12 December 2012

With the Saints through Advent (13): 12 December, Saint Finnian of Clonard

Saint Finnian of Clonard ... his monastery trained the ‘Twelve Apostles of Ireland’

Patrick Comerford

We are half-way through Advent this year. The Abbot Saint Finnian of Clonard, in the Diocese of Meath, is commemorated today [12 December] in the calendar of the Church of Ireland, and in Celtic Daily Prayer of the Northumbria Community.

Clonard (Cluain Ioraird, “Iorard’s meadow”), is now a small village in Co Meath, between Kinnegad and Enfield, north of the M4. The M4 has further isolated this small mopmastic site, so that it is hard to imagine that this was once an important centre of learning and one of the most important and earliest monasteries in Ireland.

Clonard may have been a centre of the early missionary activities ca 450 of Palladius, who was the first bishop in Ireland and whose missionary activities predate those of Saint Patrick.

However, the memory of Palladius has faded in Clonard in favour of Saint Finnian, who founded his monastery here in the sixth century.

Saint Finnian’s Church, Clonard ... stands on the site of the sixth century monastery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Saint Finnian’s, the former Church of Ireland parish church on the edges of Clonard village, has been closed since 1991. But this is the heart of the ancient monastic site and the church was, inevitably, known as Saint Finnian’s.

Saint Finnian was born at Myshall, Co Carlow. He is said to have studied under Saint Cadoc at Llancarfan, Glamorganshire, and spent 30 years in Wales before returning to Ireland, where his first monastery was at Aghowle, Co Wicklow. Around 520, he was led by an angel to Clonard, on the banks of the River Boyne, on an expanse of land between the kingdoms of Meath and Leinster.

He was told this would be the place of his resurrection, and there he built a little cell and a church of clay and wattle. Towards the end of his life, Finnian was struck down by plague, and moved out of Clonard to prevent infection to others. He went to nearby Ross Findchuill, singing Psalm 132: “Here shall I rest.” One of his last acts was to receive communion from his former pupil, Columb son of Crimhthan.

Saint Finnian died about 549 and was buried on the site, perhaps in the church that was later replaced by the Church of Ireland parish church. The church at Ros Findchuil, where he spent his final days, lay within an enclosure known as lios an memra or the enclosure of the shrine. His relics were kept there and his grave lay below.

The entrance to Saint Finnian’s Church is at the end of an overgrown, tree-lined drive (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

After the death of Siant Finnian, Clonard became known as a distinguished seat of learning in Ireland, and students from all over Ireland and these islands, and from France and Germany came to study here, so that at one time the school had 3,000 students.

Life in his monastery was based on the ascetic models of the monasteries in Tours and Llancarfan, where Saint Finnian had received his monastic training. The Penitential of Finnian prescribed hard penances for misdemeanours, particularly those involving sexual misconduct, oath-taking and magic.

An oak tree planted in 1997 remembers Saint Columba of Kells and Iona, one of the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland” who studied at the monastery in Clonard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

During the sixth century, some of the most significant names in the history of Irish Christianity, later known as the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland,” studied at the monastery. These 12 holy men were:

● Saint Ciaran of Seir-Kieran;
● Saint Ciaran of Clonmacnoise;
● Saint Brendan of Birr;
● Saint Brendan of Clonfert;
● Saint Columba of Terryglass;
● Saint Columba of Kells and Iona;
● Saint Mobhi of Glasnevin;
● Saint Ruadhan of Lorrha;
● Saint Senan of Scattery Island;
● Saint Ninnidh of Inismacsaint on Loch Erne;
● Saint Lasserian of Leighlin;
● Saint Canice of Aghaboe.

Clonard was on the boundary of the kingdoms of Leinster and Meath that were often at war with each other. From the eighth century on, Clonard came under the control of various rival political dynasties, and by the mid-ninth century it was the leading church of the Irish midlands.

When King Maél Sechlainn proclaimed himself King of Ireland in 857, Abbot Suairleach of Clonard was called on to persuade the Irish nobles to support his claims.

By the early 10th century, Clonard has blossomed into a monastic town, with a round tower, a high cross, a stone church and a library, built by Bishop Colmán Mac Ailella, who became Abbot in 888.

Saint Finnian’s Church was closed in 1991 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Very little remains of the old monastic site, but the former Church of Ireland parish church, Saint Finnian’s Church, is said to have been built on the sixth century monastic site. It was the local Church of Ireland parish church until it was closed in 1991.

The remains of this church stand at the end of a long, overgrown path. It was built in 1808 by James Bell, with loan of £400 from the Board of First Fruits. It replaced an older church that had fallen into disrepair, and that stood on the site of the earlier abbey church.

Saint Finnian’s Church has no windows on the north side (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The church is a typical 19th century hall-and-tower church, with no windows on the north side. The three-stage entrance tower has pinnacles and castellations to the west, and there is a vestry to the north-east corner. The church has a pitched slate roof, rendered walls with ashlar limestone quoins, string courses, date plaque and a carved mediaeval stone head. The traceried windows set in pointed-arched openings with stone sills and surrounds. The timber-battened double doors have a fanlight above set in a pointed-arched opening with limestone dressings.

A stone corbel-head, inserted into the tower above the door, is believed to have survived from a previous church, perhaps even the monastery. The church is crumbling and the grounds are overgrown, but a local committee is negotiating a lease on the building.

Saint Finnian’s Church reflected in the Trough ... this may have been the lavabo of the monastery and is associated with many local superstitions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Below the tower of the old parish church is “The Trough,” a unique rectangular feature cut in a block of limestone. It is 18 inches deep, 36 inches long and 24 inches wide. This trough may have been the lavabo of the monastery.

Many superstitions are associated with the Trough. It is said the water in it has curative powers, particularly for warts, and that no local person has ever seen it dry or empty, even during the hottest summers.

Ard na Reilige, the site of Saint Finnian’s first church in Clonard and later the monastic cemetery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Beyond the old parish church is Ard na Reilige, the “high cemetery.” Saint Finnian selected this raised grassy site as the site of his first church in Clonard. The church was later moved westward, and the site at Ard na Reilige became the monastic cemetery. It continued to be used as a cemetery until the late 17th century.

Saint Finnian’s Well was restored in 2011 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From there it is a short distance further to Saint Finnian’s Well. When he came to Clonard, Saint Finnian’s first acts were to build a church and to sink a well. Monastery wells were sources for holy water and may have been used as baptisteries.

A long grassy path leads down to the well. In recent times, a wall has been built around the well, the area was roofed, and steps were provided to allow access to the water level. A chained beaker is provided for visitors who want to drink water from the well.

A chained beaker invites visitors to drink from the water in Saint Finnian’s Well (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Saint Finnian’s is the Roman Catholic parish church in Clonard village. This church was built in the mid-19th century, on the site of an earlier church. The church windows depict scenes from the life of Saint Finnian and life in his monastery. The church also has the panelled, mediaeval stone Baptismal Font that was brought there in 1991 when the Church of Ireland parish church was closed. The font is octagonal in shape with deeply chamfered under panels depicting scenes from the life of Christ.

The bell from the former Church of Ireland parish church is now in Glenstal Abbey.

The end of a monastery

Until the early 12th century, the Kingdom of Meath was divided into eight small monastic episcopal sees, located at Clonard, Duleek, Kells, Trim, Ardbraccan, Dunshaughlin, Slane and Fore. With the reforms of the Irish Church in the 12th century, the Abbot of Clonard became the bishop of the new diocese of East Meath formed at the Synod of Cashel in 1101.

By the time of the Synod of Ráth Breasail in 1111, Ardbraccan, Dunshaughlin, Slane and Fore had been united to Clonard. The Synod of Ráth Breasail made Clonard the centre of the new Diocese of Clonard, and this was confirmed at the Synod of Kells in 1152. Duleek ceased being a separate diocese soon after, and for much of the 12th century, the Bishops of Clonard were frequently called Bishops of Meath.

Meanwhile, under the influence of Saint Malachy, two religious houses, one of Augustinian canonesses and the other, of regular canons dedicated to Saint Peter, were founded at Clonard in 1146.

At the end of the 12th century, the Anglo-Normans built a new abbey on the north bank of the river, which became the cathedral of the diocese, Bishop Colmán Mac Ailella’s church became a parish church, and the monastic lands passed into the hands of Bishop Eugenius.

In 1202, the Anglo-Norman bishop Simon de Rochfort transferred the see from Clonard to Trim and the Diocese of Clonard became the new Diocese of Meath. The Diocese of Kells was incorporated into the Diocese of Meath after 1211. In1569, the Diocese of Clonmacnoise was incorporated into the Diocese of Meath.


The Northumbria Community suggests the following readings for today:

Psalm 38: 8; Jonah 1: 17 to 2: 1; Matthew 6: 6.

Tomorrow (13 December): Samuel Johnson.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

1 comment:

Mr. Mcgranor said...

What is the future for Anglican-Protestant monasteries, if any?