Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Oentú Maelruain - The Unity of Maelruain

July 7 is the feast of of Saint Maelruain, and there is a list of his particular disciples preserved in a poem known as the Oentú Maelruain (The Unity of Maelruain) in the Book of Leinster:

"Maelruain, Maeltuile, glorious in deed,
Maelanfiad of Dairinis,
The three Flands, Maeldithrub zealous,
Dimman, Dalbach, Feidlimid.

Diarmuid, Eochaid, sublime the tale,
And Oengus Ua Oibleim,
The folk of that unity all
(Are) round Maelruain, round Maeltuile."


Father Peter O'Dwyer, who has made a particular study of the Céile-Dé as a reform movement, says that 'an Oentú or union was a close relationship between communities or particular persons'. There are 12 names on the list, in addition to Maelruain's own, and Father O'Dwyer suggests that this is based on the 'grouping of Christ and the 12 apostles.' He goes on to try and put a little meat on the bones of these characters:

'Maeltuile is the second name on the list. The fact that the latter has a dísert situated in County Westmeath is significant. Kenney rightly points out that both dísert and anchorite are part of this reform.

Maelanfaidh, Abbot of Darinis, lived more than a century before Maelruain and is included probably because the latter had special reverence for him.

Flann mac Fairchellaig (+825), Abbot of Lismore, Emly and Cork, is contemporaneous with the reform movement.

Flann mac Duibthuinne is most likely the Flann mac Duibhchonna who appears in the Tallght documents and, in common with his namesake, hails from Daire na bhFlann which probably owes its change of name to them.

The next Flannan may be from Cill Áird, County Clare (+778). Or he may be a Flann connected with Daire na bhFlann if we follow the second version of the Oentú in the Book of Leinster.

We know a good deal about the next member, Maeldíthruib, since he lived in the Tallaght Community for a period under the direction of the master and later returned to Terryglass. He was a young, enthusiastic and eager questioner who had great respect for his 'hero'. He wished to have access to all the sacred writings which had come to Ireland, to serve in the most perfect community. These wishes are a good summary of the central idea of the movement. He died, anchorite and suí (wise man) of Terryglass in 840.

Dimman was an anchorite in Ara (Limerick/Tipperary) who died in 811 (Annals of Ulster, 810).

Dalbach, who died c.800, belonged to Cúl Collainge, near Castlelyons, County Cork.

The next member of the 'unity' is a rather strange character, Feidlimid mac Crimthann, born in 770, who became King of Cashel in 820. His marauding exploits, which include the burning of monasteries, set him apart from the other members and made him a rather unlikely model, though Professor F.J.Byrne classes him as 'a powerful champion of the Céile-Dé'.

Diarmait, the founder of Dísert Diarmata (Castledermot, County Kildare) in 812, was probably very deeply motivated by the reform. The monastic school, with its scriptural crosses, and the possibility that he was the scribe of the Milan glosses, suggest that it was an important centre of scriptural studies and Christian art.

The last name in the 'unity' is Oengus, a very gifted man. A considerable number of his writings still survive. It is quite probable that he received his early training in Cluain Eidnech in County Laois. He came to Tallaght to benefit from Maelruain's direction. He had a dísert near the river Nore in County Kilkenny. The story [in the Martyrology of Oengus) tells us that on his way to Tallaght he stopped at Cúl Beannchair, County Laois, where he got the idea of writing a martyrology. Having arrived at Tallaght, he concealed his identity and was given heavy work in the kiln. Finding one of Maelruain's pupils who could not not learn his lesson, he helped the boy to such an extent that Maelruain found out who he was and chided him for concealing himself. Oengus had great respect for the master as we see in his writings. Some time later he returned to Cluain Eidnech where he died on March 11, possibly 830.

These names point to a Munster origin. With the advent of Maelruain the reform found a firm base in Tallaght and influenced Finglas. He attracted disciples from other parts of Tipperary, Laois, Cork and Westmeath and it spread to Kildare, Clonmacnoise, Iona and Loch Cré, near Roscrea. Louth and Clonfert are also quoted in the documents. The culdees found their longest duration in Clonmacnoise, Terryglass and Armagh.

Peter O'Dwyer, Towards a History of Irish Spirituality (Columba, Dublin, 1995), 45-6.

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