December 12 is the feast day of Saint Finnian of Clonard. Last year I posted a paper on his life from the Irish Ecclesiastical Record which can be read here. Below is another and very different account of Saint Finnian, taken from Archbishop John Healy's work on the monastic schools of Ireland. The writer divides his narrative into two parts, the first dealing with the early life of the saint and his monastic training in Wales. It ends at the point where he is led to Clonard, the second then deals with the school and its subsequent history. For writers of Archbishop Healy's generation Saint Finnian of Clonard was viewed as an Irish-born saint with a distinct identity. Modern scholars, however, wonder if he is actually a Briton whose cult was established in various places and that Finnian of Clonard, Finnian of Moville and Finbarr of Cork may all be the same person. Archbishop Healy provides a traditional account of our saint's life and will introduce us to many other saints along the way. Below is part one, I will post part two tomorrow to complete the story.
St. Finnian of Clonard.
St. Finnian of Clonard is set down first in the Catalogue of the Saints of the Second Order; and his School of Clonard was certainly the most celebrated, if not the earliest, of the great schools of the sixth century. It was the nursery of so many learned and holy men that its founder came to be known as the "Tutor of the Saints of Erin." Twelve of his most distinguished disciples were called the "Twelve Apostles of Erin," because, after St. Patrick, they were recognised as the Fathers and Founders of the Irish Church; and the monasteries and schools which they established became, in their turn, the greatest centres of piety and learning throughout the entire island.
Clonard—in Irish Cluain Eraird, and sometimes Cluain Iraird, that is, Erard's meadow— was very favourably situated for a great national college. Although within the territory of Meath, it was situated on the Boyne close to the Esker Riada, which formed the ancient and famous boundary between the northern and southern half of Ireland. It was thus a kind of neutral territory, open to the North and South alike; and both North and South availed themselves of its advantages.
Its founder, St. Finnian, was by birth a Leinster man. His father, Finloch, was descended from Ailill Telduib, of the Clanna Rory, hence his own patronymic, Ui Telduib. His mother's name, according to all the authorities, was Talech, and she belonged to the family of a Leinster chieftain. He was born at Myshall, in the Barony of Forth, county Carlow. The date of his birth cannot be ascertained; but if we are to accept the statements in his life, it cannot have been later than A.D. 470. When the child was born, his parents sent him to be baptized by the holy Bishop Fortchern, in the church of Roscur—Roscurensem ecclesiam. This Bishop Fortchern was son of Fedlimidh, and grandson of King Laeghaire. He was converted by Loman of Trim, shortly after the year A.D. 432, the date of St. Patrick's arrival, and being a skilful artisan in metal work, he made chalices and patens for the use of the new churches founded by St. Patrick. At the earnest entreaty of St. Loman, he consented to become Bishop of Trim after that saint's death, but he retained, it is said, that onerous office only for three days. After his resignation, he retired into Leinster, where many churches are said to have been founded by him in a district up to that time only partially evangelized. The Church of Killoughternan, parish of Slyguff, in the ancient Ui Drona, still bears his name; it is a corruption of Cill Fortchern. The town of Tullow, in the county Carlow, was anciently called Tullach Fortchern, and it is said that the saint had a school there, in which young Finnian studied tor many years.
When the women were carrying the child to be baptized by Fortchern at Roscur, it chanced that the holy priest Abban met them, and inquired whither they were going. They replied that they were carrying the child to be baptized by Fortchern. Thereupon Abban, moved by a divine inspiration, took the child and baptized him, giving him the name of Finluch, or Finloch, because he was baptized at the place where two streams meeting formed a pool of clean water. But the name Finnian was afterwards given to him as a more appropriate one—retaining the first, but omitting the second part of the compound. A cross afterwards marked the spot where the saint was baptized, and it was called the Cross of Finnian.
When the child grew up he was placed under the care of St. Fortchern, most probably at Tullow, and remained, it is said, under his care until he reached the age of thirty years. We thus see that St. Finnian was brought under British influence from his boyhood, for the mother of Fortchern was of British birth, and it was probably at the suggestion of his holy teacher that Finnian resolved to visit the saints of Wales, and perfect his education in the schools of that country. On his way, however, he stopped to visit a holy elder named Coemhan, who dwelt in the Island of Dairinis, in Wexford Harbour, and there he remained some time in the further pursuit of knowledge. Then taking voyage with some merchants, who were going to Britain, he set sail from Wexford, and arrived at Kilmuine, since called St. David's, in South Wales.
Here he had the good fortune to meet three celebrated saints, who seem to have exercised great influence over the mind of Finnian, and through him over the destinies of the Irish Church—St. David, St. Gildas, and St. Cathmael, or Cadoc, or Docus. As Finnian was trained, at least to some extent, by these holy men, and as they are all more or less intimately connected in many other respects also with the early monastic Church of Ireland, it is well to know something about their history.
Dubricius (a.d. 421-522), Bishop of Landaff, who was a contemporary of St. Patrick, and was consecrated by St. Germanus of Auxerre, perhaps at the time of his second visit to Wales, a.d. 449, or some years later, is exhibited in the doubtful chronicles of this early period as the first Archbishop of South Wales, and the great father of monasticism in Wales. His monastery at Llancarvan was the nursery of those great saints, whose names are still familiar both in Ireland and in Wales. Dubricius himself was, it is said, a grandson of that Brychan, who has given his name to Brecknockshire, and who was by birth an Irish chieftain, though settled in Wales. It is certain that the Irish monks, like Finnian, found a warm welcome in Llancarvan, both during the life of Dubricius, as well as after his death; and in that celebrated college were trained many Irish saints, who afterwards carried its learning and its discipline to their native land.
St. David, Archbishop of Menevia, is the most striking figure amongst the Cambro-British saints, and his memory is still venerated by all true Welshmen of every religious sect. Ricemarch, his successor in the See of St. David's towards the close of the tenth century, has written his life, which was afterwards dressed up in more elegant language by the celebrated Gerald Barry. St. David was born about the middle of the fifth century, and lived, it seems, till the middle of the sixth. His father was Sanctus or Xantus, Prince of Ceretica, and his mother was Nonna, a religious, forcibly carried off by this rude prince, who was captivated by her beauty. The child was born at Old Menevia, near the place where he afterwards founded his cathedral city at the extremity of that bare and bold promontory which overlooks St. George's Channel. St. Ailbe of Emly just then happened to arrive by divine guidance at Menevia, and he baptized the child. The young David was at first a pupil of St. Iltutus, and afterwards of Paulinus, who were both, it seems, disciples of St. Germanus of Auxerre.
In course of time David founded a great college of his own at a place called by Gerald Barry, ‘Vallis Rosina,' which may mean either the 'Marshy Valley,' or the 'Valley of Roses,' for rhos is a swamp, and rhosyn means a rose. It was, we are told, to this seminary that Finnian came on his first arrival in Wales. St. David afterwards became so celebrated that he succeeded Dubricius as Archbishop of Caerleon-upon-Usk; but with the permission of King Arthur, who was his near relative, he changed the seat of his Episcopal Chair from the City of the Legions to Menevia, which was at once his birthplace and monastic home, during what he doubtless regarded as the happiest and holiest years of his life.
It is said that Finnian also met Cathmael, as well as David and Gildas, at the city of Killmuine in Britain. Killmuine of the Irish Lives is the exact equivalent of the Latin Ecclesia Menevensis, called in Welsh Mynyw or Miniu. The old monastic buildings still surround the cathedral, but are now much dilapidated. Gerald Barry, himself a Welshman, describes in his odd incisive way, " this remote angle overlooking the Irish Sea, as a stony, barren, and unfruitful soil, neither clothed with woods, nor diversified by streams, nor adorned with meadows, but exposed to perpetual storms and whirlwinds—the storms of nature and the storms of war."
Cathmael is commonly identified with Cadoc or Docus, one of the most celebrated fathers of the Welsh Church. It is said there were two saints who bore that name; if so, Finnian's tutor must have been Cadoc the Elder. His mother was Gladys, the daughter or grand-daughter of the Irish chieftain, Brychan, who gave his name to Brecknock—so Cadoc "who has made a deep impression on the Celtic race," was not only of Irish blood, but was baptized, and trained up from his youth for many years, by an Irish anchorite named Meuthi, whose cell was in the neighbourhood of his father's castle. Afterwards he went to Givent in Monmouthshire, where he studied under another Irish master, St. Tathai. There he made great progress in learning and holiness—especially in the knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures, so that he was called Cadoc or Cattwy, the Wise. He was under Dubricius the founder and chief professor of the celebrated College of Llancarvan, near Cowbridge in Glamorgan. This became the most famous centre both of secular and sacred learning in Wales. A great number of young Irishmen crowded its lecture rooms, who afterwards became very famous in their own country, so that if Cadoc received much from Irishmen himself, he gave them even more in return. There can be no doubt that, as we shall see further on, be visited Ireland afterwards, and spent some time with those who were once his own pupils in Wales.
The influence exercised over the Celtic Church in Ireland by David, Gildas, and Cadoc may be estimated from the fact already referred to, that they are said to have given a Mass to the Second Order of the Irish Saints. This would seem to imply that these saints, most of whom spent some time in Wales, adopted the liturgy of the Welsh Church, which may have in some respects differed from the older liturgy established by St. Patrick. Finnian was the great means of diffusing the learning and practices of Llancarvan in Ireland. He taught at Clonard, what he had himself learned or seen at St. David's and at Llancarvan ; and thus became the means of diffusing the monasticism of the Welsh Church through most of Erin, especially in its southern parts.
The Life of Finnian given in the Salamanca MS. Records many miracles which he performed in Wales. By his prayers and his great faith in God he dried a lake to get a site for a monastery; he caused mountains to overwhelm the invading Saxons; he drove away the serpents, wasps, and birds that afflicted the religious men in the island called Echin, whom he visited in order to derive consolation from their life and doctrine. It is evident, however, from the narrative that he spent most of the thirty years of his sojourn in Britain under the spiritual guidance of Cathmael, and most probably in his great school at Llancarvan. The years being expressed in the manuscript Lives of the Saints by Roman numerals, are always liable to error—the addition of an X will make thirty out of twenty, and a double XX added by the fault of the copyist would make thirty out of ten. It is, however, stated expressly that Finnian having completed the XXXth year of his pilgrimage returned to his native country with Biteus and Genocus and some other religious men of the Britains, who followed the saint on account of the great holiness of his life and conservation. By God's help they landed at Magh Itha in the south of Wexford, at a port called Dubglais, whence they proceeded to visit his ancient preceptor, the holy Coemhan, who still dwelt in Dairinis. There was a Dairinis or Oak island in the Blackwater, which was known as Dairinis Molana; but the island here referred to is "Dairinis of Coemhan," as it is called in the Four Masters, A.D. 820. It was in Wexford Harbour; and, as we have already seen, Finnian when going to Wales spent some time with Coemhan in that island, so it is only natural that he should return to the scenes of his early years. From Dairinis Finnian went to visit Muiredach Melbrugh, King of Hy Kinselagh at that time, and sought permission to build a church in his territory. The king received Finnian with all honour and reverence, and sent him effective aid in building a church at a place called Achadh Abhail, now Aghold, a parish church in the barony of Shillelagh, county of Wicklow.
Leaving some of his monks to continue his work at Aghold, he went himself into the neighbouring district of Hy Bairrche, and spent seven years teaching and preaching at a place called Maonaigh in the saint's life. It takes its name from the Hy Maonaigh, an influential tribe who possessed that territory, some of whom having migrated to the North settled near the river Erne and gave their name to the Co. Monaghan. They are now known as Mooneys.
As we are told that Finnian, during his residence in this neighbourhood, sometimes preached before St. Brigid and her nuns, his sojourn there must be fixed before the death of that saint, A.D. 523 or 525. In his great love for holy poverty the saint refused to accept even from St. Brigid a gold ring, which she presented to him as a token of her esteem. Going still further north he founded another church at a place called Esker Brenain, which in the Irish fashion he fenced in with a circular mound and trench, dug with his own hands. One day he found beside his church a poor boy who had been carried off as a captive by some robbers, and was abandoned by them near the church. Finnian took charge of the poor child, and finding him a youth of good parts, diligently instructed him both in virtue and learning, gave him the tonsure, and made him it seems, his assistant, either there or at Clonard. After the departure of Finnian he became his master's successor in Esker Brenain.
Then an angel appeared to Finnian and told him that he was to seek elsewhere the place of his resurrection. Finnian promptly obeyed, and rising up, under the guidance of the angel, he came to the place called Cluain Eraird.
Insula Sanctorum et Doctorum or Ireland's Ancient Schools and Scholars by the Most Rev. John Healy (6th edition, Dublin, 1912), 193-199.
Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2015. All rights reserved.
- Irish Saints of January
- Irish Saints of February
- Irish Saints of March
- Irish Saints of April
- Irish Saints of May
- Irish Saints of June
- Irish Saints of July
- Irish Saints of August
- Irish Saints of September
- Irish Saints of October
- Irish Saints of November
- Irish Saints of December
- Mass of All Saints of Ireland (1962 Missal)
- Litany of All Saints of Ireland (1921)
- Lent with the Irish Saints
- Notes on Homonymous Saints
- Notes on the Life of Saint Brendan