February 6 is the commemoration of a member of a very special class of Irish saint, for Maelfinnian of Inis Pátraic in County Dublin was a royal saint, a king of Brega who had achived renown on the battle field. I have recently been reading a re-examination of this saintly king by a modern scholar, but below is Canon O'Hanlon's account. The name, Moel or Mael Finnian, translates as 'devotee of Finnian' and although Canon O'Hanlon is unhappy at the description of the king as an 'abbot' in the Martyrology of Gorman, modern scholarship is more accepting of this. I hope to post a summary of more recent research into this saint on his feastday next year.
St. Finian, or Mael-Finnia, of St. Patrick's Island, near Skerries, County of Dublin.
St. Finian is more generally called by our hagiologists, Moel-Finian, or Maelfinnia. He is said to have been son to Flannagan. He was of royal birth, and his ancestors are distinguished in our Irish Annals. They ruled over the country of the Bregii, and their territory was called Breagh. It extended, it is said, between Dublin city and the town of Drogheda, thus constituting it, in an especial manner, the northern part of Dublin county. It had, however, a much greater extent. In the very early ages of our history, it seems to have constituted a distinct principality. Flannagan, the son of Ceallach, and the father of Maelfinnia, was Prince of the Bregii, and distinguished as one of our old bards, while he was slain at a place called Olbha by the Norsemen, a.d. 891. It would appear, that his son Cinaedh immediately succeeded him, as Tanist of all Breagh; but, he died that very year, at Dun-Brie. We may fairly suppose, that his brother, and the present pious Prince of Breagh, came next, and immediately, in the order of succession, to the territorial chieftainry, perhaps, before the close of the year already mentioned. Mael-Finnia's virtues are greatly celebrated in our bardic literature, and what gives greater value to his eulogy, it had been proclaimed after his death. Our Annals also recount his warlike and courageous deeds. He appears to have drawn the sword only in generous and noble self-defence, to protect his people and his country from unjust aggression. Thus, when in 892, the Ulidians, under the leadership of Aiddeidh, son of Laighne, made an inroad on Breagh, Maelfinnia met them courageously at Rath-cro,where he fought and gained the victory. Here were slain Muireadhach, son of Maeleitigh, lord of Dal-Araidhe, and Ainniarraidh, son of Maelmoicheirghe, son of Innreachtach, lord of Leath-Chathail, together with three hundred men. Aiddeadh himself escaped, but he was severely wounded.
During the ninth century, the Danes and Norwegians were a constant source of persecution and annoyance to the Irish, so much divided among themselves. That settlement, which they effected at Dublin, and which seems to have had the protection of fortified walls for defence, retained the advantage, likewise, of a ready communication by sea, for the Norsemen ships and mariners. This was the chief hornet's nest, whence armed bands issued, to waste the inland territories and religious establishments of the Irish. Accordingly, towards the close of this century, it would seem, that a confederacy had been entered into by Cearbhall, son of Muirigin, King of Leinster and by Maelfinnia, lord of Breagh. The forces of both were united, A.D. 897, and the fortress of Ath-cliath or Dublin was besieged. This was surrendered by the foreigners, after they had sustained a great loss, both in killed and wounded. So many as could escaped across the sea. Yet were they obliged to leave great numbers of their ships behind them. They seem to have fled, in the first instance, to Inis-mac-Nessan, now Ireland's Eye, a little to the north of Howth. Here, again, they were besieged, and probably they were obliged to surrender at discretion.
In consequence of these eventful proceedings, the lord of Breagh, Maelfinnia, who is called a religious, devout layman, gained great temporal renown. There appears to be no just warrant for the statement of Marianus O'Gorman, that he was abbot over Inis-Paturic, so far as we can judge. This spot lies off the present maritime town of Skerries, in the county of Dublin. There, for some centuries, a religious establishment existed; and, before the English invasion, it is said Sitric, the son of Murchard, re-founded an abbey for Augustinian Canons. It was dedicated to St. Patrick, and it seems to have been thenceforward known, as the monastery of Holmpatrick. Yet, its situation in the island having been found very inconvenient, Pope Innocent III. confirmed its advowson to the see of Dublin in 1216, and about the year 1220, the parochial church of Holmpatrick was erected on the mainland, by Henry de Loundres, Archbishop of Dublin. Considerable remains of the ancient Holmpatrick Priory yet exist, and these indicate, that they belong probably to the thirteenth century. In the still earlier monastery of the ninth, it may be, that finding his end approaching, the religious prince Maelfinnia, resolving to abdicate his earthly dignity and advantages, retired to the lonely island of St. Patrick, where he assumed the habit of a monk. Although it is mentioned, in the Martyrology of Donegal, that Maelfinden, Abbot of Inis-Patraic, was venerated on this day, the chief authority, for the statement of this holy man becoming superior over the community there, was Marianus O'Gorman. He, probably, had only conjecture to guide him to such a conclusion, or, at best, some unreliable tradition. Other writers, such as Charles Maguire and the Four Masters, without much reflection, followed his opinion. Colgan, likewise, adopts it. Richard Whytford, who treats about St. Finianus, at the 6th of February, styles him a man great in his family descent, yet still more illustrious for his sanctity. The Carthusian Martyrology, also, records him at this date. It appears more correct, however, to call him Maelfinnia, than simply Finian.
According to our Annals, he happily departed this life, a.d. 898; most probably at Inis-Patric and on a 6th of February, which is the day set apart for his feast. Although, many of our Martyrologists treat concerning this saint, as a man of esteemed sanctity; yet, no further important particulars can be gleaned regarding him, than those which have been already given. From accounts, in the Annals of the Four Masters, and in those of Ulster, we feel disinclined to believe, that Finian became an abbot, at the time of his death. His eulogy has been preserved lor us—at least in part—as some Irish verses were composed to commemorate his fame and his worth. These have been introduced by the Four Masters, when noting down the date for his decease. The following English version is given by Dr. O'Donovan :
"The son of Dearbhail, battling over Breaghmhach, disperses each meeting without delay,
The generous Maelfinnia, the great, the fierce, most illustrious, most valiant hero,
Fit was he to be a king of cloudless reign, high chief over Eamhain of fairs;
A man, I assert it without fear, who was alone worthy of having all Ireland.
Maelfinnia, a man without haughtiness, lord of Breagh, a torch over the fortresses!
He of royal countenance, most highly gifted, a famed just man, a prudent battle-prop.
The heroic king of heavy blows, even to the sea-shore he won the wage;
Alas, that the generous Maelfinnia is nota son over the battle of Niall."
The Annals of Ulster have a record of this Maelfinnid mac Flannagan's death, at the year 902; and, by the compiler, he is called a religious laic. We are informed, by Dr. O'Donovan, that the latter date corresponds with A.D. 898 of the Four Masters. The example of this heroic man proves to us, that courage, patriotism, and concern for the public welfare are the duties of a Christian hero; while, most fittingly are they combined in the character of a leader among men, and in one who feels a higher responsibility, when looking to the swift approaches of death.
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