Sunday 14 August 2016

The Monastic School of Ross

Below is a paper on the Monastic School of Ross by Archbishop John Healy (1841-1918), in which he examines the history of Saint Fachtna's foundation. Saint Fachtna is commemorated on August 14 and a previous account of his life can be found here.


THE monastic school of ROSS, more commonly called Ross Ailithir, was one of the most celebrated in the South of Ireland. Its founder was St. Fachtna the patron of the diocese of Ross, who is commonly identified with St. Fachtna, the founder and patron of the diocese of Kilmore. This is, indeed, highly probable, seeing that both dioceses celebrate the feasts of their respective patrons on the same day, the 14th of August, and besides, both belonged to the same princely race of the Corca Laighde.

The territory of Corca Laighde, which takes its name from the ruling tribe, was conterminous with the diocese of Ross, of which, as we said, St. Fachtna, was founder and first bishop. It extended in ancient times along the southwestern coast of Cork from Courtmacsherry Bay to Dursey Head, and included besides East and West Carberry, the modern baronies of Beare and Bantry towards the western margin, as well as the baronies of Ibane and Barryroe on its eastern borders. Afterwards, however, this territory was greatly contracted by hostile incursions, especially by the inroads of the O'Sullivans on the west, of the O'Mahonys on the east, and thus the territory of Corca Laighde was reduced so as to include only West and a small portion of East Carberry.

The race called the Corca Laighde derived their name from Lugaidh Laighe of the line of Ith, uncle of Milesius, who flourished in the second century of the Christian era. The mother of the celebrated St. Ciaran of Saighre belonged to this family. Her name was Liaghain, latinized Liadania, and she was married to an Ossorian prince called Luighneadh, of which marriage St. Ciaran was born at the residence of his mother's family, called Fintraigh, in Cape Clear Island, about the middle of the fifth century. St. Fachtna was born also in the same territory at a place called Tulachteann, in sight of the southern sea, but as he died young about forty-six years of age late in the sixth century, he cannot have been born for many years after St. Ciaran. He is sometimes called Mac Mongach, either from the name of his father, or because he was born with much hair on his head mongach, i.e. hairy.

Like Brendan and Cuimin of Clonfert, he was nurtured under the care of St. Ita, the Bridget of Munster, and received from that wise and gentle virgin those lessons of piety that afterwards produced such abundant fruit. The whole of his family, however, must have been trained in virtue at home, for we are told that no less than seven of his brothers were enrolled in the catalogue of the Irish saints. After leaving Ita's care he went to the famous seminary of St. Finnbarr, at Lough Eirche, near Cork, where so many of the holy men of the sixth century received their early training. The name Fachtna (i.e.facundus, the eloquent), is expressly mentioned in the Life of St. Garvan (26th March) amongst those who crowded to that domicile of all virtue and of all wisdom.

Leaving St. Barry's academy, Fachtna founded for himself the monastery of Molana, in the little island of Dairinis, near Youghal, towards the mouth of the Blackwater. Shortly afterwards, however, he returned to his native territory, and founded on a promontory between two pleasant bays of the southern ocean the celebrated establishment now called Ross Carberry, but recently known as Ross Ailithir, from the number of pilgrim students who crowded its halls, not only from all parts of Ireland, but from all parts of Europe. It was admirably situated as a retreat for the holy and the wise, on a gentle eminence rising from the sea, in the midst of green fields, looking down on the glancing waters of the rushing tides, and smiling under the light of ever-genial skies. Here Fachtna "the good and wise," though still young in years founded, what is called in the Life of St. Mochoemoc, " magnum studium scholarium," a great college not only for the study of sacred Scripture, but also for the cultivation of all the liberal arts.

Amongst other distinguished teachers who helped to make the school of Ross famous was St. Brendan, the navigator, who later on founded the sees both of Ardfert and Clonfert. Usher tells us, quoting from an old document, that about the year 540 A.D., Brendan was engaged for some time in teaching the liberal arts at Ross Ailithir during the lifetime too of its holy founder. Fachtna and Brendan were intimate friends, for both were nurtured by the holy virgin Ita of Killeedy, and no doubt loved each other with the deep and abiding affection of foster brothers. It is only natural, therefore, that Brendan should go to visit St. Fachtna at Ross, and aid him with the influence of his name and character in starting and organising the new school.

It was at this period that an unforeseen misfortune happened to Fachtna, which to one engaged, as he was, would become a double misfortune. By some accident he became entirely blind, so that he could neither read nor see anything. In this affliction the saint had recourse to God and was directed by an angel to apply to Nessa, the sister of St. Ita, and then about to become the mother of that child of promise St. Mochoemoc, through whom he would obtain his eyesight. Fachtna did so, and miraculously recovered his eyesight.

It seems St, Fachtna must have acquired great fame as a preacher, and no doubt too as a teacher of eloquence, for the surname of "Facundus," which is sometimes used instead of his own name, was given to him. He was, it appears, clothed with the episcopal dignity, and thus became founder of the diocese of Ross, which, not however without mutations, has continued down to our own times, and still ranks amongst the independent Sees of Ireland. The saint died at the early age of forty-six, and was buried in his own Cathedral Church of Ross. The holy work, however, in which he was engaged, was continued by his successors, and for many centuries Ross continued to be a great school whose halls were crowded by students from every land. St. Cuimin of Connor, describes Fachtna as the " generous and steadfast, who loved to address assembled crowds, and never spoke aught that was base and displeasing to God" in allusion to his sanctity and eloquence.

His immediate successor was Conall, whose succession to Fachtna in the monastery and see of Ross was foretold by St. Ciaran of Saighre. Mention is also made of St. Finchad of Ross-ailithir, who seems to have been a fellow pupil of the founder at the great school of Finnbarr in Cork. These two saints were probably tribes-men of St. Fachtna, for we are told that he was succeeded in his See by twenty-seven bishops of his own tribe, whose jurisdiction was conterminous with the chief of the clann over the territory of Corcalaighde.

" Seven and twenty bishops nobly
Occupied Ross of the fertile fields,
From Fachtna the eloquent, the renowned,
To the well-ordered Episcopate of Dongalach."

The names are unfortunately not given in our annals in this as well as in many other instances where a succession of bishops with well-defined jurisdiction was undoubtedly preserved. O'Flaherty puts the same statement in hexameters

"Dongalus a Fachtna ter nonus episcopus extat
Lugadia de gente, dedit cui Rossia mitram."

Which another poet translates in this fashion :

" Hail happy Ross, who could produce thrice nine
All mitred sages of Lugadia's line,
From Fachtna crowned with everlasting praise
Down to the date of Dongal's pious days."

During the ninth century we find frequent mention of the "abbots" of Ross-ailithir in the Four Masters, and we are told that it was burned by the Danes, in 840, along with the greater part of Munster. In the tenth and eleventh centuries we find reference is made, not to the "bishops" or "abbots," but to the " airchinnech " of Ross-ailithir; and it is quite possible that during this disturbed period laymen took possession of the abbacy with this title, having ecclesiastics under them to perform the spiritual functions. Once only we find reference to a "bishop," in 1085, when the death of Neachtain Mac Neachtain, the distinguished Bishop of Ross-ailithir is recorded.

But whether it was bishop, abbot, or airchinnech, who held the spiritual sway of the monastery, and its adjacent territory, the school continued to flourish even during those centuries most unpropitious to the cultivation of learning. In 866, or according to the Chronicon Scotorum in 868, we are told of the death of Feargus, scribe and anchorite of Ross-ailithir, showing that the work of copying manuscripts was still continued in its schools. But we have still and more striking evidence during the tenth century of the literary work done at Ross-ailithir, for a manual of ancient geography,written by one of these lectors in the Irish language, is happily still preserved in the Book of Leinster.

The author of this most interesting treatise, as we know from the same authority, was Mac Cosse, who was Ferlegind, that is a reader, or lecturer of Ross-ailithir. A passage in the Annals of Innisfallen enables us to identify him, and his history furnishes a striking example of the vicissitudes of those disturbed times:

"The son of Imar left Waterford and [there followed] the destruction of Ross of the Pilgrims by the foreigners, and the taking prisoner of the Felegind i.e. Mac Cosse-de-brain, and his ransoming by Brian at Scattery Island."

This entry enables us to fix the probable date of this geographical poem of MacCosse, which seems to have been the manual of classical geography made use of in Ross-ailithir, and hence so full of interest for the student of the history of our ancient schools. This Imar was king of the Danes of Limerick, but in 968 the Danes of Limerick were completely defeated by Mahoun and his younger brother Brian Boru. Imar made his escape to Wales, but after a year or two returned again, first, it would seem, toWaterford ; issuing thence he harried all the coasts and islands of the South, and finally returned to Limerick with a large fleet and army. But he deemed Scattery Island a more secure stronghold, and having fortified it he made that island his head-quarters, and no doubt kept his prisoners there also. Scattery itself was captured from the Danes by Brian, a little later on in 976, and there Imar was slain; so that it was in the interval between 970-976 that MacCosse was kept a prisoner at Scattery Island, and ransomed by the generosity of Brian, who always loved learning and learned men.

This poem consists of one hundred and thirty-six lines, giving a general account of the geography of the ancient world, and was, no doubt, first got by rote by the students, and then, more fully explained by the lecturer to his pupils. This tenth century is generally regarded as the darkest of the dark ages; yet, we have no doubt that,whoever reads over this poem will be surprised at the extent and variety of geographical knowledge communicated to the pupils of Ross-ailithir in that darkened age, when the Danish ships, too, were roaming round the coasts of Ireland. It is not merely that the position of the various countries is stated with much accuracy, but we have, as we should now say, an account of their fauna and flora their natural productions, as well as their physical features. The writer, too, seems to be acquainted not merely with the principal Latin authors, but also with the writings of at least some of the Grecian authorities.

In the opening stanza he describes the five zones: "two frigid of bright aspect'' alluding, no doubt, to their snowy wastes and wintry skies, lit up by the aurora borealis and then two temperate around the fiery zone, which stretches about the middle of the world. There are three continents, Europe, Africa, and Asia ; the latter founded by the Asian Queen, and much the larger, because she unduly trespassed on the territories of her neighbours. Adam's paradise is in the far East, beyond the Indus, surrounded by a wall of fire. India "great and proud," is bounded on the west by that river, on the north by the hills of Hindoo Coosh. That country is famous " for its magnets, and its diamonds, its pearls, its gold dust, and its carbuncles." There are to be found the fierce one-horned beast, and the mighty elephant it is a land where "soft and balmy breezes blow," and two harvests ripen within the year. In like manner he describes the other countries of Asia ; the mare rubrum " swift and strong," andEgypt, by the banks of Nile, the most fertile of all lands. He even tells us of the burning fires of the Alaunian land, alluding to the petroleum springs around the Caspian. He names all the provinces of Asia Minor " little Asia," he calls it and says most accurately, that it was bounded on the west by the Propontus and the AEgean sea. In like manner he describes Africa, and derives its name from Apher, a son of Abraham and Keturah, showing that he was familiar with the Greek of the Antiquities of Josephus. He then goes through the various countries of Europe, giving their names, and chief cities. The principal rivers, too, are named, and their courses fixed, when he says that -

"Three streams issue from the Alps westward, and across Europe they appear
The Rhine in the north-west, the Loire, and the River Rhone."

Finally, he comes to Ireland, which, in loving language, he proclaims to be

"A pleasant and joyous land, wealth abounding ; the land of the sons of Milesius ; a land of branching stems ; the most fertile land that is under the sun."

So ends this most interesting manual of geography, written by an Irish scholar, in the Irish tongue, and taught to the students of Ross-ailithir, whilst the Danish pirates were roaming round our seas, and ruling with strong hand in Dublin, Waterford, and Limerick.

Of the subsequent fortune of Ross-ailithir we know little. In 1127 the fleet of Toirdhealbach O'Conor sailed to Rossailithir, and despoiled Desmond, as the Chronicon Scotorum informs us for it was not the Dane alone that our schools and churches had to fear often, far too often, the spoiler was some rival chieftain, whose churches and monasteries were sure to be spoiled very soon in their turn. Then came the greatest of all the devastators the Anglo-Normans, who laid waste Corca Laighde under Fitz Stephen, a few years after Bishop O'Carbhail went to his rest in 1168. Since that period the school has disappeared, but the see of Ross still holds its ground, after having gone through some strange vicissitudes of union and separation from the neighbouring dioceses of Cloyne and Cork.


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