Saint of the Day – 17 February – Saint Fintan of Clonenagh (c 524 – 603) Abbot, disciple of St Columba of Iona (521-597), Hermit in Clonenagh, Leix, Ireland. When disciples gathered around his hermitage he became their Abbot. A miracle-worker, Fintan was granted the gifts of prophecy and miracles. He also performed very austere penances. Known as the “Father of the Irish Monks.” Patronage – County Laois.
Saint Fintan was born in Leinster about 52, the son of Christians. He received his religious formation in Terryglass, Co Tipperary under the Abbot Columba and was deeply influenced by his penitential practices and the severity of the Rule.
Fintan spent his early years in Carlow before making his own foundation in Clonenagh, Co Laois. His disciples included St Colmán of Oughaval, St Comgall of Bangor, and St Aengus the Culdee. He has been compared by the Irish annalists to St Benedict and is styled “Father of the Irish Monks.”
Though he is sometimes confused with Saint Fintán or Munnu, Abbot of Taghmon, they are distinct.
Fintan gave his Monks very strict rules not to consume any animal products. The community did not have even one cow and so they had neither milk nor butter. The Monks complained they couldn’t do hard work on so meagre a diet. A deputation of local clergy headed by Canice of Aghaboe came to urge him to improve it. He agreed for his Monks but he elected to keep to the strict diet himself. Fintan was reported to have lived on only “bread of woody barley and clayey water of clay.”
An ancient biography of St Fintan is extant, as well as that of his brother St Finlugh and it was published by Fr Colgan, the great hagiographer. It is thought that they were brought up in Co Limerick but little is known of their early lives. There are different accounts of their father, some naming him Pippan, others calling him Diman, who was a descendant of an Ulster King. Their mother was called, Aliuna (or Ailgend, daughter of Lenin) and was also of noble birth.
There is an account of an irreligious King who ordered his men to bar St Fintan from visiting him. However, a mighty tempest arose immediately and mature crops blazed with fire, thus blinding the men, who, thereafter, asked forgiveness of the saint. St Fintan blessed some water and after applying it to their eyes, their sight was restored and they bound themselves and their people to his service, including that King. This is one of several instances in the Lives of the Irish Saints, whereby individuals, families and even whole clans bound themselves and their posterity, to the service and support of a particular Saint. These services are not always defined precisely but would appear to include giving tribute in money or kind, for building and maintenance of Churches, Monasteries and Schools.
St Fintan is said to have been trained under St Comgal at Bangor, Co Down. While there, he is credited with many miracles: e.g. he miraculously gained a copy of the Gospels, which were extremely valuable in those days, when attacking pirates were overcome as a sudden storm uprooted a large tree and destroyed their ships with it. St Fintan recovered the Gospels from the pirates who had stolen them elsewhere.
During Springtime a leper asked for bread but the Monastery did not have any flour. St Fintan caused the corn seed to grow fully immediately, so that the bread could be made. He also exorcised demons. He caused a mill to grind for three days without the use of the usual water power.
St Fintan left Bangor and attempted to settle near a hill called Cabhair but an angel appeared to him and instructed him otherwise. However, in order that St Fintan should be honoured in that place, a bell miraculously came there through the air. It was called Dubh-labhar, meaning Black-toller and it and St Fintan, were venerated there, ever since.
St Fintan was known for his extraordinary sanctity. Peace, compassion and piety were enthroned in his heart. He maintained a heavenly serenity and equanimity of temper. He ministered to his guests and his brethren. He had no guile, no condemnation for anyone and was never angry or disturbed, he returned no evil for evil and he had no grief in any calamity.
He flourished in the second half of the 6th century and that most of his missionary work was confined to the Southern half of the country. He founded his Monastery and School at Dunbleisque, now Doon, Co Limerick, which the Lord had designated for his habitation. There is a Holy Well to his memory, where pilgrims still arrive and where miracles are still attested to but the exact site of his Monastery in nowadays uncertain.
Knowing his end awas pproaching, St Fintan assembled his Monks and named Fintan Maeldubh as his successor. He died on 17 February 603.
St Fintan’s Tree, Clonenagh – This tree, an acer pseudoplatanus, was planted in the late 18th or early 19th century at the site of the Early Christian monastic site of Clonenagh. The tree is dedicated to St Fintan and it became custom to insert coins into the tree, from which the tree suffered and was believed to be dead until the tree started to recover with some new shoots.