Wednesday 20 January 2016

St Fechin of Fore and His Monastery

Below is an extract from a paper read to the Royal Society of Antiquaries in Ireland by a 19th-century Anglican writer, the Reverend George Stokes. Although this 1892 work examines the life of St Fechin and the remains of his monastery, I have omitted the archaeological details. Stokes brings an interesting perspective as he gives a glimpse into contemporary attitudes, particularly in his reference to 'romantic Irish notions' versus 'hard English facts'. Unlike Canon O'Hanlon, the Reverend Stokes has to convince his audience of the value of studying the miracle-laden life of Saint Fechin and I think he does this with good humour as well as good scholarship. In an era which was often marked by ill-tempered sectarian exchanges he pays a generous tribute to the Catholic hagiologists Friars Colgan and Mac Graidin. I also enjoyed the way in which he attributed the dissolution of the monasteries to the 'sixteenth century' sweeping over the land rather than to the Reformation! And the paper is worth reading alone for the wonderful story of the Anglo-Norman upstart who fails to show the proper respect for the native spiritual tradition and gets his comeuppance from St Fechin. It comes at the very end of the paper and I can't help wondering what the Anglo-Irish Establishment worthies who comprised Stokes' audience would have made of it.

St Fechin of Fore and His Monastery

by Rev. G.T. Stokes, D.D., Member of Council

I have undertaken to give the Society a sketch of St. Fechin of Fore and the existing remains of his monastery in the county of Westmeath, because it seems to me that this sketch will effect two purposes — (1) it will show the exceeding value of a great work far too much neglected by Irish students of their own past, history, I mean Colgan's "Acts of the Ancient Irish Saints"; and then — (2) because it will show the vast importance of going and seeing personally the places where these ancient worthies lived and the remains of their buildings which have survived the wreck of ages. Now first let me tell who Colgan was. He was an Irishman, a Franciscan monk, who lived at Louvain, in the middle of the seventeenth century, about the time of Charles I. But though he lived in Belgium, he had spent all his early life in Ireland, for he was born in the county Donegal, and knew this country thoroughly, so thoroughly in fact that his testimony is even still of the greatest value concerning the geographical details, the names and places and traditions of this island about the year 1600. Let us reflect on the importance of this fact. Here we have a native scholar acquainted with all the literature of this country who lived before vast quantities thereof had perished, and who stood at a point of time when Ireland was practically in exactly the same condition as it was five hundred years before, as far as the social conditions of the country were concerned. The sixteenth century had indeed swept over the land and nominally dissolved the monasteries and the monastic bodies, but still here and there, even in the neighbourhood of great English fortresses like Athlone, the monasteries remained and were inhabited, so that scholar still worked in tho Franciscan monastery at Athlone and produced there the translation of the Chronicle of Clonmacnois now in T.C.D., and at the monastery of Donegal the Four Masters were engaged in their great task of preserving in the folios of their vast tomes the ancient annals of this country. Colgan had a wonderful store of literary material at his command, as we shall see from his account of St. Fechin. Now let me begin by telling you the story of this ancient Irish worthy. Fechin of Fore was a native of the county Sligo, and was born some time about the year 600.

Some sceptic may, however, hero come forward and demand, how do you know that any such man ever existed? Is not his life and career only a piece of that Irish romance of which you are always boasting, bearing no comparison at all as to truth and reality with the solid facts of which English history is composed? Some such calm assumptions we at times hear from our English friends, and sometimes too from certain Irish friends, who in this respect are often more English than the English themselves. Well, we can produce most satisfactory testimony on this point. St. Fechin's existence and career and history are as certain as the existence of Bede or Augustine of Canterbury. Let me give a few authorities. Let us begin with Archbishop Ussher. He prints in the sixth volume of his works, as edited by Elrington, p. 477, an ancient catalogue of Irish saints extending from the year 433, and ending with 664. This ancient catalogue divided the Irish saints into three orders; the first which come with St. Patrick or belonged to his time; the second which belonged to the time of St. Columba. St. Jarleth of Tuam, and St. Kieran of Clonmacnois, or broadly the sixth-century saints; and lastly the third order which belonged to the seventh century, including among them Ultan of Ardbraccan, who was a bishop, and Fechin of Fore, Aileran of Clonard, St. Cronan, and many others who were presbyters. Ussher docs not find the slightest difficulty then in accepting the real existence of St. Fechin as proved by this ancient catalogue which in Usher's time was at least five hundred years old.

Next let us take up Giraldus Cambrensis, a writer who visited Ireland and inspected its antiquities in the reign of Henry II., as the appointed friend and guardian of the young Prince John. And here I may remark that it is scarcely creditable to us that so few Irishmen or even Irish students of archaeology have read or even possess the works of Giraldus Cambrensis on Ireland, seeing that they can be had in English in Bohn's series for the sum of 5s. Giraldus Cambrensis gives us express testimony concerning the existence and history of St. Fechin telling us in the 62nd Chapter of the second distinction of his Topography of Ireland, concerning the mill of St. Fechin which he made at Fore with his own hands, the churches which were sacred to the saint, the prohibition against women entering either the churches or the mill, and the punishment which overtook several of the soldiers of Hugh de Lacy, who having encamped at Fore for the night dared to disregard the laws of the saint and the reverence due to him. This evidence of Giraldus Cambrensis then is twelfth-century testimony showing that when the English came here St. Fechin was a well-known historical character, with his churches and his religious establishment. Now let us take up Colgan, and examine the two lives which he gives us. The first was written about the year 1400 by Augustine Mac Graidin, a celebrated writer of All Saints' Island monastery in Lough Ree, about ten miles from Athlone, and just at the mouth of the river Inny, where it discharges into the Shannon.

All Saints' Island is a beautiful spot, and possesses most interesting remains of Mae Graidin's monastery, and it was with great regret indeed I found that we were obliged on our excursion to Lough Ree, in the summer of 1890, to turn back without visiting it. Believe one who has tried it, you cannot find a more interesting spot than this ancient monastery where five hundred years ago Augustine Mac Graidin wrote the life of St. Fechin which Colgan has reprinted for us. Mac Graidin himself, too, forms a most interesting personality. He was a diligent student and a copious writer, some remains and manuscripts of whom still survive in Trinity College among the Ussher MSS. What a pity some member of our society does not take up his history and literary remains and distinguish himself by producing a monograph on the subject. Augustine Mac Graidin doubtless felt a local interest in Fechin as a Meath or Weatmeath saint. Fechin's monastery of Fore stands beside the river Glore, which river, according to legend, has a miraculous connexion with the monastery, as I shall hereafter show. The Glore falls into the Inny, and the waters of the Inny are within sight of the monastery of All Saints. But Colgan gives us still more ancient testimony than Mac Graidin. He tells us he had a number of ancient lives of the saint in the Irish language. One of these he had derived from a monastery founded by St. Fechin himself in an island off the Galway coast, and these Lives had originally been composed by St. Aileron of Clonard, or at any rate by some other contemporary of our saint. Out of these ancient Irish Manuscripts Colgan composed what is called the second Life of St. Fechin. It is, however, only Colgan's extracts in Latin out of the Celtic Manuscripts. If these ancient Irish lives still exist among the Franciscan records, either here or in Rome or among the Manuscripts of the Bollandists in Brussels, they would form if published a very precious record of religious life in Ireland more than 1300 years ago. And then to crown the matter of our somewhat prolonged investigation, we have the express statement of the "Annals of the Four Masters," that St. Fechin died in the great plague which swept over Ireland in the years 664 and 665, carrying off many of its most distinguished and most learned sons. I trust now that you can see we have even contemporary evidence of the life and work of St. Fechin just as good and sound as that which men have for the lives and work of English or Welsh saints of the same period.

Now let me give you a brief sketch of his life, St. Fechin was born in the south-western division of the county Sligo, that portion which now forms the diocese of Achonry, about the year 600. He came, like St. Columba, of a distinguished chieftain's family, and from an early period devoted himself to an ascetic and anchorite life. He soon became a founder of religious establishments which extended all over the central districts of Ireland. He founded the Abbey of Ballysadare in Sligo, which was called Termon Fechin, and he or some of his disciples founded the monastery of Termon Fechin, near Drogheda, which from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries became the favourite residence of the Primates of Armagh. He established island monasteries on islets lining the Galway coast, where he was the first man to preach the Gospel, and baptize the inhabitants, showing us, as his earliest Lives do, that Paganism prevailed in the extreme west of this country, even after St. Columba had converted the Highlanders of Scotland. These monasteries continued in the islands of Ardoilen and Immagia till the time of Colgan, and from them Colgan obtained the most ancient manuscripts connected with our saint's life. His labours seem to have dealt principally with a district of country extending from Dublin to Galway, or rather to Cong and Clifden, or broadly speaking the district now served by the Midland Great Western Railway. A careful study of his Lives is most interesting, as throwing light upon the social condition of this central portion of Ireland in the seventh century. We find him at Gort, for instance, in Galway, and Lough Cutra, a lake now included in Lord Gough's demesne. We find him again and again at Naas, in the county Kildare. We get again and again glimpses of the social life of the common people as well as of the chiefs; and we have most interesting information about the residence of the King of Leinster, near Naas, and about the rath of Naas, and the great cross which down to the seventeenth century used to mark the site of its church and sanctuary. We find him again at Poulaphouca, or else at the Salmon Leap, concerning which an interesting story is told, illustrating the intense devotion of St. Fechin, and then above all we find him at Fore, in Westmeath, where the very buildings he erected 1200 years ago can still be seen....

[account of the monastery and its subsequent history follows]

...And then lastly, there is the thirteenth-century monastery, either of the Benedictines or Cistercians, built by the Nugents after the Anglo-Norman Conquest. This is a fine specimen of Norman architecture, and embodies very different notions, and a very different state of civilization from St. Fechin's Church. It is very clear that the English builders wanted to have nothing to say or do with St. Fechin, save on one point, and that was, his lands and tithes and possessions, of which they completely possessed themselves. They built their monastery at quite the opposite side of the town from that where his monastery stood. They cleared out the ancient Celtic monks, and scoffed at their ancient history. Augustine Mac Graidin tells us in his Life of St. Fechin a curious story which illustrates the bitter hostility with which the new invaders regarded the ancient Celtic saints. You will find the story in the 18th chapter of Colgan's first Life. I give you a literal translation of it : —

" It happened in the territory of St. Fechin, after the invasion of Ireland by the English, that a certain Englishman was vicar of St. Fechin's Church. This man, detesting the Irish people, was accustomed to abuse St. Fechin, the patron of his church, with special contumely. But on a certain day when he entered the Church of St, Fechin, and knelt before the altar, a tall cleric approached to him. His body was emaciated, his appearance terrible, his face red with auger. The unknown rushed at the vicar as at a blasphemer, and struck him violently upon the chest with the staff he held in his hand. The vicar, astonished by his appearance, and sick on account of the intolerable blow, at once returned home, declaring that his assailant was St. Fechin whom he had abused and derided. As soon as he got to his house he took to his bed, and died in three days.'" And St. Fechin, you will observe, did not revive the blaspheming Englishman, which ought to be a warning to all, not only Englishmen, but Irishmen who scoff at their own country, its history, its scenery, or its antiquities; and with this healthful, useful, and timely lesson, I shall now conclude a Paper which has been unduly prolonged, but which will, I hope, lead many to make a personal acquaintance with a district of Ireland far too much neglected.

Rev. G.T, Stokes, 'St Fechin of Fore and His Monastery', Journal of The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol.II, Pt.1, 5th series, (1892), 1-12.

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