Sunday 18 January 2015


January 18 is the feast of a County Fermanagh saint who is also one of the lesser-known Twelve Apostles of Ireland, Ninnidh of Inismacsaint. An earlier post on his life can be found here, but below is a paper on his island home from an early twentieth century edition of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology:

By the Rev. J. E. MacKenna, M.R.I.A.

INISMACSAINT "the island of the plain of the sorrel") is an island in Lower Lough Erne, about ten miles from Enniskillen. From a scenic standpoint, it is one of the least attractive of Lough Erne's many islands. The tourist is quite satisfied with what he sees of it from the passing steamer; and the sportsman, lured through its waving grass by the chance of a shot, stands before its massive cross and crumbling ruins and asks in vain for their history. Had he or his guide a copy of the Martyrology of Donegal, he might read there, under the 18th of January, "Ninnidh, Bishop of Inis-Muighe-Samh, in Loch Erne; he was Ninnidh Saebhruise, who was of the race of Enda, son of Niall. It was he who was usually called Ninnidh." Cathal Maguire says of him: "A sage, a bishop, and a king was Ninnidh Mac Laoighaire. He went to heaven with his monks."

The acts of a number of different saints of this name are so confused and intermingled that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to determine to which particular individual certain acts, that are attributed indiscriminately to each, should really be assigned. According to Lanigan, Ninnidh was surnamed Lamhdearg, to distinguish him from Ninnidh Lamhglan ("the pure-handed"), who was converted by St. Brigid, and who administered the last sacraments to her on her deathbed. Colgan confounds the two saints, and falls into a number of errors, which have been copied by many modern writers. Shearman tries to identify Ninnidh of Inismacsaint with St. Mounenius, the founder of the famous school of Candida Casa, who obtained the release from slavery of St. Tigernach, in Wales.

Ninnidh was a cotemporary of Sinell and Columba, a pupil of St. Finnian of Clonard, and a school-fellow of St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, St. Molaisse of Devenish, St. Aiden of Ferns, etc. He was one of the twelve bishops supported on the milk of St. Ciaran's Dun Cow, and who took their day in turn at the quern grinding corn for the community. As he was a cotemporary of St. Ciaran (born A.D. 507), he must have been born about the end of the fifth or the beginning of the sixth century. King Leogaire was his grandfather (on his father's side), and he was killed by lightning on the plain of Kildare, A.D. 463.

An intimate friendship sprung up between Ciaran and Ninnidh at Clonard, which ripened with years and lasted till death. We have everywhere the most convincing proofs that these old saints, in their wild and laborious career, loved each other with a passionate tenderness, which is certainly not the least touching feature in their character. When studying the gospel of St. Matthew, Ninnidh had no book of his own: he went round amongst his schoolfellows to borrow one, but failed until he met St. Ciaran, who gave him his. Ciaran, when leaving the school of Clonard, left his Dun Cow with Ninnidh, saying that her hide would return to him. This cow had followed Ciaran when he fled from his father's house to enter a monastery. He tended her with the greatest care and veneration. When she died of old age, he had her hide prepared for writing upon. On it he wrote the work which has come down to us with the title “the book of the Dun Cow”.

After leaving Clonard, Ninnidh seems to have settled down in Inismacsaint. Ussher says that he was dwelling in a certain wood in Lough Erne about the year 530. St. Ciaran resided for some time with Ninnidh in Inismacsaint, about the year 534, whence he proceeded to visit St. Enda of Arran. Colgan quotes an old Irish distich which represents him as having been both a bishop and a doctor :

" Doctor et Antistes, rex, stirps Laogaria,
Proles Erhach, cum monachis Nennius astra petit."

Confounding him with his namesake, who was cotemporary with St. Brigid, he says he was a bishop as early as 522 A.D. It is more probable that it was only after he had been many years abbot of Inismacsaint that he was raised to the episcopal dignity, and charged with the administration of the extensive district extending from the confines of Devenish to Bundoran, in County Donegal. This district embraced "Domnachmor in Maghene"; that is the present Moy, lying between the rivers Erne and Drowes, in the south of Donegal. And in the Acta Sanctorum, pp. 113-1 15, Ninnidh is said to have been bishop of " Domnach Mor in Maghene." "Domnachmor" has not been identified. It may be identical with Tigh Tunny, in the townland of Cloyhore, on the south bank of the Erne, about half a mile from Belleek, and in the County Donegal. Here there is a small graveyard surrounded by a wall that is said to have been built out of the ruins of an old abbey. In the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick, p. 432, it is said that Ninnidh founded the church of Domnachmor.

While Shearman is clearly wrong in identifying Ninnidh of Inismacsaint with the wandering bard of the same name, our saint seems to have gone about the country very much. The hill of Knockninny, on Upper Lough Erne, is said to owe its name to him. A holy well is pointed out there, but no tradition connects it with St. Ninnidh. It is enclosed in a double structure of stone, the outer one measuring 5 ft. 7 in. by 6 ft. 1 in. There are no ecclesiastical remains about the hill, but it is literally covered with most interesting souvenirs of paganism. They furnish us with fine specimens of pre-Christian burials, from the utilization of the natural cave dwelling to the carefully packed up cromleac and the exposed tumulus.

It is hard to see how Ninnidh came to be connected with Knockninny; for although the Erne furnished him with a convenient highway by which he could reach it from Inismacsaint, it was not exactly the kind of land that a prince would be likely to bestow upon a neighbouring ecclesiastic. It is a barren mountain, but its commanding position affording, as it does, a view of seven counties probably recommended it to the pagan Irish, who loved to honour their worthy dead by interring their remains in the most conspicuous place in their locality. Their warriors frequently expressed, during life, a desire to be buried, armed as for battle, in a position to face their enemies.

"Spear in hand and helm on head, they tomb'd him stern and tall,
Brass-armed complete for standing fight, in Cahir Leary's wall,
With his gray angry countenance turned towards the hated race
Of Brasil Brec. Sun rises and sinks; but Leary from his place
Turns never; though its frown have dropped off from the fleshless brow,
The gaunt hand still sustains the spear; and still the angry vow
Sustains him. "

The mountain may have been, in the days of Ninnidh, a theatre of pagan worship, to combat which he secured it.

The date of St. Ninnidh's death is unknown. Dr. Lanigan, correcting a conjecture of Colgan, says it must have been long after 530 A.D. The Cloc Ninnidh, a small quadrangular bronze bell presented to him by Senach, the smith saint of Derrybrusk, was, in Colgan's time, preserved on the island. It is probably the bell referred to by Dr. Kelly, in his edition of the Martyrology of Tallagh, as having been preserved in his time at Castlecaldwell.

An extensive rath, or cashel, of mixed earth and stone surrounded the monastery. Its outlines are still distinctly traceable. No portion of the original monastery remains.

The Church. The small quadrangular church, measuring 60 ft. by 23 ft. 6 in., is not older than the fourteenth or fifteenth century. W. F. Wakeman assigns it to the twelfth century. The side walls are in a fair state of preservation, but both the gables have fallen. Its only feature of interest is a small window in the southern wall, measuring 4 ft. by 6 in. on the exterior, and splayed on the interior to 3 ft. A well-defined bead moulding is cut on two stones of the right jamb: all the others are perfectly plain. It would appear that this work was executed after the stones were placed in situ, and that the sculptor was interrupted before his work was completed. The church was taken possession of by the Reformers, and used down till the reign of Queen Anne, when, on account of its inconvenient insular position, it was abandoned for a new church at Drumenagh, on the mainland, and it soon fell into ruins.

The Cross. Adjacent to the ruins of the church is an ancient and interesting stone cross standing 14 feet high. The shaft is a massive block of hammered stone measuring 6 ft. by 2 ft. 2 in. Its arms are not confined by the circle characteristic of the Irish cross, but it exhibits unmistakable leanings towards that ideal that reached the climax of perfection in the crosses of Clonmacnoise. Its sculptor's name was probably enshrined in the traditions of Inismacsaint for centuries, when the oldest of our now famous Irish crosses was sculptured. It is an ideal illustration for the evolutionist a link in the chain of Irish artistic development. Its massive shaft and arms are plain and unadorned; no attempt at tracery or figure subjects merely a symbol of Christianity, with an evident craving after the circle that symbolises eternity. Du Noyer, who examined it, was of opinion that it is very old. It may have been set up in the days of St. Ninnidh.

Ulster Journal of Archaeology Vol 10 (1904), 113-117.

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