Saint Finnian of Moville, whose feast is commemorated on September 10, is the subject of much debate among modern scholars. Although in the past Saint Finnian was clearly identified as a monastic founder of the school of Moville, County Down, today his existence is under question, with some scholars advancing the theory that 'Finnian of Moville' is Ninnian of Candida Casa, Finnian of Clonard or even Finbarr of Cork under another guise. More about this in another post. For the moment we can read a traditional account of Saint Finnian's life, taken from Archbishop John Healy's classic work on Irish monastic schools:
" Transfigured Life!
This was the glory, that, without a sigh,
Who loved thee, yet could leave thee."
I. — St. Finnian of Moville
There are two saints of the same name whom it is absolutely necessary to keep distinct in dealing with the literary history of the early Irish Church — St. Finnian of Clonard, and St. Finnian of Moville. We have already spoken of the former; we now propose to speak of the latter, and of the great school of which he was the founder.
Moville, or Movilla, is at present the name of a townland less than a mile to the north-east of Newtownards, at the head of Strangford Lough, in the county Down. This district was in ancient times famous for its great religious establishments. ..Religious men from the beginning loved to build their houses and churches in view of this beautiful sheet of water, with its myriad islands and fertile shores, bounded in the distance by swelling uplands, that lend a charming variety to this rich and populous and highly cultivated county.
Of the boyhood and education of St. Finnian little is known with certainty. He belonged to the noble family of the Dalfiatach, who seem to have been dynasts of the district to the north of this great inlet of the sea, which they called Lough Cuan. He was probably born some years before the beginning of the sixth century. His first teacher was St. Column, afterwards Bishop of Dromore, who at that time seems to have been himself under the guidance and instruction of St. Mochae in the Island of Noendrum, but known at present as Island Mahee, in Strangford Lough. Colman became a favourite pupil of Mochae, who, when he himself was growing old, seems to have entrusted him with the care of the younger boys who had come to the island seminary to be trained up by these great masters in learning and piety. It is said that on one occasion St. Colman was going to chastise the young Finnian for some real or imaginary fault, when he felt his hand invisibly restrained by an angel, and he thereupon declared that he was unworthy to be entrusted with the care of so holy a youth, and that henceforward he would resign that office, so far as Finnian was concerned, to St. Mochae himself. This story at least shows that the young boy made great progress in virtue and wisdom under the guidance of both these holy men on the Island of Noendrum.
Now it came to pass whilst Finnian was at Noendrum, under the care of St. Mochae, that "ships" came from Britain into Strangford Lough, and cast anchor in front of the island. On board these vessels was a certain bishop called Nennio, who, with several of his disciples, had come from the famous monastery called Candida Casa, on the opposite shores of Galloway, to pay a visit to the religious family of Noendrum. We know from the lives of our early saints that this was no unusual occurrence. In those early days religious men were inspired with a spirit of spiritual enterprise, and several of them made it a point to visit the most renowned saints both in Ireland and Britain, in order to benefit by their instruction and example.
As we have seen, Candida Casa, or the White House was a stone church built on the extremity of a promontory in Galloway, about the year A.D. 397, by the great St. Ninian, the first apostle of the Northern Britons, at least after the departure of the Romans... Ninian. who was a native of the district, had been educated in Rome during the pontificate of Pope Damasus, and later on returned to preach the Gospel anew in his native land. On his way he stopped for a short time at Tours, to pay a visit to St. Martin, the most prominent figure at the time in Christendom. It was from St. Martin, as Bede informs us, that he got the masons through whose means he was able to build the first stone church in Britain. The people had never before seen anything of the kind — they had no stone houses and no masons able to build them — hence in their admiration they called the new building the White House, to signify, just' as the Americans do, that it was the grandest building in the kingdom. We are enabled to fix the date of its erection, because it is distinctly stated that during the progress of the work Ninian heard of the death of St. Martin of Tours, and dedicated the new church to him, which could only be done after his death, that is, about the year A.D. 397— some thirty-five years before St. Patrick began to preach in Ireland.
It cannot have been St. Ninian himself under whom St. Finnian studied at. the Candida Casa, which was founded at least a hundred years before the date of this visit. In some of the lives his teacher is called Nennio, in others Mugentius (see Colgan, page 633). It seems, certain, however, that young Finnian, thirsty for sacred knowledge, begged permission from St. Mochae to accompany the visitors on their return to the White House. ..How long Finnian remained at Candida Casa cannot be exactly ascertained ; but it was at least long enough to acquire the learning and discipline of the place in which, according to some accounts, he succeeded so well as to incur the bitter jealousy of his master.
The original founder of the Candida Casa had been educated at Rome, and no doubt the thoughts of its inmates were from time to time turned to the school of their great founder. Finnian, at least, resolved to go to the fountain head, and so, putting on his wallet and grasping his pilgrim staff, he set out upon his long journey. . It was much more difficult and dangerous then to go to Rome than it is now, but these heroic Christian men despised dangers and hardships. Their life was a warfare for Christ ; so they cared little when or where they fell in their Master's cause. Besides, they were never refused hospitality at the religious houses where they called, and even the rude mariners welcomed on board their vessels a holy man whose prayers were strong to calm the wrath of tempestuous seas. Finnian spent three months at Rome " learning the Apostolical customs and the Ecclesiastical Laws," and then resolved to return to his native land. But he bore with him from Rome a priceless treasure, or, as the Martyrology of Oengus calls it "yellow gold from over the sea;" not, however, yellow gold from the mine, but what our Celtic fathers valued more, the pure red gold of the Gospel corrected by the great St. Jerome and formally sanctioned by the Pope as the authentic text. The Vulgate, as we now have it, is substantially the work of St. Jerome to this extent, that he corrected the New Testament of the Old Vulgate ; he translated from (he Hebrew the proto- canonical books of the Old Testament; and moreover corrected the deutero-canonical books of the Old Testament according to the best MSS. of the Septuagint. It is, however, his correction, and not his own translation from the Hebrew, which under the name of the Gallican Psaltery, is still retained in our Latin Vulgate. But although this great work had been performed with the sanction of the Popes between the years A.D. 383 and 403, yet two hundred years elapsed before this version came into general use ; and though it was commonly, it was not yet exclusively used even when St. Finnian was in Rome, between, A.D. 530 and 540. It was, however, a great improvement on the previous version, and as such highly valued by all scholars. It seems, however, that the new version had not been hitherto introduced into Ireland, and so special mention is made of Finnian's copy in the Calendar of Cashel quoted by Colgan — "Finnian the White, of Maghbile (Moville); it was he who first carried into Ireland the Mosaic Law and the whole Gospel" — meaning thereby that it was he who first brought the first integral copy of St. Jerome's Vulgate, which afterwards came into exclusive use in the Irish as in the other churches.
Colgan identifies St. Finnian of Moville with St. Fridian, or Frigidian, who became bishop of Lucca in Italy about the middle of the sixth century. There are undoubtedly several facts narrated in the lives of both that go to establish this identity; but there is one great difficulty. According to the life of Fridian he died at Lucca, where it is said his blessed body is still preserved and reverenced ; but according to the ancient Life of St. Comgall of Bangor and the local traditions, Finnian the bishop, or Finbarr, as he is often called, "sleeps amid many miracles in his own city of Maghbile."
Finnian is said to have returned to Ireland and founded his school at Moville about the year A.D. 540, that is some twenty years after his namesake of Clonard had opened his own great school on the banks of the Boyne. The name Maghbile means the plain of the old tree, probably referring to some venerable oak reverenced by the Druids before the advent of St. Patrick. ..The most famous pupil of this infant seminary was St. Columba, the light of all the Celtic west. If the incident to which Adamnan refers in his Life of St. Columba be understood of Moville rather than Clonard, it seems that at this period Columba was studying Sacred Scripture under Finnian, that he was then a deacon, and on one occasion when the wine failed for the Holy Sacrifice, he went with the cruet to the neighbouring well (since closed up, but within living memory), and blessing the water, it was changed into wine, with which the Holy Sacrifice was duly offered up on that Festival Day.
There is another very celebrated incident recorded of SS. Finnian and Columcille, which seems to have really happened, and produced consequences of great import in the designs of Providence.
As we have seen, Finnian had brought from Rome a copy of the entire Bible, partly translated, partly corrected by St. Jerome. Very naturally this copy was highly prized and jealously guarded by the saint, for if any part were lost or injured the damage might have been, at least for him, irreparable. Now, the young Columba was an ardent student of the sacred volume ; and especially he was anxious to get a copy of the new Psaltery, which most of our early saints were in the habit of reading daily. In truth it was their Breviary, and in their estimation was the greatest of their treasures. So Columba begged Finnian to allow him to make a copy of the Gallic Psaltery, as we now have it in the Vulgate, but Finnian, fearing for his treasure "of pure red gold," would not allow him, lest the manuscript might be lost or injured. Then Columba, finding a suitable opportunity, stealthily transcribed the Psalter, remaining up all night for the purpose, so that when Finnian came to his cell he found Columba hard at work at midnight, and, lo! a divine radiance illuminated his cell. Next day Finnian sought his manuscript, and Columba confessed that he had made the copy without his permission. Finnian thereupon demanded the copy, but Columba claimed it as his own — it was the fruit of his labour, and the original was uninjured. Nevertheless, as Finnian persisted in his demand, it was agreed to leave the matter to the arbitration of King Diarmaid at Tara. Tara was not far from Druim-fhinn (now Drumin in Louth) where thisincident is said to have taken place. The king heard the parties, and then pronounced his award : " The calf goes with the cow, and the son -book, or copy, must go with the mother-book, or original." The decision was not equitable, and Columba was sore distressed. Moreover, it came to pass that a young prince, Curnan by name, accidentally killed a companion at court, and fled for refuge to Columba, who was then standing near at hand. But the king had him dragged from the protection of the saint and slain on the spot. Columba, thus doubly wronged, fled from Tara, and told his royal kinsmen how he had been treated by King Diarmaid. They at once flew to arms to avenge the insults offered to a prince of Conal Gulban's royal line, whose holiness moreover even then was celebrated through all the North. They gathered together a mighty army — all the Clanna Niall of the North — and met the monarch and his forces at a place called Cuil-Dreimhne (now Cooldrummon) in the parish of Drumcliff, to the north of Sligo. In the bloody battle which followed, the forces of king Diarmaid were nearly annihilated — but Columcille was praying for his kinsmen during the battle, and so they nearly all escaped, whilst the enemy was destroyed. The Psalter, too, it seems, became the prize of the victors, and the most famous heirloom in the family of the O'Donnells. But the blood shed on this occasion weighed heavily on the conscience of Columba, although he may have been the innocent, cause of it ; and for his share in this battle he narrowly escaped excommunication at the hands of the saints of Ireland later on. With heroic fortitude, however, he accepted the penance imposed upon him by St. Molaise of Innismurray at the cross of Ahamlish in Sligo — to go to foreign lands to preach the Gospel and never look upon his native land again. The saint obeyed and, it is said, religiously kept his vow — for though he returned to Ireland again at the high call of duty, he bandaged bis aged eyes with a cloth, so that they were never gladdened even with one glance of the green hills of his native land, which he loved with even more than the passionate tenderness of the Irish heart. He gave expression to his bitter grief in several touching poems, written in the sweet and musical tongue of Erin...
..St. Finnian composed a Rule for his monks, and a penitential code, which latter is still extant, and of much interest, to antiquarians, as it is, perhaps, the earliest expression of the discipline of the primitive Irish Church on this important subject. These penitential canons are fifty-three in number, and several of them are rather rigorous, at least according to our relaxed modern notions. In those days men were more in earnest in the work of saving their souls, and punished with voluntary severity any grave neglect of this great duty. A penance of seven years was imposed for perjury, with the additional penalty of setting free a bondsman or bondswoman. This goes to show that slavery had not yet been abolished in Ireland ; but that the Church took every opportunity of promoting its abolition, not indeed by violence or injustice, but by the gentler method of persuasion and mercy. These penitential canons have been published by Wasserschleben at Halle in 1851, from manuscripts in the libraries of St. Gall, Paris, and Vienna. There is also extant in MSS. an interesting romantic dialogue said to have taken place between Tuan Mac Cairill and Finnian of Moville. In all probability, however, it is a composition of a much later date, and the dialogue, though highly interesting, is purely imaginary. There is a copy of this romantic tale in the book known as Leabhar na h-Uidhre, an ancient work said to have been originally written at Clonmacnoise, in the lifetime of its founder, St. Ciaran.
St. Finnian died in A.D. 589, according to the Annals of Ulster, at a very great age. In those days, when men led temperate and active lives, free from care, and always rejoicing in God, it was no unusual thing to live to the age of one hundred, or even one hundred and twenty, like St. Patrick and St. Kevin of Glendaloch. This date, too, goes to show that Finnian of Moville was identical with St. Frigidian of Lucca in Italy, for the death of the latter is assigned to A.D. 588 by Ughelli in his Italia Sacra.
His death was much lamented, for his fame was great throughout all the land; and all our martyrologists bear testimony to his merits. Marianus O'Gorman calls him "Finnian with heart devout;" and another writer exclaims, "O blessed school (of Maghbile) the resting place of Finnian; how blessed that one saint should be the tutor of his fellow saints." His festival is celebrated on the 10th of September, the day after the festival of his contemporary, St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, and his blessed relics rest amid many miracles within that old Church of Moville, under the shadow of its ancient yews, forgotten by men, but watched over by the angels of God.
There is an ancient poem in the Saltair na Rann on the patron Saints of the various Irish clans. In the opening stanza Finnian is described as the patron of Ulidia — the Ulidians, it is said, all stand behind his back, that is, under his protection. Here it is in poetry : —
“Of Erin all is Patrick judge
On Macha's Royal Hill ;
They bless his name with loud acclaim,
Our King by God's high will. “
"The Clanna Neil a sheltering oak
Have found in Columcille,
And Uladh's sons are strong behind
Great Finnian of Moville."
St. Finnian was, it seems, a bishop, and his successors in Moville for some two hundred years are spoken of as bishops; but from A.D. 731 they are merely described as abbots, and seem to have lost their episcopal jurisdiction. Still the School of Moville then and long after continued to flourish, although it appears to have been eclipsed by the brighter flame of Bangor, its younger neighbour to the north.