Saint Finnbarr, Founder of the Diocese of Cork, by Father P Cahalane, PP

[Saint Finbarr, Bishop]Feast-day, September 25th

Saint Finnbarr has for centuries been accepted as the founder of our Diocese.1 He is believed to have been born at Lisnacaheragh in the tuath centre of Raithleann, situated in the townland of Garranes and civil parish of Templemartin. There his father Ainairgen was a professional artisan in the employment of Tigernach, a local chief, and he also was the owner of a townland in the district, perhaps Kilbarry in Kilmurry parish. The child’s mother, whose name has not been preserved, was probably the daughter of a local landowner. In origin then he was the child of the Diocese of Cork. Amairgen indeed was of Connaught descent, one of whose ancestors having migrated, settled in east Cork (now the Barony of Barrymore) and later in Muskerry. Just as the descendants of an emigrant from Ireland to America, who, on tracing their descent from a family in Cork or Galway, might boast of Irish origin, so, too, Amairgen was proud of his ultimate Connaught ancestry. Soon after the birth of the boy, the family moved to the home in Kilbarry, where he was reared and baptised. At his baptism he was named Loan McAmairgen, and it is clear that his parents were already Christians or favourably disposed to Christianity.

The baptismal name of Loan was changed to Finnbarr in unusual circumstances. Some time after the baptism of the child, a number of clerics, who were on a pilgrimage from Ossory to South Munster, called to the home of Amairgen and were much impressed by the youth. With the permission of his parents they took him on the return journey to Ossory for his education. On the way the youth was tonsured at a place called Tlos Coill, believed to be situated in the region of the Nagle mountains, which now marks the northern boundary of our Diocese. The tonsure was the introduction to his education in the ecclesiastical sense. In the course of the ceremony the cleric who tonsured him remarked: “Fair is the crest (barr) on Loan.” The elder cleric added: “This shall be his name henceforth – Findbarr.”2 There were other saints named Finnbarr and Barrfind also, and one may suspect that all did not get their name under like circumstances. It is probable that these adopted the name of the Cork saint.

After the completion of his education, Finnbarr returned to his native place, where he built a cill, probably a family altar. Adjoining this a larger church was later built named Acadh Durbcon, which became the parish church of the district now known as Kilbarry. Before 1437 this was absorbed in the parish of Kilmurry. From Kilbarry the saint proceeded to Cork, but he probably took a circuitous route and visited Gougane Barra on the way. It is interesting to note in connection with this tour that, according to tradition, the old road from Kilbarry graveyard through Kilmichael and Iveleary was the ancient road to Gougane, which can still be traced with reasonable accuracy. It was a testing journey even for the youthful Finnbarr, but he was well repaid by the bleak grandeur of his discovery. There he founded his hermitage, following the example of many other saints, who established such places of retreat to which they were accustomed to retire for prayer and meditation.3

From Gougane the saint probably followed the course of the Lee on the north side to the river Dripsey through the district of his friend, Saint Eolang of Aghabullog. At a point near Inishluinge (soon to be submerged for ever by the waters of the Lee), where there had been an earlier monastery, Finnbarr crossed the Lee ‘southwards’ and still within sight of Inishluinge, he built a church named Cell na Cluaine, identified with the teampul at Cellnaclona, a place now absorbed in the present townland of Ballineadig. From this his course lay across the valley of the river Bride through Desertmore and Kilnaglory to Cork. Before his arrival there he is said to have built twelve churches. Most of these cannot now be identified and the question often arises: what was the purpose of so many foundations? It is suggested that ‘the multiplicity of churches points to the intensified ardour of Ireland’s Christian infancy’ (Canon Power: Irish Eccl. Record, March, 1950). This does not imply that the fewer but larger churches which later arose at the time of the organisation of parishes in Ireland cooled the ardour of the people. Before establishing his great monastery in Cork, Finnbarr was probably accepted as ‘persona grata’ by the ruling sept of the locality – the Ui Mic Ciair, a kindred sept of the Ui Eachach, later known as the O’Mahonys. Through their good offices he was recommended to the Holy See and sent into the territory of the sept, who had granted him the site of his monastery in Cork. It is related in the ‘Life’ of the saint that he actually went to Rome for his consecration, but it appears more probable that he was consecrated in Cork by his teacher and life-long friend, Bishop Mac Cuirp.

The Cork monastery consisted of a school and monastic church. This church was in fact his ‘sedes’ from which he organised and ruled the infant church as abbot-bishop. A monastic church in these early times did not mean the same as a monastic church at the present day, such as the convents or abbeys of the Franciscans, Dominicans, etc. In early times the monastery of monks was a secular or missionary establishment, where the monks or priests lived and worked as a community. The monks taught and prayed as a body in true monastic spirit, but as individuals they ministered also in outlying districts as secular priests. We can form some idea of this ancient combination of the secular and monastic life from the custom in some dioceses in Ireland at present, whereby all the priests of a parish reside together in a presbytery in a kind of community life, each priest, however, having the individual care of a district and school or schools in the parish. In this connection it is interesting to note that the term ‘abbey’ has survived in tradition and was applied to the churches of secular priests in the diocese, such as to an old cill in the ancient parish of Macloneigh (Kilmichael Parish), though it is quite certain that there was no abbey there in the modern sense.

The site of Finnbarr’s church and school was on the limestone cliff on the south bank of the Lee, now known as Gill Abbey.4 Originally known as Rathin Mac nAedha, this was the land granted to the saint by the ruling sept. The site was well chosen: it was a centre of population and the terrain was suitable for buildings of an enduring nature. The school became known as the School of Cork, but this is a modest description as in fact it was a noted school of learning and piety, catering for secular students as well as aspirants to the priesthood. It attracted youths from places far beyond the immediate locality. The course of training consisted in the harmonious development of the secular and the religious needs of man – preparation of the soul as well as technical training of mind and hand. We have little information as to the nature of the courses pursued by those young men who aspired to the priesthood, but the battle for the souls of many still surrounded with centres and objects savouring of paganism could not be won as if by magic. Saint Finnbarr, the son of a noted craftsman, inherited the family genius for building and allied crafts and was therefore specially qualified for the teaching of such subjects as well as the art of practising the christian way of life. In the erection of the monastic buildings in Cork and the construction of churches as the infant diocese expanded, he must have spared himself no effort. It is our misfortune that owing to the destruction wrought by the Norsemen in later times, we are deprived of all but the most meagre fragments of these early buildings.

For a period of about seventeen years Saint Finnbarr worked not only as the master of a great school, but also as a missionary in the extension and organisation of the infant diocese. He continued the pioneer work of Saint Patrick, extending the Faith and ensuring its full practice in many districts where as yet only pockets of Catholics and isolated churches existed. While still on active service he died about the year 620, aged about 70 years. The circumstances of his passing are indeed touching.

Our first bishop made one of his accustomed visits to Gougane Rarra for light and strength in lone commune with God for yet another period of work for his beloved diocese. It was, however, his last visit. On the return journey he made a surprise call at Cell na Cluaine. The hermit of Desertmore, who had been a special friend of his, was invited to greet him there,5 and when it became evident that the saint was unable to resume his journey to Cork, the hermit administered the last Sacraments to his Bishop and patron, who soon died ‘by the cross in the middle of Cell na Cluaine.’ We can well imagine the scenes of sorrow as the funeral cortege wended its way through the valley of the Lee to the site of his fruitful labours, where clergy from South Munster ‘were busied about the body of their master with hymns and psalms and Masses and recitation of Hours.’6

According to tradition he was buried in an angle of the cemetery attached to his monastery, a spot that now lies to the south-east of the present day Protestant cathedral (the cemetery at Gill Abbey is believed to be of a later date). Because of continuing raids of the Norsemen, his enshrined body was removed in the ninth century to a safer resting place, but in vain. The relies of the saint have been lost and this loss must also be accredited to the Norsemen. Through the centuries many legends have grown in relation to the life and work of Saint Finnbarr. We admire the laurel wreaths that have been woven in his praise, but we need not substitute them for historical facts. There is ample testimony to his holiness as a pioneer of the Faith and to his greatness as a man of our own soil. Lists of his miracles and surpassing achievements too are to be found in most of the ‘Lives’ of Saint Finnbarr, but (and the possibility of miracles is not denied) these are regarded as common form, while the epitaph of Gorman in his martyrology is indeed uncommon: ‘May chaste Bairre from Corcach be before me in Heaven. For he was kind and gentle to the poor.’

- Father P Cahalane, PP, The Fold, July and August 1953
  1. The term ‘founder’ is now a term of historical interest rather than of actual use. Instead we have the term ‘patron,’ which is, too, an ancient term, as the word ‘pattern’ shows. Patron was the term applied to a district or diocese rather than to the churches in the locality. The term now in use in regard to individual churches is ‘titular,’ which means the saint or mystery of religion from which the church is named. Both patron and titular may, however, be applied to the district or ecclesiastical entity and to the churches situated in that region, as Saint Finbarr is the patron of the Diocese of Cork and is the titular of a number of churches and institutions in the Diocese also.
  2. The rendering Findbarr with double ‘n’ as given in the tablet of Saint Finnbarr’s College, Saint Patrick’s Place (now the Christian College), is probably a later spelling.
  3. Devoted clients of Saint Finnbarr still follow a grand tradition when they go on retreat or attend their parish mission.
  4. The name Gill Abbey is derived from Gilla Aedha O’Muidhin, a noted bishop of Cork in the twelfth century.
  5. The absence of Saint Eolang, his confessor, on this occasion is difficult to explain. Was the illness of Saint Finnbarr of a sudden nature or was Saint Eolang then dead?
  6. Lives of the Irish Saints, Volume II, page 2. Plummer