Thursday 20 November 2014

Saint Froechán of Bó-chluain, November 20

On November 20 there is an entry in the Martyrology of Oengus on the commemoration of what appears at first sight to be two Irish saints - Escon and Froechán:

20. Beseech Escon with Froechan
in front of strong (Slieve) Bloom,
with the mysterious sufferings
of the hosts of Bassus below the clouds.

to which this gloss has been added:

20. Escon with Froechán, i.e. Bó-chluain in Leix in the west of Leinster. Or bishop Froechan would be proper there, ut alii putant, a little east of Clúain eidnech. Idea dicitur Esconn 'impure,' because for thirty years he was unbaptized.

I wondered what this enigmatic reference might mean and thankfully Father Michael Comerford's diocesan history of Kildare and Leighlin was able to shed some light on the puzzle:

In this immediate neighbourhood, but within the parish of Ballyfin, is Buchlone, a place with which is connected one, if not two, of our early Irish saints. In referring to this place in chapter on Ballyfin, the following curious extract was omitted: it is from the Feilire of Aengus, at 20 Nov:- "Beseech Esconn and Froechan, before strong (Slieve) Bloom." To which the gloss in Leab. Breac adds: "i.e. pray Bishop Fraecan in Bochluain in Leix, to the east of Cluain Eidnech, or (it is) episcop Froechan that is here ut alii putant, escon, i.e. thirty years was he without baptism et ideo dicitur scon, impure, sed non verum. But Guid episcop Fraechain (is the true reading), i.e. Froechan was his name, and a bishop was he, and in Bochluain he is, i.e. in Leix, and in Druim Daganda in Dalaradia. He is called Escon, because he slew a King of Leinster, i.e. by the dipping with his staff which he made at him while he (the saint) was at Bo-chluain and the king in a bathing-tub at Naas, i.esca ideo dicitur quia aquam baptismatis infudit." Dr. Whitley Stokes remarks in a note, that the meaning of this last passage obviously is that esconn is a vessel used for distributing water, and that the saint was so called because he baptized many.

Rev M Comerford "Collections relating to the Dioceses of Kildare and Leighlin" Vol. 3 (1886)

So it would appear that we are commemorating just one saint, Bishop Froechán of Buchlone, County Laois, who was given the name 'esconn' perhaps because of a connection to a baptismal vessel. He would also appear to have a northern connection as he is linked to a place in Dalariada.

I turned to Canon O'Hanlon, this time in his capacity as a local historian, since he did not live to publish a volume of Lives of the Irish Saints for the month of November, to see what he made of this mystery. He writes:

Almost forgotten at present, but yet situated near the old coachroad between Maryborough and Mountrath, is the former burial-ground of Bocluain. It is surrounded by high hedgerows of hawthorn, with some larger trees of that species now shading the grass-grown graves, and several rude headstones there, are now scarcely visible; yet, in former times, some kind of a church must have been erected on this site. In our Calendars, a St. Fraechan, Bishop of Bochluain, to the east of Clonenagh, in Laoighis, seems to have been venerated on the 20th day of November. The period when he flourished is not known to the writer; but it must have been during or before the eighth century; for he IS mentioned in the "Feilire" of St. Oengus, at the same date, and assigned to the same place. A scholiast on this passage states, that besides Bochluain in Leix, he was also venerated in Druim Daganda in Dalaradia. According to one tradition, he came from the north, accompanied by a saint called Escon. Others think the latter term is a corruption of the text, and that Epscop should be read, which should simply imply Bishop Froechan. His place is described as having been right before Sliabh Bladhma, now the Slieve Bloom Mountains. The etymon Bo-Chluain, in Irish, has been translated "the Cow's Lawn" or "Meadow." The spot here referred to lies about two miles south-west from Maryborough.

Rev. John O'Hanlon, History of the Queen's County, Volume 1 (Dublin, 1907), 215.

Canon O'Hanlon's suggestion that this troublesome word 'escon' might be nothing more than a textual corruption of the word 'epscop' (bishop) would solve this conundrum but whether it is correct I am not sure. We can at least be sure, however that a Bishop Froechán was commemorated on 20 November at this place.

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chris said...


Can you provide me with any advice as to how I might determine the meaning of the place name Emo, a village in Co. Laois. The name may be related to a monastic settlement as in Omey Island (Iomaigh Feichin) in Co. Glaway

Marcella said...

I'm not an expert in this field at all but the Irish place names database has an entry for Emo. If you select the archival records option there are 26 individual handwritten and typescript notes containing a variety of speculations on the derivation of this name. Here's a direct link:

If there are Ordnance Survey memoirs or Letters published for this locality that might yield something too. Hope that helps, good luck.

chris said...

Hi Marcella, thank you for going out of your way to help. I'm a little confused by the handwritten notes. Does the post oifig stand for post office, and makes these entries? Again, thanks for your help.

Marcella said...

Hello Chris, I too found the notes hard going and am not sure of their context. It does mention a post office at this location, somehow I doubt that they commissioned the notes but without further info on the context it is hard to know why the P.O. should be so significant. I did look up the indexes of places attached to the various Irish calendars of the saints but without success. I also couldn't find Emo mentioned in Canon O'Hanlon's History of the Queen's County. One final suggestion for you is to contact the local studies section of Laois County Library. They have a website here and will have that all important local knowledge:

There are published volumes of the Ordnance Survey materials for County Laois as well, the handwritten originals are online but without an index are heavy going. If you can get the modern editions through a library it would be much easier. They often contain a wealth of info about the localities they studied and John O'Donovan was no mean Irish scholar.

chris said...

Thanks Marcella, your help is much appreciated.

Marcella said...

My pleasure, I was just sorry that I couldn't identify a saint linked to this locality, hope you can find out some more about the place.

chris said...

Yes Marcella, linking a saint with the place would have been great. What is intriguing is that the Irish version of the name, Iomaigh (or Iomaidh), is linked with saints in other locations e.g. Iomaidh Feichín (meaning Feichín's bed or seat) in Omey Island, Co. Galway. Futhermore, I believe Emy Vale in Co. Monaghan, has a similar meaning and is also linked with a saint. I also believe Clonmacnoise may have been called Iomaigh Chiarain at some point. Is it possible that the Gaelic version of Emo, does stand for a saint's bed, couch or set, as in St Kevin's Bed?
By the way, I believe the area that is now Emo, was originally constituted of four townlands, Imo, Tologhan, Irlyne and Killynere, all of which eventually came to comprise what is now Emo, or Emo Park.

Marcella said...

That was certainly the opinion of PW Joyce who wrote a famous 3 volume work on Irish place names. Whether the 'bed' meaning is still accepted by modern scholars I don't know. There is an article on 'The History and Antiquities of the Queens Co Barony of Portnahinch' in the 1905 volume of the Co Kildare Archaeological Society. It deals with Emo from pages 195-197 and is online here:

It mentions a local tradition of a monastery but then a footnote admits that the source is His Lordship's old gardener!

A recent Dictionary of British Place-Names published by Oxford Univ. Press has this entry:

Emo (Ioma) Laois 'image'.

So I don't know that the identification with 'bed' is universally accepted.

chris said...

Hi Marcella. What do you make of the reference to the pre-reformation baptismal font in the same section? Please see

Marcella said...

It seems to me (and mine is not an informed opinion) that the local tradition of a monastery remains unproven. Interesting that the church this font is from doesn't have a dedication to an Irish saint. There is no 'Saint Colman (or whoever) of Emo' to whom you could readily ascribe a bed or other features. I would be keen to see if there is any mention of a now forgotten patron or of a monastery in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs and Letters. Even the location of a once very important monastic site like Rathmelsigi can be forgotten over time so it's certainly not unreasonable to credit the local tradition of a monastery at Ardea. But without excavation to prove it lies beneath the ground claimed you can't be sure.