Celtic and Old English Saints          12 October

* St. Fiech of Sletty
* St. Wilfrith of York
* St. Edwin of Northumbria
* St. Ethelburga of Barking

St. Fiech (Fiacc), Bishop of Sletty in Ireland,
Friend of Saint Patrick

A Bardic Saint of Ireland

A saint closely associated with Saint Patrick, Fiacc of Sletty, a converted 
Irish bard said to have composed the earliest metrical life of Saint 
Patrick. Modern scholars, I need hardly add, no longer take this tradition 
at face value, but below is a paper from the Irish Ecclesiastical Record of 
1921, when writers were much more accepting of the historicity of the 
traditional accounts.

THE valley of the Barrow, which extends through a considerable portion of 
southern Leinster, has not received as much notice as it deserves in 
descriptions of the natural attractions and associations of the water-ways 
of Ireland. Nevertheless, events and scenes and memories connected with the 
best and greatest epochs of our country's past have left their traces along 
the course of this classic river, from its source in the Slievebloom 
Mountains till it enters the sea at Waterford Harbour. In ages long gone by, 
when south-eastern Ireland was almost entirely a forest-land and roads were 
few, this waterway was mainly the medium of communication between those 
tribal divisions now forming the counties of Kildare, Carlow, Wexford, and 
Waterford. Neither does the Barrow lack certain elements of the picturesque 
that make it fall but little short of the beautiful, for many stretches of 
its scenery, especially between Carlow and the Meeting of the three Sisters, 
where it enters the Atlantic, compare favourably with those of the 
better-known rivers of Ireland. Nor yet is the spell of history wanting, 
since Sage and Saint, Gael and Dane, Norman and Puritan, the conqueror and 
the vanquished, have lived and left many a mark on its border-lands, and 
supplied many a pictured page to the gladsome and, too often, sadsome annals 
of our country.

In the early days of Christianity in Ireland, as with most of the rivers of 
the country, certain districts adjacent to the course of the Barrow were 
chosen by missionaries and scholar-monks for sites whereon to erect little 
churches or found monastic schools, that afterwards gave rise to the towns 
which now flourish along its banks. In the history of the poet-saint and 
scribe who founded the ancient monastery of Sletty we are interested in the 
following pages.

St. Fiacc of Sletty was a contemporary of St. Patrick, and, moreover, played 
an important part in the opening scene of the great Apostle's mission at the 
court of Tara, in the memorable Eastertide of 433. Afterwards the threads of 
his life-story were for a time closely interwoven with events narrated in 
the accounts of the labours and miracles of our National Patron. Most of us 
are acquainted with the oft-told incident that occurred on the first 
appearance of St. Patrick and his followers at the court of King Laoghaire. 
Previous to the arrival of the Saint a royal command was given that none of 
the assembly should rise to do honour to the mysterious band of strangers. 
However, a few of the courtiers present were so impressed by the venerable 
appearance of the leader of the procession that they could not restrain 
their feelings of emotion, and failed to obey the orders of the pagan 
monarch. The first who rose, as is recorded, was Dubhthach, 'chief bard and 
brehon of Erin,' whose example was followed by Fiacc his pupil, who is 
described in the records of the event as ' the young poet.' The latter was 
not only the favourite pupil of the royal bard, but was, moreover, his 
nephew and foster-son. Dubhthach has ever since been immortalized in song 
and story as the ' first convert of Erin.' It is more than probable that his 
nephew received the gift of Faith at the same time. Fiacc, it is told, was 
then sixteen years of age so that he must have been born about the year A.D. 

The conversion of the chief bard of Erin ' was undoubtedly the first victory 
achieved by St. Patrick over paganism in Ireland. How important and 
far-reaching was the acceptance of Christianity by a personage of such 
exalted rank, and by one whose profession was highly esteemed in those days, 
we shall explain later on.

St.Fiacc was of noble lineage, being descended (in the sixth or seventh 
generation) from the celebrated Cathair Mor, who was King of Leinster and 
Ard-righ at the end of the second century. The chiefs of the clan MacMorrogh 
(now called Kavanagh) trace their descent from the same illustrious 
ancestor. We may note, in passing, that St. Moling, one of the immediate 
successors of St. Aidan, Patron of the See of Ferns, belonged to the same 
race. His monastery beside the Barrow continued to be the burial-place of 
the Kavanaghs down to less than a century ago. This Saint was honoured as 
the protector and patron of the chieftainage through the history of a 
thousand years.

But to return. The father of St. Fiacc is styled Mac Dara, who was Prince of 
Hy-Barrech, whilst his mother was sister of Dubhthach, royal bard of Tara.' 
The bards in both ancient and Christian Ireland were held in a degree of 
respect perhaps greater than that bestowed on any other class of society. 
Their services in the way of literature and poetry were almost the sole 
means by which the chronicles and history of the country were preserved, and 
genealogies recorded. The deeds of valour attributed to chieftains and 
renowned warriors were enshrined by them in metrical compositions and thus 
easily committed to memory by the people. Their lesser poems and songs were 
wedded to the melodies of their harps and were the origin of ' the wild 
native strains ' that have floated down through 'the waves of Time,' and are 
echoed in the national music of Ireland to-day. Like the orders of the 
Druids and Brehons, the ancient minstrels were prepared for their noble 
profession by a long course of study, and thus they gained the esteem they 
attained in popular estimation. From all these circumstances we can easily 
understand how the acceptance of Christianity by Dubhthach, as royal 
minstrel of Tara, came to be an event of almost more importance than would 
have been the conversion of the High- King himself. His example was followed 
by numbers of the courtiers, who soon afterwards received baptism at the 
hands of St. Patrick.

Fiacc, the subject of our memoir, apparently, for a great part of his life 
was never separated from his venerated kinsman. When the latter retired from 
the court of Tara and went to reside in his native place (the present North 
Wexford) his nephew accompanied him. In this locality, we may remark, a 
grant of land was bestowed upon him by the King of Hy-Kinsellagh, which lay 
on the coast not far from the present town of Gorey now called Cahore Point. 
Here Dubhthach spent his declining years. St. Patrick, in his progress 
through Leinster, on his way to Ossory, converted and baptized King 
Crimthan, at Rathvilly, Co. Carlow, about the year 450. On this occasion he 
altered his direct route by going a little out of the beaten track, in order 
to visit his 'first convert ' at his seaside home in North Hy-Kinsellagh. 
During his brief stay in this territory he founded the little church of 
Donoughmore, close by Dubhthach's residence, the remains of which may still 
be traced on the seashore, now half-covered by sand. This is said to be the 
only personal foundation of St. Patrick within the confines of the present 
County Wexford. It is also recorded that during his visit he asked Dubhthach 
to recommend some worthy man, of good family and of virtuous life, whom he 
might train for the priesthood and eventually, if suitable, consecrate a 
bishop and place him ' over the Leinster-men.' His learned and gifted 
nephew, Fiacc, at once occurred, to the venerable bard's mind, as one 
possessing the necessary qualifications in regard to family and education if 
he would consent to enter the ecclesiastical state. Fiacc shortly afterwards 
came upon the scene and, being questioned on the subject under 
consideration, he at first hesitated, but when, as an alternative, 
Dubhthach, aged as he was, offered himself for the position St. Patrick was 
so anxious to fill, the young man was so impressed by the act of 
self-sacrifice on the part of his kinsman that he consented to take the 
latter's place. There and then the Apostle imposed the sacred tonsure on 
Fiacc removing from his brow the wealth of flowing hair which, in those 
times, was the typical mark of noble birth among the Irish. On the departure 
of St. Patrick from Donoughmore, Fiacc accompanied him, and at once entered 
on his ecclesiastical studies. His highly-trained mind and the gift of 
perfect memory he had acquired as a poet by profession made easy to him many 
of those difficulties experienced by other students. With such aptitude did 
he master various subjects that it is said within fifteen days he learned 
the formula and ceremonies for the celebration of Holy Mass and dispensing 
of the Sacraments.

After his ordination, and when he entered upon his missionary career, the 
first church associated with his name was erected by him between Clonmore 
and Aghold, on the borders of Carlow and Wicklow. It was here St. Patrick 
imposed the 'grade of a bishop' upon our Saint, and as recorded, left seven 
monks from his own followers who formed the first community of St. Fiacc. 
Here, for some years, Fiacc led a most holy life, till he was admonished by 
an angel that ' the place of his resurrection was not to be there', but at ' 
the west side of the Barrow,' at a spot which would be indicated to him by 
certain signs. He was told to proceed along the river's course, and at a 
place where he would meet a boar there to build his 'refectory' (i.e., guest 
house), and at a little distance off he would meet a hind, and there would 
be the site of his church. The holy man felt greatly troubled and sad at 
heart at the thoughts of leaving the scenes of his first mission. He felt 
unwilling, even at the call of God, to part from his community and beloved 
flock, and so far determined not to go without the sanction of St. Patrick. 
Accordingly he sent a messenger to his apostolic master to seek his advice. 
The Saint, who at once realized the natural feelings of Fiacc, sent back 
word that he would come to visit his friend and assuage his sorrow. On St. 
Patrick's arrival, speaking words of consolation, he volunteered to 
accompany Fiacc on his journey to the district where he was admonished by 
the Divine Will to spend the future of his life. Bidding farewell to his 
religious brethren and faithful people, Fiacc then set out for his 
destination accompanied by St. Patrick.

When the travellers were coming to the close of their journey and had 
reached 'the west side of the Barrow,' they gave themselves up to earnest 
prayer, awaiting the signs that were to reveal to Fiacc the place of his 
settlement and of his final rest on earth. They had not proceeded far along 
the river-side when the indications foretold in the heavenly message were 
verified. The place, predestined to become sacred in after time, was 
situated about a mile and a half (N.N.W.) from the present town of Carlow, 
close to the range of hills known as the Slievemargy Mountains. The two 
saints, giving thanks to Almighty God, took possession of the spot by 
erecting a rude cross, the sign of man's redemption, and lighting a fire, 
symbolic of ' the light of Faith.' This was the simple ceremony observed by 
the Irish monks wherever they went forth, in after centuries, as, we are 
told, 'to preach the Gospel to nations still held in the bondage of 
paganism, and seated in the valley of death.'

We must remember that, in the organization of the missions of the early 
saints, the founding of a church generally meant also the founding of a 
Christian settlement or monastery. From this we may assume that Fiacc was 
joined by some members of his former community, whose number was later on 
increased by the accession of converts and pious souls who, in those days of 
first fervour, were desirous of embracing the monastic life. Ireland was 
then, and continued to be for centuries afterwards, in a tribal state. Each 
chieftain was independent of his neighbour, and although a central authority 
was supposed to exist in the personality of the Ard-righ or High-King, the 
title was little more than nominal. He was by no means ' monarch of all he 
surveyed.' In St. Patrick's missionary system he adapted the organization of 
his Church to the political condition of the country. The jurisdiction of 
bishops was tribal rather than territorial. Dioceses, in the modern sense, 
did not exist, nor were they defined for six or seven centuries afterwards. 
Every clan had its own episcopal ruler who was, in most cases, chosen from 
the family of the local chieftain, and as we read in the lives of many Irish 
saints, the bishop, on his death-bed, very often handed the insignia of his 
sacred office to one of his disciples, which was considered tantamount to 
nominating his successor. Thus it most frequently happened that the 
episcopal office was retained for successive generations by some relative of 
the chieftain of the respective clans. Descendants of the race of Cathair 
Mor (to which St. Fiacc belonged) had, for many centuries, been rulers of 
the the petty kingdom of Hy-Kinsellagh. The office was not hereditary, in 
the present sense, since, according to the law of Tanistry, the people could 
chose any member or relative of the ruling family, on the personal merits of 
the candidate whether as a warrior, statesman, or as one gifted with 
superior wisdom, or other attributes calculated to command the respect and 
obedience of his subjects. Members of the same family that of Mac Morrogh 
held the sovereignty of Hy-Kinsellagh down to the Anglo-Norman Invasion, the 
ill-starred Dermod Mac Morrogh being the last independent representative of 
the kingship This territory included in its area the whole of the present 
County Wexford, a considerable part of Wicklow, the southern extremities of 
Carlow, and the sub-principalities of Forth and Idrone.

The Christian settlements, or monasteries, of early times were formed, to a 
great extent, on the model of the secular clans by which they were 
surrounded. Most, if not all, the inmates of the monasteries were connected 
by clanship, and on this account, whenever tribal wars arose (which were 
frequent), they could count on the protection of the local chieftain. This 
digression in the current of our narrative is made in order to explain what 
probably was one of the reasons that prompted St. Patrick to appoint Fiacc 
'Ard-espog,' or High Bishop 'over the Leinster-men.' Some writers state that 
St. Fiacc was invested with spiritual jurisdiction similar to that exercised 
by the Metropolitan Bishops of our day. But we must remember that 
archbishops, dioceses, parishes, or even counties were unknown for centuries 
after the period of which we write. It was, in fact, at the Synod of 
Rathbreasil (near Mountrath), in A.D. 1118, that episcopal sees were first 
mapped out or attempted to be defined. The boundaries of parishes were not 
arranged for long afterwards and many of them only came into existence after 
the Protestant Reformation. The right of patronage or appointment of 
ecclesiastics to what we call parish churches was usually vested in the 
representatives of a founder's family or in the person of the local chief or 
magnate, subject to episcopal approval.

St. Fiacc was the first canonically appointed Bishop of the territory of 
Hy-Kinsellagh. Its rulers were usually styled Kings of Leinster, perhaps 
from the fact that this petty kingdom was the largest of the tribal 
divisions of the province, and its chieftains and people the most powerful 
of the Leinster septs. So, likewise, we may assume, its Bishops were given a 
title of pre-eminence (ard-espog) in this important territory.

St. Fiacc administered the sacred functions of the office imposed upon him 
by the National Apostle for a long term of years, and is said to have seen 
''three twenties ' of his community at Sletty laid to rest before he died. 
Some seven miles from his monastery there is an isolated cave, in the 
mountain-side, called Drum Coblai, which faint tradition points out as being 
the retreat of a saint. This was the place of solitude and prayer whither 
the holy abbot was wont to retire during Lent and other penitential seasons 
of recollection. At Easter time, we are told, he used to return to Sletty in 
order to celebrate with his monks the glorious festival of the Resurrection 
of Our Lord. In his old age our Saint suffered from an ailment in his limbs, 
which sorely impeded his extensive journeys of episcopal administration. 
Hearing of this, it is related, St. Patrick sent him a chariot and horses 
from distant Armagh. In his humility Fiacc was unwilling to avail of the 
thoughtful gift, until he was admonished by a heavenly messenger to do so. 
Then the aged Bishop reluctantly consented. As the weight of years increased 
and the infirmities of old age became more trying, Fiacc like St. Paul 
longed 'to be dissolved and be with Christ.' At length the sighed-for 
summons came. He entered into the reward of the Just, October 12, about the 
year 510 his age having then exceeded ninety years. He was laid to rest 
within the church of Sletty, whose foundations had been traced for him, in 
times long gone, by his life-long friend and beloved master, St. Patrick. 
There, beside the murmuring waters of Barrow, the Bardic- Saint and first 
Bishop of Hy-Kinsellagh awaits the 'Judgment's trumpet call.' His dearest 
belongings in life were a bell, a reliquary, a crozier, and a book-satchel, 
given him, at his consecration, by the Apostle of Ireland. These were, as 
customary in the early times, bequeathed to his successor.

Referring to the literary labours of St. Fiacc, his Life of St. Patrick is 
pronounced by Professor O'Curry and other competent authorities to be the 
most important document connected with the history of the Early Irish 
Church. The author having been a bard by profession very naturally wrote in 
metre. It consists of thirty-four verses written in the language of the 
ancient bards of Ireland. 'It bears,' says O'Curry, ' internal evidence of a 
high degree of perfection in the language at the time it was composed ; it 
is unquestionably in all respects a genuine native production, quite 
untinctured with Latin or with any other contemporary style of idiom.' The 
original MS. is preserved in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. The 
biography, written by one who was so intimately acquainted with the 
missionary work and the personality of the Apostle of the Irish race, must 
be regarded as one of the most precious literary treasures belonging to 
'Erin's Golden Age.'

Troparion of St Fiacc Tone 1:
Thou didst devote thy life and ministry to missionary endeavour, O
Hierarch Fiacc And art remembered as the hymnographer who honoured the
great Patrick. Together with him thou didst drive out of Ireland The
ignorance and error of paganism. Pray that Christ our God will raise up
noble souls in our day Who will restore the Orthodox Faith To the Island
of Saints and advance the Kingdom of God For the salvation of souls.

Life kindly supplied by:
Cullen, J.B.
The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume XVIII, (1921), 506-514.


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