Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Saint Berchán of Clúain Sosta, August 4


The Martyrology of Tallaght at 4th August records the commemoration of Berchán of Clúain Sosta (Cloonsast, County Offally). Canon O'Hanlon has a very sparse entry for this saint, perhaps he intended to write a fuller entry on the saint's other reputed feast day of 4th December. For there is a fascinating story behind Saint Berchán who is credited with being not only an important poet but also one of the four chief prophets of Ireland. Benjamin T. Hudson has examined the life and work of this saint in his book Prophecy of Berchán - Irish and Scottish High-kings of the Early Middle Ages. The Prophecy is a two-part historical poem, part one dealing with the history of Berchán's own monastery and the Viking attacks upon it, plus details of the reigns of a number of Irish high-kings. Part two deals with Scottish kings and includes a description of Macbeth. Hudson gives a useful summary of the possible candidates for the identity of the poet:
A saint named Berchán is not celebrated before the 10th century. No Berchán is found in the uninterpolated text of the 9th-century ecclesiastical calendar Féilire Oengusso. By the 12th century when notes were added to the text, two Bercháns are common. Berchán of Eigg (10 April) and Berchán of Clúain Sosta (4 December)... In the Martyrology of Tallaght there are four individuals named Berchán: Berchán of Eigg (10 April), Berchán of Clúain Caon (24 May), Berchán (5 June) and Berchán of Clúain Sosta (4 August)....
Hudson then goes on to identify Berchán of Clúain Sosta as the best fit for the reputed authorship of the poem and offers some further information on his genealogy:
Among these holy men, Berchán of Clúain Sosta was the best known in the Middle Ages. His name is not found in the original text of the Féilire Oengusso, but it is in the notes in Rawlinson B.505 where he is described as fer dá leithe ("man of two halves") who lived half his life in Scotland and half in Ireland. He is identified as a native of Britain who is settled at Clúain Sosta in the territory of the Kingdom of Uí Failge (now Cloonsast, Co. Offally). Among the bishops listed in the Book of Leinster is included Berchán i Clúain Sasta. The list of bishops of Ireland compiled by the celebrated 17th-century antiquarian Dubhaltach mac Firbisigh on 17 March 1666 includes a 'Berchán, bishop and prophet from Clúain Sosta, and his feast day is 4 December'... The full name of the bishop from Clúain Sosta was Berchán mac Muiredaich who is identified as Berchán of Clúain Sosta in the Book of Leinster's version of his mother's genealogy. Her name was Fiaman ingen Diarmata, from the northern branch of the powerful Uí Neill dynasty. Berchán mac Muiredaich's paternal genealogy is also preserved in the Book of Leinster, where he is described as prophet, bishop and poet.
Saint Berchán's reputation as a prophet is referred to by Gerald of Wales in his book, The Topography of Ireland. He lists the saint as one of the four prophets of Ireland, the other three being Saints Patrick, Colum Cille and Moling. Gerald is especially interested in Berchán as he is credited with a prophecy that the English would prevail in Ireland until they were subdued by a king from Uí Fáeláin. In a later Irish manuscript of Gerald's other work, The Conquest of Ireland, this prophecy has become a prediction of the conquering Anglo-Norman Richard de Clare, or Strongbow, whom we last encountered on the blog being given a deathbed lesson in the proper respect for the Irish saints by Saint Brigid herself (see here.)

Saint Berchán is also mentioned in a number of other medieval sources including the Book of Howth and the Book of Fenagh. His prophecies were also supposedly collected and published in 1317 by Walter de Islip, the royal custos of Kilkenny. The prophecies continued to be of interest to the Irish in their later struggles against the English, they are credited, for example with contributing to the Irish victory over the English forces at the Battle of Yellow Ford in 1598.

Finally, Saint Berchán is also associated with a book, produced at his monastery of Clúain Sosta. There is a note in the Leabhar Breac that its version of a history of Alexander the Great came from the Book of Berchán and that its copy had been made in the monastery of Clúain Sosta. Hudson records that the book was still extant in the 16th century, when the Earl of Kildare listed a 'Saint Beraghan's boke' in his library catalogue. It has since disappeared and its fate remains unknown.

In the 19th century, the scholar John O'Donovan recorded in his Ordnance Survey Letters that the local people of Clonsast kept the memory of their patron saint alive. He wrote 'the Patron is vividly remembered to be St. Brachan (Brochan?) (perhaps a contradiction for Berachan) whose memory was annually celebrated with great devotion at his well called Tobar-Brachain on the third of December'. O'Donovan's letter of 1837, which includes an interesting account of the suppression of the traditional pattern days at Clonsast can be read in full here.

It would thus seem that the December date may have the better claim to be the feastday for Saint Berchán. Whatever the case, I find him to be a fascinating and compelling figure, this 'man of two halves' and will explore some of the works associated with him in future posts.

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