The Warrior Monk From Brigown

By Bill Power, chairman of the Mitchelstown Heritage Society

For the past one thousand years or more the 25th of November has been a remarkable date in the life of the Mitchelstown area. On that day, thousands of people visit the holy well of Saint Fanahan of Brigown. Their mission is to pray, to drink the water from the well and, unwittingly, to participate is a tradition that has survived cruel religious oppression, famine and the modernisation of 20th century society.

Few if any know much about Fanahan. Fewer still know that he is a remarkably well documented early mediaeval monk, of a significance greater than virtually every other saint in Cloyne diocese, with the notable exception of Saint Colman. To most, Fanahan has merely become a figure of vague curiosity whose memory is just strong enough to inspire religious devotion on a scale rarely seen in Ireland today.

Fanahan, also known as Finchú, Findchua or Fionnchú, is a name borne by several early Irish Christian figures, most notably by Fanahan of Brigown who died about 664AD. His `life,' preserved in the `Book of Lismore' tells the heroic tale of a warrior monk whose legendary deeds became famous in early medieval Ireland. Stories of Fanahan circulated widely in the Middle Ages, so much so, that his acts of self-mortification attracted much attention.

Fanahan was born at Rathealy, Fermoy, where his father, Finlog, an Ulster petty chieftain, was in exile. We are told that the boy was only seven years of age when it was decided that he should enter spiritual life. It is claimed in `The Book of Lismore' that Fanahan was taken to the great monastery of Bangor, where he trained under its abbot, Saint Comgall.

In episodes reminiscent of stories in the bible, he became abbot of the monastery. But he had fiery temper which, eventually, got him into trouble with his fellow monks, who expelled him from Bangor. Fanahan and a group of other monks went to Munster where its king, Cathail Mac Aedh, agreed to give him a site of his choosing on which he could build a monastery. `On the morrow of the third day' of his search for a suitable site, Fanahan came to Fan Muilt where his bell `answered him without the help of any man.'

Fanahan, we are told, agreed to swap his `good soul' with the `bad soul' of the King of Deise. To gain repentance for the sins acquired in his new soul and to regain his place in heaven, Fanahan ordered seven smiths to make seven sicles on which he practised self-mortification for seven years. The smiths refused payment for their work but asked instead that the monastery would be called Brí Gobhann, ie, Smiths' Hill. Fanahan agreed to this, he blessed the smiths and promised that they and their successors would have the gift of great craftsmanship.

It was during this period of self-mortification that he hear of Fanahan's role as a great warrior. This involvement came after an angel appeared to him saying that God had given permission for him to intervene in a dispute between the King of Meath and `foreign foes.'

Under Fanahan's leadership, the King and his army `turned right-handwise and marched forward rapidly `till they say the marauders before them.' Sparks of fire burst from Fanahan's teeth, burning the shafts of the enemy's spears.The Meath men were victorious and Fanahan was handsomely rewarded for his assistance.

Numerous other stories of his involvement in warfare is told in the rest of his `life' as told in the `Book of Lismore.' Usually, he lead victorious armies wielding his staff, known as the Cenn Cathach (`Head Battler'), which was believed to have miraculous powers. His biographer claimed that `neither hosts nor multitudes, champions nor battle-soldiers dare do anything to Fanahan, because of the greatness of his nature, and the nobility of his race, and the greatness of his fury and of his virtue.'

His involvement in such episodes would, to modern eyes, appear unchristian and inappropriate. But the stories of his life were intended to inspire faith and belief in a people who place great importance on bravery and courage.

Before his death he made a pilgrimage to Rome and gave up his warlike ways. The `Feilire of Oengus' gave his feast day as 25 November, and the Four Masters gave the date of his death as 664AD. The Cenn Cathach remained in the round tower at Brigown as an object of great veneration until the tower fell in a storm in 1720. Devotion at the holy well, situated at the end of a 700 metre long raised footpath, lined on each side with 150 year old beech trees, continues to this day.

Web page revised November 25, 1999