Wednesday, 14 September 2016

'Greetings, kind cross..the medicine of our wounds'

September 14 is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and to mark the feast below is a short quotation from a disciple of Saint Columbanus, Saint Attala of Bobbio. Attala was not himself an Irishman but followed Saint Columbanus into exile from Luxeuil and succeeded him as Abbot of Bobbio:

E.Lawless, Ireland (1912)
Abbot Attala of Bobbio, who died in 627, was said in his Life by Jonas to have wept copiously when a cross was brought to him on his deathbed. 'Greetings, kind cross' he said 'which bore the price of the world [and] which carrying eternal banners brought the medicine of our wounds. It is you who smeared with His blood came down from heaven into this vale of tears in order to save the human race'.

Giles Constable, Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought (Cambridge University Press, 1995), 76.

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Sunday, 4 September 2016

The Left Hand of Ultan

The Scholiasts' notes to the Martyrology of Oengus record some interesting traditions about Saint Ultan, a holy man with a reputation for being particularly kind to children, whose feast is commemorated on September 4. One is his invention of a feeding bottle to nourish his young charges, the other is the story of his cursing of a foreign invasion fleet. The two are linked, because it is whilst being engaged in feeding his fosterlings with his right hand, he is forced to use his left to turn back the fleet, a matter of regret to the Irish ever since.....

Ultan quasi altan 'razor,' for his keenness and sharpness in, miracles and marvels. He used to be called 'the cleric of the children,' for after the (plague called) Buide Connaill every babe without maintenance was brought to Ultan, so that often fifty, or a hundred-and-fifty, of them were with him at the same time, and he himself used to feed them, i.e. the children of the women whom the Buide Connaill had killed. This is what Ultan used to do, to cut off the cows' teats . . . and pour milk into them, and the babes a-playing around him.
Thus then he used to wend, with his gospel on his back, (hanging) without any strap to it!
At that time Diarmait son of Cerball was king of Ireland. There happened (to come) a vast seafleet (of foreigners), which filled most of Erin's estuaries. Great fear affects Diarmait, and then he said: 
" Yon 'cleric of the children,' who wends with his gospel on his back and no strap to it, in him let us put our trust that the plague may be taken from us." So envoys are sent from Diarmait to Ultan. Then was Ultan feeding the children when the messengers arrived, and they tell him their errands.
 "That is a shame," says Ultan, " that ye did not leave me alone till my right hand was free. My hand that is free, i.e. the left hand, I will raise it against these ships. But if it were my right hand no foreigner would ever invade Ireland." So that hence is (the proverb) "Ultan's left hand against the evil!"
Thus F: Then was Ultan feeding certain children, with a bit of porridge in his lips and some of it on his finger, when the king's gillie arrived. Ultan spake not to the gillie, but uplifted his left hand.
 Then the gillie repaired to the king and told this to him, and the king understood that the cleric had raised his left hand in order to expel the fleet. Wherefore from that time to this is (the proverb) 'Ultan's left hand against every evil.'
The feeding of his fosterlings by Ultan he wrecked, destroyed, stranded thrice fifty ships with his left hand. Had it been the right hand that noble Ultan raised against them from us hence no foreigner would ever have come here or there into the land of Erin.
Moninne sang:
Not from a blow on anyone's face are all the clerics red: 'tis a little thing that whitens the visage of Ultan great-grandson of Conchobar.
'Tis great labour to strive for the height in the valley : to strive for perfection with the Son of God, this is what would make the cheeks white.

Ultan was elected into the abbacy of Mochta in Louth, and before him Fursa had been put thereout. 
Isn't this picture of the saint with his gospel on his back, miraculously hanging without a strap, feeding destitute children and having others romping around him a wonderful image? A hospital for babies in Dublin was dedicated to Saint Ultan, and in 1920 a book of poems and pictures was issued in its support. It is a most charming volume, and I have taken the picture of Saint Ultan above from it. You can read The Book of Saint Ultan online here.

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Saturday, 3 September 2016

Saint Balin of Tech-Saxon, September 3

September 3 is the feast of an English saint who came to Ireland with Saint Colman of Lindisfarne following the decision of the Synod of Whitby to adopt the Roman dating of Pascha. Saint Balin or Balloin is said to have been a brother of Saint Gerald of Mayo as Canon O'Hanlon explains:

St. Balin or Balloin, of Tech-Saxon.

The present holy man was a brother to St. Gerald, or Garalt, whose life has been given, at the 13th of March. The Martyrologies of Marianus O'Gorman, of Cathal Maguire, and of Donegal, record the festival of St. Balan or Balloin, at the 3rd of September. It is stated, that he came from England to Ireland, with his brothers, Gerald, Berikert and Hubritan, after the middle of the seventh century. He lived at a place, called Tech-Saxan, or the House of the Saxons, most probably because it had been founded or occupied by himself, or by his brothers, or by some of his countrymen, who accompanied him from England. This place is said to have been in Athenry Parish, in the Diocese of Tuam, and County of Galway. Castellan places this St. Balo in the province of Connaught, and his feast at the present day, as noted by the Bollandists.

Friday, 2 September 2016

The Care of Books in Early Irish Monasteries

September 3 is the feast of the bookish Saint Lon-garadh. Below is a 1909 paper from the journal, Library, on the traditions associated with Irish saints and books. It is an interesting read and includes many episodes from the Lives of our native saints, including the story of the book-satchels falling on the death of Saint Lon-garadh. The original volume includes footnotes which I have not been able to reproduce. We are dealing here with scholarship which is now over a century old, so I daresay not all of this paper's contentions would still be upheld by specialists in this field. There is still much to enjoy though for those of us interested in the saints of Ireland:


DURING the past fifty years much has been written about the learning and artistic skill of the monks of early Ireland. The evidence of this culture consists of records of the learning of particular Irishmen from the sixth to the ninth centuries, of the relics of their skill, and of the attraction Ireland had at this time for English students. The English crowded the Irish schools, although the Canterbury school was not full. The city of Armagh was divided into three sections, one being called Trian-Saxon, the Saxon's third, from the great number of Saxon students living there. Bede's account of the visits of Englishmen to Ireland, and of the willingness of the Irish to receive, feed, and lend them books is too well known for quotation here.

In some respects the evidence of book-culture in Ireland in these early centuries is inconsistent. The well-known quarrel over the Cathach Psalter, and the great esteem in which scribes were held, suggest that books were very scarce; and the practice of enshrining them in cumdachs, or book-covers, points to the same conclusion. On the other hand Bede's statement that the Irish had enough books to lend English students by no means indicates a scarcity of them; nor does the fact that the ' Annals of the Four Masters ' record the deaths of as many as sixty-one eminent scribes, forty of whom belong to the eighth century. In some of the monasteries a special room for books was provided, for the ' Annals of Tigernach ' refer to the house of manuscripts ; an apartment of this kind is particularly mentioned as being saved from the flames when Armagh monastery was burned (1020). Another fact suggesting an abundance of books was the appointment of a librarian, which sometimes took place. Although a special bookroom and officer are only to be met with much later than the best age of Irish monachism, yet we may reasonably assume them to be the natural culmination of an old and established practice of making and using books.

Such statements, however, are not necessarily contradictory. Manuscripts over which the cleverest scribes and illuminators had spent much time and pains would be jealously preserved in shrines ; still, when we remember how many precious fruits of the past must have perished, the number of beautiful Irish manuscripts still extant goes to prove that even books of this character existed in fair numbers. 'Workaday' copies of books would be made as well, maybe in comparatively large numbers, and these no doubt would be used very freely. Besides books properly so called, the religious used waxed tablets of wood, which might be confounded with books, and were indeed books in which the fugitive pieces of the time were written. A story about St. Ciaran tells us that he wrote on waxed tablets, which are called in one place ' polaire-Chiarain ' (Ciaran's tablets), while in two other places the whole collection of tablets is called 'leabhar', i.e. a book. Considering all things Bede was without doubt quite correct in saying the Irish had enough books to lend to foreign students.

We know little of the library economy of the early Irish if, indeed, such a term may be applied at all in connexion with their use of books. But fortunately relics of two of their means of preserving books survive satchels and cumdachs.

They used satchels or wallets to carry their books about with them. We are told Patrick once met a party of clerics, accompanied by gillies, with books in their girdles ; and he gave them the hide he had sat and slept on for twenty years to make a wallet. Columba is said to have made satchels. When these satchels were not carried they were hung upon pegs driven into the wall of the monastery chamber. One story in Adamnan's 'Life of Columba ' tells us that on the death of a scholar and book-miser named Longarad, whose person and books had been cursed by Columba, all the book- satchels in Ireland slipped off their pegs.

A modern writer visiting the Abyssinian convent of Souriani has seen a room which, when we remember the connection between Egyptian and Celtic monachism, we cannot help thinking must closely resemble an ancient Irish cell. In the room the disposition of the manuscripts was very original.
'A wooden shelf was carried in the Egyptian style round the walls, at the height of the top of the door. . . . Underneath the shelf various long wooden pegs projected from the wall ; they were each about a foot and a half long, and on them hung the Abyssinian manuscripts, of which this curious library was entirely composed. The books of Abyssinia are bound in the usual way, sometimes in red leather, and sometimes in wooden boards, which are occasionally elaborately carved in rude and coarse devices : they are then enclosed in a case tied up with leathern thongs ; to this case is attached a strap for the convenience of carrying the volume over the shoulders, and by these straps the books were hung to the wooden pegs, three or four on a peg, or more if the books were small : their usual size was that of a small, very thick quarto. The appearance of the room, fitted up in this style, together with the presence of long staves, such as the monks of all the oriental churches lean upon at the time of prayer, resembled less a library than a barrack or guard-room, where the soldiers had hung their knapsacks and cartridge boxes against the wall.'
The few old satchels which are extant are black with age, and the characteristic decoration of diagonal lines and interlaced markings is nearly worn away. Three of them are preserved in England and Ireland : those of the Book of Armagh, in Trinity College, Dublin, of the Irish missal, in Corpus Christi, Cambridge, and of St. Moedoc's Reliquary, in the museum of the Royal Irish Academy. The Cambridge wallet is decorated with diagonal lines and circles ; leather straps are fixed to it, by which it was slung round the neck. The Armagh wallet is made of one piece of leather, folded to form a case a foot long, a little more than a foot broad, and two-and-a-half inches thick. The Book of Armagh does not fit it properly. Interlaced work and zoomorphs decorate the leather. Remains of rough straps are still attached to the sides.

The second special feature of Irish book-economy was the preservation of manuscripts in cumdachs, or rectangular boxes, made just large enough for the manuscripts they are intended to enshrine. As in the case of the wallet, the cumdach was not peculiar to Ireland, although the finest examples which have come down to us were made in that country. They are referred to several times in early Irish annals. Bishop Assicus is said to have made quadrangular book-covers in honour of Patrick. In the 'Annals of the Four Masters' is recorded, under the year 937, a reference to the cumdach of the Book of Armagh. 'Canoin Phadraig was covered by Donchadh, son of Flann, king of Ireland.' In 1006 the 'Annals' note that the Book of Kells 'the Great Gospel of Columb Cille' was stolen at night from the western erdomh of the Great Church of Ceannanus. This was the principal relic of the western world, on account of its singular cover ; and it was found after twenty nights and two months, its gold having been stolen off it, and a sod over it.' These cumdachs are now lost; so also is the jewelled case of the Gospels of St. Arnoul at Metz, and that belonging to the Book of Durrow.

By good hap, several cumdachs of the greatest interest and importance are still preserved for our inspection. One of them, the Silver Shrine of St. Patrick's Gospels which, by the way, did not belong to Patrick is a very peculiar case. It consists of three covers : the first, or inner, is of yew, and was perhaps made in the fifth century ; the second, of copper, silver-plated, is of later make ; and the third, or outermost, is of silver, and was probably made in the fourteenth century. The cumdach of the Stowe Missal (1023) is a much more beautiful example. It is of oak, covered with plates of silver. The lower or more ancient side bears a cross within a rectangular frame. In the centre of the cross is a crystal set in an oval frame. The decoration of the four panels consists of metal plates, the ornament being a chequer-work of squares and triangles. The lid has a similar cross and frame, but the cross is set with pearls and metal bosses, a crystal in the centre, and a large jewel at each end of the cross. The panels consist of silver-gilt plates embellished with figures of saints. The sides, which are decorated with enamelled bosses and open-work designs, are imperfect. On the box are inscriptions in Irish, such as the following : 'Pray for Dunchad, descendant of Taccan, of the family of Cluain, who made this ' ; ' A blessing of God on every soul according to its merit'; 'Pray for Donchadh, son of Brian, for the King of Ireland'; 'And for Macc Raith, descendant of Donnchad, for the King of Cashel.' Other cumdachs are those in the Royal Irish Academy, for Molaise's Gospels (c. 1001-25), for Columba's Psalter (1084), and those in Trinity College, Dublin, for Dimma's book (1150), and for the Book of St. Moling. There are also the cumdachs for Cairnech's Calendar and of Caillen ; the library of St. Gall possesses still one more silver cumdach, which is probably Irish.

These are the earliest relics we have of what was undoubtedly an old and established method of enshrining books, going back as far as Patrick's time, if it be correct that Bishop Assicus made them, or if the first case of the Silver Shrine is as old as it is believed to be. It is natural to make a beautiful covering for a book which is both beautiful and sacred. All the volumes upon which the Irish artist lavished his talent were invested with sacred attributes. Chroniclers would have us believe they were sometimes miraculously produced. In the life of Cronan is a story telling how an expert scribe named Dimma copied the four Gospels. Dimma could only devote a day to the task, whereupon Cronan bade him begin at once and continue until sunset. But the sun did not set for forty days, and by that time the copy was finished. The manuscript written for Cronan is possibly the book of Dimma, which bears the inscription: 'It is finished. A prayer for Dimma, who wrote it for God, and a blessing.'

It was believed such books could not be injured. St. Ciarnan's copy of the Gospels fell into a lake, but was uninjured; St. Cronan's copy fell into Loch Cre, and remained under water forty days without injury; even fire could not harm St. Cainnech's case of books. Nor is it surprising they should be looked upon as sacred. The scribes and illuminators who took such loving care to make their work perfect, and the craftsmen who wrought beautiful shrines for the books so made, were animated with the feeling and spirit which impels men to erect beautiful churches to testify to the glory of their Creator. As Dimma says, 'they wrote them for God'.



Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Sons of Caiman, September 1

On September 1 we find the commemoration of another of the collective groups of saints who crop up frequently on the Irish calendars.  As is so often the case, all we have is their patronymic, but no details of how many individuals comprised the group or when or where they flourished. Canon O'Hanlon can bring only the records from the various calendars in Article VIII for the day in his Lives of the Irish Saints, Volume IX:

The Sons of Caiman.

A festival to honour the Sons of Caimene is set down, in the Martyrology of Donegal,  at the 1st of September. It seems probable, those holy brothers flourished, after the eighth century, as they are not contained, in that copy of the Martyrology of Tallaght in the Book of Leinster, at the Kalends of September, nor in that published by the Rev. Dr. Kelly, for which day entries are missing. Their particular names do not seem to be ascertainable.

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Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Saint Aedh, the Martyr, August 31

There is a rather intriguing entry in the Martyrology of Tallaght at August 31 for a Saint Aedh, described as a Martyr. This is interesting, first because an Irish martyr, at least on home soil, is a very rare bird indeed and secondly because he is but one of a number of saints who bear this name whose feasts are commemorated on this day. The most well-known of the saints Aedh (Aodh, Aedhan, Aid, Aidan) whose feasts are recorded today on the calendars has to be Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne, but there is also a Deacon Aedh. The Aedh who was also a 'martyr', however, remains an enigma and as far as I can see is recorded only in The Martyrology of Tallaght. Canon O'Hanlon has but a single sentence to write on this saint in Volume VIII of his Lives of the Irish Saints:

St. Aedh, Martyr. 

Veneration was given to an Aedh, Martyr, at the 31st of August, as we find set down in the Martyrology of Tallagh. Again, under the head of Inis Cathaigh, Duald Mac Firbis enters, Aedhan, bishop, from Inis-Cathaigh, at August 31st. The reason for this localization, however, is not stated.

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Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Saint Fiacre of Meaux, August 30

August 30 is the feast day of an Irish saint whose life was mostly spent outside this country - Fiacre of Meaux. I have previously posted a twentieth-century account of the saint here but below is a paper from 1876. The author is the then Bishop of Ossory, later to be Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney, Patrick Francis Moran (1830-1911). Cardinal Moran took an active interest in the history of the early Irish church and his many writings reflect the climate of the national revival which was in full swing during his lifetime. In his account of Saint Fiacre, PFM brings together much of the traditional lore associated with the saint and gives a place also to his sister, Saint Syra. I was interested too by the seventeenth-century dimension to the cult of Saint Fiacre, in particular the visits of Irish exiles to his shrine.


St. FIACHRA, better known by the name of Fiacre, by which he was designated on the Continent, was born about the year 590, of a princely family in the north of Connaught; but renouncing the honours and applause of the world, sought in retreat and solitude the highest paths of perfection. Whilst as yet in the world, charity was one of his distinctive virtues. A poor man one day solicited an alms for the love of God. Fiachra told his attendant to give him any money that he might have, and the attendant pretended to do so. The saint, however, fearing lest any mistake might have been made, went after the poor man and asked him how he had fared. He then learned that the attendant’s money being exhausted by preceding alms, nothing had been given to him; whereupon the saint, taking off the rich mantle which he wore, bestowed it on the poor man. This same virtue continued to characterize St. Fiachra throughout the whole of his subsequent career.

Having resolved to devote himself to a religious life, he put himself under the care of St. Cuanna, who was at this time famed for learning and sanctity, and attracted numerous disciples to his monastery at Kilcoona, on the shore of Loch Orbsen. Being ordained priest, St. Fiachra was filled with the desire to serve God in solitude, and therefore, quitting his native district, and the school of St. Cuanna, he fixed his first hermitage on the banks of the Nore, and for many years lived there leading a most holy and austere life. The spot thus hallowed by the virtues and penitential austerities of our saint is still known by the name Kill-Fiachra, or Kilfera, and is situate on the west bank of the Nore, about three miles below Kilkenny. The memory of St. Fiachra is honoured there on the 30th of August, the same day on which his festival is marked in the Martyrologies of Marianus O' Gorman and of Donegal. The outlines of St. Fiachra’s old church or cell may be easily traced, and fragments of its stone-work are scattered through the adjoining burial-ground. A little to the south of Kilfera is the holy well of St. Fiachra.

This silent retreat had for our saint all the charms of a paradise. His virtues, however, soon became known, and many disciples flocked around him; and it seemed as if greater honour and reverence awaited him in his retreat, than would have attended him in the princely inheritance which he had abandoned. He resolved, therefore, to seek in distant countries the solitude which was denied him at home; and thus it came to pass, in the words of the Martyrology of Donegal, that he “ brought a blessing to France." St Fiachra remained for some time in Iona, attracted thither by the fame of the virtues and miracles of its holy founder. Continuing his journey towards France, the vessel in which he sailed encountered a terrible storm at sea, but when all seemed lost, the tempest was stilled by the prayers of our saint. St. Faro, who was at this time Bishop of Meaux, had opened a hospice for pilgrims at the gates of his episcopal city. He belonged to the highest nobility of France, and for several years had ranked among the richest of the courtiers, as well as among the bravest of the leaders of the armies of King Clothaire ; now, however, as bishop, all his possessions and influence were placed at the service of religion and of the poor. At the hospice which he endowed none were so welcome as the pilgrims from Erin; for St. Faro attributed all his worldly prosperity, as well as his ecclesiastical calling, to the blessing which the great Irish missioner Columbanus, in requital for the hospitality which was shown him, had bestowed on his parents and household. St. Fiachra, journeying on whither God might summon him, entered this hospice at Meaux, and under the garb of a poor pilgrim, lived there for some years wholly devoted to the most perfect practices of piety. His relative, St Kilian, however, when making a pilgrimage to Rome, entered the same hospice, and made known our saint’s rank. Fiachra would willingly have fled elsewhere, but Faro asked him not to leave a spot where he had found such happiness and peace, and offered him a site for a hermitage at a short distance from Meaux, with a grant of as much land as he would himself surround with a fosse in one day. St. Fiachra selected for his enclosure an adjoining desert tract called Broilus (which name in mediaeval Latin means a small wood), known in later times as Breuil, and now called Brie, situated on an elevated position not far from the banks of the Marne; and whilst he traced its boundaries with a wooden stake, a fosse was miraculously formed along the track. In the retreat thus miraculously enclosed, St. Fiacre spent his whole time in prayer and manual labour. His food consisted of roots and wild herbs, and in the heart of France he renewed the austerities by which SS. Paul and Anthony and Hilarion had sanctified the deserts of the East. Like all the great saints of Ireland he cherished a special devotion to the holy Mother of God, and it is commemorated in his Acts, that close to his cell he erected an oratory in her honour, oratorio in honorem Beatae Mariae constructo. Many holy disciples soon flocked to Breuil to emulate the penitential spirit, and to copy the virtues, of our saint. He obliged them to devote themselves in great part to manual labour, cultivating the garden which he had enclosed; and the fruit of their industry was applied to the maintenance of pilgrims and to the relief of captives. After the discovery of his place of concealment, deputies came to Meaux, requesting the saint to return home, and to assume the government of his native principality, which happened to be then vacant. Fiachra asked for a little time to deliberate on a matter of such importance, and in the meanwhile prayed to God that He might in His mercy visit him with some malady that would not permit his return. The next day the saint was found covered with leprosy, and the messengers, seeing that their mission was frustrated, at once took their departure from Meaux. It is also related in the saint’s life that he was visited at Breuil by his sister St. Syra. She had from her infancy been remarkable for sanctity, frequently passing the whole night in prayer prostrate before the crucifix, and practising the most rigorous austerities. With three companions she set out for Meaux, and having received from her brother many lessons of heavenly wisdom, entered the Monastery of Faramoutiers, then governed by St. Burgundofara, sister of St. Faro, and after some years proceeded to Troyes, where she ruled a monastery as abbess for a long time, and guided many souls to God. In an ancient hymn, composed in her praise, she is thus addressed:

“ O Syra. virgo pura,
Regis Scotorum filia,
Sancti Fiacrii soror,
Tu es Stella eximia,
Praefulgens Virginum gemma,
Campaniae laus, et honor,
Ad sepulchrum confagiunt
Tuum populi, et sentiunt
Sanitatis remedium.”

The festival of St. Syra is kept at Troyes on the 8th of June, and before the French Revolution there were several convents in France that honoured her as patron. St. Fiachra died at his hermitage about the year 670, and his shrine was soon honoured by many miracles. One of these is specially recorded in the French Life of St. Fiacre. A farmer of Montigny (Seine-et-Marne) was proceeding on pilgrimage to the shrine of our saint, bringing with him his two children, who were infirm. The horse stumbled when passing a river, and the children were precipitated into the stream. It seemed impossible to rescue them, as the current was so rapid; but the father having invoked St. Fiachra’s aid, the saint appeared on the water, and taking the children by the hand, lead them to the bank in safety.

St. Fiachra is at present venerated as special patron at Brie, about four miles from the city of Meaux, and also as one of the chief patrons of the diocese of Meaux; and he is also honoured throughout France as the particular patron of gardeners and of the Fiacre-drivers. Indeed, the French cab is said to have derived its name fiacre from being specially called into requisition in early times for the use of pilgrims hastening to his shrine. More than thirty churches in France are also dedicated to our saint. About three miles from Brie is St. Fiacre’s well. It is enclosed in an oratory, which was rebuilt in 1852. Pilgrims also flock to his holy well at Monstrelet, near Boufflers, which is famed for miraculous cures. The other chief places of pilgrimage in honour of our saint are Aubignan, in the diocese of Avignon; Buss, in the diocese of Arras; Ramecourt and Dizy-le-Gros, in the diocese of Soissons; Ouzoer-les-Champs, in the diocese of Orleans; Bovancourt, in the diocese of Rheims; Cuy-Saint-Fiacre, in the diocese of Rouen; Saint Fiacre, in the diocese of Nantes; Saint Fiacre, near Guincamp, in the diocese of St. Brieuc ; and Radenac, in the diocese of Vannes. His festival is kept in France, as in Ireland, on the 30th of August.

The proper lessons for our saint in the Breviary of Meaux inform us, that he adopted in France the strict rule of the early Irish monasteries, which prohibited any female from crossing the threshold of his oratory or hermitage. A royal lady of France attempted on one occasion, through curiosity, to violate this rule, but was at once struck down with a violent sickness, to which the physicians thenceforth applied the name of “ St. Fiacre’s malady."

The shrine of St. Fiachra was for centuries one of the most famous in France, and many pilgrims resorted thither even from distant nations. We read in the Annals of the Trinitarian Order; that the holy founder of that order, St. John of Valois, cherished a special devotion for St. Fiachra, and, not satisfied with emulating his virtues at a distance, wished to erect for himself a hermitage as near as he could to Breuil, that thus the sight of the spot where our saint had lived, and where his relics were preserved, might be a constant stimulus to piety. In later times the Apostle of France, St. Vincent de Paul, also made a pilgrimage to St. Fiachra’s shrine. When, in the fourteenth century, Edward the Biack Prince ravaged the country around Meaux, the sanctuary at Breuil alone was spared. He caused, however, the shrine of the saint to be opened, and extracted a portion of the relics which he desired to bring with him to England. When passing through Normandy, he deposited these relics on an altar at Montloup, not far distant from Toumay, where there was a chapel erected in honour of St. Fiachra, but no strength of man was able afterwards to remove the relics from that altar. The death of the Prince soon after was popularly regarded as a punishment for his want of due reverence for the shrine of our saint. Henry V. of England also visited Breuil after the battle of Agincourt. He ordered the sanctuary of St. Fiachra to be respected, and declared that he had nowhere seen so great devotion as that shown by the faithful to our saint. Among the other royal visits may be mentioned that of Louis XIV., who, with his Queen and the Court, went thither on pilgrimage when returning from Strasburg in 1693.

When the sword of persecution forced many Catholic families of Ireland to seek a home on the Continent, and many of her bravest sons to enter the armies of France or Spain, the shrine of St. Fiacre, at Meaux, became a favorite resort of the Irish exiles; and it would appear that each year on his recurring festival, they organized a special pilgrimage in his honour. Father Hay, in his Scotia Sacra (page 39), tells us that when sub-prior of the Benedictine Monastery of Essoines, situated on the banks of the river Marne, he himself had visited this sanctuary, and adds some verses from three Latin poems, which he found hanging on the walls around the altar of our saint. Each poem bore the heading, “ Divo Fiacrio Carmen,” i.e., “ a poem in honour of St. Fiacre.” The first thus commenced:

“ Regis Hiberni generosa proles,
Fortis Eugeni soboles Fiacri
Sancte, materno gremio corusca
Syderis instar.”

This is followed by thirty-eight other verses, and at the end is added, “ This was sung by the Irish pilgrims in the year 1679.” The second poem is still longer, having 123 verses, with the note, “offered by an Irish choir in the year of our Lord 1680.” The third has 206 verses, and has at the close, “An Irish choir offered this in 1681.”

The greater part of the relics of our saint were scattered and the oratory and shrine of St. Fiacre, at Breuil, were demolished in the revolutionary storm which laid waste the fairest districts of France at the close of the last century. From the time of the saint’s death his relics seem to have been famed for miracles. As early as the eleventh century we find it commemorated that the fame of the miracles performed there attracted many pilgrims to his shrine. Fulck de Beauvais, who flourished in that age, in his metrical life of St. Faro, Bishop of Meaux, mentions as one of the chief glories of that saint’s pontificate that he granted Breuil to Fiachra (who in Latin is oftentimes called Fefrus) and thus rendered the whole diocese of Meaux illustrious for miracles : —

“ Heredem Fefrum dedit in quibus esse beatum,
Huic Broilum tribuit, qui templum condidit illic,
Hic duxit vitam, vitam finivit ibidem,
Meldica nunc signis floret provincia Fefri.”

In the beginning of the reign of St. Louis of France the first solemn translation of our saint’s relics took place. By his munificence they were placed in a rich shrine, and thenceforward each year, on the Sunday after Pentecost, the anniversary of this translation, a portion of the relics was borne in procession through Breuil. Pope Gregory the IX. granted special indulgences for those, who, on his festival-day, would visit the saint’s relics at Breuil. In the year 1562 the shrine and relics of our saint were removed to the sanctuary of St. Burgundofara in Meaux, the better to preserve them from the fury of the Huguenots, and after a little time, at the request of the civic authorities, were deposited in the cathedral of that city. The pilgrimages, however, continued to be made to Breuil as heretofore, and when religious peace was restored in France every effort was made by the inhabitants to have the treasure of the saint's relics restored to them. All that they could obtain, however, was a portion of these precious remains, encased in a silver shrine, presented to the sanctuary at Breuil by the Bishop of Meaux, in 1649. As regards the shrine in the Cathedral of Meaux, it was so richly ornamented by Queen Anne of Austria that it was considered second to none in France, before the period of the French Revolution. The illustrious Bossuet delivered some of his beautiful discourses on our saint’s festival, presenting him to the faithful as “a model of the Christian spirit of solitude, of silence, and of constant prayer;” and he loved to repeat that their cathedral “was enriched by the precious treasure of his relics.” In Mabillon’s time Breuil was still frequented by pilgrims, and miracles continued to be there wrought at the saint’s shrine. He thus writes in his Annals of the Benedictine Order (vol. i. p. 314) “Sane vix ullus alius etiam nunc celebrior miraculorum patrator in Gallia: vix ullus alius locus amplius frequentatus a peregrinis qui istuc voti causa undique confluunt.” Only small portions of these relics escaped the fury with which the revolutionists at the close of the last century raged against the shrines of the saints; and of these some at present enrich the parochial church at Brie; others are preserved in the cathedral and other churches throughout the diocese of Meaux. The parochial church of Brie retains also the large block of stone on which St. Fiachra used to rest, and which bears the impress of the saint; as also the ancient wooden case in which the relics were at one time preserved. The sites of the enclosure and of the saint’s hermitage are traditionally pointed out, and may easily be traced, but no remains can now be seen of the ancient buildings.

The late learned Protestant Bishop of Brechin, Dr. Forbes, having given a short notice of our saint in his Kalendars of Scottish Saints, remarks that this commemoration of St. Fiachra in France “suggests an allusion to that marvellous Irish Christian colonization which is one of the most remarkable facts in the history of Christianity, and to which, till the present century, scanty justice has been done. The daughter Church of Gaul, Ireland, soon returned to bless that nation from whom she had received the faith, and not that nation only, but all the West of Europe, from Iceland to Tarentum, felt its power. Combatting Arianism in Lombardy, paganism in England and Germany; cultivating letters at the court of Charlemagne, and physical science in the see of Salzburg; teaching Greek at Chiemsee, and copying the precious manuscripts of antiquity at Bobbio and Luxeuil: the (Irish) clergy grasped the lamp of religion, as it fell from the hands of the worn-out Roman races; and the austere sanctity of Irish monasticism — an austerity which, from existing rules, we know to have surpassed that of St. Benedict himself — asserted its footing in the different nations of the Continent, of which many of the patron saints belong to this family. In the Vosges and the Jura we have St Fridolin; at Luxeuil and Bobbio, St. Columbanus; in Switzerland, St. Gall; at Salzburg, St. Virgilius; in Thuringia, St. Kilian; at Lucca, St. Frigidian; at Fiesole, St. Donatus; and at Taranto, St Cathaldus.”— page 341.

St. Fiachra is also honoured in Italy, especially at Florence, where a noble chapel was erected in his honour by the Grand Duke in the year 1627, and was again richly adorned by the then reigning Duke towards the close of the seventeenth century, at whose request some relics of the saint, the gift of the illustrious Bishop of Meaux, Benigne Bossuet, were translated thither with great pomp in the year 1695. Since that time St. Fiachra has been reckoned among the chief patrons of Tuscany.

When St. Fiachra was proceeding to France, if not at an earlier period of his life, he seems to have stopped for some time in Scotland, and his memory was long cherished in the churches of that kingdom. In Stewart’s Metrical Chronicle of Scotland, our saint appears as “Sanct Feacar,” and again under the name of “ Fiancorus.” The parish of Nigg, situate on the opposite side of the river Dee from Aberdeen, had St. Fiacre for patron, and its church was called “ St. Fiacer’s Church.” The ancient burial-ground also bore his name; his holy well was corruptly called St. Fithoc’s well, and the bay near which it stands, St. Ficker’s Bay. From these corruptions of the name arose other still more curious forms; thus, for instance, from Fithoc , arose Mofithog and Mofuttach: and we find that in the Kalendar of Camerarius, our saint is entered as S. Mofutacus, whilst in an ancient Dunkeld Litany he is invoked as St. Futtach. All these various forms, however, of the name of St. Fiachra only serve to show how widespread was the veneration of this great saint, and how generally he was honoured throughout the churches of Scotland.

P. F. M.

The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume XII(1876), 361-368.

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