Tuesday 1 January 2013

Saint Fanchea of Ross Oirthir, January 1

We begin the month of January with a female saint, Fanchea of Ross Oirthir, sister to Enda (Endeus) of Aran. Canon O'Hanlon's account of her below illustrates one of the strengths of his Lives of the Irish Saints, for he has relied on the account of the great 17th-century Irish hagiologist, Father John Colgan, a work I would have found it difficult to otherwise access. It seems that Colgan himself lamented that no Life of Saint Fanchea had survived and he was thus forced to use the Life of her more famous brother as a primary source. The Life of Saint Enda appears to credit Fanchea with having played a crucial role in both the conversion of her brother and in his decision to pursue the monastic life. She is portrayed as having acted as a counsellor in spiritual matters and he as having heeded her advice. There is a particularly interesting account of both having been pilgrims in Rome and of some Latin visitors coming to Ireland.

I have taken some liberties with O'Hanlon's text, omitting a few sections, but the original is available through the Internet Archive if you wish to read it in its complete form. There are some disturbing hagiographical devices to be found in the account of Saint Fanchea, one at the beginning concerning the brutal way in which Fanchea brings Enda to his senses over the body of his dead fiancee, and another at the end concerning the unholy rivalry between the peoples of Leinster and Meath over Saint Fanchea's remains. Both are stock in trade as far as medieval hagiography is concerned, but seem somewhat grotesque to the reader of today. Canon O'Hanlon, however, ends his account, as he often does, with one of his charmingly pious homiletics.


...This saint's name is found variedly written Fanchea, Fuinchea, Fainc, Fuinche, and Funchea. Four other holy virgins bearing this name are inscribed on our Irish Calendars. To the present St. Fanchea's name, the denomination Garbh, is also found affixed. She was daughter to Conall Dearg, prince of Oriel territory, in the Ulster province; while her mother was Briga, or Aibfinn, daughter to Anmiry, of the Dalaradian race. St. Fanchea was born at a place called Rathmore, in the vicinity of Clogher. She was sister to the celebrated St. Endeus, Abbot of Aran, as also to Saints Lochina, Carecha, and Darenia. When our saint grew up, she was distinguished for extraordinary beauty; but remarkable virtues rendered her still more admirable.

Aengus, son of Natfraich, King of Munster, is said to have desired Fanchea's hand in marriage. Notwithstanding all his pressing entreaties, however, and rejecting those earthly dignities to which she might be advanced by yielding to his suit, the holy virgin's mind was intent on a life of celibacy, and on those rewards promised by Christ to his spouses. Even she was obliged to resist parental importunities in refusing this offer of a matrimonial alliance. In order to divert Angus from his solicitations, she had sufficient address, while declining his advances towards herself, to direct his attentions towards her sister Darenia. To her he was afterwards united in marriage. Darenia was the mother, or, according to another account, the aunt and nurse of St. Colman, who was Abbot and Bishop at Daremore or Derrymore Monastery.

In the list of holy virgins, who received the veil from St. Patrick, St Fanchea is numbered by Colgan; this statement, however, seems to rest on no good authority. Her reputation for piety was so great that several ladies of royal birth were numbered among her disciples, and placed under her rule. Having entirely consecrated herself to God, Fainche, in her own person, furnished a bright example of self-denial and sanctity. Many others of her sex, desiring to walk in the way she had marked out, renounced the pleasures of this world, for happy enjoyments in the next. She built a nunnery, at a place called Ross Oirthir, on the borders of Lough Erne, and within the present county of Fermanagh. It appears to have been within the patrimonial territory of Oriel.

…This holy virgin exercised a great and holy influence over her brother, St. Endeus. Some discredit has been thrown on his Acts, which are regarded as abounding in fables. Yet those acts are the chief authority we can discover to furnish us with particulars regarding St. Fanchea. From Endeus' life we learn how in a great measure she contributed to effect his conversion, and move him to a change of life. On the death of his father, Conall, St. Endeus succeeded in the chieftainship over his principality, and with the unanimous acclaim of his own people. The young prince preserved himself free from all corrupting influences of rank and station; but, on a certain occasion, being urged by some clansmen to march against his enemies, Endeus gave a sort of unwilling assent to their intreaties. However, the young chief did not allow his mind to be filled with malice or revenge against his adversaries. One hostile to Endeus having been killed by his soldiers, these returned towards their own country. As they approached St. Fanchea's house the band sang a triumphant song in praise of their recent victory. Hearing the approaching sounds, St. Fanchea said to her community, "Know you, my sisters, this dreadful vociferation is not pleasing to Christ?" Then recognising the vocal tones of their chieftain, Endeus, among his followers, by some Divine intimation, Fanchea cried out, "He is a son of Heaven's kingdom, whose voice is so particularly distinguished." She knew her brother's heart, with all its defects, to be chivalrous and pure. Wherefore, standing at the gate of her nunnery, Fanchea said to the chief, “Do not approach near us, for thou art contaminated with the blood of a man who is slain." Endeus replied,"I am innocent of this murdered man's blood; and, as yet, I am free not only from homicide but even from carnal sins." The virgin then said, "O wretched man, why do you provoke the Lord to anger? And why do you plunge your soul into the depths of sin by your various crimes?" Endeus answered, "I hold the inheritance of my father, and therefore I am justified in fighting against my enemies." His sister replied, that their father, whose sins were his own, was then enduring punishment for them in another world.

Endeus afterwards requested his sister to give him a certain noble maiden placed under her care for his wife. He promised in the future to follow those religious admonitions he had thus received. The holy virgin said she should soon give a response to his petition. Immediately going to the place where the aforesaid maiden lived, Fanchea said to her, "A choice is now given: dost thou desire to love the Spouse whom I love, or a carnal one?" The girl replied,"I will love Him whom you love." Fanchea said to her, "Come with me into this chamber that here you may rest a while." The maiden complied, and placing herself upon a bed she soon expired. Her pure soul fled to the guardianship of her chosen and heavenly Spouse. Having put a veil over the face of this deceased young lady, St. Fanchea returned to Endeus. She then conducted her brother to the chamber of the dead. Uncovering the departed maiden's features, Fanchea exclaimed, "Look now upon the face of her whom thou hast desired." Endeus, struck with horror, cried out, "It is at present sadly pale and ghastly." "And so shall your features hereafter be," replied the virgin. Then Fanchea spoke to him regarding the pains of Hell, and dwelt also on the joys of Heaven, until the young man burst into tears. Having heard these discourses of his holy sister, despising the vanities of this world, Endeus took the habit of a monk and received the tonsure. Thus he embraced the clerical profession, and became eventually one of the most distinguished among the saints of Ireland.

The companions of Endeus, hearing about his conversion, endeavoured with some manifestations of violence to excite his feelings, and to withdraw their chieftain from a fulfilment of his purpose. It is said that St. Fanchea offered up her prayers, and she made the sign of the cross against this unjust attempt. The clansmen's feet then became fastened to the ground. On that spot they remained like so many immovable statues. A fine moral lesson is then envolved by the legend-writer. It seemed those men, who were so much attached to earthly pursuits should even in this manner, although unwillingly, adhere to earth. As misfortune often produces a better frame of mind, entering upon a consideration of their state, the culprits promised to do penance when released from bondage. Thus, what the Lord said to the Apostles when he sent them to preach,"Whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven," seemed to have been fulfilled in the person of this apostolic virgin. Hereupon the newly-converted chief began to fulfil by works what he had conceived in mind.

With his own hands Endeus commenced digging earth around the nunnery. This habitation he fenced in with deep trenches. He rooted up thistles and other noxious weeds likewise, and with all the care of an experienced husbandman. Having bestowed the necessary amount of labour on this nunnery, the servant of Christ went to a place afterwards called Killaine, now known as Killany, in the county of Louth. There he intended to found a house for a religious congregation of men. Here also he became oeconomus, or steward, over artificers who were engaged upon his buildings, and he furnished the workmen with all necessary supplies. From the context of his acts it would seem that a nunnery for Fanchea, or a branch establishment for her religious, was established here; and it appears even probable that the holy sister of Endeus resided at Kill-aine for some considerable time previous to her death.

We are told, while he lived at Kill-aine, certain robbers, enemies to Endeus and his country-people, from a district called Crimthann, passed with their booty near the monastery. Pursuing these robbers, the clansmen of Endeus had there overtaken them. When about to attack the spoilers at this place, feeling an irresistible desire to succour his friends, their former chieftain seized one of those wooden poles which were used in building his monastery. That Endeus intended to employ as a weapon. But St. Fanchea then said to her brother,"O Endeus, place your hand upon your head, and recollect you have taken the crown of Christ." On obeying this command Endeus immediately felt he had assumed the clerical tonsure. Withdrawing his hand the holy monk remained in his cell, and at peace with all mankind. He who once puts his hand to the plough and afterwards looks behind is not fit for God's kingdom.

The virgin Fanchea afterwards counselled her brother to leave his native country and kindred, lest perchance he might again be tempted by any worldly considerations to forsake that path in which he trod. She wished him to visit Britain, and to enter Rosnat Monastery, that he might become an humble disciple of Mansenus, who presided over that house. Having listened attentively to her advice, Endeus asked how long he should remain there, when Fanchea told him to continue until she should have received a good report regarding the manner in which his time had been spent. Wishing to fulfil his sister's desire, St. Endeus passed over the sea, and came to the aforesaid monastery. There he remained under the discipline of its abbot, Mansenus. When he had made sufficient progress in learning and in the science of a religious life, he took another sea-voyage on his way to Rome. Here Endeus disposed himself for the reception of Holy Orders. After a diligent study of examples left by the saints, it pleased Almighty God to invest him with the priestly dignity. Carefully considering the duties of his new profession, he deemed it incumbent to show others the way towards heaven. Therefore, having collected some disciples, he erected a monastery. This was called Latinum; but the place where it was situated appears to baffle further enquiry.

After some time had elapsed, certain pilgrims came from Rome to Ireland, where they visited St. Fanchea's cell. The virgin held some conference with them. Among other religious acquaintances those strangers mentioned the name of Endeus, who was a native of Ireland, and whose reputation for sanctity had been much extolled by all who knew him. They told her where the monastery over which he presided stood. On hearing this account St. Fanchea knew St. Endeus was her brother. She then resolved to pay him a visit, in company with three other virgins. The abbess ordered these to take none of their effects along with them; but one of her companions disobeyed this mandate and brought a brazen vessel, which she conceived would be of use in washing their hands during this journey. A strange and incredible legend is then related to account for the detection and reproof of such disobedience. A prosperous voyage is said to have conducted those adventurous females to the wished for port in Britain. Further they journeyed, perhaps, but our accounts fail us in reference to this matter.

The Almighty, who reveals wonderful secrets to his friends, was pleased to enlighten Endeus regarding the approaching visit of those religious females from Ireland. His brethren were directed to prepare all things necessary for their expected arrival. While the monks were thus engaged, the holy virgins appeared at their monastery gate. St. Fanchea preferred a request to see her brother; but she was told she might have her choice of two alternatives—either to receive his greetings without seeing him, or to see him without receiving his salutations. The virgin said she preferred the choice of conversation without the permission of seeing him, thus conceiving she should derive more advantage from her visit. Endeus then had a tent erected in the grounds of his monastery. Being veiled from her sight, the abbot entered into conversation with his sister. Fanchea advised that as God had gifted him with talents, he ought to exercise these among the people of his native land, and thus enhance doubly their value. Hereupon Endeus replied, "When a year shall have elapsed after your return to Ireland, I hope the Almighty may permit me to follow you." Fanchea then said to her brother, "When you come to Ireland do not enter the land of your nativity at first, but rather seek out a certain island called Aran,” which is situated off the Irish western coast. The interesting group of Aran islands lies at the entrance to Galway Bay, and out in the Atlantic Ocean.

Having thus advised her brother, she received his benediction, and afterwards she appears to have passed over into Ireland with her virgins. Under the guidance of angels, they escaped all sea dangers, and landed safely in their native country. It would appear, however, St. Fanchea did not long survive her arrival in Ireland. As a further favour, she obtained from heaven that her soul might be permitted to escape from the prison of the body. She wished it to ascend with the celestial attendants of her voyage to that kingdom, where virgins "follow the lamb whithersoever he goeth." From the obscurity of that narrative, contained in St. Endeus' Life, it is not possible to discover whether our saint lived to reach her native shore, or whether she died during her last sea voyage. Her religious sisters greatly lamented her decease.

A contention arose between people belonging to the provinces of Meath and Leinster for possession of this holy virgin's body. What claim the Leinster people had to her remains does not appear, unless her death took place among them. This quarrel was appeased in a miraculous manner. Fanchea's remains seemed to rest on a vehicle borne by two oxen. These animals are said to have preceded the people of Leinster, bearing the supposed body of this holy virgin towards a cell, which was called Barrigh, in Magh-Lifife. There the Leinster people deposited what they had conceived to be St. Fanchea's body but the people of Meath in like manner saw oxen preceding them and bearing the real body of St. Fanchea, while the companions of her voyage were present at this funeral procession. Having arrived at the nunnery, commonly called Kill-aine, the remains of our holy virgin were there deposited to await the day of final resurrection. This most pure virgin, the spouse of her Heavenly Bridegroom, is thought to have departed to her long-desired and beatific rest on the feast of our Lord's Circumcision. This day her natalis is kept, according to our Irish Martyrologies. It seems probable, however, that her feast had been more solemnly observed on a different day. Some held this opinion for various reasons. St. Fanchea lived in the fifth and died, it is thought, about the commencement of the sixth century. Long ago has this noble virgin, drawing life from the fountain of Divine love while on earth, passed away from its unrealities to perennial enjoyment with the blessed in heaven.

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