Ancient Irish Art – Moone High Cross

Wherever we travel in Ireland, we look for the routes which will take us past sites rich in history and archaeology. Finola wrote a while ago about places to visit close to the M8, which links Cork to Dublin. Last week we discovered a real gem, in County Kildare, about 40 kilometres east of the motorway – well worth the diversion.

Just outside the village of Moone is the finest medieval high cross that we have seen in Ireland. It is on the site of Moone Abbey (above right – a sketch from 1784 by antiquarian Austin Cooper), where a church is believed to have been founded by St Palladius, who came to Ireland in 431. It was later dedicated to St Columcille. The abbey ruins date from the 13th century, but the site must have been an important religious foundation long before this as the high crosses (there were once four here) are very much older. Historical sources differ on their age – I have found them variously attributed to the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th centuries! It’s safe to say they are at least 1100 years old.

Early views of the High Cross at Moone: left – an engraving from 1857 and right – a photograph from the Lawrence Collection dating from the 1890s. Both images show the earlier reconstruction, before the centre pillar was discovered and added

The Abbey was ransacked and burned along with the nearby Castle by Cromwellian forces in the 17th century and the high crosses were probably buried at that time. Two sections of the one we can see today were rediscovered in the Abbey grounds in 1835 and re-erected in the Abbey by the Duke Of Leinster. In 1893 a further section was uncovered and added to bring the full height of this cross to 5.3 metres. This is not quite the highest high cross in Ireland – Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice is 5.5 metres – but Moone is visually more impressive because it is so slender, and beautifully decorated.

The west face of the Moone High Cross seen in its present context in the ruined Abbey. The site has been well laid out and presented with the fragments of other carved stones discovered during excavations. A protective roof has also been constructed in a non-intrusive simple style

The carvings on the granite Moone cross are in relatively good condition and all the panels can be clearly seen. They are fine examples of medieval Irish art: stories from the Bible  are mingled with Celtic knotwork and some enigmatic bestiary. The figurative work is simple and stylised – yet somehow very modern in its execution.

Stories told in stone: Adam and Eve, Daniel in the Lion’s Den and the Flight into Egypt. The header image is a wonderful representation of the Loaves and Fishes
The Crucifixion, SS Paul and Anthony breaking bread in the desert and The Fiery Furnace
Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac and the Temptation of St Anthony the Hermit

A six-headed monster? Probably not a Bible story…

The site is very well interpreted by the Heritage Service: there are comprehensive information boards describing every carved panel.

Interpretation boards include full annotation for the panels on the High Cross, together with projected reconstructions of the other findings on the site

Top picture – looking towards the east face of the High Cross; below – the east and west faces of the cross wheel
Left – an interesting conjecture showing that the panels may have been coloured in; right – the friendly Keeper of the Cross!

Be sure to visit this site – and don’t forget to purchase your guide book at Wall’s Mini Mart in the village!

Saintly Pigs and Curious Carvings

This is the last in the series of West meets West posts, which have been running alongside the exhibition of Cornish artists at the West Cork Arts Centre’s gallery in Skibbereen – Uillinn.

The painting (above left) by Cornish artist Alex Smirnoff (courtesy of Bryony Harris) wonderfully illustrates the story of Saint Credan who, like Saint Piran before him, travelled from Ireland to convert the heathens in Cornwall to Christianity in the 7th century. Our Saint Credan is looking a little melancholy. That’s because he accidentally killed his own father and therefore spent the rest of his life as a swineherd in penance. As a compensation it has to be said that he raises very fine pigs! Behind him is the ancient parish Church of Sancreed, very accurately portrayed with its huge colony of rooks in the trees behind. In the same picture is one of the five ancient crosses in the churchyard. The church itself dates from the 14th century: the crosses may be much older than that.

Above right is from a fine study of the entrance to Sancreed churchyard – by the Irish-born ‘Father’ of the Newlyn School, Stanhope Alexander Forbes. It is titled ‘October’ and was painted in 1898. Sancreed was the church attended by many of the Newlyn School artists, and the churchyard contains the graves of some of them, including Forbes and his wife Elizabeth Armstrong. In the church is a memorial designed by Forbes to commemorate their only son, Alec, who was killed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Close by is a holy well, described by Amanda.

The crowning glories of this church, however, are the unusual carvings on the rood screen inside, which date from the 16th century. Last week I showed you the carving of the Chough – a bird closely linked with Cornwall and Ireland. Today I am illustrating some more of these carvings, and these show very strange beasts indeed! Some of them can be recognised as heraldic; no doubt they all would have carried symbolism when they were placed here five hundred years ago.

A basilisk is hatched by a cockerel from the egg of a toad. Be careful, because it has a lethal glare and poisonous breath. The basilisk carved in Sancreed church (above left) looks fairly personable, while Alex Smirnoff’s version of it (above right – inspired by the Sancreed carving) should be given a wide berth. Look at the shadowy figures – and the ancient cross – hiding in the background of Alex’s painting: typical of his work.

It’s not just strange creatures that are depicted at Sancreed (and there are many more of them) – there are figures as well:

Above are two panels with ‘Janus’ figures, male and female and – on the right – is a most curious character who seems to be a musician playing, perhaps, a serpent or a cornett. But he seems to be part bird, or wearing a feathered cloak. Below is a three-headed figure and a representation of an angel, perhaps: could this actually be Saint Credan hiding in his own church?

All this might seem a far cry from the exhibition in Skibbereen, which features three contemporary artists from Cornwall… But it certainly is art from Cornwall – and in a church which was founded by an Irish Saint; and a church, moreover, which had a special meaning for many of the Newlyn School artists, including Irish-born Stanhope Forbes, founding ‘Father’ of that school.

This series consist of twelve posts (including this one). You can link to them individually through this list:

Off to Skibbereen
A Saint’s Day – Ciarán and Piran
West meets West
Connecting with St Ives
A Watery Tale
Ways West
Sheep’s Head: Searching for Cornish Miners
Artists of the Western Coasts
Up and Running!
Forbes – An Irish Artists in Cornwall
Choughs – and their travels
Saintly Pigs and Curious Carvings

There’s still time to visit Skibbereen to see the exhibition of the Cornish artists’ work: West meets West is on until July 8 at Uillinn. Enjoy it!

Dividing the Day

We were on the trail of Saint Brendan, and the road took us deep into County Kerry. The spring days were blue, and the unparalleled scenery at its best for us. As we made our ways through the high hills and mountain passes we could see across to the coast:

20,000 years ago, ice shaped the Kerry landscape: a huge glacier flowed from here towards the sea. Looking down from An Chonair, the highest mountain pass on the Wild Atlantic Way; the peak in the centre is Mount Brandon, named for Saint Brendan. The header picture shows the burial ground and, beyond, the medieval “Brendan’s House’ at Kilmalkedar, seen through the burgeoning spring growth

Our first call was to the Cathedral in Ardfert, which was built in medieval times over a Christian monastic site founded by the Saint in the sixth century. There’s nothing left of that, but the later buildings, while ruined, are well looked after by the Office of Public Works, and an information centre is open through the summer months – certainly worth a visit.

Seen in Ardfert Cathedral, an image of a woodcut dating from 1479: it shows St Brendan and his monks on their epic voyage in search of Paradise. On the way, they discovered the American continent!

We could not miss a visit to the place of the Saint’s birth in 484 – Fenit, near Tralee – where a monumental bronze sculpture was installed in 2004. It was made by Tighe O Donoghue/Ross of Glenflesk.

It’s hard to do photographic justice to Tighe O Donoghue/Ross of Glenflesk’s sculpture of Saint Brendan in Fenit: he’s depicted as a ‘warrior saint’ (in the same vein as St Fanahan – or St Fionnchú – of Mitchelstown, Co Cork). Certainly he has a heroic character, necessary for someone who embarked on (and returned from) so many adventures

The culmination of our Brendan travels for this trip (there’s so much more yet to be explored) was the medieval site at Kilmalkedar, on the Dingle Peninsula. This monastic settlement is rich in history, and includes St Brendan’s House, and St Brendan’s Oratory. These alone are spectacular monuments, but there are further riches to delight the eye of Irish history enthusiasts. Finola’s post this week concentrates on the wonders of Irish Romanesque architecture, and the ancient stone-roofed church at Kilmalkedar is a prime example.

The wonderful Romanesque early Christian church at Kilmalkedar – right – with ‘Brendan’s House’ in the distance. The site is overflowing with medieval history. Below. the setting for the monastic site is stunningly beautiful. Note the large, very ancient cross and the holed ogham stone

A good while ago – in 1845, in fact – our excursion was foreshadowed by Mary Jane Fisher Leadbeater, who writes in her Letters from the Kingdom of Kerry:

…Our object to-day was not entirely to pay homage to Nature, though in the heart of her lovely works, but to visit the ruins of the wonderful church of Kilmelkedar, which we were solemnly assured “was built in one night by holy angels.” One evening, ever so many many ages ago, the sun, when he set in those wilds, saw no place dedicated to the worship of the Creator: he rose the following morning, and smiled upon a perfect chapel, with pillared niche and carved saint, and a holy fount, and massy cross! all ready for the purposes of prayer and sacrifice! A matin-call rang loud and clear over lofty mountain and lonely glen, to summon the devout and arouse the unthinking, where no vesper strain could sound the evening before; all gleamed proud and fair in the glad light, and the heart of man became purified, as the sacred bell called him to prayer! And this was the reward of the unceasing prayers of the holy Saint Brandon! Such is the legend…

St Brendan’s House – behind a locked and barbed gate!

We spent hours at the Kilmalkedar site and didn’t take everything in. We consider ourselves so privileged: we had it completely to ourselves, and the day was perfect. Saint Brendan treated us very kindly – except that his ‘House’ and an associated holy well were not accessible: although an OPW project which has recently undergone significant restoration, the enclosure around it is impenetrable with barbed wire and a firmly locked gate. However, in an adjacent field, a gate and path gave us free access to a large, flat stone which seemed to be covered in giant cup-marks. The National Monuments register describes it as a ‘Ballaun Stone’: it’s very fine, and I was delighted to find that Mary Jane Fisher Leadbeater had unearthed some folklore about it:

…This place contained a colony of monks; and well they knew what they were about when they fixed on this retirement; for, besides its real advantages, it commands a most lovely view of Smerwick Harbour, The Sisters, and Sybil Head. They need not want for fish in the refectory in the days of abstinence. It is situated in a sheltered recess of the mountains, fine springs around, and, another popular legend bearing witness, in the centre of what was once good grazing and tillage ground. A cow is the subject of this legend—a cow of size and breed suited to provide milk for the giant race of those days. We saw the milk vessels, and if she filled them morning and evening, she was indeed a marvellous cow. In a huge flat rock were these milk pans; six large round holes, regular in their distances from each other, and nearly of equal size; they could each contain some gallons of liquid. This said cow gave sufficient milk for one whole parish; and was the property of a widow—her only wealth. Another parish and another clan desired to be possessed of this prize; so a marauder, endued with superior strength and courage, drove her off one moonlight night. The widow followed wailing, and he jeered her and cursed her as he proceeded. The cow suddenly stopped; in vain the thief strove to drive her on; she could neither go on, nor yet return; she stuck fast. At length, aroused by the widow’s cries, her neighbours arrived, and the delinquent endeavoured to escape. In vain—for he too stuck fast in the opposite rock; he was taken and killed. The cow then returned to her own home, and continued to contribute her share towards making the parish like Canaan, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” The prints of her hoofs, where the bees made their nests, are still to be seen in one rock ; and those of the marauder’s foot and hand in another, where he was held fast by a stronger bond than that of conscience…

Kilmalkedar’s giant ballaun – the cups were filled every day by the widow’s marvellous cow, providing milk for St Brendan’s community of monks back in the day

One of the special features of the Kilmalkedar site harks back to its medieval monastic associations – a sundial. The ordered lives of the monks were regulated by divisions of the day (and night) – the Canonical Hours, also known as the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. These were the regular periods of prayer: seven daytime Offices of Lauds (at daybreak), Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline (at sunset) and a night Office of Vigils. This was the important work of the monastery, of course: constant and regular prayers. In between it the monks had to fit in all the requirements of daily life: sustenance, growing crops, brewing, beekeeping. And, on top of all that, Brendan and his companions undertook their peregrinatio all around the known world. No wonder a timepiece was necessary!

The Kilmalkedar sundial is a particularly elegant example – it’s probably my favourite item on this site: functional and beautiful, as all things wrought by the human hand should be. In such an evocative environment it certainly helps us to cast our minds back to the life and times of the travelling Saint. The antiquarian George Du Noyer visited the place back in the 1860s, and was also drawn to this particular artefact, accurately recording it for us in one of his exquisite watercolour sketches.

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.

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