Tuesday 12 February 2013

Saint Fethgna of Armagh, February 12

On February 12 we commemorate a 9th-century Archbishop of Armagh, Saint Fethgna. The bishop is listed as the 39th in the list of 'coarbs' or successors of Patrick:
39. Fethgna xxii. i.e. of the vigils, son of Nechtan of the Clann Eclidagh.
H.J. Lawlor and R.I. Best, eds, The Ancient List of the Coarbs of Patrick in PRIA Vol. 35 (1919), Section C, no. 9, 326.

The Martyrology of Donegal records:

FETHGNA, successor of Patrick, head of the religion of the Gaoidhil, A.D. 872.

and a note in the table of the saints appended to the calendar adds:

Fethgna, successor of Patrick (Mansuetus . . .12 Feb.)

Canon O'Hanlon comments that the Latin word mansuetus 'is probably inserted to signify, that he was of a meek disposition.'

If this is so, his meek disposition would surely have been tested by finding himself as leader of the flock at a time when the Viking raids on Ireland had intensified. Armagh was not spared. Bishop Fethgna succeeded Diarmaid O'Tighearnaigh as Archbishop of Armagh, in 852. Just a few years earlier, the Annals of Ulster record the fate of one of the Abbots of Armagh:
845. Forinnan, abbot of A., was taken prisoner by Gentiles in Cluain comarda with his reliquaries and his community, and carried off by the ships of Limerick.
and five years later 'Armagh was devestated by the foreigners'.

The Annals then record that a serious sack of Armagh was carried out in 867 during Saint Fethgna's episcopacy by Amhlach or Amlaf, the Norwegian:
Ardmacha was plundered and burned with its oratories by Amhlach. Ten hundred was the number there cut off, both by wounding and suffocation, besides all the property and wealth which they found there was carried off by them.
If the theory advanced by the nineteenth-century writer W. F. Skene is correct, Saint Fethgna was aided in his efforts to rebuild Armagh by the Welsh church of Llancarvan. Skene suggested that a reference to Saint Fethgna appears in a Welsh manuscript known as the Welsh or Cambridge Juvencus. On the last page of this manuscript, are fifty lines of Latin hexameter, of which the words 'dignissime Fethgna" can alone be distinguished. He believed that this could be our saint and a potential link between the Welsh and Irish churches was strengthened for him by this entry in the Brut y Tywysogion of Caradoc of Llancarvan:
883 "And the same year Cydivor Abbot of Llanveithin (or Llancarvan) died a wise and learned man and of great piety. He sent six learned men of his abbey to Ireland to instruct the Irish."
Skene adds 'Surely they were sent in consequence of the destruction of the seats of learning in Ireland by the Danes, and thus may some learned Welshmen have been brought in contact with the Bishops of Armagh.'

W.F. Skene, Archaeologia Cambrensis, Vol 10, (1864), 153-4.

Whatever the truth of this theory, there are some other mentions of Bishop Fethgna in the Irish Annals. In the Annals of Ulster he is listed as an attendee at an important gathering:

859. A royal assembly at Rath Aedha mic Bric . . . including Fethgna, coarb of Patrick.

The same Annals record his death:

874 Fethgna episcopus heres Patricii et caput religionis totius Hiberniae in pridie nonas Octobris in pace quieuit.

O'Hanlon could not explain why, if the Annals are correct in placing the death of Saint Fethgna on October 6th, the calendars commemorate his feast on February 12.

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