Finnian Lobhar, Abbot (AC)
(also known as Finan the Leper)
Born at Bregia, Leinster, Ireland; died February 2, c. 560. Little is authentically known about Saint Finnian because the records of his life are conflicting. He is said to have been the son of Conail and descendent of Alild, king of Munster. He may have been a disciple of Saint Columba (or perhaps he was trained at one of Columba's foundations); others, that he was a disciple of Saint Brendan. He was ordained by Bishop Fathlad, and may have been consecrated by him.
Finnian built a church that is believed to have been at Innisfallen in County Kerry and so is considered by some scholars to have been the founder of that monastery. Later he lived at Clonmore Abbey in Leinster and then went to Swords near Dublin, where he was made abbot by Columba when he left. Another account has him abbot of Clonmore Monastery, where he was buried, for the last thirty years of his life.
Lobhar means "the Leper," a name he acquired when he reputedly assumed the disease of a leper to cure a young boy of an illness. As is evident, much of the information about Finnian is uncertain and conflicting, and it is not even certain what century he lived in (Attwater2, Benedictines, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Farmer, Gill, Husenbeth).
St. Finian, surnamed Lobhar, or the Leper
HE was son of Conail, descended from Kian, the son of Alild, king of Munster. He was a disciple of St. Brendan, and flourished about the middle of the sixth century. He imitated the patience of Job under a loathsome and tedious distemper, from which his surname was given him. The famous abbey of Innisfallen, which stood in an island of that name, in the great and beautiful lake of Lough-Lane in the county of Kerry, was founded by our saint. 1 A second, called from him Ardfinnan, he built in Tipperary; and a third at Cluain-more Madoc, in Leinster, where he was buried. He died on the 2nd of February; but, says Colgan, his festival is kept on the 16th of March, at all the above-mentioned places. Sir James Ware speaks of two MS. histories of his life. See also Usher, (Antiq. c. 17.) Colgan, 17 Martii. Mr. Smith, in his natural and civil history of the county of Kerry, in 1755, p. 127.
Note 1. In the monastery of Innis-fallen was formerly kept a chronicle called the Annals of Innis-fallen. They contain a sketch of universal history, from the creation to the year 430. From that time the annalist amply enough prosecutes the affairs of Ireland down to the year 1215, when he wrote. They were continued by another hand to 1320. They are often quoted by Bishop Usher and Sir James Ware. An imperfect transcript is kept among the MSS. of the library of Trinity college, Dublin. Bishop Nicholson, in his Irish Historical Library, informs us, that the late duke of Chandos had a complete copy of them. [back]
Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume III: March. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.
- Finian the Leper
Disciple of Saint Columba. Founded a church and monastery at Innisfallen, Ireland. Monk at Clonmore, Ireland. Abbot of Swords abbey near Dublin, Ireland. In his later years he retired to Clonmore to spend his last days as a prayerful monk. He was called Lobhar (the Leper) because he briefly contracted leprosy when he miraculously cured a young boy of the disease.
Saint Finnian Lobhair, March 16
On March 16 we commemorate the memory of Saint Finnian, 'the leprous one', who is associated with the County Dublin locality of Sord Cholum Cille, anglicized as Swords. I have already written about a famous vision attributed to this saint at my other blog here. Although Canon O'Hanlon begins his account by lamenting the lack of hagiographical material relating to Saint Finnian Lobhair, it doesn't stop him from bringing us a full account of this holy man. One source of confusion, however, is that our saint shares his feastday with a namesake, Finnian Cam 'the bent or squint-eyed' and it is this saint who is the patron of Inisfallen rather than the 'luminous leper', as the Martyrology of Oengus styles the abbot of Swords:
ST. FINIAN LOBHAIR, OR THE LEPER, ABBOT OF SWORDS, COUNTY OF DUBLIN.
[SIXTH OR SEVENTH CENTURY.]
The Acts of St. Finian, the Leper, which have come down to us, are exceeding meagre and unsatisfactory, especially in presenting dates and names to elucidate the phases of his biography. The places where he dwelt are disguised, by misspelling, or by a want of particularity; while, comments on our Martyrologists are liable to be inaccurate, and are hardly verified, by reference to the legendary biographical accounts. Much, therefore, is left for conjecture; and, hence the difficulty of collecting and combining matter, to place the order of asserted narrative, in its true form, or in its best points of view.
It is stated, that there had been two different Manuscript copies of this saint's life, in the time of Sir James Ware. They are quite different accounts, however, as would appear from their introductory sentences. They even refer to Saints, called Finian, yet to persons wholly distinct. Still, one of these Lives seems to have been a Tract, which the Bollandists obtained from Father Henry Fitzsimons, and which they published at this day. Although somewhat qualifiedly praised by the Bollandists, it has been justly condemned by Dr. Lanigan, as a wretched compilation, and filled with fables. It was probably written by some Englishman, after the Anglo-Saxon settlement, in Ireland, as may be gleaned from some of the expressions introduced. Colgan and the Bollandists give the Acts of St. Finian Lobhair, at the 16th of March. The former writer justly infers the existence of an ancient Life, from circumstances related about our saint, in the Martyrology of Salisbury, which calls him a bishop, and which mentions his having raised three persons to life, matters not alluded to by the Irish Calendarists. This old Life, however, did not come into Colgan's hands. Notices of St. Finian, the Leper, are to be met with in the works of Bishop Challenor and of Rev. Alban Butler, as also, in the ''Memorial of Ancient British Piety."
St. Finian was born of an illustrious family, for he belonged to the race of Cian, son to Oilioll Oluim, according to the O'Clerys, and our genealogists. Thus, he was a son to Conell, or Conald, son to Eochad, son of Thadeus, son of Kien, son of Alild or Olild Oliem, King of Munster. The published Acts state, that his mother belonged to the southern part of Ireland. According to Dr. Jeoffry Keating, however, he is said to have descended from the posterity of Fiachadh Muillethan ; but, he seems to have had in view another saint, yet bearing a like name. The Acts of our saint, as published by the Bollandists, are silent as to the place of his nativity. If we are to believe some accounts, this saint was a native of Ely O'Carroll, then a part of Munster; yet, such was not the case, for he seems rather to have been born in that part of Leinster, known as Bregia, on its eastern coast. He received the surname of Lobhar, or "the Leper," from the circumstance of his being afflicted with the leprosy, or with some similar scrofulous disorder, during many years of his life. Although the word Lobhar means literally "a Leper," yet, it has been used, by the Irish, to denominate a person, suffering from a chronic infirmity of body, especially of any ulcerous or scrofulous kind. From our saint's infancy, Divine Grace seemed to surround him, and even to have been communicated to that place, in which he was born; for, its inhabitants bore witness, that no animals went into it, nor appeared there. In the Bollandists' Acts, it is stated, in one passage, that Finian went to the place of his nativity, which is designated Sord, or Swords; and, the territory around this spot is called Ard-Ceannachte, by Adamnan, owing to the circumstance of Tadhy or Thadeus—the reputed great-grandfather of our saint—having defeated the Ultonians in the battle of Crinna, and having received for his services a grant of that part of Bregia, extending from Glasnera, near Druim-Inesclann or Dromisken, on the north, to Cnoc Maoildoid, by the River Liffey, on the south. His father being called Cian, and his descendants having occupied this territory, it was called the Cantred of Cianacht.
In the Acts of our saint, as published by the Bollandists, it is stated, that Finian had been a disciple to St. Columkille, that great Apostle of the Picts. But, Dr. Lanigan conjectures, that our saint had only been educated in some house of the Columbian Order. We are told, indeed, that St. Columba, having built Swords Monastery, placed, it has been said, Finian over it as abbot. But, according to Dr. Lanigan, our saint, in all probability, was not born, until after St. Columkille's death. Hence, he adopts an opinion, that Swords Monastery had been founded by St. Finian himself, and not by St. Columba, who is said by O'Donnell to have erected it, before he left Ireland in 563. Were it otherwise, Finian must have discharged abbatial duties before or during this year. In opposition to this story, he contends, that it is sufficient to observe, St. Finian did not die, until between the years 674 and 693. However, such a date is not to be inferred from this saint's Acts; and, it evidently has reference to a different Finian. The foundation of Swords most probably took place, as Dr. Lanigan supposes, after the death of Columba, to whose institution, however, it seems to have belonged. It is thought, this monastery must have been founded, at some time, in the seventh century. Notwithstanding, Dr. Lanigan's opinion, although apparently plausible, is founded on the assumption, that the death of our saint should be referred to the close of that age.
When grown to be a boy, Finian was educated by a senior, named Brendan, to whom he had been brought. By him, the child was instructed in the Christian doctrine, and in a knowledge of literature. Having received his course of training, with the master's permission, Finian set out for the south of Ireland, to which part his mother belonged. There, he found the bishop, called Fathlad, who honourably received him, and finding that Finian was remarkable for his sanctity and gravity of demeanour, it was deemed right to promote our saint to Holy Orders. We are even told, he attained to the Episcopal rank. He was consecrated by Bishop Fathlad, and soon his virtues and miracles rendered him very renowned. He had frequent angelic visions, and colloquies with the heavenly messenger, so that he was thus consoled and comforted. One day, St. Finian heard certain Angels singing, "These are they who are come out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb," when he conceived a great desire for the martyr's crown. A certain woman came to him, and brought with her a small boy, who was blind, mute, and a leper, from the time of his birth. For this afflicted creature, Finian prayed to the Almighty, but received for answer, that he must bear the leprosy himself, if he willed the child to be healed. Finian cheerfully accepted that condition, when, like holy Job, he was covered with ulcers from the sole of his foot even to the top of his head. At the same time, the boy was healed, and the saint bore his infirmity, not only with patience, but even with joy.
A woman came to him, and brought a boy, at the point of death; but, our saint prayed, and health was restored to the patient. Next we are informed, that Finian sat reading one day by the margin of a lake, into which his book fell, by an accident, and it sank to the bottom. The water was so deep, no one could recover it; however, after an hour's immersion, it came to the surface, in the presence of many persons there assembled. What was even more wonderful, on being restored to the saint, it seemed to have undergone no damage. There he built a basilica, and he established a cemetery, where miracles were wrought, in favour of some sick persons, during his life, and even at the time his Acts were written. If any person slept in the church, even although its doors were closed, he was found without the building, and on the banks of the lake; because Finian had founded God's house for prayer, and not for sleeping. We are not told, in the old Acts of our saint, where this church and lake were to be found. However, it seems to have been in the south of Ireland, and it may have been that monastery, said to have been built by St, Finian, on Inisfaithlen—now- usually written Innisfallen—a most romantically-situated island in the Lower Lake of Killarney. Several Irish writers ascribe its foundation to the sixth century, assuming that the founder had been the disciple of St. Columkille… How long St. Finian dwelt in his island retreat of Inisfallen—if this were his home—we are unable to determine. … Some very legendary accounts, regarding Finian, while he dwelt beside the lake, are related in his Acts; but, these are hardly worthy of insertion, in the present account of our saint.
In our saint's published Acts, it is stated, that some differences arose, where he dwelt, regarding the erection of a mill; and, then it is related, that Finian departed from the lake habitation, he had at first selected, and went to a place, called Olnaimar. In thus printing it, we suspect some error, probably attributable to the original writer himself; and to us, it seems likely, that Cluain-mor, or Clonraore, was intended, since there, it is thought, St. Finian closed the latest years of his life. However, he lived in the former place, and suffered greatly from his infirmity. It seems, that a penitent desired to share this suffering with him, and he even asked, to become a leper, so that with an afflicted body, his soul might be assured of salvation. However, Finian sought to disuade him from such a purpose, by telling him, he could not endure the pain. The penitent next prayed to God, that his request might be granted, and immediately his whole frame was seized with an intolerable itching and agony, caused by leprosy. He soon repaired to St. Finian, and besought him, that it might be removed. Our saint sent him to some water that was near, in which he washed, as directed, and again the man was restored to his former sound state. Next have we an account, regarding a neighbouring king, to whom the clerics of that church owed an annual entertainment, and they requested Finian to intercede for them, that such an expense might be removed. He sent a maid servant, to represent this desire to the king. At first, the ruler was inexorable, but St. Finian having threatened the Divine displeasure, a wonderful miracle was wrought, which convinced the king of his error, and which caused him to fall on his knees, to ask pardon from the holy man.
Afterwards, as we are told, wishing to visit his own country, he came to a place, named Sord, where he found St. Columba. Finian expressed the desire he had to visit Rome, when Columba said, "You shall not go, but rather shall you remain here." Then replied the man of God, " I have vowed to do so, and I cannot fail to fulfil my vow." Desiring Finian to place his head on the knees of Columba, the former slept awhile, and afterwards awaking, he was asked by the latter what he had seen. Finian related, how he had been to Rome, and how he had visited all its holy places. Then said Columba, “Just now, you shall remain here, and you shall not go to Rome." Then, St. Columba, taking his own departure therefrom, gave that place, and all its immediate bounds, to Finian. There, too, our saint healed the sick, and exercised the duties of hospitality ; he gave no rest to his limbs, but for a fourth part of the night, he sat in cold water, to sing his psalms. The other three parts of it, he lay on the cold ground, having four stones around him, and on these in regular succession his head was reclined, whenever he wished to have a little sleep. Such was the rigorous life our saint led, and for his asceticism he was renowned.
The legendary Acts relate, that one night, while he wrote, a certain rustic looked into the place of his retirement, and saw that light was given the saint, from the fingers of his left hand. This curiosity displeased the holy man, and on that instant, the rustic lost the sight of one eye, and a similar punishment fell upon his posterity, as was believed in a prevailing popular tradition. While here, too, St. Finian frequently passed to a certain island, and visited brothers who were there. During one of those voyages, an immense whale threatened his destruction; yet, making a sign of the cross, the man of God put this huge monster to flight. Again, a great number of mice overran the island, but our saint prayed, and afterwards, not even a mouse appeared. Once when he arrived, the brothers had not a single fish taken; notwithstanding, Finian ordered them to let down their nets, and immediately thirty salmon were secured. One of the brothers, going round the island somewhat incautiously, fell from a great precipice, and he was instantly killed. His other brothers came in great grief to Finian, and bewailing his death; the man of God prayed, when, at once, he was restored to life. At length, it was intimated to him, that his sojourn on the island was not agreeable to the brethren; and, then, he proceeded to disembark, but the winds were unfavourable. However, he raised the sails, and buffeting against the breeze, he touched at a wished-for port. When he arrived at Swords, the doors were all closed; yet, without the knowledge of any among the inmates, those were miraculously unlocked. While there, he blessed a tree, and caused it to bear sweet fruit, although previously this was bitter. Other miracles he wrought, in favour of the poor, of lepers, of the mute, deaf, and cripples. One Sunday, wine was wanting for the Holy Sacrifice; water was brought to him, and he miraculously changed it into wine. Frequently, while he celebrated Mass, all who assisted saw a globe of fire over his head. A certain man, being obliged to set out on a warlike expedition, came to the saint, to ask his prayers, and to receive his blessing. In the course of that war, he fell among the slain, and kindred coming to search for his corpse, they called his name aloud, when the man arose to life, through the merits of St. Finian. A rustic, whose son died, bore the body to the holy man, and vowed in tears he would not leave, until the youth was revivified. Finian replied, “God is merciful, he will bring your son to life," and so it immediately happened. Certain guests arrived at his monastery, in the winter season, when a vessel to warm water had been wanting. Finian prayed, and a patella descended from Heaven, which for a long time was to be seen at that place. A quarrel arose between two persons; one of these fled to seek the protection of St. Finian; while the other pursued, with an intent to do his opponent some grievous injury. Refusing to accept the proferred mediation of our saint, the man obdurate of heart became blind on the instant, and his adversary escaped. Among the other miracles, related in his Acts, it is mentioned, that once coming from the island, to which allusion has been made, and at the Paschal season, Finian left his Missal behind; but, the next morning on arising, he felt sorrowful. Nevertheless, when he entered the church, there was found that Missal, restored to him, by the hands of Angels, Finian extinguished a fire, which broke out in the monastery, by making a sign of the cross. He restored an insane woman, to the use of her reason ; he caused a barren tree, by his blessing, to bear fruit ; he restored to life, by his prayers, a disciple, called Bcecan, who had been drowned. This was a subject of great admiration to many. Then, without any mention, as to the place of his death, yet leaving it to be inferred from the context, it must have been at Swords; the writer of his Acts states, that after performing the foregoing, and many other miracles, Finian slept in peace, and frequent miracles continued to be wrought through his relics, or before his tomb.
Now according to some other accounts, St. Finian presided over Clonmore Monastery, which was founded by St. Maidoc, son of Ainmire, first Bishop of Ferns, and which was called after him. But, it has been supposed, that when Finian came to this place, another St. Maidoc, the son of Setna, had succeeded there. This latter holy man died, A.D. 656, and so it is thought to be not unlikely, that Finian spent some six years under his spiritual jurisdiction. Now, if Finian presided there at all, it had been—so state some—subsequently to this date. It is said, indeed, that he passed the last thirty years of his life at Cluain-mor-Maedoc, and, according to conjectural accounts, his last end came, about A.D. 680. Taking these matters into consideration, it is no wonder, that his Patron, St. Maedoc, should have appeared, as the legend states, to his subordinate at Clonmore, when about to announce the approaching dissolution of Christ's happy servant.
On the eve of St. Maidoc's feast, Finian saw in a vision a chariot descending from Heaven, towards the city of Ferns, in which was placed a venerable old man, with a clerical habit, having a very beautiful countenance, and a virgin, covered with a cloak. Finian asked who they were, when the old man answered, "This is the most holy virgin Brigid, the Patroness of Ireland, and, I am Maidoc, the servant of Christ. On to-morrow, my festival shall be celebrated, and on the following day, the feast of this most holy virgin; and, now have we come, that we may bless our places, and those, who by their gifts and oblations, honour the days of our departure. But, be you joyful and prepared, for, on the next day, you shall ascend to Heaven." Arising in ecstasy, Finian ascended his chariot, and then went to Kildare, the city of Brigid, relating his vision to all. As had been predicted regarding him, on the third day after this vision, he obtained relief from his infirmity, having been translated to the felicity of Heaven.
From this relation—which does not occur in St. Finian's proper Acts— but, given by the author of St. Maidoc's Life, it would appear, if he were the person designated, that our saint departed, either on the 1st or 2nd day of February—most likely on the latter. Hence, one or other day should represent his Natalis. However, all our Martyrologies, as well native as foreign, place his festival, at the 16th day of March. This, as some think, commemorated a Translation of his relics; but, there are no strong grounds, for not deeming it to be the actual day of his demise.
According to Dr. Jeoffry Keating, in the reign of Finnacta, Monarch of Ireland, died Colman, the pious Bishop of Inis Bo Finne; and, about the same time, Fionnan, who pronounced his benediction over Ardfionan, left the world. This latter, however, may have been a person, altogether different from St. Finian the Leper. Some writers are of opinion, that the death of St. Finian the Leper occurred at Ardfinnian. That our saint probably died at Swords, is Dr. Lanigan's contention; but, holding to a theory, that Finian lived in the seventh century, he assumes, that doubts may be cast on the genuineness of a composition, ascribed to St. Moling, and, which states, that St. Finian died, and was buried, at Clonmore, incorrectly supposed to have been in the county of Wexford. Were that Poem really the composition of St. Moling, Dr. Lanigan allows, there should be no question, regarding his death and burial, at the latter place ; for, had he died either at Swords, or at Ardfinnian, the monks would hardly consent to allow his entire body to be removed to Clonmore. But, he questions the attributed authorship of this poem, which he is inclined to refer rather to some monk of Clonmore, who lived at a later period. He supposes, that Onchuo, appearing to have been later than Finian, or Moling, and who therefore could not have been mentioned in a poem, written by the latter, had a portion of the relics belonging to St. Finian the Leper in his collection, and that these might have been deposited in Clonmore church. Now, Colgan states, that our saint was buried, neither at Swords, nor at Ardfinnian, as some suppose, but at Clonmore, and this is deemed, as being altogether the most probable statement, by those who follow his account. To prove this, Colgan cites a passage from a Poem, written in the Irish language, and which he attributes to St. Moling, Bishop of Ferns. Here, it is said, our saint was buried near the cross, and towards the southern part of the cemetery, with Saints Maidoc and Onchuo. The latter is thought to have flourished, three or four generations before Finan Lobhar, and to have been born in the latter end of the fifth, or in the commencement of the sixth century. Still, the exact year of St. Finian's death is not known; although very incorrect and even contradictory statements have been hazarded, in reference to the date.
In Ireland, the feast of St. Finan or Finian, the Leper, Bishop and Confessor, was formerly celebrated with an Office, consisting of Nine Lessons. In the "Feilire" of St. Aengus, "St. Finan, the luminous Leper," is commemorated, at the 16th of March. The Martyrology of Tallagh registers him, at the 16th of March, as Finan (i Lobhar) Suird. Marianus O'Gorman, and his Scholiast, at this date, place him at Swords, at Ciuainmor, in Lagenia, and at Inisfallen, in Lough Lene. In addition to these places, the Calendar of Cashel adds, that he belonged to Ardfinain. Whitford, in the Martyrology of Salisbury, and the Carthusian Martyrology, commemorate him. He is also entered, in the Martyrology of Christ's Church Cathedral, Dublin. We read, in the Martyrology of Donegal, as having a festival celebrated on this day, Fionan, the Leper, of Sord, and of Cluainmór, in Leinster; and of Ard Fionain, in Munster. This is likely to be the St. Finianus, mentioned at the 16th of March, in the anonymous list of Irish Saints, published by O'Sullevan Beare. Henry Fitzsimon also commemorates him, on the authority of the Carthusian Martyrology. In the “Memorial of British Piety," and in the "Circle of the Seasons," he is commemorated, at the 16th of March.
This saint's festival seems to have been celebrated, even in Scotland. Thus, he had churches at Killinan, otherwise Kilfynan, at Elan Finan, at Mochrum, at Abersnetheck, in Monymusk, and at Migvie. Here, too, a fair had been held, under the name of St. Finzean's fair. There is a Finzean's fair, also, at Perth. The name of the church of Lumphanan, where Macbeth is believed to have been killed, is probably dedicated to St. Finian. In the Dunkeld Litany, he is addressed as Finnanach. St. Finian, was venerated, especially at four different places, in Ireland, viz., Swords, Ardfinnan, Inisfallen, and Clonmore, according to a generally received opinion. However, it does not appear so certain, that all of these, and other places named, must be regarded, as under his particular patronage; for, possibly, at some early period of our ecclesiastical history, popular tradition got into confusion, regarding him and some other Finian, who may have been more immediately connected with localities designated. It has been stated, that a house, established by our saint, stood at Ardfinnan, which signifies, "the high place of Finian," within the baronies of Iffa and Offa West, in the South Riding of the county of Tipperary, and in the diocese of Lismore. According to Dr. Jeoffry Keating, a St. Finian blessed Ardfinnin, during the reign of Finachta Fleadhach, King of Ireland. The town of Lismore was constituted the Deanery of this diocese, in after time; and, the feast of its patron and founder was kept, we are told, on this day. It was a solemn festival, as tablets belonging to the church bear record. Besides the monastery of Innis-Faithlenn, which was the home of learned men until destroyed, the Cathedral Church of Aghadoe, as we are told, was also dedicated to St. Finnian Lobhar. He is considered to be the patron of South Kerry, likewise; but, we are not quite assured—although present local traditions seem to confirm this opinion—that he was that chief patron there venerated. On June 1st, St. Finnan's Tower, Ship-street, Dublin, fell, and, by exertions of the parish Beadle (F. Durham), a number of lives were saved. Most probably, that tower had been dedicated to the present saint.
The truly pious man feels happiness under affliction, when patient and submissive to the decrees of Providence. Confidence in God, and love towards him, inspire the soul, and create a great peace within, even when the body is wasted with suffering and disease. Those gifts of mind and of grace are the great sources of fortitude. With manly courage and firmness should we bear our occasional crosses, since our Divine Redeemer showed us how to suffer, and to triumph over suffering.
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