Sunday 20 January 2013

Saint Fechin of Fore, January 20

January 20 sees the commemoration of a great ascetic, 'the Anthony of Ireland', Saint Fechin of Fore. I have abridged the following account of his life from a 19th-century parish priest of Collooney, Archdeacon Terence O'Rorke, whose work demonstrates much local knowledge of and pride in the saint. The book is available online through the Internet Archive and the chapter on Saint Fechin is well worth reading in full.

Saint Fechin was, probably, the most active and influential of the Irish saints of the seventh century. He is the first priest that is named in the Third Order of Irish saints, on the famous Catalogue published by Ussher in the Brittanicarum Ecclesiarum Antiquitates. The order of the names is :

"Fechin, presbyter ; Airendan, Failan, Coman, Commian, Colman, Ernan, Cronan ; and very many others, presbyters."

Unlike his master, Nathy, who has never found a biographer, Fechin has had his life written by several persons. Colgan gives three lives of the saint; one composed by Augustine Magraidin, who was a Canon Regular of the island of All Saints, in the Shannon, and died there the "Wednesday next after All Saints, in 1405"; another in twenty-seven Latin hexameters, translated and abridged for the Acta SS. Hib. from seventy- four metrical Irish districts ; and a third, compiled by Colgan himself, who tells us that he made the compilation from four different lives of the saint, viz. : that by Magraidan, the metrical life, and two others in Irish, one of which he supposes to be a translation of a Latin original, composed in the time of Saint Aidan, a contemporary of Fechin. This last he is inclined to ascribe to Saint Aileran, the author of a life of Saint Patrick, and a life of Saint Bridget. We are told in Magraidan's life, which is the first life given by Colgan, that Aileran the Wise recorded the miracles of Saint Fechin in the island of Imay. It does not appear from this announcement whether Aileran composed a detailed life of our saint or not ; but whichever Aileran's work was a full life or a mere report of the saint's doings in Imay we have, in either case, proof of the great respect in which Fechin was held ; for the biographer of Saints Patrick and Bridget would hardly devote his pen to the proceedings of Saint Fechin, if these proceedings did not partake of the importance and dignity of those that the writer had already described.

Considering, then, the circumstances under which the Second Life [ Magraidin's composition goes commonly by the name of the First Life, or Prima Vita; while Colgan' s composition is called the Second Life, or Secunda Vita] was drawn up, it ought to be the most valuable of all the records that we have of Saint Fechin. As Colgan had materials to draw on that are no longer available, and was, from special knowledge of Irish history and hagiology, singularly qualified to make proper use of these materials, his conclusions regarding the saint should be more trustworthy than those of any other biographer...

"This compilation (Second Life)," says Father O'Hanlon,"proceeded from three different lives of Fechin, which were composed in Irish. One of these had been taken from a much older codex, written, it is said, in the time of Saint Aidan, who was a contemporary of Saint Fechin, and over 900 years before Colgan wrote. This was a codex of Immaigh, in Connaught, where our saint lived. The second very old life wanted both the beginning and the end, although otherwise very trustworthy. The third was very old, likewise, and written in seventy-four elegant metrical distichs, recounting a great number of the saint's miracles. The three codices were found to be over prolix for separate publication, so that Colgan thought it better to collate and abridge their contents, which substantially he has published." If, then, Colgan, instead of "collating and abridging" the lives that he had before him, and giving their substance in the Second Life, had published them separately, exactly as they were written, these lives would be found to precede in date the composition of Magraidin, and to have, in a greater degree than that work, that element of authenticity which they now seem to lack. Bearing this consideration in mind, it is clear that the Second Life has the strongest claims on our deference to what it asserts respecting the career of the saint.

It is the almost unanimous opinion of those who have written on Saint Fechin, that he was born in Billa, a village in the County of Sligo, barony of Leyney, and parish of Ballysadare. The spot on which he is said to have first seen the light is, at present, and has been from time immemorial, a place of pilgrimage under the name of Leaba-Fechin, (Fechin's bed). In this spot there is a large stone, on which are impressions looking like indented hand marks ; and the legend is : that these marks were made by his mother as she grasped the objects near her in the agonizing travail that accompanied the birth of so great a saint. Between this stone and another close by there is a hollow in which men suffering from pain in the back lie down, invoking Fechin,"who was born there," in the fond hope of being thus cured of their infirmity through his intercession. Over these stones was erected (it is said by the saint himself) a church, which was called the Church of Saint Fechin, the walls of which were standing about seventy years ago, the foundations being still to be seen.

In the next place, the numerous memorials of the saint that meet one at every step in the neighbourhood, prove it to have been his native place. Adjoining the ruins of the church is a piece of land called Parc-Ehin Fechin's Park, where the saint is said, when a little boy, to have tended cattle for his parents, an occupation that was not counted demeaning in any one in those primitive times. In Parc-Ehin may still be seen the stone on which he is reported, even in Magraidin's life, to have performed a singular miracle. Wishing to tie up an animal some say a cow, some a calf, and others a wolf and having within reach no stake to which the tying could be attached, the saint ran the hand through a large stone, and, passing a cord through the hole he had made, thus accomplished his object. A few hundred yards to the north of Parc-Ehin, in the townland of Kilnemonogh, is" Fechin's Well"; half a mile or so to the south is another " Fechin's "Well," as also a " Fechin's Bridge" ; the strand of Ballysadare and Streamstown was called " Fechin's Strand" ; and throughout the parish are several other objects associated with the saint's name.

As it is reported of several other Irish saints, so it also said of Fechin – that his birth and sanctity were predicted. Saint Columba, passing through the valley of Fore in Westmeath was pressed by the owner of the place to found a church there, but excused himself by saying, that the honour was reserved for a great saint named Fechin, who was soon to be born. Stellanus, the proprietor of the valley, saw it once filled with beautifulbirds, having in their midst a column of fire that towered up to heaven, and learned from an angel that the vision prefigured Fechin and his fervent monks. A similar vision is said to have been vouchsafed to a man named Cruemus, who is commonly supposed to be Crumther-Nathy, and who saw in spirit the valley swarming with doves, one of which was of great size and striking beauty, the large bird representing Fechin, and the others the members of his community.

It is certain that Fechin followed Saint Nathy to Achonry, as soon as that establishment was opened, and acquired there much of the learning and sanctity for which he afterwards became so famous.

Fechin's first care, on becoming a priest, was to furnish the territory of Leyney with churches. Ballysadare was our saint's first foundation, after building which, the zealous priest erected religious establishments in Billa, Kilnemonogh, Drumrath, Kilgarvan, and Ecclasroog or Edarguidhe... But the most famous of the saint's foundations, and the one in which the holy man habitually resided in later life, was that of Fore, in Westmeath.

A mill that Fechin erected under the Benn of Fore, to grind grain for his community, was held in almost as much respect as the church. And there is little wonder in this, when we recollect the miraculous way in which the mill is alleged to have been first erected, and, next, supplied with water. As to the erection, Giraldus Cambrensis writes :" There is a mill at Fore, which St. Fechin made most miraculously with his own hands in the side of a certain rock ;" and in regard to the water supply we read in the Life of Saint Mochua, as it is given by the Bollandists under the 1st of January, that " Mochua came to Fore, a town of Meath, in which Fechin had erected a mill at the foot of a mountain, without having any water near ; and as nothing was now wanting but the water, the mill being finished in other respects, the two saints set out for Lough Lene, which was two miles away. Arrived at the lake, Mochua makes a hole with the point of a staff in the bank that lay next to the mill ; Fechin and the priests that accompanied him did the same ; and, on the moment, the water passing in a wonderful manner under ground through the mountain, dashed out not far from the mill, and, falling on the wheel with great force, set the mill a-going."...

It was at the monastery of Ballysadare, during one of his visits that the saint conceived the design of converting the inhabitants of certain islands in the West of Ireland, as it was from the same monastery he started to engage in that great undertaking...

Fraternal charity, mortification, and the spirit of prayer shone out among the saint's virtues ; and of these fraternal charity was, perhaps, the most conspicuous. This great virtue Fechin practised under all its forms : ministering to the sick, redeeming prisoners, and feeding the hungry.

No sores or diseases were so loathsome as to repel the man of God. On a visit to Ballysadare he cured a sick person whose illness was so disgusting that the monks themselves had a horror of it, and forhad the man in consequence to come near the monastery; but this miserable person, hearing of Fechin's presence, came before the saint, who, far from repelling or treating him like the monks as an outcast, received him with open arms, consoled him, and restored him to health and happiness.

Fechin's mortifications or austerities were prodigious. The Irish saints learned to practise mortification from Saint Patrick, who fasted always on bread and water, and prayed 100 times a day, and as many times a night, in the midst of frost, and snow, and rain. It would be hard to find another saint so animated with the spirit of our national apostle as Fechin. To say nothing of the holy man's fasts and prayers, and other rigorous observances during the day, he is said to have divided the night into three parts, passing the first part in chaunting psalms and hymns ; the second he spent in solitary meditation under a palm tree that grew near the monastery ; and in order to keep away sleep and crucify the flesh, the fervent servant of God bound one of his feet to the tree with an iron fetter, and placed hard by a vessel of water, supporting, meantime, against the breast with his hands a large stone, which, if sleep was allowed for a moment, would fall down into the vessel and splash him with the water, thus punishing negligence or indulgence. And the third part of the night Fechin devoted to vocal prayer, standing all the time deep in cold water. Even while asleep he practised mortification; for, as an old poem on the characteristics of the Irish saints tells us:

"Fechin the generous of Fobhar loved,
It was no hypocritical devotion,
To place his fleshless rib
Upon a hard bed without clothes."

With such a life Fechin had nothing to fear at its close. When that close came, A.D. 664, the saint could hardly be less than 80 years of age, having been a priest and founded churches during the lifetime of St. Nathy, who is supposed to have died about the year 615. Eighty years, so full of perfection as to cause his life to be taken for a series of miracles, filled the man of God with that hope which "confounded not." After "finishing his course," like St. Paul, as well as keeping the faith himself and spreading it abroad among those destitute of it, like the same saint, it only remained for Fechin to receive the crown due to his many merits, as anchorite, as abbot, and as apostle.

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