Friday 12 December 2014

Saint Finnian of Clonard, December 12

December 12 sees the commemoration of one of our most important Irish fathers of monasticism - Finnian of Clonard, 'tutor of the saints of Ireland'. Below is a paper on the life of Saint Finnian from the Irish Ecclesiastical Record which records what is traditionally known of him. Modern scholars are engaged in a debate as to whether Finnian of Clonard, Uinnau the Briton, Finnian of Moville, Finbarr of Cork and Ninnian of Candida Casa are all one and the same person. In the nineteenth century, however, when this paper was written, all of these saints were viewed as distinct individuals, and the writer brings together some of the stories told of Saint Finnian as founder of Clonard and of the many saints who flourished under his tutelage.


SAINT FINNIAN of Clonard, " Tutor of the Saints of Ireland," lived in the sixth century. He was a native of Leinster ; his birthplace is generally supposed to have been near the present town of New Ross. Saint Finnian was of the race of Ir, and belonged to the Clan na Rudhraidhe. His name appears to be a diminutive of Finn, "white." He was a contemporary of Finnian of Moville, whose name comes next in the list of saints of the second class.

Saint Abban baptized Finnian, and at an early age he was placed under the care of Bishop Fortchern of Trim. With him he remained thirty years. At the end of that period Finnian proceeded to Britain, and settled at Kilmuine or Menevia, where he placed himself under David, Gildas, and Cadoc. David was grandson of an Irish prince, Bracan. He taught St. Aidan of Ferns, was first Bishop of Menevia, and died A.D. 589. Gildas was the author of De Excidio Britannia, according to the Annals of Ulster. He died A.D 570. Cadoc is represented as cousin to St. David, and was a pupil of St. Thaddeus, an Irishman. Saint Finnian is said to have founded three churches in Britain, but they have not been identified. While a monk at the monastery of St. David, Finnian on one occasion was asked to supply the place of oeconomus, or house steward, in the absence of the monk who generally filled that office. Finnian replied that he would be unable to do so, as he was unprovided with the necessary requirements for carrying wood and provisions. His superior having insisted on his undertaking the task, Finnian obeyed, and we read in his life that an angel came to his assistance. What before had seemed an impossibility he was able to accomplish by the aid of this heavenly messenger.

How long Finnian remained at St. David's monastery is uncertain. Lanigan thinks he returned to Ireland about A.D. 520. Before leaving Britain Finnian determined to undertake a journey to Rome, but an angel warned him not to do so, but to return to his own country " Redite ad vestras plebes, Deus enim acceptat intentionem Vestram." Finnian was accompanied to Ireland by several friends, among whom special mention is made of Biteus and Genoc. On his passage to Ireland, says Dr. Lanigan, he stopped a while with his friend Caimin, and landed at the port Kille-Caireni, in Wexford.

Finnian sent messengers to Muiredeach, sovereign of Ky-Kinsellagh, asking permission to enter his territory. The king generously acceded to his request, and came himself to see Finnian, in whose presence Muiredeach prostrated himself on the ground, and promised the saint a site for a monastery. Saint Finnian erected an establishment at Achadh Abhla ; i.e., “Field of the Apple-Tree," which now bears the name Aghowle, or Aghold, in the barony of Shillelagh, County Wicklow. It was anciently called Crosalech. Here St. Finnian resided for sixteen years. At Mughna, County Carlow, he erected another monastery, and is said to have lectured there for seven years on the Sacred Scriptures. It is probably while there that he preached on one occasion in presence of St. Brigid.

We now approach the most important event in St. Finnian's life in his settlement at Clonard, County Meath, which during his lifetime became the most celebrated sanctuary in Ireland for piety and learning. Cluain-Eraird i. e., Erard's Lawn or Meadow is the derivation given by O'Donovan. Erard was a man's name, very common in Ireland, signifying lofty or noble. Again, we find it related in the saint's life that an angel appeared to him directing him as to where he should take up his abode. Saint Finnian entered Clonard repeating the psalm " Haec requies mea in Saeculum Saeculi hic habitabo quoniam elegi eam."

The date of the saint's arrival at Clonard is said to be about A.D. 530. It is a matter of doubt whether St. Finnian was a bishop. The Four Masters simply term him abbot. Such is the title accorded to him in the Martyrology of Donegal and other Irish calendars. Dr. Lanigan seems to think that St. Finnian was only abbot. It is, doubtless, a fact that Clonard was an episcopal see, but it is quite possible that it did not become so till after Finnian's time. His successor at Clonard, St. Seanach, is called bishop by the Four Masters. The school of Clonard in a short time became famous in Ireland. Those great men who were afterward called the Twelve Apostles of Ireland came to seek instruction from Finnian viz., Columba, the two Brendans, Ciaran of Saigher, his namesake of Clonmacnoise, Columb of Tir-da-ghlas, Mobhi Claraineach, Molaish, Canice, and Ruadhan of Lothra. Three thousand scholars are said to have been educated at Clonard during the saint's lifetime, and the holy founder was justly termed "Magister Sanctorum Hiberniae sui temporis." In the Life of St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise we read : " In schola sapientissimi magistri Finniani plures Sancti Hibernise erant ;" and in that of St. Columb of Tir-da-ghlas : "Audiens famam S. Finniani Episcopi de Cluain-Eraird, ut Sacram Scripturam addisceret accessit ;" and, lastly, we find it said of St. Ruadhan :"Legens diversas Scripturas et multum proficiens in eis." Colgan enumerates thirty two saints who received instruction from St. Finnian, and bears testimony of the fame of Clonard, where students assembled from various parts of Europe.

Saint Finnian did not permit his multifarious labours in behalf of learning to interfere with his duties towards the needy and afflicted. We read in his life that he was a father to all who sought help from him: " Flebat cum flentibus." "Infirmabatur enim cum infirmis." On a certain occasion a bard named German presented St. Finnian with a beautiful poem, in which many of his virtues were extolled; the bard demanded from the saint not gold or silver, or any worldly substance, but only fertility of produce in his lands. Finnian answered him, and said : "Sing over water the hymn which thou hast composed, and sprinkle the land with that water." The bard did as he was directed, and his land produced abundant fruit.

In the historical tale "The Expedition of the Sons of Carra," published by O' Curry in his MS. Materials of Ancient Irish History, we have a description of St. Finnian's interviews with the three brothers, who had plundered the churches of Connaught. O 'Curry observes that while these tales often contain matter without resemblance to facts, we are not to reject them wholly on that account, but rather make allowance for poetic embellishment, at the same time having good ground for believing that a foundation of truth exists. The story is as follows : -

" Three brothers actuated by an evil spirit plundered the churches of Connaught. In their wicked enterprise they were joined by a band of adventurers as daring as themselves. They commenced by pillaging the Church of Tuam, and never ceased till they had laid waste more than half the churches of the province. When the three brothers arrived at the Church of Clothar, they determined to kill the old man, who was the Airchennech of that place ; he was their grandfather; but he, though suspecting their evil design, treated them with kindness, and assigned to them a comfortable resting-place. Lochan, the eldest of the three brothers, that night had a vision, which alarmed him so much that he became conscience-stricken. He saw represented before him the eternal joys of heaven and the torments of hell. When morning came he acquainted his brothers of what he saw, and like him they felt remorse for their wicked deeds. The brothers Carra sought the pardon and prayers of their grandfather. They took counsel with the old man as to what course they should pursue in order to obtain God's forgiveness and to make reparation for the past. He told them to repair to St. Finnian, the great teacher, and to submit themselves to his spiritual direction. The Ua Carra immediately put off their warlike attire, and donned the garb of pilgrims, and with staves instead of swords hastened to Clonard. At their approach the inhabitants fled, for the fame of their evil deeds had spread far and wide. St. Finnian alone came out to meet them ; the brothers threw themselves on their knees, and besought his friendship and pardon. ' What do you want, said Finnian.' ' We want,' said they, ' to take upon us the habit of religion and penitence, and henceforward to serve God.' ' Your determination is a good one,' said Finnian, ' let us come into the town, where my people are.' They entered the town, and Finnian took counsel with his people respecting the penitents. It was decided that they should be placed for the space of a year under the direction of a certain divinity student, with whom alone they were to converse during that period. The Ua Carra faithfully complied with the mode of life laid out for them, and when the year expired presented themselves before St. Finnian for his benediction. The saint blessed them, saying, ' You cannot restore to life the innocent ecclesiastics whom you have slain, but you can go and repair, and restore as far as is in your power, the churches and other buildings which you have ruined.' The sons of Ua Carra took an affectionate leave of St. Finnian, and as the Church of Tuam was the first which suffered from their plundering, they wished it to be the first that they should restore. They repaired it, and proceeded from place to place, making amends for the injury they had inflicted on the churches of Connaught. Having restored all the churches but one, the Ua Carra returned to St. Finnian, who inquired if they had finished their work. They replied, 'We have repaired all the churches but one.' ' Which is that?'asked Finnian. 'The Church of Ceann Mara (Kinvara),' they said. ' Alas !' said the saint, ' this was the first church you ought to have repaired the church of the holy man Coman ; return now, and repair every damage, you have done to that place.' The brothers obeyed St. Finnian's command, and restored the church. By the advice of St. Coman they built a canoe, and undertook a voyage on the Atlantic Ocean."

Thus far the tale refers to St. Finnian ; the voyage and its results does not come within the scope of this paper.

St. Finnian's mode of life was very austere, his usual food was bread and herbs ; on festival days he allowed himself a little beer or whey ; he slept on the bare grounds, and a stone served him for a pillow.

In his last illness the saint was attended by his former pupil St. Colomb, of Tir-da-Ghlas, who administered to him the Holy Viaticum. The Four Masters record his death A.D. 548; but the year 550 or 551 appears to be the correct date. It is stated in some of our annals that Finnian died of the plague ; there is no doubt that the plague was in Ireland during this period, viz., 548 and 551. In the Chronicon Scotorum, under 551, we read : "A great mortality, i. e., the Chronn Conaill." St. Finnian is enumerated among its victims.

This great saint is commemorated by Oenghus in the following verse :

" A Tower of Gold over the sea,
May he bring help to my soul,
Is Finnian fair, the beloved root
Of the great Cluain-Eraird."

St. Finnian's sister, St. Regnach, was Abbess of Kilreynagh, near the present town of Banagher, King's County.

Hardy, in his Descriptive Catalogue of British History, mentions four lives of St. Finnian: viz., Ex. MS. Salmanticensis (which is given by Colgan) ; MS. Life, Duke of Devonshire ; MS. Trinity College, Dublin, referred to by Bishop Nicholson in his Irish Historical Library ; and MS. Bodleian Library, which begins thus : " Fuit vir nobilia in Hiberniae partibus." (Hardy's Catalogue, p. 128, vol. i., part 1.)

December 12th (the day of his death) is observed as his Feast.


Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume 13 (1892), 810-815.

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