|Grave of Saint Monnine at Killeevy, June 2013|
Yesterday we celebrated the feast of one of the many Irish holy women about whose life no details survive, but with the feast of Saint Moninne on July 6, we are commemorating one of the handful of Irish female saints who has a surviving Vita. There are two versions of the Life of Saint Moninne, one in the Codex Salamanticensis and another by an 11th/12th-century monk Conchubranus. The former seems to be based on a now-lost early Life, whereas the latter has conflated the life of this County Armagh saint with those of a number of other holy women in England and Scotland. The paper below on Saint Moninne and her monastery reflects some of this confusion, with the author referring to her founding of seven churches in Scotland. The Codex Salamanticensis Life, on the other hand, places Saint Moninne firmly within Ireland and depicts her as one of the earliest Irish saints, baptised by Saint Patrick himself and learning monasticism from others including Saint Ibar and Saint Brigid of Kildare. I have just finished reading a new translation of it by Ingrid Sperber, there is also a translation available in Liam de Paor's anthology, Saint Patrick's World. The paper below is an examination of the history of Saint Moninne's monastery at Killeevy by a 19th-century clergyman antiquary. He is much concerned with the building of stone churches and one can see the influence of the idea of the early Irish church as representative of a pure, primitive faith, a favourite theme among Anglican writers, in what he writes. As with all papers of this type its value lies in the bringing together of traditions about the saint, some of which centre around her relationship to Saint Patrick. Whilst Saint Patrick in his own writings mentions only his father and grandfather, later hagiographers constructed an entire family tree for the national apostle, including a sister called Darerca, who gives her own name in baptism to the infant who later becomes more popularly known by the affectionate name of Moninne. The paper also includes a useful sketch of the later history of the monastery which suffered from Viking raids and natural disasters only to ultimately fall victim to the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th-century.
FOUNDED BY ST. DARERCA, ALIAS MONINNE, ABOUT A.D. 518.
BY THE REV. GEORGE H. READE, M. A.
Ireland cannot boast of the splendid architectural remains of mediaeval antiquity which are so plentifully scattered throughout England; and whoever expects to find in the ruins of her very ancient churches objects of wonder, because of their magnificence, will be much disappointed. But although she cannot boast of lofty pillar and soaring arch — "the long drawn aisle and fretted vault," yet she appeals to our deepest feelings and imaginations much more strongly by the very simple remains of ecclesiastical antiquity with which she abounds.
As no other country, except Palestine, possesses such minute and authentic records of men and days long gone by, so in no other country are there so many and so interesting remains of Primitive Christianity, interesting, as exhibiting to our eyes the very first efforts of the humble and zealous Christians to establish their pure faith in this island, in which the first houses built with stone and lime were dedicated to the honour of God and the religion of our Blessed Saviour. Most of these churches, which are generally in out of the way and inaccessible places, would be easily passed over by the careless or inattentive observer; there is not much in them to attract attention, and the great tide of life which once thronged around them, has long since retreated and swells the crowded city, the manufacturing town, or the busy seaport. It is only occasionally, where the lofty pillar tower commands admiration from afar, that the foot of the inquirer is turned towards those venerable structures which formerly reposed beneath their shadow. But even the pillar tower of Cill-sleibhe has long since passed away. It is true that Ireland contains very many noble and interesting ecclesiastical buildings of the 12th and 13th centuries, arising, like Dunbrody and Tintern, from the vows of the Anglo-Norman conquerors, beside the many other beautiful structures, the offspring of their devotion when settled in the land; but none of them appeal to the true antiquary's feeling with half the power of the rude Cyclopean masonry of St. Brigid, St. Columb, or St Moninne, bearing the unmistakeable marks of the earliest architecture of the sixth century. Sir Walter Scott is reported to have stood in silent admiration before the doorway of the church of the Blessed Virgin in Glendalough. Such feelings, however, are not common, and where there is so much more to be felt than to be seen or described, few antiquaries are stoical enough to endure, or draw upon themselves the smile, the scoff, or the taunt, which generally accompanies the exhibition of such rude architecture — such poor remains.
It is not, therefore, to be wondered at that these ecclesiastical structures remained so long unnoticed, when even Sir James Ware, that most careful and judicious antiquary, asserts that the Irish knew nothing of stone and lime building until the twelfth century! He says that "Malachy O'Morgair, Archbishop of Armagh, who died in A.D. 1148, was the first Irishman, or at least one of the first, who began to build with stone and mortar” and he tells us "how astonished the natives were at the novelty of such buildings, because such were never before seen in that country.” Thus overlooking the account which Giraldus Cambrensis gives of the round towers, which at least were conspicuous enough, even if the little stone churches beside them were too insignificant to be noticed.
The interest which is felt to attach itself to these structures is, that they are the true representatives of the original architecture of the Irish church, which the more pretentious Anglo-Norman edifices are not — that church, first founded by St. Declan, St. Ibar, St. Ailbe, and St Kieran, and followed up by St. Patrick, St. Brigid, St. Columb, and St. Moninne.
These churches, when once seen, impress themselves upon the memory by their simple and peculiar architecture. They are of very small dimensions; some of the earliest being only 15 feet long; the usual prescribed length for the largest being 60 feet. The doorway was invariably in the west end; the windows few, and very small. Generally the doorways were composed of three or four large stones, extending through the whole thickness of the wall, and covered at top by an enormous thorough block, the jambs inclining inwards, not unlike the Egyptian architecture. Such were the erections of Patrick and his three stone-masons: —
"His three masons, good, strong, was their intelligence;
Caeman, Cruithnec, Luchraid strong;
they made stone churches first
in Erin. — Eminent their history."
St. Moninne, otherwise called Darerca, died in the year 517, as the "Annals of the Four Masters" state under that year: —
"The age of Christ 517, the fourteenth year of Muircheartach, Saint Darerca, of Cill-Sleibhe-Cuilinn, whose first name was Moninne, died on the 6th of July; nine score years was the length of her life, of whom was said: —
"Nine scare years together,
According to rule, without error,
Without folly, without evil, without danger,
Was the age of Moninne."
She spent her long life in the service of God, teaching the Word, and founding churches and monasteries, not alone in Ireland, but also in Scotland, in which kingdom she built seven churches, one called Cilnacase, in Galloway; another on the summit of the mountain of Dunbreton; another on the mountain of Dundevenal, in Laudonia; the fourth at the Castle of Strivelin; the fifth at Dun-Edin, now Edinburgh; the sixth on the mountain of Dunpelder; and the seventh at Lanfortin, near Dundee; thus showing the same attachment to building upon mountains in Scotland which led her to choose Sliabh Cuillinn for her convent in Ireland. She is said to have been brought up by St. Brigid, abbess of Kildare; she received her second name from Darerca, sister of St. Patrick, with whom she has been confounded by Ussher (Primordia, p. 705), and by Michael O'Cleary in his Irish Calendar; but, as Colgan shows, the days of their several festivals prove the difference — that of Darerca Moninne being on the 6th of July, and of Darerca, the sister (or supposed sister) of Patrick, being on the 22nd of March. It was probably from St. Brigid that she acquired her love for building churches. Darerca, the sister of St. Patrick, was married to a Lombard, named Restitutus, who was author of a hymn in praise of his brother-in-law, Patrick. Their son was Seachnal, Bishop of Domhnach-Seachnail, now Dunshaughlin, in Meath, where he died A. D. 448. This Darerca had also another name, Liamhain, or Liemania. Another of her sons — for she had seven by the Lombard — was named Lugnat, or Lugnaedon. He was pilot to St. Patrick, and probably was much engaged in his occupation upon the waters of Lough Corrib, as some think his tombstone was discovered near "Patrick's Church," on the Island of Inchaguill, nearly midway between Oughterard and Cong. This church, which may also claim connexion with Darerca Liemania, shows by its doorway that it is of very ancient date.
St. Moninne's long life was one of hard work, passed in busy and stirring times, taking part and interest in the great and wondrous events which followed the preaching of her friend's brother, besides her own zealous endeavours to spread the faith of Christ in every quarter, and her labours in founding and governing so many churches and convents. How she must have rejoiced in the conversion of the King of Connaught, and his 12,000 men, by Patrick's preaching! She was also probably at the foundation of Ard-macha, i.e. the height of Macha. She had seen the great battle of Athdara, the captivity of King Laeghaire; heard also of his Pagan oath and perjury, and his sudden death — "killed by the sun and wind." She was also very probably at the great feast of Tara, celebrated in the year 463 by King Oilioll, whose funeral mound may possibly be that which stands beside the round tower of Inniskeen. She saw the death of her old and intimate friend, Patrick's Psalmist, St. Benan, at Armagh, of which he was second bishop, as well as that of his successor, St. larlath, fourteen years after. In 493 she witnessed the death of her good friend, St. Patrick, in the 122nd year of his age. Her friends were now falling fast around her. Shortly before her own departure, "Patrick's sweet-spoken judge, Bishop Erc, of Slane, died. At length, upon the 6th day of July, A. D. 517, the good St. Darerca, of Sliabh-Cuillinn breathed her last in peace — a few years before her friend and fellow-virgin, St. Brigid, abbess of Kildare; and until lately her " patron" was held at Killeavy upon that day.
After her death, no notice is taken of her church or monastery in the Annals until the year 654, when the death of Coincenn of Cill-sleibhe is noted, and many years of peace seem to have passed over it, as over the whole of Ireland, until the incursions of the Danes, or, as they are called in the "Annals of Ulster," the Gentiles, or Pagan Danes; in 790, these plunderers landed on the island of Lambay, and burned its church and " broke and plundered its shrines; "this was their first footing on the Irish coast, and henceforward, for several centuries, no place was safe from their violence ; the monasteries were plundered, the monks murdered, the manuscript books burned and destroyed. They formed a station at Narrow-water, whence they sent out marauding parties, and passing over the intervening mountain ridge, the very first place which attracted them was the monastery of Cill-sleibhe. In the year 85l, they overran and spoiled Armagh upon Easter-day. The "Annals of the Four Masters" relate that in A. D. 850, "A fleet of eight score ships of Finghoill (white foreigners) arrived at Snamh Eidheaneach (Carlingford Lough), to give battle to the Dubghoill (black foreigners), and they fought with each other for three days and three nights, and the Dubhgoill gained the victory, and the Finnghoill left their ships to them." The "Annals of Ulster" notice it under the above date, 851, thus: — " The spoile of Ardmagh by the foreigners in Easter-day — the navy of 28 ships of white Gentiles, came to give battle to Black gentiles, to Carlingford loch: 3 days and 3 nights were passed by them in fighting, but the Blacke broake at last, and ran away." Small as the round tower of Cill-sleibhe was, it may have served as a refuge from the barbarous plunderers in those troublous times, its comparative proximity to Narrow-water marking it out for their hostility; but the poor recluses were not always quick enough in reaching its sheltering walls; for in the year 921, a priest named Dubhliter, who appears to have come to Cill-sleibhe, on a visit, from Armagh, was seized upon by the foreigners of Carlingford Lough and martyred. Shortly after they suffered for their sacrilege and murder, being utterly routed and driven from Carlingford by Murray Mc Neil, and then, as the Annals express it, "the foreigners deserted Ireland". The quiet of the inhabitants of Cill-sleibhe was disturbed by a savage duel in 1029, between the Lord of Fermanagh and the Lord of Louth, Donagh O'Donnegan, and Kenny Mc Angirce; they both fell by each other's hands under its walls. An instance of a married woman being an abbess occurred at Cill-sleibhe, A. D. 1077, when the " Four Masters" relate, that "Ailbhe, wife of the Lord of the Airtheara (Oriors), and the successor of Moninne, died." A year of very great scarcity of victuals, and of persecution of religious houses followed, in which Colca O'Hieran, who was called " Head of the poor of Armagh,"- died, and in which also the evil passions of men added much misery, burning, and slaughtering, and carrying away cattle, and the murder of many chiefs.
There occurred in 1146, a great storm of wind which caused much destruction in Ireland, the establishment at Cill-sleibhe not escaping; the account is thus given : — "The age of Christ 1146, a great wind storm occurred on the third day of December, which caused a great destruction of woods throughout Ireland; it prostrated sixty trees at Doire Choluim-chille, tearing them out by the roots, and killed and smothered many persons in the church; it also killed other people at Cill-sleibhe." The next mention of Cill-sleibhe in the Annals records the death there of "a pious good Senior at an advanced age, called Cailleach of Cill- Sleibhe, in which year the chief Senior of all Ireland also died."
In the year 1163, the monastery was subjected to the demands of Niall, son of Murray O'Lochlin, for the support of what is called a Royal Heir's feasting, in which the king appears to have overrun a great part of the kingdom, demanding meat and drink, and all kinds of property, for the support and advantage of his followers: his first visit was to Cill-sleibhe, where the successor of St. Moninne seems to have complied with his demands, as he passed on without any record of injury done to the establishment ; his course afterwards was marked with rapine and violence. The Annals state: " He proceeded afterwards into Airghialla, Tir-Bruin, and Meath, and he committed various acts of violence in territories and churches, and particularly at Ceanannus, Ard-Breccain, Fobhar-Fechin, Eacharadh-Lobrain, and Cluain-mic-nois; they then went into Connaught across Ath Luain (Athlone), and feasted upon the Ui-Maine," where, however, they met their just deserts, being, with the exception of some fugitives and deserters, all killed.
After the Anglo-Norman conquest Cill-sleibhe appears to have been connected with the Knights of St. John, at which time most probably the large addition was made at the eastern end of St. Moninne's church, the builders of which endeavoured very successfully to keep up the same style and appearance in the external face of the northern doorway, so that at the first glance it might be easily mistaken as belonging to a much earlier date; a moment's comparison, however, of the inside with that of the ancient western door will exhibit the marked difference between the simple architecture of St. Moninne's and the more ornate of the Anglo-Normans. The lancet window also, and the gable barge-stone at the east end, show at once the comparatively modern architecture of this addition. The outside of this northern door is represented on the plate facing this page. Of the round tower I could find no trace: a large quantity of stones on the southern side are said to be its remains. Perhaps the low closed doorway covered with a lintel five feet long, here represented, may have been to give easy access to it. The tower is reported to have fallen about 100 years ago, and it is also said that there exists a song made upon its fall. In the accompanying cut is shown the inside of the original east window of St. Moninne's church. What is called a cave passes from the churchyard under the road: it probably was a place of refuge connected with the ecclesiastical establishment so long resident here.
The unsparing tyrant and monster, Henry VIII., fixed his cruel grasp upon St. Moninne's inheritance in the 34th year of his reign, and upon the 10th of March in that year expelled the last abbess — Alicia Nigen Mc Donchy O'Hanlon (the O'Hanlons were hereditary standard-bearers to the Kings of Ulster, and the present representative, who lives in Dundalk, can show his genealogy almost to the days of St. Moninne). An inquisition of the 3rd of James I finds that at that time the abbess had been, in right of the abbey, seised of townlands and tythes in the county of Armagh, of the annual value, besides reprises, of forty shillings Irish money. And thus Cill-sleibhe-Cuillinn passes from the page of history.
The exact date of the foundation of St. Moninne's Abbey is stated by Louis Lucas to be A.D. 518: "Kilslieve, ou Kilslebe, estoit une ancienne abbaye, fondee l'an 518, par Darerca surnommee Moninne, qui en fut Abbesse" ("Histoire Monastique D'Ireland," Paris, 1690). The original church, founded by Darerca, appears to have been of wood, of which this was the successor, so that the date about 450, which is supposed to be that of her first erection here, leaves time sufficient for the decay of the wooden structure. The "Life of St. Moninne," compiled by Conchubran in the 12th century, states that it was originally made of smoothed timber, according to the fashion of the Scotic nations, who were not accustomed to erect stone walls or get them erected.
The brief notice by the "Four Masters" of Cill-sleibhe, under the year 654, leaves it in doubt who Coincenn was, merely stating, "The age of Christ, 654, Coincenn of Cill-Sleibhe died," but the "Histoire Monastique" above quoted states: "Saint Conchenne fut aussi Abbesse de Kilsleibe dans le septieme siecle;" and also that she was "Chanoinness reg. de saint Aug."
According to Ussher, the abbey at Fochard was founded by St. Moninne in honour of the birthplace of her friend St. Brigid; some have attributed this foundation to the sister of St. Patrick, which mistake arises from the similarity of names; but as Fochard was founded A. D. 630, and Moninne died A. D. 517, this cannot be; neither could St. Brigid herself have founded it, as some say, for she died A. D. 525, unless reference is made to some wooden church, the predecessor of that of lime and stone; but no mention is made of such a structure. It is said there were 150 "chanoinesses," in Fochard, so that Cill-sleibhe and its " canonesses" there were not without friends and religious society, for comfort and counsel in those troubled times. Lucas, the author of the "Histoire Monastique," also tells us that "Darerca Moninna de Kilslebe estoit de la families des Roderics d'Ultonie."
Journal of the Historical and Archaeological Society of Ireland Volume 1, 3rd series (1868-9), 93-102
Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2015. All rights reserved.
Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2015. All rights reserved.