Below is a 19th-century account of the life of Saint Nathy, a patron of the Diocese of Achonry, whose feastday is commemorated on August 9:
Though Nathy has always enjoyed as high a reputation for sanctity as any saint of the Irish church, there is little known of his life, and hardly anything of his earlier years. Irish hagiologists, when the name occurs, speak of our saint in terms of the greatest respect, as most holy (sanctissimus) as of exquisite sanctity, (sanctimonice spectatissimce) as of consummate perfection, but still none of them gives a formal account of his life, or even mentions incidentally such facts as would throw much light on his career.
It is certain, however, that Nathy lived in the sixth century, being a contemporary of Saint Finian of Clonard, who died in 552, or thereabouts. "His master," says Colgan, "was St. Finian of Clonard." (Vita S. Fechini). The chief event in the life of Nathy, [was] the foundation of the church and monastery of Achonry, which was the joint work of him and Saint Finian, and which was accomplished in this wise. Finian, near the close of life, paid a visit to Connaught, for the purpose of diffusing religion among the inhabitants of that province ; and when he reached Leyney, falling in with Nathy, a priest of great perfection, and admirably qualified by learning, prudence, and sanctity, to rule an ecclesiastical community, Finian resolved to utilize those talents and virtues. With this object the holy man went in search of a suitable site for a religious house, desiring above all things, in conformity with the marked taste of all the religious founders of the period, that the place should be pleasantly and picturesquely situated. Such a spot was found in Achonry, a stretch of fertile land, lying tranquilly at the foot of Mucklety, not far from the beautiful lake of Templehouse, on a plain of immense extent, bounded and sheltered by the curved and stately mountains of Leitrim, The Ox range, Keash, and the Curlews.
But it was one thing to desire, and another to obtain, this charming spot, this locus amonus, as it is called in the life of Saint Finian. The dynast of the district, who was called Caenfahola, that is, Caput lupi, or Wolfhead, probably from his brutal manners and disposition, hearing that the holy men were on the land, hastened in a rage to them, loaded them with abuse, and ordered them away. Caring little about themselves, the saints bore patiently the treatment they received, but urged, all the more, the application for the site, and urged it so wonderfully and so effectually, that Wolfhead became a new man and granted what .they sought. The following is the account of the transaction, which we find in the old life of Finian ; and whatever some may think of the alleged miracle, the narrative proves at least, that the saints had great difficulty in succeeding in their object:
"After this Finian proceeded to a place where a holy priest named Nathy lived, and here an angel appeared to him and said : ' You shall found a church on whatever spot the man of God shall select as a convenient and pleasant site. And when they had reached the chosen spot, the prince of the territory, that is, of Leyney, whose name was Caenfahola, Caput lupi, approached them in a rage, for the purpose of driving them from the place ; but the man of God, seeking to convert this hardened sinner to the faith by a striking miracle, made the sign of the cross on a great rock that lay hard by, and broke it into three parts. This spectacle astonished and softened the savage prince ; and being now changed from a wolf into a lamb, he humbly made over to Finian the scene of the miracle, which is called in the Irish language, Achadchonaire, and in which the man of God established the aforesaid priest of the name of Nathy."
The tradition of this miracle is still vivid in and around Achonry, and the part that Saint Finian had in the transaction is commemorated in the name of a well, Tubber-Finneen, which lies within a few feet of the ruins of the old cathedral, and which has on its edge a great pile of stones, deposited one after another by the crowds of devotees that used to frequent the place to invoke the intercession of that saint.
The monastery thus established became a school of piety and learning for the surrounding neighbourhood ; and, considering the passion that then existed throughout Ireland for science and sanctity, it must soon have been crowded with scholars. We are told that Nathy taught several eminent persons in this establishment. A Saint Kenan is said to have received his moral and literary education from the "most religious Nathan " or Nathy.
But the disciple that conferred most honour on the school of Achonry was Saint Fechin, who followed his master and relative, Nathy, into the monastery, as soon as it was opened. The most tender friendship always existed between the two saints. Even after Fechin left Achonry, Nathy's thoughts were often occupied with his young friend ; and we are informed, that on one occasion the saint suspended suddenly the business of the monastery to announce to its inmates the glad tidings, learned miraculously, that his beloved disciple was just at that moment founding the great monastery of Fore.
Though Nathy is commonly supposed to have been bishop, it is doubtful whether the holy man ever passed the grade of priest. There is no express statement in all antiquity of his having been a bishop. Nor is the evidence of the past on the subject merely negative, for, as far as it goes, it points to his being only a priest. Crumther Nathy, or Presbyter Nathy, that is, Priest Nathy; for Crumther signifies exclusively, priest, is the appellation our saint invariably receives whenever the name is mentioned in the annals of the early church ; and one cannot understand how such an epithet could have been applied as a kind of surname without great impropriety, had he ever been consecrated bishop. And the opinion, that Nathy never received episcopal orders, is greatly strengthened by the fact that no bishop is mentioned as his successor in the annals of the country. Melruan O'Ruadhan, who died, according to the Four Masters, in 1170, is the first bishop of Achonry, or Leyney-Connaught, of whom we read ; and if Nathy was bishop of the diocese in the sixth century, it is incredible that we should hear of no successor of his before the twelfth.!
On the other hand there are weighty means for thinking that the man of God did receive episcopal ordination. The cultus of confessor-pontiff, with which the church honours Nathy, supplies in itself a strong presumption in favour of this opinion. Whether this cultus was paid from time immemorial, or is of more recent origin, in either case those who originated it had better means of knowing the facts of the saint's life than we have at present, as they lived so much nearer to his time. Indeed the office of confessor-pontiff could hardly have been assigned to our saint at all if there did not exist, in the past, stronger proofs of his having been bishop than have come down to us. Furthermore, considering the great number of bishops that crowded the early Irish church, and that the office was sometimes conferred in consideration of the great sanctity or learning of individuals, as a kind of personal distinction without any view to diocesan jurisdiction, leaving the new bishop to the discharge of his old duties as abbot, hermit, or head of school, it was only natural that the exalted character of Nathy, and the great school over which he presided, should bring the saint the distinction of the episcopal dignity. And the new office need have caused little alteration in his ordinary avocations. The bishop would rule the monastic establishment and lecture its pupils as before, merely conferring orders, in addition, when required, and consecrating such churches as might be erected in the territory of the clan. Nathy's jurisdiction was not diocesan, properly so called, the territory not having been ecclesiastically constituted into a diocese at the time ; but as the saint resided and officiated in the district, which those, who subsequently became the territorial bishops of Achonry, governed, they took him for their patron, though they would not call themselves his successors, as he was never ordinary of their diocese. And for a similar reason they selected his monastery as the site of their cathedral. In some such way as this the apparently conflicting opinions regarding our saint may be reconciled.
The designation of Crumther, which is the strongest objection to his having been bishop, is not conclusive against the opinion ; for it is easy to understand how people of the neighbourhood, who had known Nathy, and spoken of him as Crumther Nathy before he entered the monastery, while he lived among them, should continue to talk of our saint in the same style even after the holy man had received the higher order, of which perhaps they understood or heard little. Children would take up the epithet from their parents, and in this way the phrase would get stereotyped and pass on to after ages.
It is agreed that Nathy lived to a very advanced age. He must have been about thirty years old in 552, the supposed year of Saint Finian of Clonard's death, for the holy man was a priest for some time, previous to that event ; while, on the other hand, he was still alive when Saint Fechin founded the abbey of Fore, which could hardly be earlier than the second decade of the seventh century, seeing that that saint died only in 665, of the Yellow Plague. Nathy, then, was about ninety years when he passed to the reward of the just. He was buried within the precincts of the monastery, and over his remains, after some time, was raised the cathedral of Achonry, which was dedicated to the saint, and called, after him, the Church of Crumther Nathy, contracted sometimes into Crum-Nathy.
The foregoing is all that has come down to us with regard to the man of God. Even this meagre account had to be gleaned from various quarters from general Irish history, from local tradition, and from the published lives of Saint Finian, Saint Fechin, Saint Attracta, and Saint Cormac, no formal life of Saint Nathy, as has been stated already, having ever been written, or, if written, having reached our time. Almost all the particulars of his long life are lost. The countless good works that the holy man performed during his hundred years for the glory of God, for the sanctification of his own soul, and for the evangelization of Leyney-Connaught have followed him, and form now his crown, but are known only in heaven. The impression, however, which these works produced on the minds of contemporaries has been handed down from generation to generation, in the tribute which the successive writers that mention the name of Nathy never fail to pay to his extraordinary sanctity. Other Irish saints are noted for characteristic virtues: Columbkille, for love of churches; Finian of Clonard, for zeal in teaching; Brendan, for pious voyages; Columbanus and others, for missionary enterprise; but the patron of Achonry shines chiefly by pre-eminent personal sanctity. It is a great distinction; and when we call to mind that holiness is the divine attribute which forms the chief theme of praise in heaven, (Apocalypse, chap. 4, verse 8. ) we cannot fail to feel the greatest reverence for a saint whose virtue reminds one of the most admirable and adorable of all God's perfections.
Remember the passion of Antonius,
Of Firmus of brave family ;
In Achadh Cain was buried
Nathi the devout priest.
Metrical Calendar of Oengus Ceile De.
Terence O' Rorke, History, antiquities, and present state of the parishes of Ballysadare and Kilvarnet, in the county of Sligo (Dublin, 1878), 411-24.
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Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2015. All rights reserved.