the prince was fair and good, and Aible grew to honest manhood and took priest’s robes. He preferred the solitary life of contemplation, for human company still uneased him, and he took no pleasure in men’s sports. Hunting was especially disturbing to him: the sound of the hunter’s horn reminded him of a howling wolf.
Indeed one day the mournful wail of the horn carried to his ears a sound so familiar that he ran out the door, looking left and right. There – there! Running toward him, gaunt and terrified, ran an old she-wolf, and four more old wolves panting beside her. Ailbe knelt in the road and opened his arms to her, for he knew her and somehow (how can we understand such mysteries as life offers?) she knew him as well, her strange little pup now a grown man and priest besides. With his wolf family beside him, Ailbe stood straight and strong and ordered the hunters to turn aside. And ever after, until the end of their days, the wolves were welcome in Ailbe’s hall, and ate from his table, and were never harmed nor hounded.

Special thanks to acclaimed storytellers, Jennings and Ponder, for bringing this story to my attention.

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