Looking for Patrick

Patrick lights the Paschal Fire on the Hill of Slane. Richard King window, Church of St Peter and Paul, Athlone

A joint post – text by Robert, images by Finola

Last week we talked about Ireland’s very first saint – Ciarán (or Piran), who was born on Cape Clear. His aim in life was to convert the heathen Irish to Christianity, but they were having none of it: they tied him to a millstone and hoisted him over the edge of a cliff. Fortunately – and miraculously – the wondrous millstone floated him over to Cornwall where he became their Patron Saint and is celebrated with great acclaim on March 5th every year.

A typical representation of Patrick, older and bearded, in bishop’s robe, holding a shamrock in one hand and a crozier on the other. Skibbereen Cathedral

To return the favour of gaining an important saint from Ireland, the British have given Ireland their special saint – Patrick – and he is being celebrated this week in similar fashion. So here’s the story of Saint Patrick, seen through the eyes of an Englishman (albeit one with Cornish connections) and illustrated by Finola with a series of images from her collection.

Still traditional – looking fierce – but this one has beautiful detailing, including the interlacing surrounding the cherubs. St Carthage Cathedral, Lismore

Of course, there’s the real Patrick – the one we know through his own Confessio. The best summary we’ve come across of what can be deduced from the historical documents is the audio book Six Years a Slave, which can be downloaded from Abarta Heritage, and which is highly recommended (be warned – no snakes!). But what you’re going to get from me today is the good old-fashioned Patrick, with all his glamour and colour and centuries of accrued stories – just as he’s shown in Finola’s images.

Six Years a Slave – this Harry Clarke window in the Church of The Assumption, Tullamore, seems to depict Patrick tending sheep during the period of his captivity

Patrick was born and brought up somewhere in the north west of Britain. He was of Romano British descent: his father was a a decurion, one of the ‘long-suffering, overtaxed rural gentry of the provinces’, and his grandfather was a priest – the family was, therefore, Christian. In his own writings Patrick describes himself as rustic, simple and unlearnèd.  When still a boy, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and taken to be a slave in Ireland. He was put to work on a farm somewhere in the west and spent the long, lonely hours out in the fields thinking about the Christian stories and principles he had been taught back home.

Patrick is visited by a vision – the people of Ireland are calling to him to come back and bring Christianity to him. Richard King window, Church of St Peter and Paul, Athlone.  Read more about Richard King and the Athlone windows in Discovering Richard King

After six years he escaped from his bondage and made his way back to Britain – apparently by hitching a lift on a fishing boat. Because he had thought so much about Christianity during those years away, he decided to become a bishop which, after a few years of application, he did. Although he had hated his enforced capture he was aware that Ireland – as the most westerly outpost of any kind of civilisation – was one of the only places in the known world that remained ‘heathen’, and he was nagged by his conscience to become a missionary there and make it his life’s work to convert every Irish pagan.

Detail from Patrick window by Harry Clarke in Ballinasloe

When you see Patrick depicted in religious imagery he always looks serious and, perhaps, severe. You can’t imagine him playing the fiddle in a session or dancing a wild jig at the crossroads. In fact he was well know for his long sermons: on one occasion he stuck his wooden crozier into the ground while he was preaching and, by the time he had finished, it had taken root and sprouted into a tree!

Patrick with his hand raised in a blessing, accompanied by his symbols of the Paschal Fire and the shamrock. Harry Clarke Studio window, Bantry

Perhaps it was his severity that caused him to be respected: while giving another sermon (at the Rock of Cashel) he accidentally and unwittingly put the point of his crozier through the foot of the King of Munster. The King waited patiently until Patrick had finished sermonising then asked if it could be removed. Patrick was horrified at what he’d done, but the King said he’d assumed it was all part of the initiation ritual!

In Richard King’s enormous Patrick window in Athlone, the saint is depicted as youthful and clean-shaven. Here he is using the shamrock to illustrate the concept of the Trinity

Patrick first landed on the shores of Ireland just before Easter in 432 AD and established himself on the Hill of Slane – close to the residence of the High King. In those days the rule was that only the King himself was to light the Bealtaine Fire to celebrate the spring festival, but Patrick pre-empted this by lighting his own Paschal Fire on the top of the hill, thus establishing his authority over that of the High King (see the first image in this post). Somehow, he got away with it – and the fire has been lit on the top of the Hill of Slane every Easter from that day to this.

Another panel from the Richard King window – Eithne and Fidelma receive communion from Patrick. They were daughters of the King of Connaught; Eithne was fair-haired and Fidelma a redhead, and they were baptized at the Well of Clebach beside Cruachan

St Patrick seems to have been everywhere in Ireland: there are Patrick’s Wells, Patrick’s Chairs (one of which in Co Mayo – the Boheh Stone – displays some fine examples of Rock Art), Patrick’s Beds and – on an island in Lough Dergh – a Patrick’s Cave (or ‘Purgatory’) where Jesus showed the saint a vision of the punishments of hell.

Patrick blesses St Mainchin of Limerick. Detail from the Mainchin window in the Honan Chapel, by Catherine O’Brien for An Túr Gloinne

The place which has the most significant associations with Patrick, perhaps, is Croagh Patrick – the Holy Mountain in County Mayo, on the summit of which the saint spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting and praying, before casting all the snakes out of Ireland from the top of the hill – an impressive feat. To this day, of course, there are no snakes in Ireland – or are there? See my post Snakes Alive for musings on this topic (it includes a most impressive window from Glastonbury!)

Like many Patrick windows, this one, By Harry Clarke in Tullamore, shows Patrick banishing the snakes. This one has all the gorgeous detailing we expect from Clarke, including bejewelled snakes

When Patrick considered that he’d finished his task, and the people of Ireland were successfully and completely converted, he returned to Britain and spent his retirement in the Abbey of Glastonbury – there’s a beautiful little chapel there dedicated to him.

This depiction of Patrick on the wall of his Glastonbury chapel shows him with familiar symbols but also several unusual symbols – an Irish wolfhound, high crosses, and Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain

It’s logical he should have chosen that spot to end his days as it must be the most blessed piece of ground in these islands, having been walked upon by Jesus himself who was taken there as a boy by his tin-trading uncle, Joseph of Arimathea. St Bridget joined Patrick there in retirement and they are both buried in the Abbey grounds, along with the BVM who had preceded them to that place a few centuries earlier.

From the George Walsh window in Eyeries, Patrick returns to convert the Irish

A depiction of Patrick below comes from St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland in Castletownsend where he is shown alongside St George. The window dates from before Irish independence and is an attempt to show the unity of Britain and Ireland through their respective patron saints. Perhaps meant to represent friendship between the countries, nevertheless nowadays it seems to display a colonial overtone that is an uncomfortable echo of past mores.

The window is by Powells of London and dates to 1906

So let’s leave Patrick doing what he came back to do – a last panel from the Richard King window in Athlone shows him performing his saintly task of converting the Irish – one chieftain at a time.

A Saint’s Day – Ciarán and Piran

Horse and Cape Clear

I was born in the first half of the last century. Early memories of the 1950s include the regular journeys my brother and I made as small boys on the mighty Atlantic Coast Express via Okehampton to visit, first, our sets of cousins on Dartmoor, and then beyond – via the even mightier Great Western Railway – to our cousins in the depths of Cornwall. The latter visits were particularly idyllic: the cousins (generations older than us) had a small farm and a herd of cows which they milked twice a day – by hand. Following this they cooled the milk in a big steel drum by stirring it with a propellor (we were allowed to do this) before pouring the precious liquid into bottles which were then sealed with silver caps using a rubber device which impressed on them the name ‘Cove Farm’. Then, together, we set out  on bicycles to deliver the bottles to the doorsteps of every dwelling in the small village of Perran-ar-worthal.

Perranwell Station 1950s
Perranwell Station 1950s – disemabark here for Perran-ar-Worthal and Cove Farm! The header picture is a view of Cape Clear seen beyond Horse Island, taken from our own Rossbrin Cove

Perran-ar-Worthal (in Cornish Peran ar Wodhel) means ‘St Piran’s village by the creek’. Who is St Piran? He is the Patron Saint of Cornwall and we’ve met him before, briefly, in my account of St Ciarán, who was born on Cape Clear, and was known as ‘The First Saint of Ireland’. Even before St Patrick arrived to start his missionary work in 432 AD, St Ciarán (according to some records born in 352 AD) had been at work converting the ‘heathen Irish’. Unfortunately, his efforts were not always appreciated and Ciarán was despatched from the top of a tall cliff with a millstone tied around his neck! The story is elaborated by Robert Hunt FRS in his Popular Romances of the West of England first published in 1908. I have the third, 1923 edition on my bookshelves.

Robert Hunt Popular Romances 1923

On a boisterous day, a crowd of the lawless Irish assembled on the brow of a beetling cliff, with Ciarán in chains. By great labour they had rolled a huge millstone to the top of the hill, and Ciarán was chained to it. At a signal from one of the kings, the stone and the saint were rolled, to the edge of and suddenly over, the cliff into the Atlantic. The winds were blowing tempestuously, the heavens were dark with clouds, and the waves white with crested foam. No sooner was Ciarán and the millstone launched into space, than the sun shone out brightly, casting the full lustre of its beams on the holy man, who sat tranquilly on the descending stone. The winds died away, and the waves became smooth as a mirror. The moment the millstone touched the water, hundreds were converted to Christianity who saw this miracle. St Ciarán floated on safely to Cornwall; he landed on the 5th of March on the sands which bear his name. He lived amongst the Cornish men until he attained the age of 206 years…

Left – St Ciarán celebrated in modern stained glass, in the church at Caheragh, West Cork; centre – Ciarán at Rath church, near Baltimore, and right – St Piran is the top figure (with church and bell) in this window panel from Truro Cathedral, Cornwall

So, what is the connection between Saints Ciarán and Piran? Apparently, they are the same person! Charles Lethbridge Kingsford reporting in the Dictionary of National Biography 1885 – 1900 (a 63 volume work!) states:

…PIRAN or PIRANUS, Saint, is commonly identified with Saint Ciaran of Saigir. The names Piran and Ciaran or Kieran are identical—p in Britain being the equivalent of the Irish k. The history of the two saints is in the main features the same, though the Irish lives of St Ciaran do not record his migration to Cornwall…

Many writers make the same assertion about the orthophony of the name but – to be fair – others, including some saintly hagiographers, do not agree, suggesting we are talking about two different saints. As someone who has a birthday on 5th March (today) – the Saint’s Day for both Ciarán and Piran – I have no doubts about the matter. Here’s another source that concurs with the view that they are one and the same saint – The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume X (1874):

The labours of St Kieran were not confined to Ireland. He passed several years on the western coast of Britain, and, as we learn from Blight’s “Churches in West Cornwall,” his memory is still cherished there. Four ancient Cornish parochial churches bear his name : these are Perran-zabuloe, or St Piran-in-the-sand; Perran-arworthal; Perran-uthnoe, situated near the coast opposite St Michael’s Mount, and St Kevern, or Pieran, which in Domesday-book is called Lanachebran. St Kieran’s holy well is also pointed out on the northern coast of Perran-zabuloe. The parish church of St Keverne stands in the district called Meneage, which terminates at the Lizard Point, the southernmost land of England. The name Meneage is supposed to mean, in the old Cornish dialect, “the deaf stone”, and the reason given for it is that, though there are several mineral veins or lodes in the district, on trial they have been found to be of no value, and hence are called deaf or useless. Tradition tells that St Kieran inflicted on the inhabitants, as a punishment for their irreligion, that the mineral veins of the district would be un-productive, and the old proverb is still handed down, “No metal will run within the sound of St Kieran’s bell”…

St Piran's Church, Perran SandsAn image of St Piran’s Church which was built in the 12th century on the dunes at Penhale Sands, Perranzabuloe Parish, to replace the Saint’s original oratory which was buried by the shifting sands. The sands encroached on this church, too (the sands can be seen in the picture), and it was dismantled around 1800 and stone from the site was then used to build another new church two miles inland which was dedicated to St Piran in July 1805

To complement that little story of the saint in Cornwall, we have to visit Ossory, an Irish diocese which encompasses parts of Kilkenny, Laois and Offaly. There they also celebrate St Ciarán of Saigir on March the fifth: he is said to have returned from Rome after years of study, firstly visiting his native Cape Clear, then commencing his travels through Ireland until his bell rang of its own accord – this happened at a small hamlet in County Offaly, now known as Seir Kieran. There he set up a foundation, the remains of which are still visible – as is a holy well, a holy bush (bedecked with clouties) the base of a round tower, the base of an ancient high cross (now holding water which has curative powers) and a holy rock which was once said to have displayed the hand print and knee prints of the saint, now completely obscured.

barry-cotrell-st-piran

St Piran’s journey to Cornwall: “The millstone kept our man afloat” from The Discovery of Tin – a collection illustrated by Barry Cottrell

One of my favourite stories about St Piran tells of how he discovered tin smelting. He used as his hearth a piece of local stone; when he lit a fire on the hearth the veins of tin ore in the stone melted and a stream of silver ran out across the black rock, in the form of a cross. From that day to this the flag of Cornwall is a white cross on a black background, and Piran is the patron saint of tin and tinners.

marching-and-flags

Just about now in Cornwall a great celebration is going on in honour of the saint. There will be a procession to the original oratory buried in the sands, led by the Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd. Cornish flags – and the Cornish tartan – will be very much in evidence. The Cornish people have a great nationalistic spirit and have called for the 5th March to be an official public holiday. In a recent debate on Cornwall some interesting views were expressed on the place of Cornwall in a post-Brexit world, and the attributes of St Piran were symbolic of this – his inventiveness, his love of nature, and his belief in the inclusivity of all peoples in an international community.

Left – Geevor Mine, in West Penwith, one of Cornwall’s last working tin mines, now a museum of mining; right – an incarnation of the saint: Cornish author Colin Retallick stands in front of St Piran’s ancient cross on the saint’s day

St Piran lived to a great age. They say in Cornwall that he was ‘fond of the drink’ and met his end by falling into a well when walking home from a party. I hope it was a holy well! Today, seventeen centuries after St Ciarán / Piran was thrown from the cliffs of Cape Clear I am looking out to that island: …the winds are blowing tempestuously, the heavens are dark with clouds, and the waves are white with crested foam… There have been so many links between Cornwall and West Cork, ever since the Bronze Age, when Cornish tin traders brought their metal to mix with copper mined above us here on Mount Gabriel. Watch out for more posts about these links, and mark your diaries for an exhibition coming up in June in Uillinn, West Cork’s fine new gallery, of the work of artists from Cornwall. This will be followed next year by an exhibition in a Cornish gallery of the work of artists from West Cork. West meets West will forge new and lasting links between the two communities: links which would have warmed the heart of our shared saint!

Below – St Ciarán by Richard King, painted for the Capuchin Annual in the 1950s

Richard King Ciaran

Licking the Lizard – or The World Turned Upside Down

…Nothing was more natural than the desire to have a ‘last fling’ just before the beginning of Lent. On the Continent of Europe this became a public, communal revel, the carnival, but generally in Ireland the Shrove Tuesday celebration was a household festival with the family and their friends gathered about the fire-side, when the surplus eggs, milk and butter were used up in making pancakes, and even the most thrifty housewife did not object, as otherwise these perishable foodstuffs might go to waste. Some people kept the Christmas holly for the fire which baked the pancakes…

That’s my old friend Kevin Danaher again, reporting on the seasonal customs which we will be celebrating this week, described in The Year in Ireland Mercier Press, 1972. As he points out, the ‘last fling’ in Ireland is tame by comparison with Carnival in other countries, where it really can be the case of A World Turned Upside Down – authority is despatched to the sidelines while fools, mock kings, mock abbots and ‘Lords of Misrule’ conduct the proceedings. Hence the illustrations above, where malevolent hares get their own back on human hunters – and men lay eggs! Both of these are from the marginalia of thirteenth century manuscripts which are teeming with such anarchic visions.

Above – role reversal, a popular feature of carnival customs – and contemporary political upheaval which seems carnivalesque

An 18th century chapbook carries a remarkable and wonderful series of illustrations: The World Turned Upside Down or The Folly of Man, Exemplified in Twelve Comical Relations upon Uncommon Subjects. Here we find ‘the cart before the horse’, ‘children caring for their parents’ and many other thought-provoking reversals.

Back to Danaher:

…In Skibbereen, County Cork, after the fall of darkness on Shrove Tuesday evening the boys of the town amuse themselves by discharging home-made firecrackers. These were made by wrapping gunpowder in paper with a short fuse attached and enclosing the packet in a tight covering of the lead-foil lining of tea chests. Some, even more dangerous, were made from a short length of lead pipe stuffed with powder. These miniature bombs were thrown about the streets, at groups of people, when the sight of the glowing fuse flying through the air was the signal to scatter and run. The bang from these fireworks is said to have been very loud and when thrown at a belated wedding cavalcade, usually caused the horses to bolt, much to the public danger. Towards the end of the last century this custom was finally suppressed by an active police official… (ibid)

amorous hareJohn Dunton, an English writer and bookseller, visited Ireland and described various customs he encountered, in Teague Land: or A Merry Ramble to the Wild Irish (1698). Here’s one he observed in Naas, Co Kildare:

…The inhabitants of this place and the neighbourhood have a custom (how begun I could not learn) on Shrove Tuesday to meet on horseback in the fields, and wherever they spy a hare in her form, they make as wide a circle as the company can and the ground will permit, and someone is sent in to start poor puss, who cannot turn herself any way but she is repulsed with loud cries and so frightened that she falls dead in the magical circle, though sometimes she breaks through and escapes; if a greyhound or any other dog be found in the field, it is a thousand to one she loses her life; and thus after they have shouted two or three hares to death they disperse…

Hardly surprising, then, that the hares in the 13th century manuscript marginalia should want to get their revenge… And, unhappily, an evolution of this same barbarous sport, now under the name of ‘hare coursing’ is still permitted in Ireland! We live in a topsy turvy world, indeed.

better hunting haresAmhlaoibh Ó Suilleabháin, the schoolmaster of Callan, Co Kilkeeny reported a similarly unsavoury Shrove Tuesday custom in  1831:

…To-day is the day when cocks were pelted. It was a barbarous trick. The poor cock was tied to a post or a stone by a hard hemp cod, and sticks were thrown at it. He who killed it became owner of it. A penny was wagered on every shot. Recently this custom has receeded. I have not seen it for thirty years. It was an English custom…

Good to know that we can at least blame the English for that! Cock-throwing was also noted in the three volume Guide to Ireland published between 1841-1843 by Samuel Carter Hall (1800-1889), and his wife Anna Maria (1800-1881) …The day for this sport was Shrove Tuesday, a day which is still dedicated to games and amusements far less cruel and irrational… They went on to describe and illustrate pastimes more familiar to us.

hall's shrove tuesday

…The family group – and the “boys and girls” of the neighbours – gather round the fireside; and each in turn tries his or her skill in tossing the pancake. The tossing of the first is always alloted to the eldest unmarried daughter of the host, who performs the task not altogether without trepidation, for much of her “luck” during the year is supposed to depend on her good or ill success on the occasion. She tosses it, and usually so cleverly as to receive it back again on its surface, on its reverse, in the pan. Congratulations upon her fortune go round, and another makes the effort: perhaps this is a sad mischance; the pancake is either not turned or falls among the turf ashes; the unhappy maiden is then doomed – she can have no chance of marrying for a year at least – while the girl who has been lucky is destined to have her “pick of the boys” as soon as she likes…

We had better finish off with a pancake recipe – and who better than Monica Sheridan to provide a traditional Irish one?

Oh! Do I hear you asking where Licking the Lizard comes into all this? Here is Kevin Danaher to round things off:

…There was a common belief that to lick a lizard endowed the tongue with a cure for burns and scalds; this was especially effective if the lizard was licked on Shrove Tuesday…

hare with dog

The White Hound of Brigown

Fanahan head and half moon

Saint Fanahan is venerated in Mitchelstown, Co Cork. A holy well, a college, a couple of medieval churches and lots of Mitchelstown boys, all bear his name. What’s incontrovertible, then, is that he is the patron saint of Mitchelstown. Or is it? He’s also know as St Fionnchú of Bangor (pronounced Finn Coo, meaning white or fair hound). Same guy. He succeeded the Abbot of Bangor, Comgall, but departed subsequently to end up near Mitchelstown.

Fanahan well from bridge

St Fanahan’s Well

But wait – he is also the patron saint of Blow-Ins! At least, that’s what a local man told us when we visited Fanahan’s holy well. Apparently, Fanahan came from the North of Ireland but eventually settled at Brigown near Mitchelstown in Cork. He wasn’t a local, so why not? We blow-ins deserve a patron saint, don’t we? He’s also probably the most muscular saint I’ve ever come across! He was a warrior-monk, famed for both his holiness and his strength in battle. No gentle, man of peace here!

Book of Lismore

How do we know about these early Irish saints? In Fanahan/Fionnchú’s case, we can rely on a Whitley Stokes bookcomplete Life, recorded in The Book of Lismore, a 15th century collection of hagiographies and histories. Take a look at this video to learn more about The Book of Lismore. We are fortunate that there are translations – the one I am using today was done by Whitley Stokes in 1890 and is available online. Stokes, a distinguished scholar whose work is still vital, uses a kind of high Victorian language that manages to be a noble translation of the original Old Irish. 

You might perhaps want to make a cup of tea at this point – this is going to take a little while – Fanahan/Fionnchú’s is quite a story. Ready now?

Even in the womb, Fionnchú had extraordinary powers, once saving his mother’s life by causing a cloak of darkness to surround her. A great future was prophesied for him that

He will attack the valourous, He will overwhelm the guilty,

He will seek crowned kings, He will be the tree of Tara’s correction,

Who will benefit Liffey, And profit Leinster.

In his youth he was fostered by Comgall, the Abbot of Bangor. Fionnchú performed several miracles while he lived with Comgall: So these are Findchua’s three miracles after he came to Bangor, to wit, making flagstones of the horses of the king of Ulaid; and raising the earth around the king to his knees; and burning his tutor’s cowl by the fury of his anger

Fanahan White Hound

The white hound, Cusson Sculpture in Mitchelstown

Fionnchú then spends seven years as Abbot of Bangor. After spending the seven years Fionnchú is expelled from Bangor and from the whole of Ulaid [Ulster] because of the scarcity of land. Then Findchua comes from Ulaid, from the north, till he came, through the urging of an angel, to the men of Munster and to their king, even to Cathal, son of Aed, to Cashel; and the king gives him a welcome and ordains to him his choice of land in Munster. Said Findchua: Tis not permitted to me to have land save in the place in which my bell will answer me without the help of any man. Said Cathal : Search Munster till thy bell answers thee, and the place in which thou shalt set up, thou shalt have without contention with thee.

Fanahan cross back

After many vicissitudes Fionnchú and his band finally settle down in the place where his bell answers him. His enclosure is arranged, and his houses are covered, and his households are allotted to the nine other townlands which the king of Munster had in residence.

The King of Déise’s son comes to see him and Findchua gave him, as a soul-friend’s jewel, his own place in heaven. So then there came to him seven master-smiths who dwelt near him, and they made for him seven iron sickles whereon he might abide to the end of seven years, so that he might get a place in heaven; for he had given his original place to the king of the Deisi. He blesses the smiths of that place, and left them continually the gift of handiwork, provided that they should perform or begin it in that place, and palm of masters to them. The smiths ask him to give their name to the place in reward of their work, that is, Bri Gobann (Smiths Hill). Fionnchú spends seven years hanging on his sickles, unable to touch the ground.

Fanahan head

Fanahan, from the Ken Thompson Sculpture at the holy well

He did get one break when he marched off to battle to save the armies of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who were being attacked by marauders. In Fionnchú’s rage sparks of blazing fire burst forth out of his teeth destroying all before him. Returning to Brigown, Fionnchú resumes hanging from his sickles. He also spends the first night with any new corpse brought to be buried at Brigown, emerging in the morning, and allows his body to be eaten by beetles. All these mortifications of the flesh cause his fame for holiness to spread far and wide.

Fanahan Garda Station

The Fanahan sculpture in Mitchelstown is by renowned artist Cliodhna Cussons

He performs various other miracles, including breast feeding a baby, Finntan, the son of Nuada, King of Leinster. Eventually, he goes off to battle for that king too. After that, the King of Ulster invades Munster (his wife wants the Munster kingship for her sons, and was not to be gainsaid, apparently) and the King of Munster, Cathal, sent for Fionnchú (no rest for the wicked!) because he promised me that, whenever stress of war should be on me, he would come with me to battle to help me, having with him the Cennchathach, even his own crozier.

Head at Fanahan well

This head has been inserted into a wall at the holy well. He looks like a victim of the Head Battler

The Cennchathach (head battler) was duly deployed in a great battle. The Ulster men roared and bellowed like stags in heat, and charge from the top of the hill. The cleric seeks the slope beyond them and leaves the hill to them. The Ulaid bent down eagerly to deliver the battle. When Findchua perceived that, he took them in that position and allowed them not to rise up beyond their knees, and breaks the battle upon them against the height. Therefore Findchua left the Munstermen, from that time forward till Doomsday, to defeat foreigners and every host besides when charging down a height; and verily this is fulfilled. [Note to self – must let the Munster Rugby team know this vital information.]

Brigown Church

The old abbey at Brigown is associated with Fanahan. A round tower once stood here but eventually burned down

Having performed several miracles, and been merciful to the remaining Ulster men, Fionnchú returned once more to Brigown. However, his peace was short lived as, you guessed it, ‘foreigners’ started to make life very difficult in Connaught, so of course, they sent for Fionnchú. Then through the mighty powers of the cleric a terrible heat seizes the foreigners there, in the midst of their camp, from the iron posts that stood all around the camp, so that on the morrow there was found of them nought save their bones and their remains amidst their camp, and showers of their weapons near them. Wherefore Cuil Cnamrois (Recess of Bone-wood) is the name of the place from that to this.

Well fund

Although the tributes were supposed to last forever, nowadays a polite sign asks for donation for the upkeep of the well

After each of these battles, Fionnchú receives tributes and rewards (milch cows crop up a lot, as do boars and cattle), so that the wealth of his settlement grew. Several other battles are recounted. During one, …the howling and rending of a hound possessed him in his valour on that day. Although no heroes save himself alone were fighting the battle, the foes would have been routed before him, for he cut off the foreigners equally with his weapons and his teeth. Wherefore the name Findchu clave to him, that is, like a cú (hound) on that day was he.

Finally, weary of warfare, he undertakes a pilgrimage to Rome where he spent a year doing penance. We are told nothing further about his life, except that it is recorded elsewhere that he died about 660AD.

eel

The eel, Cusson’s sculpture

A note at the end of this account of his life says The friar O Buagachain wrote this Life out of the Book of Monasterboice. A further note elsewhere says it was actually written in the Friary at Timoleague.

Fanahan's Causeway

A unique 700m dead straight, raised causeway leads to the holy well. This unusual feature may be medieval in date.

Many legends grew up about Fionnchú in time, while the name itself transformed into Fanahan, still a popular boy’s name in this area. His feast day is November 25, and it is marked by a Novena (nine days of prayer) before and after that day, when pilgrims visit the well and do the rounds. Because this is a dark time of year, and people come after work, a benefactor has installed lights along the causeway which get turned on for this period. Besides the story of the eel, the well is associated with cures – at one point there were crutches hanging beside the well. The Dúchas Schools Project has recorded some details of the well from the 1930s – even a photograph.

Dúchas photo Fanahan well

Some writers have pointed out the similarities of Fionnchú’s deeds to those of Cúchulainn, the great hero of the early Irish sagas. Like Fionnchú, Cúchulainn is named for a hound, and like him he performs legendary feats of strength in battle. Some have even pointed out the crucifixion analogy of his time hanging from the sickles, not to mention the implications of his nights in the otherworld with the corpses and his return from the dead.

Fanahan cross

Ken Thompson is the same sculpture who carved the marvellous Air India memorial on the Sheep’s Head

I think the sculptors capture him differently. Ken Thompson emphasises the holy man of the well, with the eel (sighting an eel is a common feature of holy wells – great good luck attends it) at his feet and his crozier held as any bishop would hold it. But he also suspends him on a cross and gives him a sword. He places (the surprisingly soviet-looking) sickle on the back of the sculpture, along with the bell that rang when he finally came to Brigown. Coming over the little bridge into the glade of the holy well, it’s a beautiful but interestingly ambiguous image that presents itself.

Fanahan front

Cusson’s piece is all warrior and places him at the end of his life, perhaps contemplating in sorrow all the mayhem he has been part of. His crozier is between both hands, looking more like the Head Battler than a symbolic crook. It’s modelled on the medieval croziers in the National Museum, such as the one from Lismore. The White Hound (Fionn Cú) is one one side, the eel on the other. The figure is massive and solid, the gaze is faraway, the features grim. Every inch a warrior-monk.

Molaga of the Bees

bees!

I know I’ve said this before – but, wherever you find yourself in Ireland there’s history on the ground, and a story to be found! Recently we ventured into North Cork: so large is this county that it is a good half a day’s journey from Nead an Iolair, here in the far west, to Mitchelstown, beyond which lie the wild frontiers of Tipperary and Waterford. The purpose of our journey was exploration – archaeology, history, folklore – and we found ourselves drawn back into the time of the Saints.

1400 AD

Artist’s reconstruction of the site at Labbamolaga as it might have looked in 1400 AD: the smaller building on the right is the saint’s original oratory, dating from the seventh century. Note the antae – the projecting stone walls on either side of the entrance, supporting the huge verges. These features represent the builders’ wish to recreate in stone the very earliest timber churches: in every age of Christian church building the aspiration was to hearken back to ‘the time of the Saints’, whatever era that might have been . The building on the left is a later medieval Parish Church known as Templemolaga (image from Dúchas – The Heritage Service)

Well off the beaten track we found ourselves at an ancient site known as Labbamolaga, in the townland of Labbamolaga Middle. Labba Mollaga: it means ‘the bed of Molaga’, who was a saint living in the 7th century. He is said to have founded a monastery on this site and the earlier building here could have been his original church.

7th c entrance detail

through the portal

A seventh century oratory? Upper picture shows the entrance elevation with its pronounced antae, and the doorway which seems to be constructed from monoliths. It has been suggested that these stones could have been robbed from the megalithic monument which lies in a field to the south of the site. The middle picture looks through the entrance to the prostrate stone against the south wall: this is known as Molaga’s Bed: tradition states that the saint would lie on this stone at the end of each day’s work. It is also said to be his burial place and has curative powers, particularly for rheumatism. The lower pictures show the saint’s bed in 1905 (left) and in the present day (right) with its strange carving, which has been described as a volute

The architecture is fascinating: here we have one of the few examples remaining in Ireland of this most ancient church form, albeit in a ruinous state. In 1975 a similar ruin in Connemara was reconstructed to its likely original form at St MacDara’s Island, Carna. This gives us some idea of what St Molaga’s oratory could have looked like.

The oratory on St MacDara’s Island – early photograph (left) and 1975 reconstruction (right)

The site at Labbamolaga has much more more to attract the curious. There are the nearby megaliths: we would assume they considerably predate everything else, yet local lore tells us that they are four villains who stole the chalice and holy relics from the saint’s oratory but were caught in mid-flight and were turned into four pillars of stone by him! A further legend noted by John Windele, the Cork antiquarian and historian, in the 19th century relates to a holy well which once existed – some say under the saint’s bed:

…There was formerly a beautiful well of clear spring water here, but one day an old woman profanely washed her clothes in it; that night the well disappeared and was seen never more…

stone alignments

stones in graveyard

Upper picture: four standing stones in a field (known as Parc a Liagain, ‘Swardy Field of the Pillar Stones’ to the south of the ecclesiastical site – supposedly petrified villains who robbed the monastery. Lower pictures: the monastery site has become a burial ground – strange and fascinating stones abound. The centre stone is an ancient looking Celtic cross; the circular pile is an enigma – burial vault or old well house? The site also once contained Cursing Stones, but these are said to have been removed

What of the saint himself? He has a recorded history: born in Fermoy of parents who were well past child bearing age (a miraculous sign), he travelled to Scotland and then to Wales, where he became a follower of St David. Returning to Ireland he founded monasteries at Timoleague, West Cork (the name means House of Molaga), and at this site in North Cork. Sources say that in Wales he learned the craft of bee-keeping, and a colony of bees attached itself to him on his journey back to Ireland: the same sources credit him with introducing bees to Ireland, but the earlier Saint Gobnait – patron saint of bees – also has this reputation. Some mixing of hagiographies here, perhaps. Also confusing is the information given in catholicireland.net which gives the name St Modhomhnóg as ‘Irish Saint of the Bees’ and tells a similar story, although this saint returned to Ireland from Wales (with bees) and set up a community in Bremore, near Balbriggan, County Dublin – today known as the Church of the Beekeeper but also connected with St Molaga, who is there said to have procured his bees from St Modhomhnóg. To add to the confusion, the feast day of Saint Gobnait is on 11 February, while that of Modhomhnóg is on 13 February.

molaga

We hadn’t realised until we unearthed these stories that we have the saint’s name in our larder! Our favourite honey is known as Molaga – we get it from our local supermarket. There is nothing on the jar to explain the name (this is one of various spellings), but the honey is distributed from Timoleague (the house of Molaga) in West Cork. There is much more to the story of this slightly elusive saint, perhaps to be told another day.

Many thanks to Brian Lalor for gifting us his copy of The Capuchin Annual 1944. It is wonderfully illustrated with cameos of monastic life drawn by ‘Father Gerald’: the header is one of these. The 1983 postage stamp illustration below is by Michael Craig

postage stamp

Spioróg, the Sparrowhawk

Spiro watchfulWe’ve been calling it Spiro from the Irish work for sparrowhawk – Spioróg (spuh-rogue). Ours is just one of the many sparrowhawks in West Cork – this is not a bird that is endangered in any way at the moment. They’ve been classed as secure. There was a decline back in the old DDT days, but the population has fully recovered since then.

Spiro head

Look at that raptor face – the hooked beak and the piercing yellow eyes

This is one ferocious hunter; but efficient, not so much. In fact, it catches about one bird for every ten it chases. Exhausting! We have watched it plummet from the sky to land on or beside our bird feeder. We’ve watched it chase birds into the bushes only to emerge battered but empty handed. We’ve never seen it actually catch something, although no doubt that will happen in time. When we suddenly see every bird at the feeder or on the ground disappear, we know the signal has been given and Spiro is around.

sparrow

Robin among thornsTop: an adult male sparrow keeps watch for Spiro. Bottom: Small birds, like this robin, will take refuge in thorn bushes. Sparrowhawks will go after them but often damage themselves in the process

Sparrowhawks rely on their agility to create the element of surprise. They will fly low on the other side of a hedge and at the last moment swoop up and over it to where birds have gathered on a lawn. Or they will catch them in flight, having used trees to hide in until the bird gets close enough. They can weave through branches like Ninjas, ducking and swooping with supreme manoeuvrability. In the open they flap and glide and never hover – it’s one way of telling them from kestrels.

Spiro looking left

They nest in wooded areas and their eggs hatch in May and June – about the same time the smaller birds hatch too. This means that they rely on a diet of fledglings to feed their young, and of course fledglings are easier to catch than adult birds.

Spiro Oct 2015

This is the smaller, darker, sparrowhawk – we think it’s the male

But it’s the male who goes after the fledglings. The female is larger – almost twice as large – and she hunts bigger birds such as pigeons and even pheasants. Females are paler too, so we think Spiro is a female. But we’ve seen a smaller, darker one too – must be the husband. We’ll call him Spirogín.

Spiro neck swivel

Like owls, sparrowhawks can swivel their heads to look behind them

A backyard feeder, such as we have, provides a source of small birds for sparrowhawks. So here we have unwittingly colluded with Mother Nature to help out Spiro and her family. We console ourselves that the birds of prey are important too and need to eat – but in fact, as I said, we have yet to witness a successful kill.

fledging sparrow

This recently-fledged sparrow is a prime target

Ireland's Birds CoverThe sport of falconry was introduced in Ireland by the Anglo-Normans, who arrived in the 12th century. In his wonderful book Ireland’s Birds: Myths, Legends and Folklore (The Collins Press 2015), Niall Mac Coitir tells us that the

…male sparrowhawk was called the musket and was traditionally the hawk kept by priests. The word musket was later used for a crossbow bolt and later still for the new invention of the handgun. Kestrels were the lowliest of falcons, used only by naves or servants. Nevertheless, they had a use, as they were traditionally kept near dovecotes to scare sparrowhawks away, because they would not bother the doves themselves. It was even said that pigeons would seek out a kestrel for protection if a sparrowhawk was about.

Most of the references from Irish folklore and mythology don’t specify what hawk is being talked about. The word for hawk, seabhac (show-ock, where ‘show’ rhymes with ‘cow’), is used generically. But Mac Coitir looks to the behaviour of the bird for clues to find sparrowhawks in Ireland’s great sagas. For example, in the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) the warrior Cúchulainn warned his rival Fergus to stand aside or he would ‘swoop on you as a hawk swoops on little birds.’ 

Yellow finches

Our ‘little birds’ (green finches) keeping a wary eye open for Spiro

Robert talked about Spiro in his The Wild Side post, but we both thought she deserved a post of her own. Most of the photographs of the sparrowhawks in this post were taken, of necessity, very quickly and through a window, so I’ve had to work on them a bit. However, we were lucky enough to be lying in bed one Sunday morning when Spiro herself came and sat on the low terrace wall outside the bedroom window. She stayed for a while, alternately grooming and watchful.

Spiro Having a Scratch

We felt very privileged to be so close to such a fierce wild female.

Spiro on one foot