SAINT FORTCHERN AND SAINT FINIAN
The Myshall Drumphea area was evangelised by Saint Fortchern and Saint Finian
After 432 A.D. St. Patrick set out to bring Christianity to Ireland. He came ashore on the east coast at a place now called Arklow. At that time South Leinster was ruled by Eanna who was called Chinnsealaigh. Eanna was opposed to St. Patrick and his band sailed away and landed at the mouth of the River Boyne. While Patrick and some of the others left the boat to investigate the area St. Loman was left guarding it for the space of one moon (28 days). However he stayed for two moons and then set off to a new place on the River Bank where a young boy confronted him who asked Loman about his preaching. This place was Trim and the boy was Fortchern, son of Feidhlim, brother of the High King Laoire. Fortchern’s mother was called Scothnach and was a Welsh Princess. Soon the whole family having listened to the preaching of Loman was received into the Church and Fortchern was known as “Loman’s foster-son”. In return for the priceless gift of Faith it is said that Feidhlim at his baptism presented the principality of Trim to God, St. Patrick and St. Loman.
Fortchern became a scholar and a skilled craftsman in metal work and when he became a monk he devoted his talents to making sacred vessels, statues, crosses and bells and it was he who fashioned the famous image of the Madonna which was enshrined for centuries in the Monastic Chapel at Trim. St. Fortchern is depicted as a craftsman in a stained glass window at the Church of the Sacred Heart, Borris.
On his deathbed, St. Loman nominated Fortchern, his successor, as Abbot and Bishop Fortchern protested on the grounds that it was not right for him to be Bishop of Trim as it had originally been his father’s territory. He finally agreed to the appointment but resigned after three days and set off to live the life of a hermit. Leaving Trim he journeyed south until he came to the Barony of Idrone where he built his cell and church in the place that is now known as Killoughternane ‘Cill Fortchern’. By this time Eanna was dead and his son Crimthan had become a Christian so unlike St. Patrick years before the monk was welcome to make his home there.
Many came to seek instruction in literature and virtue and among the many monks who studied there was the Myshall born St. Finnian who became “Father and tutor of the Irish Saints” Fortchern also founded a monastery on a small hill overlooking the river Slaney called ‘Tullach – Fortchern’ which has since become known as Tullow. When Fortchern resigned as Bishop of Trim and prepared to leave he said he would never return alive so he was taken back to be laid to rest among his own in the year 500 A.D.
ST. FORTCHERN’S WELL
The well at Killoughternane was the necessary source of water for domestic purposes and would have been used for the baptism of the early Christians. It is situated in the field adjoining the ruins of the ancient Church. The well was completely lost sight of until about 1880 when a Mr. O’Connell, who owned the land on which the well was situated, was getting some drains sunk and found a corked bottle which contained a document written in some foreign language. The paper was sent to Rome to be translated and was found to indicate the position of the well. Together with his son, Patrick, Mr. O’Connell acting on the instructions and measurements found the well in a field a couple of hundred yards from the ruins. The well is four feet wide and is enclosed by large blocks of chiseled granite and is in an enclosure.
When it became known that the well had been discovered pilgrims came in great numbers to visit it. A man from Blackwater, Co. Wexford, who was suffering from a serious disease, was reputedly cured there, also a man from Kilcarrig St. Bagenalstown, who came there on crutches, left them behind him, and walked away with only the help of a stick, which he had picked up in the ditch. A Mr. Patrick Murray, who was Principal Teacher in Ardattin in 1932, told of seeing a woman being carried to the well by two others and after saying the prayers and using the water from the well, she was able to walk back without help. A priest told of seeing the road lined with cars for over 100 yards on each side about the turn of the century and about that time too the ruined church was reputedly filled with crutches and votive offerings.
After the discovery an old lady called Betty O'Hara who lived nearby was asked to look after the well and in a dry year when the water was running very low Betty decided to clean out the bottom of the well. In so doing she came upon a mysterious mud encrusted object which she presumed sacred. Later a travelling tailor began scraping at it discovering it to be a chalice and paten. It was shown to Dr. Comerford, a former Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, who had it restored and a magnificent job was done. It was then kept in the Bishop’s palace and became known as the ‘Braganza’ chalice.
The chalice measures eight and a half inches high and weighs over eighteen ounces and is made with silver deeply overlain with gold. The cup springs from open rose petals. On the base there is representation of the Crucifixion, the monogram I.H.S.' and also the word 'Maria'. Underneath the foot of the chalice is the Latin inscription - "F. Joanes Lucarme fieri fecit cum licentia superiorum 1595, ora pro eo" - which translated is - "Fr. John Lucar had me made with the permission of his superiors in 1595, pray for him."
The Fr. Lucar referred to was a Franciscan priest from Waterford. The Paten is also thickly overlain with gold and weighs over 3 ounces. It is highly probable that a priest, pursued by priest hunters in penal times, wanting to rid himself of incriminating evidence had wrapped the chalice and Paten in a surplice and deposited the bundle in the well. The fact that they were found in a mud-caked lump would indicate that they had been wrapped in some material. The chalice and paten are now kept in the Parochial House, Bagenalstown and were used on Sunday 13th October 1974 when a Holy Year Pilgrimage to Killoughternane took place. Thousands are reputed to have gathered from the parishes of Bagenalstown, Borris and Myshall to concelebrate Mass and Rosary around the old church.
Again the parishes of Bagenalstown, Borris and Myshall came together in Killoughternane from Friday July 28th to Sunday July 30th 2000 to commemorate the 1500th anniversary of the death of St. Fortchern. Mass was concelebrated by Bishop Laurence Ryan on the Friday night. Unfortunately Fr. O’ Shea P.P. was in hospital at the time and was unable to be part of the celebrations. The choir sang their hearts out, flowers adorned the ruins and all three parishes were represented in the Readings, Prayers of the Faithful, the Offertory Procession and Servers. The 16th century Killoughternane Chalice was used in the Mass. Myshall/Drumphea was represented by Readers: Helena Kelly, Eileen Eagers; Offertory Gifts: Ann Marie Fenelon and Servers: Eilis Eagers and Lydia Tracey.
In his homily Bishop Ryan said that Killoughternane was a celebrated place in its own right because St. Fortchern who was a contemporary of St. Patrick spent a great deal of his life here. ‘Fortchern himself could not have foreseen how wide an influence his monastic foundation would have’ said Bishop Ryan who noted how appropriate it was that this anniversary was being celebrated in the jubilee year. One of the most important things according to Bishop Ryan was that Christian faith has been lived here for more than three-quarters of a million millennia.
When the Mass concluded there was a procession immediately to the Blessed Well. A large colourful 'FAILTE' sign adorned the entrance to the well. The Rathanna Band led the way and played some appropriate music for the occasion. Everyone blessed themselves with the Holy water and many took some home. The atmosphere was very relaxed as people chatted and renewed old acquaintances. A ladies committee provided tea and confectionery in a large tent. There was music and singing and the entertainment did not conclude until well into the night.
On Sunday July 30th a family afternoon of story and song took place with the narration of the Killoughternane story by Aoife McMurrough Kavanagh of Borris House. Aoife is a professional actress and her narration was interspersed with music and song at various points. Sunday afternoon evoked the atmosphere of Killoughternane as an early Irish monastic community in a European missionary setting and the commemorations ended with prayer and hymn singing.
St. Fortchern would have surely have been in awe of the proceedings.
ST. FINNIAN OF MYSHALL AND CLONARD
BIRTH AND BAPTISM
Finnian, spelled officially with two n’s was born in the latter half of the 5th century, the son of Finntan and Telach. His father was said to be an Ulster man, and his mother a Leinster woman. While pregnant his mother had a vision of a flame coming into her mouth and going out in the form of a bright bird which flew between the two parts of Ireland drawing towards it the bird flocks of the whole country. When told of the vision Finntan knew at once that the child Telach was carrying was destined to be very pious. The vision symbolised the view that Finnian would be a great saint teaching the peoples of all Ireland. Tradition places his birthplace at Myshall Co. Carlow and local tradition places it at Rossa-curra in 454 A.D. The following extract is taken from Ireland’s Ancient Schools and Scholars: Page 194 by Most Rev. John Healy D.D. Bishop of Clonfert published in Dublin in 1890 “St. Finian was by birth a Leinsterman being born at Myshall in the barony of Forth County Carlow, not later than A.D. 470.” There is mention of Finnian having sisters Rignach and Richenn who set up their convent at Kilrainey North Kildare but their exact relationship to him is unclear. A reference to him “visiting his sisters” may have meant religious sisters!
Finnian was being taken to Tullow to be baptised when the party met a holy Priest named Abban who, moved by divine inspiration took the child and baptised him giving him the name of Finloch, because he was baptised at the place where two streams met forming a pool of clean water. The name Finnian was afterwards given to him as a more appropriate one. This spot has traditionally been identified as the confluence of the two streams forming the Clashavey River about 400 metres south of Aclare Bridge, in that townsland. A memorial was once erected near this place and was known as St. Finnian’s Cross but it was knocked in “troubled times”. People wishing to visit the place where St. Finnian was baptised should first seek permission from the landowners. Baptism was performed by pouring water on the head of the suppliant while he stood in the shallow water.
EDUCATION AND TRAVEL
When he grew up he was taken to Bishop Fortchern and was educated by him. Having had an initiation into education with Fortchern, Finnian founded three churches in the vicinity – Rossacrurra, Drumphea and Magh Ghlas which is accepted as Kylmaglush.
At the age of thirty, Finnian went to Tours in France where St. Martin had established a monastery on the River Loire in the fourth century. He then went to Wales to further his education. St. Cadóg of Wales is probably the one responsible for bringing Finnian to Wales as he came to Ireland to seek young clerics. Finnian was in Wales during a period of great battles (period of the legendary King Arthur) and he appears to have had to act as a mediator between the Britons and the Saxons. He wished to go to Rome but God’s angel advised him to return to Ireland where he founded a monastery at Achad Aball (Aghowle) which translates as “field of the apple trees”. There are ruins at Aghowle of a 12th century church, a bullawn stone and a cross known locally as St. Finden’s Cross. At Aghowle St. Finnian built a belfry in which he placed a fine bell. The story is told that the bell was shared between Aghowle and Clonmore and after Finian had gone to Clonard he had the bell transferred there even though Maedhoc of Clonmore had begged him to leave it behind. The morning after its transference the bell-ringer in Clonard was astonished to find it gone while the bell-ringer at Aghowle was equally astonished to find it there! Other attempts were made to bring it to Clonard but all in vain and it was finally left in Aghowle. Finnian was happy in Aghowle but an angel came to him saying “This is not the place of thy resurrection”.
Travelling north he went to Kildare to study under Saint Brigid. On his departure she offered him a gold ring but being of a generous nature he didn’t take it but later miraculously it appeared in his hands when he met a bondsman named Caisin who needed an ounce of gold to buy his freedom. The ring weighed exactly one ounce and Caisin was freed.
MONASTERY OF CLONARD
Finally Finnian came to a spot near the river Boyne in Co. Meath called Clonard. The founding father of monasteries generally acquired their sites by grants from Kings or chieftains but there is no mention of such a grant to St. Finnian. Clonard lay in an undefined border area between the ancient Kingdoms of Meath and Leinster and may have been wasteland or a pagan site. The size of the school established there and the numbers attending would indicate a considerable acreage. Finnian is remembered as a great teacher and many wonderful stories are told of the saints who studied under him illustrating not only the regard in which they were held in medieval times but also interesting aspects of monastic life. Columbkille and Ciaran of Clonmacnoise were some of Finian’s most distinguished pupils but in all 3,000 saints are reputed to have attended the school of Clonard. None of them left Finnian without a crozier, a gospel or some well-known sign and around those reliquaries they built their own churches and their monasteries afterwards. Clonard ranked second to Armagh in terms of religious importance and Armagh ranked first in Ireland.
The early monks led an abstemious life, rising early and praying frequently eating little and working much. Finnian slept on the clay floor of his cell without even a mat between him and the cold earth. One of his pupils Senach was saddened to see “Finnian’s meagreness and wretchedness so great that his ribs could be counted through his inner raiment” (Irish Life of St. Finnian). He also saw a worm coming out of Finnian’s side caused by a cold girdle of iron which he wore around him as a penance for his body which cut to his bone.
ST. FINIAN’S DEATH AND RELICS
Saint Finnian died of a plague on the 12th December 548 A.D. Several plagues are
recorded in the annals of Clonard. A former pupil Colomb was fetched to attend
him on his death bed and administer the last rites. Colomb founded a monastery
at Terryglass in Tipperary and was said to be a man of great asceticism on whose
hands the birds rested while he prayed. The Annals of Ulster record that the
relics of St. Finnian were carried on circuit in 776 and kept “at the chapel at
Lismember” as late as the end of the 17th century. It’s whereabouts are not
remembered today but is thought to have been near Kinnegad in the ancient parish
of Clonard. A small wooden bucket beautifully decorated with bronze-work and
dated 8th or 9th century was found in the Kinnegad River in the 19th century and
is now in the National Museum of Ireland along with a small part of a
house-shaped shrine from Clonard. There is also a bronze crozier preserved which
was recorded in the minute book of the Royal Irish Academy as “a Crozier found
at Clonard.” The crozier consists of a biconical knop surmounted by a bronze
crook with a rectangular drop. Traces of decoration on the crook show strips of
metal arranged in a lozenge-shaped pattern. Dated to the eleventh century
croziers such as this were made as shrines to contain the staff of the saint.
Situated in the Church of Ireland Church, Clonard is a font probably 16th
century, but commemorating the earlier monastic institutions of Clonard. Among
the stone carvings on the Font are those of a Bishop with a mitre and crozier
representing perhaps St. Finnian of Clonard. There is not a trace of Saint
Finnian’s monastic foundation at Clonard but the most likely site has been
suggested as Church Hill Glebe, Clonard which has a well quite close. Despite
the absence of monumental remains Myshall remembers her son with pride as “Tutor
of the Saints of Ireland”