Saturday 27 April 2013

Saint Assicus of Elphin, April 27

On April 27 we commemorate the diocesan patron of Elphin, Saint Assicus. He features in the hagiography of Saint Patrick, where he is described as a skilled metal worker who made various items for the use of the newly-established churches. The relationship of Saint Assicus to Tassach of Raholp, (feast day April 14) the County Down saint who ministered to Saint Patrick on his deathbed,  is not altogether clear. The author of the paper below, published in two parts in the Irish Ecclesaistical Record of 1902, believes we are dealing with two distinct individuals and lays out the evidence from the sources. However, Pádraig Ó Riain, in his authoritative reference guide A Dictionary of Irish Saints (2011) argues that Tassach and Assicus are the same person and that the Elphin commemoration is based on confusion with an otherwise unknown Usandus/Assanus found on the continental Hieronymian martyrology at April 27 who developed an Irish identity in our later native calendars: 



IT is the peculiar good fortune of Elphin, not alone that the see was founded by the National Apostle, but that, except the feast day, all the known facts respecting the first bishop have been recorded in the two most authentic memorials of native hagiography, — the Tripartite Life and the Patrician Documents in the Book of Armagh. St. Assicus was one of St. Patrick's earliest and most remarkable disciples in Ireland and the first bishop of the very ancient see of Elphin. St. Patrick in his missionary tour through Connaught, which he entered by crossing the Shannon at Drumboilan, near Battle-bridge, in the parish of Ardcarne, according to Usher in 434, according to Lanigan in 435, came to the territory of Corcoghlan, in which was situated the place now called Elphin.

The prince or chief of that territory, a noble druid named Ona, or Ono, or Hono, of the royal Connacian race to Hy-Briuin, gave land and afterwards his castle or fort to St. Patrick to found a church and monastery. The place, which had hitherto been called, from its owner's name. Emlagh-Ona, received the designation of Elphin, which signifies the Rock of the Clear [Spring], from a large stone raised by the saint from the well miraculously opened by him in this land, and placed by him on its margin; and from the copious stream of crystal water which flowed from it and still flows through the street of Elphin. There St. Patrick built a church called through centuries Tempull Phadruig, Patrick's Church, which he made an episcopal see, placing over it St. Assicus as bishop; and with him he left Bitheus, son of the brother of Assicus, and Cipia, mother of bishop Bitheus. St. Patrick also founded at Elphin an episcopal monastery or college, which is justly considered one of the first monasteries founded by him, and placed over it the holy bishop Assicus.

…Like so many of the towns of Ireland, the episcopal city of Elphin had its origin in the church and monastery which St. Patrick founded there, and over which he placed St. Assicus in the fifth century. The name of Emlagh-Ona is still preserved in the townland of Emlagh, which adjoins the town of Elphin. Emlagh-Ona was obviously so-called to distinguish it from this other Emlagh, coterminous with it and still retaining the name.

The first bishop of Elphin was a worker in metal. He is described in the Book of Armagh as a cerd, i.e, a wright, the faber aereus Patricii, and he made altars, chalices, and patens, and metal book-covers, for the newly founded churches. Following the example of their master, the successors and spiritual children of St. Assicus founded a school of art and produced most beautiful objects of Celtic workmanship in the diocese of Elphin. Of these, some remain to the present day, objects of admiration to all who see them. The famous Cross of Cong, undoubtedly one of the finest specimens of its age in the western world, was, as an inscription on it testifies, the work of Maelisa Mac Egan, comarb of St. Finian of Clooncraff, near Elphin, Co. Roscommon, under the superintendence of Domhnall, son of Flanagan O'Duffy, at Roscommon, who was successor of Coman and Eiaran, abbots of Roscommon and Clonmacnoise, and bishop of Elphin. It is held that the exquisite Ardagh Chalice, which was given to Clonmacnoise by Torlogh O'Conor, and was stolen thence, was made, if not by the same artist, in the same school at Roscommon. The Four Masters record A.D. 1166: The shrine of Manchan of Maothail (Mohill) was covered by Rory O'Conor, and an embroidering of gold was carried over it by him, in as good style as relic was ever covered in Ireland. It is, therefore, fair to conclude that this beautiful work was also executed in the school of art founded by St. Assicus in the diocese of Elphin….

…About seven years before his death, St. Assicus, grieved because some of the inhabitants of Magh-Ai, or Machaire-Connaught, the plain in which Elphin lies, had falsely given out that a lie had been told by him, seeking solitude, desiring to be alone with God, secretly fled from Elphin northward to Slieve League, a precipitous mountain in Donegal. He spent seven years in seclusion on the island of Rathlin, adjacent to Glencolumbkille. His monks sought him, and at last, after great labour, found him in the mountain glens. They sought to persuade him to return with them to Elphin; but he refused on account of the falsehood which had been spoken of him there. The king of the territory gave to him and to his monks after his death the pasture of one hundred cows with their calves, and of twenty oxen, as a perpetual offering. There the holy bishop died, and they buried him in the desert, far from Elphin, in Rathcunga, in Seirthe. Rathcunga is now locally called Racoon. It is a conical hill, the apex of which is entrenched like a rath, and contains an ancient cemetery, now disused, in the parish of Drumhome, county Donegal. In this sacred and celebrated place, St. Patrick had built a church and monastery, where had dwelt seven bishops: and in the same place, St. Bitheus, bishop, the nephew of St: Assicus, is buried. Their relics were held in the highest honour, and for many ages were religiously guarded by the monks and venerated by the people.

Of the church and monastery of Racoon, hallowed by the relics of the holy bishop and anchorite Assicus, and the holy bishop, Bitheus, and by the presence of St. Patrick and seven bishops, even the ruins have perished. But the children of St. Assicus, the first bishop and patron of Elphin, still, even to our age, have piously preserved his memory, and hold before their eyes his example of the union of labour and contemplation. St. Assicus probably died before the close of the fifth century. His feast is observed on the 27th of April, on which day he is honoured as patron of the diocese of Elphin, where his festival is celebrated as a double of the first class with an octave. It is a major double for the rest of Ireland.

Hennessy identifies Bite with St. Beoaedh, bishop of Ardcarne, in the county of Roscommon. 'He was,'  he says, 'nephew of St. Assicus, bishop of Elphin, who was also buried in Rathcunga. St. Beoaedh died on the 8th of March, 624, on which day he was venerated. The Chronicon Scotorum has his death at 518. But Beoaedh (Vividus Hugo) of Ardcarne — Beoaedus de Ardcharna in Connacia, qui erat episcopus, obiit 523 : Mart Dungall, Mart, of Tallaght, pp. xvii., 3 — does not appear to have been identical with Bite, nephew of St. Assicus. Bite was a bishop and is often mentioned in the Tripartite and Book of Armagh with Essu and Tassach (Assic), as one of Patrick's cerds. He was left at Elphin with Cipia his mother, and, there can be little doubt, succeeded the founder, St. Assicus. There is a St. Biteus, abbot of Inis-cumhscraidhe, now Inishcoursy, co. Down, at the 29th of July. St. Biteus of Elphin is given in the list of St. Patrick's disciples furnished by Tirechan, Asacus (recte Assicus), Bitheus, Falertus (Felartus). But the equation of Bite and Beo-Aed calls for no refutation. The latter died, according to the rectified chronology of the Annals of Ulster, in 524. He was seventh in descent from Lugaid Mac Con, king of Ireland, slain A.D. 207. Amongst the saints of Lugaid's sept mentioned in the versified Genealogies of Saints, Bite is not included, — an omission which effectively disposes of the allegation that he was nephew of Beo-Aed.

Assertions have been made regarding St. Assicus which are not borne out by the ancient authorities, and serious mistakes have been committed by various writers in treating of him. It has been said that Elphin derives its name from a white rock or stone: that Assicus was a druid: that he was the husband of Cipia and father of bishop Bitheus: that he retired from Elphin through shame because he had told a lie there. There seems to be no warrant for these statements in the reliable sources of our knowledge respecting St. Assicus… St. Assicus fled from Elphin, not because he had told a lie there, but (which is quite another thing) because a lie had been told there of him.

The author of the Life of St. Patrick in the Book of Armagh says: The holy bishop Assicus was the goldsmith of Patrick, and he made altars, and quadrangular book-cases. Our saint also made patens in honour of Patrick the bishop ; and of them I have seen three quadrangular patens, that is, the paten in the church of Patrick in Armagh, and another in the church of Elphin, and the third in the great church of Saetli, on the altar of Felart, the holy bishop. The altar of Felart, on which was this beautiful paten of St. Assicus, was in the church founded by St. Patrick on Lough Sealga, called Domnagh-Mor of Magh Sealga, in the townland of Carns, near Tulsk and Rathcroghan, the royal residence of Connaught.

Ware says : —

Elphin, or as others write it Elfin, is situated on a rising ground in a pleasant and fertile soil. St. Patrick built the Cathedral Church there about the middle of the fifth century, near a little river flowing from two fountains, and set Asic, a monk, over it, who was a great admirer of penance and austerity ; and by him consecrated bishop, who afterwards filled it with monks. He died in Rathcung in Tirconnell, where he was also buried. Some say that this Assic (the correct form) was a most excellent goldsmith, and by his art beautified the Cathedral with six pieces of very curious workmanship.

The little river of Ware and the spring of the Tripartite and O'Flaherty, are the present stream from St. Patrick's Well; and the two fountains were no more than two fissures in the Ail out of which two tiny streams flowed separately for a short distance, when they united. This is the case to the present time. The water flowing from the spot where the Ail stood is conveyed in two covered drains as far as the water-shed. The original fissures in the rock did not contain much water at any time ; and, as described by a nonogenarian who had drawn water from it, the ail was a large rock considerably raised over the surface of the surrounding earth, and in its centre or between its shafts, were the fissures or crannies from which sprang the clear water that produced the rivulet. This celebrated rock, which, together with the crystal stream that flowed from it, has given a name to the most ancient diocese of Connaught, was shattered to pieces by the application of blasting powder, by Rev. William Smith, Protestant Vicar-General of Elphin, between the years 1820 and 1830. Owing to this vandalism, there is now no trace of the Ail-finn or Rock of the Clear Spring. It is a mistake to say that, when it was broken, the Ail stood several perches from the present St. Patrick's Well at Elphin. It stood close beside the well. I have seen the roots or the part of the rock beneath the surface of the earth which had been dug to erect a new fountain over the well. I have also seen portion of a stone crucifix, dug up at the same time, which once had stood over the Holy Well of St. Patrick and St. Assicos (and had doubtless been also shattered by the men of England), now in possession of the Very Rev. Canon Mannion, parish priest of Elphin. O'Flaherty, in his Ogygia, says that a person predicted the falling of this stone on a certain day, and that it fell on that day [Wednesday], 9th of October, 1675. But there were two remarkable stones in Elphin, one over St. Patrick's Well, and the other in the middle of the town. Near Elphin is the townland of Lahausk, i.e, Leacht h As[i]c; flag-stone of Assic. The tradition is that the place was so called, because St. Assicus, in the course of his missionary labours, broke his leg on a flag there.

It remains to deal with the attempt to identify Assicos or Assic with Tassach, who administered the viaticum to St. Patrick. The accessible authorities for Tassach are:

(1.) Irish Hymn of Fiac on St. Patrick : —

Tassach remained with him (Patrick),
When he gave Communion to him :
He said that soon Patrick would go (die), —
The word of Tassach was not false.

Tassach is glossed : ‘namely, wright of Patrick . . . Raholp, by Downpatrick, to the east, is his church.'

(2.) The Calendar of Aengus : —

April the 14th:

The royal -bishop Tassach
Gave, when he came [to visit the dying Saint],
The body of Christ, the King truly strong.
With [i .e. in] Communion to Patrick.

The fourth line of the quatrain is glossed — i.e., it is the body of Christ that was Communion for him. The gloss adds : — Tassach is venerated in Baholp in Lecale, in Ulster ; i.e., Wright and bishop of Patrick was Tassach, and this is the feast of his death.

(3.) The imperfect Martyrology of Tallaght, a copy of the short recension of the so-called Hieronyman Martyrology with native saints added to each day (Book of Leinster, page 358 fg.), XVIII. Kal. Mai.; the first Irish name is Sancti Tassagi.

(4.) The List of Irish saints who were bishops, in the Book Leinster, page 365 : Nomina episcoporum Hibernensium incipiunt: the sixth name is Tassach.

(5.) The Drummond Kalendar : XVIII. Kal. Mai : Apud Hiberniam, Sanctus Episcopus et Confessor Tassach hoc die ad Christum migravit.

Two instances remain, in which the patron of Raholp is confounded with the first bishop of Elphin, — the glosses already given on the hymn of Fiac and on the Calendar of Aengus. The first is of the eleventh century; the second, of the fifteenth. In the present case, they are accordingly devoid of importance.

Colgan observed that the Natalis of Assicus, under that name, cannot be found in the Irish martyrologies, although the name is thus written in the Acts of St. Patrick; and, to account for this omission, supposed that he was identical with Assanus, whose feast occurs on the 27th of April, according to the Martyrology of Donegal. Yet, in the Martyrology of Tallaght, which he had under his hand, it is the second name given under April the 26th, disguised as Isaac which Dr. Matthew Kelly, of Maynooth (clarum et venerabile nomen), all but succeeded in rightly amending. His reading is 'Assach'; the true lection is As[s]ic. The transposition of the vowels (c/. Falertus for Felartus), and the error of a day may be attributed to the fact that the compiler belonged to southeast Leinster. As to the omission from the (metrical) Calendar of Aengus (end of eighth, and beginning of ninth, century), the only other ancient martyrology which Colgan possessed, suffice it to say that the bard preferred to commemorate foreign saints. For instance, at April 26th, the Tallaght Martyrology has six Irish names; the Calendar selects the first saint of the day, the martyr Grillus. At April 27th, the former gives four natives; the latter, the first foreign name, Alexander, abbot of Rome.

The investigation of the most reliable authorities regarding St. Assicus, first bishop and patron of Elphin, affords fresh proof that the closer the study of our ancient and authentic documents, the more evident becomes the truth of the popular traditions respecting the lives of our native saints.

J. J. Kelly.

Note: The introduction to this post was updated in 2022.

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