Tuesday 25 August 2015

Saint Michan of Dublin, August 25

August 25 is the feast of a Dublin saint, Michan, a visit to whose church forms an essential part of any visit to the Irish capital. The fame of the church is centred on the mummified remains in the crypt which include a knightly figure known as 'The Crusader' and two brothers of the Shears family who were executed during the 1798 Rebellion. The founding saint however, is a shadowy figure around whom there are three main theories regarding his identity:

1. A 16th-century writer, Meredith Hanmer, suggested that Saint Michan was of Danish origin, a theory which is still held by some today.

2. A 17th-century hagiologist, Father Henry Fitzsimon, is the source of a quite extraordinary Life of the saint which showed that he was heir to the King of Canaan. Despite this he becomes a priest and then a bishop in the eastern church, even taking charge of Constantinople at one point. Canon O'Hanlon gives a summary of this Life in footnote 2 of the first chapter of his entry on Saint Michan in Volume VIII of The Lives of the Irish Saints:
The Bollandists alluding to him, at the 25th of August, relate, that they had an apocryphal "Vita Sancti Micheae," but that abounded altogether in fables; and to prove this statement, they adduce some specimens of absurd narratives drawn from it. This tract was contained in a drawer, among other Manuscript Lives of Irish Saints, received from Father Henry Fitzsimon, and it was marked + M.S. 167 A. That " Vita Sancti Micheae" was to be found at fol. 20 et seq. In it, the father of St. Michee is stated to have been King over the Chananaeans, and his name was Obeth, the son of Eliud; while his mother was named Alipia, and she was daughter to the King of Arabia. For twenty years she was sterile,when an angel predicted the birth of Michee, and the boy was afterwards baptized by Magonius, Bishop of Alexandria. When he was seventeen years old, Obeth died, then Michee was offered succession over the Kingdom of Chananaeum, but this he refused. He then went to the city of Alexandria, where he received the monk's habit from the bishop, and he was initiated to the priesthood, in the thirtieth year of his age. Then returning to his native country, he was consecrated bishop, and governed in that capacity for twenty-two years. Afterwards he left that place under angelic guidance. The narrative then continues in the original Latin: "inde perveniens ad ripam Nili fluminis, sociis LX sibi assecutis, fluminis impetum benedictionis oppositione constringens, cum omni comitatu suo securus pertransiit. Deinde ad littus Maris Rubri cum sociis veniens, secundum illud Israelitici populi, ab expugnatione Pharaonis per Dominum salvati, sic (sicco) vestigio transiturn fecit." The narrative then continues, that having spent two months at Jerusalem, there he continued to exercise the patriarchal ministry for seven years. During that time, he was directed by an angel to Mount Sion, and there he was shown that tree, from which the precious wood (of the cross) had been cut. By order of the angel, he also cut three baculi from it, and the angel took a fourth baculus. Subsequently, Michee is sent to Constantinople, and there he presided over that church. Again, having spent seven years there, he passed over the Alps. Furthermore accompanied by seven thousand companions he travelled over Gaul, the angel accompanying him, and coming to the English sea, he found no ships in which to cross; yet, with his companions, Michee passed over with dry feet. With such abbreviated notice of the narrative, the Bollandists derisively close their account, thinking they had already given more than sufficient of such absurdities. See " Acta Sanctorum," tomus v., Augusti xxv. Among the pretermitted Saints, p. 3.
3.  It is equally possible that Saint Michan is a native Irish figure, a thesis which has been advanced again in a recent academic work on medieval Dublin.  In a short historical piece here by the Irish Capuchins, they suggest that he may also have had a Welsh link. However, given that Saint Michan's name does not occur in the earlier Irish calendars and occurs for the first time in the 12th-century Martyrology of Gorman, this Welsh link might reflect a Cambro-Norman influence. A Norman influence also seems to be at work in the dedication of the south aisle of Saint Michan's Church in Dublin to the Anglo-Saxon female saint Osyth of Chich. There is a useful critical edition of her Life which describes the use the Normans made of this saint here.

So, with all of this in mind we can now turn to Canon O'Hanlon's account of Saint Michan. I have omitted much of the detail of the later history of the church, but the original volume is available through the Internet Archive if anyone wishes to follow it up:



IT appears rather strange, that a Saint, intimately connected with a city, which contains so many records of its early history, should have left little trace of his own personality to our time. The forms of his name are very various—Thus, Michanus, Mighan, Myghan, Michee, and Mahano are found in different mediaeval documents, which have reference to him and to the well-known church and parish of which he is the patron. The name Michanus is entered at this date, in the anonymous calendar, published by O'Sullivan Beare. For all that is personally known of the present holy man, we might end the account in a very few paragraphs. But the history of his parish, and of the churches there dedicated to him, may have some interest for our readers.Whether St. Michan is to be regarded as a Danish or an Irish saint is a matter contested. One of our most learned Irish antiquaries seems inclined to think he was of the former race. If we are to follow the prevailing  popular opinion of the inhabitants of Dublin, in the sixteenth century, we are likely to concur in the statement of Rev. Dr. Meredith Hanmer, who calls St. Michan a "Dane and Bishop."  Notwithstanding the latter distinction accorded him, and for which Hanmer appears to have had even documentary warrant, it does not seem likely, that Michan had been advanced to the episcopal dignity. A very probable opinion may be formed, as the name Michan, in any of its forms, is not found historically to have been at all common in Irish families, that the present holy man was of Danish origin, and born in Dublin, which in his time had been colonized by Scandinavians, who had embraced the Christian faith. The period when he flourished is unknown.

His name occurs in the Calendar prefixed to the Martyrology of Christ Church, Dublin, under 25th August—viii. Kal., Sept.—as S. Michee Confessoris; while he is described in the Martyrology itself in these terms, and at the same date: "Eodem die; sancti Michee episcopi, confessoris." However, we are told, that the insertion of the word episcopi is in a more recent hand.  In the Calendars prefixed to two ancient Breviaries—one of these belonging to St. John's Church, Dublin, the other to Clondalkin—and now in Trinity College Library, Dublin, the word "Episcopi" is inserted before "Confessoris." By some writers, he is regarded, as not having advanced beyond the grade of priest; and this opinion is altogether probable, since no record presents his parish in the character of having been a primitive See. St. Michan must have lived in the eleventh or perhaps the preceding century; but the year for his decease has not been recorded. The Danes or Ostmen, who had settled in Dublin, and who had surrounded their city with walls, embraced Christianity in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Their conversion from Paganism placed them on more friendly relations with the Irish. Many of the Dublin Ostmen then chose to live on the north side of the Liffey, about 1095 and owing to this circumstance, all that district near the river was known by the denomination of Ostmantown— afterwards corrupted to Oxmantown Green. These residents are thought to have built the Church of St. Michan. This church was dedicated to him, on the 14th of May, and Dr. Meredith Hanmer places the foundation of St. Michan's Church on the Fair Green or Commune, afterwards called Ostmontowne Green. This parcel of land is said to have been given by Murchard or Moragh, King of Leinster, for that purpose.

The festival of St. Michan was celebrated always on the 25th of August, and it seems to have been held as a general holy day in that parish, to refrain from servile works. Doubtless religious ceremonies were also prescribed, for its greater solemnity. In the year 1565, we have a glimpse of the manner in which St. Michan's feast had been observed in Dublin, or at least in that parish of which he was patron. The parish of St. Michan, during six centuries, was the only parish on the north side of the River Liffey, and it is supposed to be coeval with the earliest parishes in the City of Dublin "Within the Walls." About the year 948, a Benedictine Abbey, since known as St. Mary's Abbey, was founded on the northern bank of the Liffey. It was endowed with all the rich and fertile pasture land, stretching eastwards along the banks of the River Liffey, so far as the Tolka. The parish of St. Michan is one of the oldest parishes in Dublin. It extended from the River Liffey northwards, so far as Little Cabra; and from St. Mary's Abbey it reached westward, to Oxmantown Green. In Archbishop Alan's Register, the church is called " Ecclesia S. Michie," and " Ecclesia S. Micheani." And in the Calendar prefixed to the Martyrology of Christ Church, the 14th of May is assigned as the date for the dedication of the Church of St. Michan :—" ii Id Maii, Dedicacio Ecclesiae Sancti Michee." In the Repertorium Viride of Archbishop Alan, it is likewise noticed as " Ecclesia de Sto Mahano."...

...A somewhat remarkable feature attached to the church of St. Michan is, that its founders dedicated the building to St. Michan, and the south aisle to St. Syth, or Osyth. In the vestry-books of St. Michan's parish it is often referred to as "St. Syth's Aisle." Here stood the "Counting Table," and doubtless, here also were held the meetings of a guild which was called after her name. St. Osyth was a daughter of Redwald, King of East Anglia, who married a king of the East Angles, but the same day she obtained his consent to live always a virgin. That king, confirming her in such religious purpose, bestowed on her the manor of Chick. Having made a vow of virginity, she retired to Chick, now a parish in the hundred of Tendring, County of Essex. There she founded a church and a nunnery, and she presided over them for several years with great sanctity; but these were afterwards plundered by the Danes, who beheaded the foundress near an adjacent fountain. This happened about the year 870, during the inroads of Hinguar and Hubba, the barbarous Danish leaders. For fear of the Northmen pirates, her body, after some time, was removed to Ailesbury, and it remained there forty-six years, after which it was brought back to Chick or Chich, near Colchester, and which was remarkable for its noble Abbey of Regular Canons in times long past, while its name has been derived from St. Osyth, the patroness. This house continued till the dissolution of the monasteries, and it was famous for the possession of relics, which were honoured with the performance of many miracles. The festival of this holy virgin, variedly called Osyth, Syth, Sitha. Scite, is noted on the 13th of May, in some of our Martyrologies and Calendars. Her festival was celebrated with an Office of Nine Lesson, as we find in a Manuscript Breviary of the fifteenth century, and now preserved in the library of Trinity College, Dublin. In the original hand of this Manuscript is the entry "Scite Virginis, ix. lc." This Breviary was written in Ireland, as appears from an entry on the first leaf; and there is, therefore, some reason to think, that Sitha may be an Irish saint, although no other native Calendar to which the writer has access contains her name, nor is she mentioned by Aengus, Colgan, or any other authority. The introduction of her name into the Calendar, as appears from the recent entries in the Christ Church volume, and in the Chain-Book of the Dublin Corporation, must have taken place, at least in the Diocese of Dublin, about the end of the fifteenth century...

As has been already stated, at this date, in the ancient Martyrology of the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity, and now known as Christ Church, Dublin, there is a record of St. Michan, Confessor. A more recent hand has there inserted his title as a Bishop.  In the Martyrology of Donegal, at the 25th of August, we find that a festival was celebrated to honour St. Michan of Cill Michen, in Ath-cliath, now Dublin city. No records seem to have been preserved, and which might serve to attest the year, when St. Michan's Church had been first erected; but, it is not probable, that an earlier building stood on the site of its present vaults. However, the upper structure was remodelled or repaired at different periods. Nor is there good warrant for the statement, that St. Michan's body is yet preserved in one of the church vaults. It is altogether probable, however, that the holy ecclesiastic himself may have built that church during his life-time, and that he may have been buried therein, or at least, in the cemetery adjoining. It is likely, moreover, that the original church and cemetery were laid out, at one and the same time.

There is a place called Cloonymeaghan, in the barony of Corran, and county of Sligo, and it has been rendered "Cluain-michan, i.e., the retreat of Mhican." According to tradition, it is stated, that St. Mhican, the patron of a parish in Dublin, which bears his name, was a bishop and confessor, and perhaps an abbot. ...

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