St. Ita (Ite, Ide, Meda, Mita, Ytha) was born in 480 in county Waterford either in the Drum Hills or in the Tramore area. Her father Cennfoelad was descended from Felim the lawgiver, and her mother was called Necta. Her family was part of the noble and influential Déisí clan. Ita's name was originally Dorothea or Deirdre; the name Ita, which she acquired later, signified her thirst for Divine Love. The word Ita is Latin for "likewise, or thus".
Even as a small child, Ita shows an unusual inclination to prayer and holiness. She has a remarkable spiritual presence, and everyone around her takes note of her purity and grace. She was said to embody the six virtues of Irish womanhood -- wisdom, purity, beauty, musical ability, gentle speech and needle skills. She was also described as sweet and winning in her address, prudent in word and work, constant in mind, and firm of purpose. But her femininity is not merely compliant or submissive. A strongly individualistic character is glimpsed in the legends of Ita. In her youth, Ita dreams that an angel gives her three precious stones. So struck is she by the significance of this, she awakens to puzzle over the symbolism. Thankfully, inspiration is at hand in the form of another celestial visitor who explains in a vision that Ita will experience dreams and visitations throughout her earthly life. The stones in the dream signify the gifts of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
From girlhood, Ita believed she had a calling from God and wanted to become a nun. But Ita's father doesn't share her faith, and he is reluctant to allow her to dedicate her whole life to it. In common with men of his time and social standing, he has arranged a marriage for his daughter with a young nobleman. Ita is determined to resist this. She turns to God for deliverance from such an unwanted fate, spending three days fasting and praying. On the third night, God gave a message to her father in his sleep, saying that Ita will serve God in another part of the country, and that many people will find salvation through her. The next morning, Cennfoelad agreed that Ita could do as she wished. With her family now convinced of the wisdom and grace of her desire, Bishop Declan of Ardmore confers the veil upon her.
At the age of sixteen, Ita then moves west, accompanied by her sister Fiona, with three heavenly lights to guide them. The first was at the top of the Galtee mountains, the second on the Mullaghareirk mountains, and the third at Cluain Creadhail. Ita settles near Sliabh Luachra, that almost mythical cultural heartland which includes parts of Cork, Kerry and West Limerick. She and her sister were welcomed by the local chieftain of the Ui Conaill Gabhra tribe. He wanted to give them a large tract to establish her convent. Once again Ita contradicts the wishes of a powerful man, insisting that she will only accept four acres of land, enough for gardens to provision the community. The settlement later became known as Cill Ide (Killeedy) and prospered as a center of learning and spiritual formation.
The many miracles attributed to St Ita show her great kindness. It is claimed that Ita brought her brother-in-law back to life after he was killed in battle. It is also written that St Ita cured a blind man. Her spiritual gifts are beyond question and many women come to join her, to dedicate their lives to God. In her instruction of the novices, Ita promotes the concept of the saints as 'soul-friends', an old concept which came to Ireland via Egypt and North Africa. A soul-friend is a confidante and confessor, and in the case of the saints, such friendship bridges this world with the next.
Ita and her community spent their time praying, teaching the young and caring for the sick, the poor and the elderly. In addition to farming their four acres at Killeedy, the community also operated a dairy farm at Boolaveeda near Mountcollins. The convent also became known as a training school for little boys, many of whom later became famous churchmen. One of these was St. Brendan the Navigator, whom Ita accepted in fosterage when he was a year old and kept until he was six. Brendan revisited her between his voyages and always deferred to her counsel. One day, Brendan asks her what are the three things which most please and displease God. Ita tells him: a pure heart with faith in God, a simple spiritual life, and generous acts of charity are most pleasing to God, and the three things most offensive to God are a mouth full of hate, a heart full of resentment, and worship of material things.
St. Ita is known as the "Foster Mother of the Saints of Ireland" because she was a mother figure to several of Ireland's early saints in addition to Brendan. St. Mochoemoc, whom because of his beauty she called 'Pulcherius', was another great personage of the Celtic church she fostered in infancy. The wisdom with which she managed her charges and taught her children was not derived from book learning or from the tutelage of honored churchmen, nor was it gleaned from a life of active worldly experience. Rather, her insights were achieved through the quiet of solitary prayer and meditation. Her gentle ministry to children is reflected in the lullaby for the infant Jesus that is attributed to her. Such is Ita's love for God that she prays for the gift of nursing the infant Jesus, a privilege granted to her in a vision. Along with Brigid, she becomes known as 'the wet-nurse of Christ'.
Second only to Saint Brigid among the most beloved of the Irish women saints, St. Ita is sometimes called the 'Brigid of Munster', but actually the differences were more striking than the resemblances between these two towering saints of the Celtic church. Brigid's effective life as a nun was spent in continual movement. When she had made a success of one convent settlement, she moved off to found another. Ita did just the opposite. Instead of entering one of Brigid's convents, she established a single foundation in a district where there was none, and there she remained all her life. Also, there is an emphasis on austerity in Ita's life not found in Brigid's. Ita's dedication to the ascetic lifestyle was unswerving throughout her life, and at times, almost dangerous. An angel came to warn her about her excessive fasting, which sometimes continued into four days. Ita's mortifications were on a par with those of the greatest contemporary missionaries.
The symbol of St. Ita, a cross with a heart at the center of a small labyrinth, is shown above. As Ita saw it, there is only one way we can marry our hearts to the love of Christ: We must take our hearts, our innermost thoughts and feelings, and move them ever more deeply into the heart of the cross. Thus, as the wheel of humanity is formed through Christ, through whom all things were made, we spiral from the outermost rim, where we dwell with our concerns about the world, and urge our hearts to the center as we gradually replace our worldly thought and feelings with the desire for Wisdom. It is this centering prayer that leads us to the heart of the cross. In the heart of the cross we find our own hearts, for they too have been created by God, have been redeemed by Christ, and are continually sustained by the Holy Spirit.
As with many of the great saints, Ita foresees and predicts her own death. As she felt her end approaching she sent for her community of nuns, and invoked the blessing of heaven on the clergy and laity of the district around Killeedy. Then messengers came from Clonmacnoise, wanting her to bless water for their abbot, Aengus, who was very ill. She duly obliges, but after the messengers have left, she tells her sisters that both she and Aengus will die before the emissaries return to Clonmacnoise. Ita proves to be correct on both counts. There is a shrine within the ruins of the church at Killeedy, believed to mark the site of her grave, which remains a place of worship and pilgrimage. The tradition is that visitors to Ita's grave cover it with flowers. In some parts of Ireland it is said even today that "Christmas does not end until St. Ita's feast." A strong local cult of Ita continues in Munster, particularly in Waterford and Limerick, and another name for her is "The white sun of the women of Munster."
St. Ita died on January 15, 570.