The cult of St Finnian of Clonard from the VIII to the XI century

St Finnian of Clonard died, according to the Annals of Ulster, in 549. With the possible exception of the sixth, seventh and eighth century annal entries and of the Catalogus Sanctorum all the evidence for a study of his work dates from or after the ninth century. It is however possible to say with reasonable assurance what traditions of his life were accepted about three hundred years after his death, and to trace the development of his cult from the late eighth century onwards. 

St Finnian’s Irish Life gives the most primitive account now extant of his career. All manuscripts go back ultimately to the same original, which was compiled by a Leinsterman writing in Leinster, almost certainly a monk of one of Finnian’s foundations, possibly Clonard, who drew on both oral and written traditions for his material. The Life is an unsophisticated collection of miracle stories, combined with extravagant claims concerning the spiritual power and prestige of the saint and giving full particulars, including a considerable amount of accurate information on local topography, of the churches which Finnian is reputed to have founded. The combination of primitive elements with a thoroughly materialistic outlook indicates that the Life may well have been compiled in the period of secular intrusion following the Danish wars. The opening passages of both Irish and Latin Lives relating to Finnian’s boyhood in Ireland and training in Wales, and the later passages on his reputed tour of Connacht and_ his foundations there contain a large amount of material either borrowed from other literary sources or forming the stock in trade of the hagiographer. The boyhood deeds may be paralleled elsewhere, and Finnian’s personal connection with the Connacht churches is highly artificial, The middle section of the Lives however, which deals with the saint’s work in Leinster, is different in quality: the thaumaturgic element is relatively small, the account of his activities more natural and consecutive, and it is clear on comparing all the texts that the scribe is dealing with material which has already been well digested. This Leinster section would seem to be based on detailed traditions which were well known and accepted when the Life was compiled, and which may therefore be of consider- able antiquity. 

Muiredachs’ Cross

When the Irish Life was compiled Clonard was by far the most important of all Finnian’s monasteries and the recognised head of his paruchia, which was by this time claiming property in northern Connacht. Nevertheless the Irish scribe records at some length the saint’s earlier foundations in Leinster. In the Latin Vitae, which seem to go back to an Anglo-Norman original, the space devoted to Finnian’s Leinster foundations is proportionately less, and Clonard and the Connacht connection absorb more attention. It is the considerably earlier Irish text which the more clearly presents the saint as founder of a group of Leinster churches before he settles finally at Clonard. In the Irish Life it is only ‘after founding cells and churches and monastic settlements in his native land in which he was born’ that he is sent to Clonard ‘to instruct the saints of Ireland.’ His mother Tailech, according to the genealogies, was from Leinster, and though his father’s ancestors were from the north, it was in Leinster that the saint was born and brought up. After his visit to Wales he returned to Leinster and was welcomed by Muiredach, son of Aengus ‘ri Laigen’. Finnian’s first important settlement was built on land granted by Muiredach at Achadh Abhall, now Aghowle in the south west of county Wicklow, where the remains of a later church and plain granite cross dedicated to St Finnian still stand on what is most probably the site of the original foundation. A few disciples settled near to Aghowle at Sliabh Condala, which may perhaps be identified with a site on the high land to the north-east, locally known as ‘The Churches’, and connected by present day local legend with the saint. The compiler of the Irish Life knew of the foundation at Condal, though it was overshadowed in importance by the larger community at Aghowle. He tells how the fasting of Finnian’s monks at Aghowle and Condal would save the people of Ireland from plague and disease. According to a legend based on a false etymology, Finnian was to foregather with his monks at Condal on the day of doom.

After fifteen years at Aghowle, the Latin Lives relate that Finnian moved to Mugna in Ui Bairrche, or according to the Irish Life, to Mugna Sulcain in Uí Dúnlainge. Here the king provided land for a monastery. Some years later Finnian left Mugna for Brigit’s settlement at Kildare, where he remained for a time studying and preaching. Then he took the ancient road which led from Kildare through the territory of the Fotharta into Meath. After an encounter with the king of Fotharta he crossed the Boyne and reached Escair Branáin meic Echach, where he remained with his familia. A church was built, and Finnian dug a well a little to the east of it: the place, later known as Ard Relec, became an important cemetery. But this was not the ‘ place of his resurrection’, and an angel moved him on to Ros Findchuill, later known as Clonard. On the opposite side of the Boyne, within walking distance of Clonard, a house for women was established in charge of Finnian’s sister Rignach, and from her derives its name Kilrainy.

Aghowle Church

It is significant that Finnian’s southern foundations are all connected with kings of Laginian septs, who, according to the Irish Life, were patrons of St Finnian. The Ui Bairrche and the Ui Dúnlainge were politically allied, and supplied many of the abbots of Laginian churches; the Fotharta were a tributary people. In connection with Finnian’s northern foundation, Clonard, and its two neighbouring cells, Ard Relec and Kilrainy, no king or royal house is mentioned. According to the Irish Life Finnian’s paruchia was at first linked with Laginian interests. The annals show decisively that from the end of the eighth century Clonard’s connections are all with the north, and the fully developed legend of St Finnian presents him as a Meath saint. There is some rather tenuous evidence in the annals prior to the ninth century to support the implication which the Irish Life makes of a dominating Lagin interest. In 748, by which time the annal entries appear to be reliable historical records, the obit occurs of Dodimoc, abbot of Clonard and Kildare. Father Félim Ó Briain possesses evidence to show that the abbots of Kildare were at this time recruited from the royal kin of Lagin. If this is accepted it implies a close link between Lagin and Finnian’s paruchia. The obit of abbot Dubhdúin Ua Faeláin is recorded at the year 718. Faelan is a common enough name, but is most frequently found in southern genealogies. More significant is the name of Gertidhe, father of abbot Fianamail (obit 736); this is rare, and is found only in the genealogies of Leth Mogha. Before 775 what evidence there is points towards a Laginian connection and there is no hint of northern interest. After this date there is nothing to suggest a link with Lagin and the evidence proves that Clonard is orientated towards the north. 

The IX century annals show that Clonard is now under the influence of northern politics and has become a Leth Cuinn monastery. Perhaps this change may be associated with Donnchad, king of Ireland, whose father Domnall was the first king of Mide to become king of Ireland. In 775 the annals record ‘a conflict between Donnchad and the familia of Clonard’. The cause of this conflict is unknown, but the annal entries after this date reveal certain significant facts: there is a new emphasis on the financial needs of the monastery, the abbots whom it is possible to trace are all from Leth Cuinn, and when the same man holds the abbacy of Clonard with that of another house it is never again with a southern but always with a northern foundation. In the year following Donnchad’s ‘conflict’ with Clonard, Finnian’s relics were being carried round, apparently in order to obtain the payment of a tax; and the abbot Dubhdábhairenn’s visitation in 787 of the churches in Munster owing allegiance to Finnian may have had financial implications. The stress on the collection of revenue probably indicates some secular interest in the abbacy. 

Towards the beginning of the ninth century the abbacy of Clonard was united with that of Armagh, the chief paruchia of the northern province. This union occurred only once in Clonard’s history, and at this time the king of Ireland was of the Cenél Eoghain, Niall Caille, king of Ailech. Niall was undoubtedly concerned in the career of Eogan Mainistrech, his spiritual adviser and abbot of Armagh and Clonard (obit 834). He reinstated Eogan in the abbacy of Armagh after he had been driven out by the king of Airgialla. Evidently there was some opposition to the victory of Eogan within the monastic familia of Armagh, but Niall succeeded despite this in imposing his confessor on the monks. Perhaps Niall was also interested in the abbacy of Clonard, which Eogan combined with Armagh. The advances of Niall and Armagh seem to go hand in hand. In 835 Niall ‘appointed a king’ over the Leinstermen, Bran son of Faelán, and it appears from an entry of the following year that the abbot of Armagh, Forindan, with his community, had been making claims as far afield as Kildare; for Feidhlimid, king of Cashel, took ‘the oratory of Kildare against Forindan … by battle and arms’. The king of Cashel was in his turn making inroads at this period on the property and perhaps the independence of Clonmacnoise, but he made no attempts against Clonard, which was firmly linked to the great northern monastery of Armagh. 

Clonard Abbey

As far as can be seen from the annals, the fortunes of Clonard seem to have been determined largely by the kings of Ireland. In the mid IX century the kingship of Ireland was held by the Ui Maelshechlainn king of Meath. Clonard is now quite independent of Armagh, and her abbot Suairlech is able to meet the coarb of Patrick on an equal footing as head of the clergy of Meath. In 851 and 859 he attended the royal assemblies of Armagh and Rahugh, and it is clear that Clonard under his abbacy had assumed the leadership of the churches of Meath. In the X and XI centuries the Ui Maelshechlainn of Meath are the dominating political force in the affairs of Clonard. Earlier, in the eighth century, when the abbacy of Clonard was joined with that of another monastery, that monastery was Kildare. X century Kildare was still in the orbit of Lagin, but Clonard has now come into close relation with another Leth Cuinn monastery, Clonmacnoise. Flann, son of Maelshechlainn, king of Meath and king of Ireland, built the great church of Clonmacnoise, according to an entry of 908, with the help of Colmán of the Conaille Muirthemne. Colman was abbot of both Clonard and Clonmacnoise. Perhaps it was during Colman’s abbacy, when the two churches were closely linked, that Clonmacnoise and Clonard effected that exchange of property of which the Tripartite life speaks. Under Caelechair, son of Robhartach of the Uí-Macc-Uais of Meath (obit 953), the abbacy of Clonard was once more united with that of Clonmacnoise. So it was again in the early eleventh century under Flaithbertach, son of Domnall of the Clann Cholmáin, a branch of the Ui Maelshechlainn of Meath. Uí Maelshechlainn influence at Clonard is again evident in the abbacy of Domnall, son of Maelshechlainn (obit 1019), the son of a king of Meath and of Ireland. 

Mary of the Gael

Owing to Uí Maelshechlainn influence it is easy to see why Finnian became established as a Meath and not as a Leinster saint. The Uí Maelshechlainn traced their descent from Conall Crimthainn, son of Niall: this line produced remarkably few saints, so Finnian had no competition from this quarter. His Leinster foundations were not far from Kildare and were within the orbit of St Brigit, and Finnian was unable to compete in popularity with the ‘Mary of the Gael’. Though there was no shortage of saints in Mide and Brega, none commanded a devotion as deep as St Brigit. Kells under the patronage of Columcille does not become important until the ninth century and Finnian was more than able to hold his own with Féchíne of Fore, Cianan of Duleek or Buite of Monasterboice.

By the IX century a reorientation has occurred in the history of Finnian’s paruchia. This was earlier connected with Lagin interests but is now shaped by the policies of Leth Cuinn. There are various possible explanations for the breakdown of the Lagin connection. How long Finnian lived at Clonard before 549, and whether the monastery was firmly established in his lifetime is unknown. He certainly did not die naturally from old age, but was carried off in the plague which attacked Ireland in the middle of the sixth century. It is impossible to estimate his age: the Irish Life gives it as a hundred and eighty, but apart from chronological details of this kind, which cannot be accepted literally, they say nothing to indicate that Finnian was a very old man at his death. If the plague cut off Finnian with a number of his monks in the midst of his work, it is very likely that the development of Clonard was for a time retarded. Clonard may at first have lacked the means to maintain close relations with the southern churches. Though Finnian is frequently mentioned in the compilations of later hagiographers, their writings give little impression of the great saint’s personality. In some cases this may be due to the state of the text (Finnian’s Latin Life has passed through several recensions); but it may on the other hand be due to a period of instability following the founder’s death. There is some evidence for a revival at Clonard under Finnian’s kinsman and successor, Colman moccu Telduibh (obit 654). There appears to have been no break in the abbatial succession at Clonard, but abbot Colman stands out as a great abbot in the minds of later writers, and the annals sometimes refer to ‘coarbs of Finnian and Mocolmoc’ almost as if the two men were co-founders. It is possible that the original foundation of Clonard was not very influential, and that its real importance dates from the seventh century. 

Secular politics suggest that there may always have been some tension between the southern and northern parts of Finnian’s paruchia, between those settlements founded under the patronage of Laginian kings, and Clonard, which was on the borders of Lagin, Meath and Brega. The kings of Tara for centuries laid claim to tribute from Laginian peoples. In the eighth century Lagin at last established its independence, and northern claims to tribute ceased. But the Laginians were unable to retain Clonard within the sphere of their influence. So long as the king of Tara could claim overlordship over the whole paruchia when it was convenient for him to do so, he made no special attempt to control Clonard. When Laginian independence was established and the southern churches outside his influence, the borderland Clonard excited his more particular interest. Within a few decades Clonard, the natural leader of Finnian’s paruchia, was, as we have seen, inevitably drawn into the orbit of Leth Cuinn, and developed as an important northern monastic city. 

It is clear that by the end of the eighth century Finnian’s paruchia was spreading. In 786 the abbot Dubhdábhaírenn visited his paruchia in Munster—an entry in the annals which is of particular interest, since the Vitae mention no churches in Munster with Finnian as patron. Clonard was, however, building up a connection in Leth Cuinn, which probably proved a useful compensation for losses sustained in Leinster. It is probable that during or after the eighth century she secured control of ecclesiastical property in Connacht. It is unlikely that Finnian himself founded any churches there, but his Lives tell how Cennfaelad, king of Luighne, granted a site at Achonry, where Finnian left the priest Nathi (commemorated in the martyrologies at 9 August) in charge of a church. The Book of Leinster genealogies of the Luigni of Connacht give two men named Cennfaelad, one the son, the other the grandfather of Dungalach, king of Luighne, who died in 771.  Clonard may have secured control of Achonry during the lifetime of one or other of these. At the time of the compilation of the Irish Life Clonard also claimed property at Druim Etir Dá Loch in Tirerril, and in Corpre Mór, both in northern Connacht. The compiler of the Irish Life of Finnian did his best to reconcile the tradition which he had received of a paruchia with primarily Lagin interests, and the state of affairs as it existed in his own day when the affiliations of Clonard were with the northern half. He opens his Life with a typical story of a vision seen by Finnian’s mother during her pregnancy. A flame enters her mouth and flies out in the form of a shining bird. First it sits on the branch of a tree in Leth Mogha, and all the birds and bird-flocks of Leth Mogha come to join it. Then it flies to Leth Cuinn— ‘The birds and birdflocks of Ireland came to it and it kept them with it’. By such devices the hagiographer seeks to smooth out any little discrepancies in his account. 

The cult of Finnian was already well developed by 800. The founder’s relics were enshrined at Clonard and were performing miracles. He heads the list of priests in the Stowe Missal litany and has a verse in the Félire Oengusso. His fully developed tradition presents him not only as a great abbot but also as a famous teacher, and saints who lived long after his death are sent by their hagiographers to study under him. Legends are told of the skill and sympathy with which he treated his students: of his tact in mediating between Ruadán and the jealous clerics who wanted his privileges cut short, of his special love for the contemplative Colum of Terryglass, of his shrewd and prompt action in tonsuring Senach, the boy who first came to the monastery with a raiding party and remained to become its second abbot. Many, so the story goes, entered his school and left it to found their own settlements, taking with them a symbol of the Master’s support:

Not one of those three thousand went from him without a crozier or a gospel or some well-known sign, and round these reliquaries they built their oratories and their monasteries afterwards.

Finnian is most typically described as ‘Master of the Saints of Ireland’. It remains to examine the date of this tradition of scholarship. 

In the late seventh century Irish schools were famous abroad. Bede speaks of the generosity with which Anglo-Saxon students were received and made free of both teaching and residence. The education provided was largely ecclesiastical in content: the manuscripts which Irish monasteries are known to have possessed from an early period are gospel-books, psalters, biblical commentaries, hymns and service books, poems, rules, penitentials, martyrologies, patristic texts, annals, hagiography, treatises on computation and grammar and commentaries on classical authors. There was no serious knowledge of Greek in mediaeval Ireland, but Latin literature was studied and produced, while a native school of poetry and prose writing flourished with the encouragement of the church. Tradition has it that it was Finnian of Clonard and his contemporary Enda of Aran who were the first of the Irish saints with vision to recognize the opportunity which monasticism provided for combining the discipline of the religious life with learning. 

This tradition was well established before the Anglo-Norman invasions. The Voyage of the Uí Corra, a tale which preserves XI century grammatical forms, describes the irruption of the three sons of Conall Derg on the scholastic community of Clonard. The Uí Corra had an evil reputation as church wreckers and murderers of clergy, and when they turned up one day at the monastery demanding admission it is not surprising that the monks ran away and left Finnian to face them alone on the green. They had, however, come repentant, and when they had read under a tutor for a year and Finnian was convinced of their conversion he sent them off to repair as far as possible the damage they had done. The community, cast in less heroic mould, had evidently been doubtful about their behaviour, for “when they had finished that <year> the assembly was thankful for their piety and their good manners’. Columcille’s Irish Life, copied from an XI century exemplar, which is probably an abridgement of a tenth or even a ninth century Life, has stories of Columcille at Finnian’s school, but these do not occur in the earlier Life of Columcille by Adamnan. The Irish Life of Finnian takes us back at least a century earlier than the Voyage or the Columcille exemplar, and here again the same tradition is found: 

Thereafter the saints of Ireland came to Finnian from every point to learn wisdom of him, so that there were three thousand of the saints together with him, and from these he chose the twelve high apostles of Ireland, as the wise know and the writings tell.

From material put together at Clonmacnoise ‘at an early date, probably not later than the ninth century’, all the Lives of Ciaran are independently derived. All extant versions of his Life tell how Ciaran went to study under Finnian of Clonard, and give stories of the school which suggest primitive conditions: a daughter of the king of Tara was reading the psalter in the monastery—a circumstance which a late text would omit; in the early days of its foundation there was ‘scarcity of corn and sustenance in that school’, so that it was necessary for some stout fellow to mount guard over a sack of corn when it was carried to the mill. Finally, the annals prove conclusively that Clonard had a reputation as a house of studies in the ninth century. In 830 they give the obit of Cormac mac Suibhne abbot of Clonard, ‘scriba et episcopus’ forty years later abbot Suairlech is described as ‘optimus doctor religionis totius Hiberniae’; Ferdomnach, son of Flannacán, was famous as a scribe in the tenth century, and Maelmochta, the scribe and abbot of Clonard, who died in 940, was celebrated as ‘ head of the piety and wisdom of Ireland’.

Finnian’s reputation as a scholar and Clonard as a centre of learning in the ninth century may be accepted with assurance on contemporary evidence. Earlier than this the ground for belief becomes less firm. In 665 the annals give the obit of Aileran the Wise, who is commemorated in the martyrologies at 11 August, and at 29 December, where glosses refer to him as fer léigind [Ed. Lector] of Clonard. This identification, if correct, means that the primitive stage in which the functions of abbot and master were combined in one man has passed, and a special ‘man of learning’ has been appointed with charge over the schools. But though the word Sapiens is often applied to the Master of a school, the glosses which connect Aileran Sapiens with Clonard occur in late copies of the text, and the date at which they were added in the original is unknown. Although there is no completely reliable evidence earlier than the ninth century for the scholarly reputation of Clonard, all the traditions agree that a pioneer school did develop there, and this is intrinsically probable. Clonard was geographically in a position to command students from all parts of Ireland and from oversea, and was built in a sufficiently fertile place to support considerable numbers. There may also have been a scholarly connection between Clonard and Kildare at an early date: Laginian kings were interested in Brigit’s and it would seem also in Finnian’’s paruchia, Finnian’s Lives send him to teach at Kildare, and the abbacies of Kildare and Clonard were for a time united in the first half of the eighth century. Kildare is known to have been an influential centre of studies, and it is probable that a common interest in scholarship, as well as political ties, bound the two great houses before the ninth century. Nor is there any pre IX century evidence for the kind of teaching provided at Clonard, but the suggestion made by the delightful story of Ciaran’s gospel, that education was primarily ecclesiastical and practical, has every likelihood of truth not only for the ninth century but also for the earlier period.

This examination of Finnian’s cult leads to a conclusion of more general interest. It becomes clear that by the ninth century the main features of the Finnian portrait are already drawn in. Clonard is an important Leth Cuinn monastery, and in the following centuries Ua Maelshechlainn interests encourage the development of the cult of Finnian as a great Meath saint. The school of Clonard enjoys a high reputation with its learned abbots, and a scriptorium which boasts famous scribes. St Finnian is remembered as a great teacher, and two of the most widely venerated Irish saints, Ciaran of Clonmacnoise and Columcille, are early numbered among his students. All later records of Finnian go back to a picture of him which is recognisable, indeed well-defined, by the ninth century: in this respect it may be proved that the development of Finnian’s cult has much in common with the traditions of other important Irish saints.” 

Kathleen Hughes

Irish Historical Studies vol. 9, № 33 (Mar. 1954),

pp. 13-27. Cambridge University Press