A BARDIC-SAINT OF IRELAND
BY J. B. CULLEN
THE valley of the Barrow, which extends through a considerable portion of southern Leinster, has not received as much notice as it deserves in descriptions of the natural attractions and associations of the water-ways of Ireland. Nevertheless, events and scenes and memories connected with the best and greatest epochs of our country's past have left their traces along the course of this classic river, from its source in the Slievebloom Mountains till it enters the sea at Waterford Harbour. In ages long gone by, when south-eastern Ireland was almost entirely a forest-land and roads were few, this waterway was mainly the medium of communication between those tribal divisions now forming the counties of Kildare, Carlow, Wexford, and Waterford. Neither does the Barrow lack certain elements of the picturesque that make it fall but little short of the beautiful, for many stretches of its scenery, especially between Carlow and the Meeting of the three Sisters, where it enters the Atlantic, compare favourably with those of the better-known rivers of Ireland. Nor yet is the spell of history wanting, since Sage and Saint, Gael and Dane, Norman and Puritan, the conqueror and the vanquished, have lived and left many a mark on its border-lands, and supplied many a pictured page to the gladsome and, too often, sadsome annals of our country.
In the early days of Christianity in Ireland, as with most of the rivers of the country, certain districts adjacent to the course of the Barrow were chosen by missionaries and scholar-monks for sites whereon to erect little churches or found monastic schools, that afterwards gave rise to the towns which now flourish along its banks. In the history of the poet-saint and scribe who founded the ancient monastery of Sletty we are interested in the following pages.
St. Fiacc of Sletty was a contemporary of St. Patrick, and, moreover, played an important part in the opening scene of the great Apostle's mission at the court of Tara, in the memorable Eastertide of 433. Afterwards the threads of his life-story were for a time closely interwoven with events narrated in the accounts of the labours and miracles of our National Patron. Most of us are acquainted with the oft-told incident that occurred on the first appearance of St. Patrick and his followers at the court of King Laoghaire. Previous to the arrival of the Saint a royal command was given that none of the assembly should rise to do honour to the mysterious band of strangers. However, a few of the courtiers present were so impressed by the venerable appearance of the leader of the procession that they could not restrain their feelings of emotion, and failed to obey the orders of the pagan monarch. The first who rose, as is recorded, was Dubhthach, 'chief bard and brehon of Erin,' whose example was followed by Fiacc his pupil, who is described in the records of the event as ' the young poet.' The latter was not only the favourite pupil of the royal bard, but was, moreover, his nephew and foster-son. Dubhthach has ever since been immortalized in song and story as the ' first convert of Erin.' It is more than probable that his nephew received the gift of Faith at the same time. Fiacc, it is told, was then sixteen years of age so that he must have been born about the year A.D. 415.
The conversion of the 'chief bard of Erin ' was undoubtedly the first victory achieved by St. Patrick over paganism in Ireland. How important and far-reaching was the acceptance of Christianity by a personage of such exalted rank, and by one whose profession was highly esteemed in those days, we shall explain later on.
St. Fiacc was of noble lineage, being descended (in the sixth or seventh generation) from the celebrated Cathair Mor, who was King of Leinster and Ard-righ at the end of the second century. The chiefs of the clan MacMorrogh (now called Kavanagh) trace their descent from the same illustrious ancestor. We may note, in passing, that St. Moling, one of the immediate successors of St. Aidan, Patron of the See of Ferns, belonged to the same race. His monastery beside the Barrow continued to be the burial-place of the Kavanaghs down to less than a century ago. This Saint was honoured as the protector and patron of the chieftainage through the history of a thousand years.
But to return. The father of St. Fiacc is styled Mac Dara, who was Prince of Hy-Barrech, whilst his mother was sister of Dubhthach, royal bard of Tara. The bards in both ancient and Christian Ireland were held in a degree of respect perhaps greater than that bestowed on any other class of society. Their services in the way of literature and poetry were almost the sole means by which the chronicles and history of the country were preserved, and genealogies recorded. The deeds of valour attributed to chieftains and renowned warriors were enshrined by them in metrical compositions and thus easily committed to memory by the people. Their lesser poems and songs were wedded to the melodies of their harps and were the origin of ' the wild native strains ' that have floated down through 'the waves of Time,' and are echoed in the national music of Ireland to-day. Like the orders of the Druids and Brehons, the ancient minstrels were prepared for their noble profession by a long course of study, and thus they gained the esteem they attained in popular estimation. From all these circumstances we can easily understand how the acceptance of Christianity by Dubhthach, as royal minstrel of Tara, came to be an event of almost more importance than would have been the conversion of the High- King himself. His example was followed by numbers of the courtiers, who soon afterwards received baptism at the hands of St. Patrick.
Fiacc, the subject of our memoir, apparently, for a great part of his life was never separated from his venerated kinsman. When the latter retired from the court of Tara and went to reside in his native place (the present North Wexford) his nephew accompanied him. In this locality, we may remark, a grant of land was bestowed upon him by the King of Hy-Kinsellagh, which lay on the coast not far from the present town of Gorey now called Cahore Point. Here Dubhthach spent his declining years. St. Patrick, in his progress through Leinster, on his way to Ossory, converted and baptized King Crimthan, at Rathvilly, Co. Carlow, about the year 450. On this occasion he altered his direct route by going a little out of the beaten track, in order to visit his 'first convert' at his seaside home in North Hy-Kinsellagh. During his brief stay in this territory he founded the little church of Donoughmore, close by Dubhthach's residence, the remains of which may still be traced on the seashore, now half-covered by sand. This is said to be the only personal foundation of St. Patrick within the confines of the present County Wexford. It is also recorded that during his visit he asked Dubhthach to recommend some worthy man, of good family and of virtuous life, whom he might train for the priesthood and eventually, if suitable, consecrate a bishop and place him 'over the Leinster-men.' His learned and gifted nephew, Fiacc, at once occurred, to the venerable bard's mind, as one possessing the necessary qualifications in regard to family and education if he would consent to enter the ecclesiastical state. Fiacc shortly afterwards came upon the scene and, being questioned on the subject under consideration, he at first hesitated, but when, as an alternative, Dubhthach, aged as he was, offered himself for the position St. Patrick was so anxious to fill, the young man was so impressed by the act of self-sacrifice on the part of his kinsman that he consented to take the latter's place. There and then the Apostle imposed the sacred tonsure on Fiacc removing from his brow the wealth of flowing hair which, in those times, was the typical mark of noble birth among the Irish. On the departure of St. Patrick from Donoughmore, Fiacc accompanied him, and at once entered on his ecclesiastical studies. His highly-trained mind and the gift of perfect memory he had acquired as a poet by profession made easy to him many of those difficulties experienced by other students. With such aptitude did he master various subjects that it is said within fifteen days he learned the formula and ceremonies for the celebration of Holy Mass and dispensing of the Sacraments.
After his ordination, and when he entered upon his missionary career, the first church associated with his name was erected by him between Clonmore and Aghold, on the borders of Carlow and Wicklow. It was here St. Patrick imposed the 'grade of a bishop' upon our Saint, and as recorded, left seven monks from his own followers who formed the first community of St. Fiacc. Here, for some years, Fiacc led a most holy life, till he was admonished by an angel that ' the place of his resurrection was not to be there', but at ' the west side of the Barrow,' at a spot which would be indicated to him by certain signs. He was told to proceed along the river's course, and at a place where he would meet a boar there to build his 'refectory' (i.e., guest house), and at a little distance off he would meet a hind, and there would be the site of his church. The holy man felt greatly troubled and sad at heart at the thoughts of leaving the scenes of his first mission. He felt unwilling, even at the call of God, to part from his community and beloved flock, and so far determined not to go without the sanction of St. Patrick. Accordingly he sent a messenger to his apostolic master to seek his advice. The Saint, who at once realized the natural feelings of Fiacc, sent back word that he would come to visit his friend and assuage his sorrow. On St. Patrick's arrival, speaking words of consolation, he volunteered to accompany Fiacc on his journey to the district where he was admonished by the Divine Will to spend the future of his life. Bidding farewell to his religious brethren and faithful people, Fiacc then set out for his destination accompanied by St. Patrick.
When the travellers were coming to the close of their journey and had reached 'the west side of the Barrow,' they gave themselves up to earnest prayer, awaiting the signs that were to reveal to Fiacc the place of his settlement and of his final rest on earth. They had not proceeded far along the river-side when the indications foretold in the heavenly message were verified. The place, predestined to become sacred in after time, was situated about a mile and a half (N.N.W.) from the present town of Carlow, close to the range of hills known as the Slievemargy Mountains. The two saints, giving thanks to Almighty God, took possession of the spot by erecting a rude cross, the sign of man's redemption, and lighting a fire, symbolic of ' the light of Faith.' This was the simple ceremony observed by the Irish monks wherever they went forth, in after centuries, as, we are told, 'to preach the Gospel to nations still held in the bondage of paganism, and seated in the valley of death.'
We must remember that, in the organization of the missions of the early saints, the founding of a church generally meant also the founding of a Christian settlement or monastery. From this we may assume that Fiacc was joined by some members of his former community, whose number was later on increased by the accession of converts and pious souls who, in those days of first fervour, were desirous of embracing the monastic life. Ireland was then, and continued to be for centuries afterwards, in a tribal state. Each chieftain was independent of his neighbour, and although a central authority was supposed to exist in the personality of the Ard-righ or High-King, the title was little more than nominal. He was by no means ' monarch of all he surveyed.' In St. Patrick's missionary system he adapted the organization of his Church to the political condition of the country. The jurisdiction of bishops was tribal rather than territorial. Dioceses, in the modern sense, did not exist, nor were they defined for six or seven centuries afterwards. Every clan had its own episcopal ruler who was, in most cases, chosen from the family of the local chieftain, and as we read in the lives of many Irish saints, the bishop, on his death-bed, very often handed the insignia of his sacred office to one of his disciples, which was considered tantamount to nominating his successor. Thus it most frequently happened that the episcopal office was retained for successive generations by some relative of the chieftain of the respective clans. Descendants of the race of Cathair Mor (to which St. Fiacc belonged) had, for many centuries, been rulers of the the petty kingdom of Hy-Kinsellagh. The office was not hereditary, in the present sense, since, according to the law of Tanistry, the people could chose any member or relative of the ruling family, on the personal merits of the candidate whether as a warrior, statesman, or as one gifted with superior wisdom, or other attributes calculated to command the respect and obedience of his subjects. Members of the same family that of Mac Morrogh held the sovereignty of Hy-Kinsellagh down to the Anglo-Norman Invasion, the ill-starred Dermod Mac Morrogh being the last independent representative of the kingship This territory included in its area the whole of the present County Wexford, a considerable part of Wicklow, the southern extremities of Carlow, and the sub-principalities of Forth and Idrone.
The Christian settlements, or monasteries, of early times were formed, to a great extent, on the model of the secular clans by which they were surrounded. Most, if not all, the inmates of the monasteries were connected by clanship, and on this account, whenever tribal wars arose (which were frequent), they could count on the protection of the local chieftain. This digression in the current of our narrative is made in order to explain what probably was one of the reasons that prompted St. Patrick to appoint Fiacc 'Ard-espog,' or High Bishop 'over the Leinster-men.' Some writers state that St. Fiacc was invested with spiritual jurisdiction similar to that exercised by the Metropolitan Bishops of our day. But we must remember that archbishops, dioceses, parishes, or even counties were unknown for centuries after the period of which we write. It was, in fact, at the Synod of Rathbreasil (near Mountrath), in A.D. 1118, that episcopal sees were first mapped out or attempted to be defined. The boundaries of parishes were not arranged for long afterwards and many of them only came into existence after the Protestant Reformation. The right of patronage or appointment of ecclesiastics to what we call parish churches was usually vested in the representatives of a founder's family or in the person of the local chief or magnate, subject to episcopal approval.
St. Fiacc was the first canonically appointed Bishop of the territory of Hy-Kinsellagh. Its rulers were usually styled Kings of Leinster, perhaps from the fact that this petty kingdom was the largest of the tribal divisions of the province, and its chieftains and people the most powerful of the Leinster septs. So, likewise, we may assume, its Bishops were given a title of pre-eminence (ard-espog) in this important territory.
St. Fiacc administered the sacred functions of the office imposed upon him by the National Apostle for a long term of years, and is said to have seen 'three twenties ' of his community at Sletty laid to rest before he died. Some seven miles from his monastery there is an isolated cave, in the mountain-side, called Drum Coblai, which faint tradition points out as being the retreat of a saint. This was the place of solitude and prayer whither the holy abbot was wont to retire during Lent and other penitential seasons of recollection. At Easter time, we are told, he used to return to Sletty in order to celebrate with his monks the glorious festival of the Resurrection of Our Lord. In his old age our Saint suffered from an ailment in his limbs, which sorely impeded his extensive journeys of episcopal administration. Hearing of this, it is related, St. Patrick sent him a chariot and horses from distant Armagh. In his humility Fiacc was unwilling to avail of the thoughtful gift, until he was admonished by a heavenly messenger to do so. Then the aged Bishop reluctantly consented. As the weight of years increased and the infirmities of old age became more trying, Fiacc like St. Paul longed 'to be dissolved and be with Christ.' At length the sighed-for summons came. He entered into the reward of the Just, October 12, about the year 510 his age having then exceeded ninety years. He was laid to rest within the church of Sletty, whose foundations had been traced for him, in times long gone, by his life-long friend and beloved master, St. Patrick. There, beside the murmuring waters of Barrow, the Bardic- Saint and first Bishop of Hy-Kinsellagh awaits the 'Judgment's trumpet call.' His dearest belongings in life were a bell, a reliquary, a crozier, and a book-satchel, given him, at his consecration, by the Apostle of Ireland. These were, as customary in the early times, bequeathed to his successor.
Referring to the literary labours of St. Fiacc, his Life of St. Patrick is pronounced by Professor O'Curry and other competent authorities to be the most important document connected with the history of the Early Irish Church. The author having been a bard by profession very naturally wrote in metre. It consists of thirty-four verses written in the language of the ancient bards of Ireland. 'It bears,' says O'Curry, ' internal evidence of a high degree of perfection in the language at the time it was composed; it is unquestionably in all respects a genuine native production, quite untinctured with Latin or with any other contemporary style of idiom.' The original MS. is preserved in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. The biography, written by one who was so intimately acquainted with the missionary work and the personality of the Apostle of the Irish race, must be regarded as one of the most precious literary treasures belonging to 'Erin's Golden Age.'
J. B. CULLEN.
The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume XVIII, (1921), 506-514.
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Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2015. All rights reserved.