Below is a reproduction of a biography
of Saint Finnian from the Irish Ecclesiastical Record (Volume
13 (1892), 810-815). This
reproduction is taken from the Under
the Oak blog
that is written and maintained by one of our parishioners.
ST. FINNIAN OF
Commemoration of the Venerable Finnian, Founder of
the Monastery of Clonard
Teacher of the Saints of Ireland
of Clonard, " Tutor of the Saints of Ireland," lived in the
sixth century. He was a native of Leinster ; his birthplace
is generally supposed to have been near the present town of
New Ross. Saint Finnian was of the race of Ir, and belonged
to the Clan na Rudhraidhe. His name appears to be a
diminutive of Finn, "white." He was a contemporary of
Finnian of Moville, whose name comes next in the list of
saints of the second class.
Saint Abban baptized Finnian, and at an early age he was
placed under the care of Bishop Fortchern of Trim. With him
he remained thirty years. At the end of that period Finnian
proceeded to Britain, and settled at Kilmuine or Menevia,
where he placed himself under David, Gildas, and Cadoc.
David was grandson of an Irish prince, Bracan. He taught St.
Aidan of Ferns, was first Bishop of Menevia, and died A.D.
589. Gildas was the author of De Excidio Britannia,
according to the Annals of Ulster. He died A.D 570. Cadoc is
represented as cousin to St. David, and was a pupil of St.
Thaddeus, an Irishman. Saint Finnian is said to have founded
three churches in Britain, but they have not been identified.
While a monk at the monastery of St. David, Finnian on one
occasion was asked to supply the place of oeconomus, or
house steward, in the absence of the monk who generally
filled that office. Finnian replied that he would be unable
to do so, as he was unprovided with the necessary
requirements for carrying wood and provisions. His superior
having insisted on his undertaking the task, Finnian obeyed,
and we read in his life that an angel came to his assistance.
What before had seemed an impossibility he was able to
accomplish by the aid of this heavenly messenger.
How long Finnian remained at St. David's monastery is
uncertain. Lanigan thinks he returned to Ireland about A.D.
520. Before leaving Britain Finnian determined to undertake
a journey to Rome, but an angel warned him not to do so, but
to return to his own country " Redite ad vestras plebes,
Deus enim acceptat intentionem Vestram." Finnian was
accompanied to Ireland by several friends, among whom
special mention is made of Biteus and Genoc. On his passage
to Ireland, says Dr. Lanigan, he stopped a while with his
friend Caimin, and landed at the port Kille-Caireni, in
Finnian sent messengers to Muiredeach, sovereign of
Ky-Kinsellagh, asking permission to enter his territory. The
king generously acceded to his request, and came himself to
see Finnian, in whose presence Muiredeach prostrated himself
on the ground, and promised the saint a site for a
monastery. Saint Finnian erected an establishment at Achadh
Abhla ; i.e., “Field of the Apple-Tree," which now bears the
name Aghowle, or Aghold, in the barony of Shillelagh, County
Wicklow. It was anciently called Crosalech. Here St. Finnian
resided for sixteen years. At Mughna, County Carlow, he
erected another monastery, and is said to have lectured
there for seven years on the Sacred Scriptures. It is
probably while there that he preached on one occasion in
presence of St. Brigid.
We now approach the most important event in St. Finnian's
life in his settlement at Clonard, County Meath, which
during his lifetime became the most celebrated sanctuary in
Ireland for piety and learning. Cluain-Eraird i. e., Erard's
Lawn or Meadow is the derivation given by O'Donovan. Erard
was a man's name, very common in Ireland, signifying lofty
or noble. Again, we find it related in the saint's life that
an angel appeared to him directing him as to where he should
take up his abode. Saint Finnian entered Clonard repeating
the psalm " Haec requies mea in Saeculum Saeculi hic
habitabo quoniam elegi eam."
The date of the saint's arrival at Clonard is said to be
about A.D. 530. It is a matter of doubt whether St. Finnian
was a bishop. The Four Masters simply term him abbot. Such
is the title accorded to him in the Martyrology of Donegal
and other Irish calendars. Dr. Lanigan seems to think that
St. Finnian was only abbot. It is, doubtless, a fact that
Clonard was an episcopal see, but it is quite possible that
it did not become so till after Finnian's time. His
successor at Clonard, St. Seanach, is called bishop by the
Four Masters. The school of Clonard in a short time became
famous in Ireland. Those great men who were afterward called
the Twelve Apostles of Ireland came to seek instruction from
Finnian viz., Columba, the two Brendans, Ciaran of Saigher,
his namesake of Clonmacnoise, Columb of Tir-da-ghlas, Mobhi
Claraineach, Molaish, Canice, and Ruadhan of Lothra. Three
thousand scholars are said to have been educated at Clonard
during the saint's lifetime, and the holy founder was justly
termed "Magister Sanctorum Hiberniae sui temporis." In the
Life of St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise we read : " In schola
sapientissimi magistri Finniani plures Sancti Hibernise
erant ;" and in that of St. Columb of Tir-da-ghlas : "Audiens
famam S. Finniani Episcopi de Cluain-Eraird, ut Sacram
Scripturam addisceret accessit ;" and, lastly, we find it
said of St. Ruadhan :"Legens diversas Scripturas et multum
proficiens in eis."
Colgan enumerates thirty two saints who received instruction
from St. Finnian, and bears testimony of the fame of Clonard,
where students assembled from various parts of Europe.
Saint Finnian did not permit his multifarious labours in
behalf of learning to interfere with his duties towards the
needy and afflicted. We read in his life that he was a
father to all who sought help from him: " Flebat cum
flentibus." "Infirmabatur enim cum infirmis." On a certain
occasion a bard named German presented St. Finnian with a
beautiful poem, in which many of his virtues were extolled;
the bard demanded from the saint not gold or silver, or any
worldly substance, but only fertility of produce in his
lands. Finnian answered him, and said : "Sing over water the
hymn which thou hast composed, and sprinkle the land with
that water." The bard did as he was directed, and his land
produced abundant fruit.
In the historical tale "The Expedition of the Sons of Carra,"
published by O' Curry in his MS. Materials of Ancient Irish
History, we have a description of St. Finnian's interviews
with the three brothers, who had plundered the churches of
Connaught. O 'Curry observes that while these tales often
contain matter without resemblance to facts, we are not to
reject them wholly on that account, but rather make
allowance for poetic embellishment, at the same time having
good ground for believing that a foundation of truth exists.
The story is as follows : -
" Three brothers
actuated by an evil spirit plundered the churches of
Connaught. In their wicked enterprise they were joined
by a band of adventurers as daring as themselves. They
commenced by pillaging the Church of Tuam, and never
ceased till they had laid waste more than half the
churches of the province. When the three brothers
arrived at the Church of Clothar, they determined to
kill the old man, who was the Airchennech of that place;
he was their grandfather; but he, though suspecting
their evil design, treated them with kindness, and
assigned to them a comfortable resting-place. Lochan,
the eldest of the three brothers, that night had a
vision, which alarmed him so much that he became
conscience-stricken. He saw represented before him the
eternal joys of heaven and the torments of hell. When
morning came he acquainted his brothers of what he saw,
and like him they felt remorse for their wicked deeds.
The brothers Carra sought the pardon and prayers of
their grandfather. They took counsel with the old man as
to what course they should pursue in order to obtain
God's forgiveness and to make reparation for the past.
He told them to repair to St. Finnian, the great
teacher, and to submit themselves to his spiritual
direction. The Ua Carra immediately put off their
warlike attire, and donned the garb of pilgrims, and
with staves instead of swords hastened to Clonard. At
their approach the inhabitants fled, for the fame of
their evil deeds had spread far and wide. St. Finnian
alone came out to meet them; the brothers threw
themselves on their knees, and besought his friendship
do you want,
said Finnian.' '
said they, '
to take upon us the habit of religion and penitence, and
henceforward to serve God.'
Your determination is a good one,'
said Finnian, '
let us come into the town, where my people are.'
They entered the town, and Finnian took counsel with his
people respecting the penitents. It was decided that
they should be placed for the space of a year under the
direction of a certain divinity student, with whom alone
they were to converse during that period. The Ua Carra
faithfully complied with the mode of life laid out for
them, and when the year expired presented themselves
before St. Finnian for his benediction. The saint
blessed them, saying, '
You cannot restore to life the innocent ecclesiastics
whom you have slain, but you can go and repair, and
restore as far as is in your power, the churches and
other buildings which you have ruined.'
The sons of Ua Carra took an affectionate leave of St.
Finnian, and as the Church of Tuam was the first which
suffered from their plundering, they wished it to be the
first that they should restore. They repaired it, and
proceeded from place to place, making amends for the
injury they had inflicted on the churches of Connaught.
Having restored all the churches but one, the Ua Carra
returned to St. Finnian, who inquired if they had
finished their work. They replied, 'We
have repaired all the churches but one.'
Which is that?'
asked Finnian. 'The
Church of Ceann Mara (Kinvara),'
they said. '
said the saint, '
this was the first church you ought to have repaired the
church of the holy man Coman ; return now, and repair
every damage, you have done to that place.'
The brothers obeyed St. Finnian's command, and restored
the church. By the advice of St. Coman they built a
canoe, and undertook a voyage on the Atlantic Ocean."
Thus far the tale refers to St. Finnian ; the voyage and its
results does not come within the scope of this paper.
St. Finnian's mode of life was very austere, his usual food
was bread and herbs ; on festival days he allowed himself a
little beer or whey ; he slept on the bare grounds, and a
stone served him for a pillow.
In his last illness the saint was attended by his former
pupil St. Colomb, of Tir-da-Ghlas, who administered to him
the Holy Viaticum. The Four Masters record his death A.D.
548; but the year 550 or 551 appears to be the correct date.
It is stated in some of our annals that Finnian died of the
plague ; there is no doubt that the plague was in Ireland
during this period, viz., 548 and 551. In the Chronicon
Scotorum, under 551, we read : "A great mortality, i. e.,
the Chronn Conaill." St. Finnian is enumerated among its
This great saint is commemorated by Oenghus in the following
A Tower of Gold over the sea,
May he bring help to my soul,
Is Finnian fair, the beloved root
Of the great Cluain-Eraird."
St. Finnian's sister, St. Regnach, was Abbess of Kilreynagh,
near the present town of Banagher, King's County.
December 12th (the day of his death) is observed as his
Historical information on Clonard
Clonard (Irish, Cluain Eraird, or Cluain Ioraird, Erard's
Meadow) was situated on the beautiful river Boyne, just
beside the boundary line of the northern and southern halves
of Ireland. The founder of this school, the most famous of
the sixth century, was St. Finnian,
an abbot and great wonder-worker.
He was born at Myshall, County Carlow,
about 470. At an early age he was placed under the care of
St. Fortchern, by whose direction, it is said, he proceeded
to Wales to perfect himself in holiness and sacred knowledge
under the great saints of that country. After a long sojourn
there, of thirty years according to the Salamanca MS., he
returned to his native land and went about from place to
place, preaching, teaching, and founding churches, till he
was at last led by an angel to Cluain Eraird, which he was
told would be the place of his resurrection.
Here he built a little cell and a church of clay and wattle,
after some time gave way to
a substantial stone structure
(image below), and entered on a life of study,
mortification, and prayer. The fame of his learning and
sanctity was soon noised abroad, and scholars of all ages
flocked from every side to his monastic retreat — young
laymen and clerics, abbots and bishops even, and those
illustrious saints who were afterwards known as the "Twelve
Apostles of Erin".
In the Office of St. Finnian it is stated that there were no
fewer than 3000 pupils getting instruction at one time in
the school in the green fields of Clonard under the broad
canopy of heaven. The master excelled in exposition of the
Sacred Scriptures, and to this fact must be mainly
attributed the extraordinary popularity which his lectures
enjoyed. The exact date of the saint's death is uncertain,
but it was probably 552, and his burial-place is in his own
church of Clonard.
For centuries after his death the school continued to be
renowned as a seat of Scriptural learning, but it suffered
at the hands of the Danes, especially in the eleventh
century, and two wretched Irishmen, O'Rorke of Breifney and
Dermod McMurrough, helped to complete the unholy work which
the Northmen had begun. With the transference by the Norman
Bishop de Rochfort, in 1206, of the See of Meath from
Clonard to Trim, the glory of the former place departed
forever. Irish Life in Book of Lismore; HEALY, Ireland's
Ancient Schools and Scholars (Dublin, 1890).
After the dissolution of the monasteries by order of Henry
the lands of the Clergy were confiscated, passing to be the
property of Sir Thomas Cusack, Chancellor of Ireland and
whose daughter Elizabeth was married to John de Sutton,
Count of Clonard.
The deterioration in the monastery buildings during the last
centuries before lands were taken by the Chancellor of
Ireland was already a clear evidence, However it was
improved by the Clonard-Cusack clan who obviously allowed
the "monks" to remain in their "new lands", under the
pseudonime of farmers.
In spite of History's turbulences the ruins of
Cluain-Iraird, stayed visible up to 1798 - year in which -
the "Battle of Clonard" took place, although
Cromwell (c.1648) in his previous pass by this holy place ,
destroyed the few buildings which they had been able to
preserve and to maintain still on.
Cromwell, as the largest of massacrors, left Clonard in
ruins and without their inhabitants.