Saint Macnessius or Mac Nissi, Bishop of Connor, County Down.
[Fifth and Sixth Centuries]
In the "Feilire " of St. Oengus, yet in a very enigmatical form, the feast of St. Mac Nisse is entered at the 3rd of September. Thus rendered in Dr. Whitley Stokes' English translation:
"Colman of Druim Ferta :
Longarad a delightful sun;
Mac Nisse with thousands,
from great Conderi."
Longarad a delightful sun;
Mac Nisse with thousands,
from great Conderi."
The birth of Macnessius is said to have been manifested to St. Patrick, and long before the time of its occurrence. St. Macnessius, also written Mac Nissi, or Nisa, was the son of Fobrec or Fobreach, as stated in the Annals of Tigernach. Such is the statement of the commentator on the Feilire of Oengus, who calls his father Fobrece, but rather confuses his genealogy, by the manner in which it is given. As such, it is to be found in the Leabhar Breac copy, and at the 3rd of September. His mother was named Cnes, a daughter to Conchaid or Conchaide of Dal Cethern. According to the Life of our saint, as published by the Bollandists, his mother was called Ness. The original name of this saint is said to have been Oengus.
In a fountain of water, which miraculously sprung from the earth, it is stated, that our saint was baptised by the Apostle of the Irish nation. Afterwards, he was known as Mac Cneise or the son of Cnes. The Christian name bestowed on him was Oengus, and his surname was derived from his mother. This is a more likely derivation than that one given, where he is said to have been fostered and accustomed to sleep with St. Patrick. Wherefore, he was named, as we find reported, Mac Cnes Patraic, i.e., "son of Patrick's skin." Yet, as it was not unusual among the Irish to derive a surname from the mother, we might probably suppose her to have been of a more distinguished family than that of her husband, or to have been more remarkable for her mental endowments.
He was placed under the charge of Bishop Bolcan - a disciple of St. Patrick - while he was still very young. To him, the son of Ness was entrusted as a foster-child, and from that holy bishop his education had been received. When young, he was sent to take charge of certain cows and their calves. A deep slumber then oppressed him. Meantime, the calves took advantage of their youthful herdsman's sleep to approach the cows, and to draw the accustomed sustenance from them. We are told, that the Bishop's mother - also the nurse of our saint - felt displeased at his neglect, and struck the child. This, however, she did not with impunity; for that hand, with which she chastised the youth, became powerless. Whereupon, the Bishop required his foster-son to pray for her. Immediately on complying with such request, the offending member was again restored to its former strength. From such a circumstance, and owing to other .miracles of a similar nature, the fame of this youthful soldier of Christ was greatly extended.
Our saint was a most docile pupil to his master, while going through the course of elementary studies. When St. Patrick was on a journey through Dalaradia, having met Bolcan with our saint, he thus addressed the former: "You and your successors shall always be subject to the rule of this your companion and to his successors." The Apostle's allusion, in this prophetic declaration, referred to the Bishopric subsequently obtained.
The latter illustrious man gave certain particular charges, regarding the education and training of the child. These trusts, on being assumed, were faithfully observed and fulfilled. It would appear, from some remarks in the Irish Apostle's life, that the saint, when a boy, carried his master's books in a leather case ; that he had been entrusted with the care of those articles necessary for Divine service; and that he probably attended the Bishop in the capacity of servitor at his different episcopal ministrations.
Having proved himself perfect in every good work, according to tradition, St. Macnessius had been raised to the episcopal dignity by St. Patrick. We know not the year of St. Macnissius' ordination; Ware informs us, however, that he was advanced to the episcopal dignity in the fifth century. St. Macnessius is said to have made a pilgrimage to the seat of the Apostles, and to Jerusalem, visiting also other remarkable places in the Holy Land. In the panegyric of our saint, as published by the Bollandists, we are told during the pilgrimage, that he frequently offered up his prayers to God, and that he brought several relics with him, on his return from the Holy Land. Among these are enumerated a stone taken from our Lord's Sepulchre, a portion of the Blessed Virgin Mary's hair, a bone of the Apostle St. Thomas, portions of the garments belonging to the Apostles, and one of the bowls belonging to the great altar at Jerusalem. He returned by way of Rome, and lodged in the Apostolic curia, where he remained for some days. There he had been treated with marked distinction. We are informed, moreover, that on a certain day, in Rome, Macnisius consecrated and ordained Bishops, Priests and Deacons, the Roman clergy acting as his assistants. On this same occasion, the poverty of the Irish mission was taken into consideration by certain Roman magnates, who bestowed on him many valuable gifts, among which were to be found several gold, silver, and brazen vessels. During his residence at Rome, through the efficacy of his prayers, a leper was cleansed from his foul disease. Having visited the shrines of various saints, and received the Sovereign Pontiff's benediction and prayers, he returned to his native country, bringing with him the many presents he had received. And we are told, that not only the people of his own country, but those of surrounding nations, received him with great rejoicing. When Mac Nessius, with his remarkable relics, left Rome for Ireland, the people went forth to meet him, from the churches, towns, villages, woods and mountains. They received him with most affectionate demonstrations of joy, nor were any found absent on these occasions but evil doers, to whom the presence of our saint was a standing reproach.
Soon the seed of Divine wisdom was planted in every direction, the trumpet of the Gospel was sounded, and churches were founded by our saint. The holy Bishop was distinguished for the performance of miracles, He was inebriated, also, with a spirit of prophesy, and illuminated with Divine Revelations. Among the many miracles which he wrought, St. Macnesius healed two men, one of whom was blind, and the other was a leper. They presented themselves to him in full confidence of being relieved from their infirmities ; and having first washed themselves, in a fountain of clear water, one of them received the gift of sight, and his companion was cleansed from his leprosy, through the prayers of our saint. He also delivered a boy, named Colman, from a violent death. A certain wicked man, who killed the father of this boy, had seized upon the youth, who was under the guardianship of his friends. The tyrant had resolved upon putting him to death. However, our saint interfered to preserve his life. Finding the cruel man inexorable, Macnessius asked as a favour, that the boy should not be slain until brought to a pile of stones, which was conspicuous at some distance. This request he obtained, and afterwards our saint went to the place. There he engaged in prayer. The youth was thrown into the air, so that his body might be received on the points of his executioners' spears. Immediately, however, he was conveyed away by Angels, and deposited on the holy Bishop's bosom free from all injury. Our saint afterwards nurtured, and diligently taught him the rudiments of Religion, and a knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures.
In that Life of our saint, contained in the Salamancan Manuscript, we read, that when Macnessius returned to his native country, he miraculously changed the current of a river named Curi. This he did, in order that the murmuring of its waters should not disturb infirm persons in a monastery, which he built at a place called Disart, or Desert. The waters afterwards took a distant course from that spot. On a certain day, when he laboured there with his monks, he had a revelation, that in company with other holy persons, St. Brigid was on the way to his house, in order to confer with him on religious subjects. Being greatly rejoiced at this interior admonition, he addressed his community with these words: "Brethren, let us give over this work and retire to the monastery; we must prepare whatever may be necessary for the holy guests, who are journeying hither, and who shall arrive during this week.”
In his Acts, it is stated, that in company with St. Patrick and St. Brigid, the holy bishop had been journeying through Momonia, and he passed through a place, called Lann-ela. While his companions passed on, our saint remained there, and perceiving this, St. Patrick sent for St. Macnessius.
When this latter came up, he was asked the cause for his stopping. Our saint then said to St. Patrick: "Over that place in which I stood, I saw the Heavens opened, and the Angels of God ascending and descending." St. Patrick hereupon said : "It therefore behoves us to leave religious men here to serve God." Our saint replied : " Holy Father, if it please you, do not thus determine. For a child of my family, who shall be born sixty years from this day, and whose name is to be Colman Ela, shall there found a celebrated monastery." And, as the Divine Spirit had revealed this to the man of God, so his prophecy was afterwards duly fulfilled. It is said, while performing his journeys, through reverence for the Gospels, this holy man was accustomed to bear books containing its text, on his stooped shoulders, they being secured by no kind of fastening. These, with such like virtues, and also miracles, distinguished our holy bishop, during his sojourn upon earth.
It has been stated, that St. Macnessius became the superior of a religious community, which he established at Connor, and that he continued to govern it until his death. Although we do not find any ancient authority, in confirmation of such a statement ; yet, considering the usual customs in the foundation of early missions in this country, we may regard the account as fairly probable. There is reason also for a supposition, that the original establishment of St. Macnessius was not situated at Connor, but at a place not far distant, and formerly known as the Desert of Connor. It is now called Kells, in the parish, and about one half mile west from the church, of Connor.
It is related, in the Bollandists' Acts of our saint, that through the effect of his prayers, St. Macnessius obtained the birth of a son for a woman advanced in age, and who for fifteen years previously had not given birth to any offspring. Again, we are told, the father to the great St. Comgall of Bangor, who was named Setna, had been on a journey, accompanied by his wife Brig, occupying a seat in a chariot. Seeing our saint travelling on foot, Setna said to his wife : “O woman, descend that the Bishop may take a place in this chariot." But, on hearing these words, our saint replied : "Do not disturb her, for she shall give birth to a king, who will rule over many." This was a prediction referring to St. Comgall's future eminence. As it is probable, that St. Comgall of Bangor had been born, in the year 510, and as it is said our saint delivered a prophecy regarding him the day before his birth, we may most probably conclude, St. Macniscius, Bishop of Connor, had been living in that year. Our saint did not survive the birth of St. Comgall for many years. Other miracles are recorded in his Acts. A town that refused hospitality to our saint was immediately consumed, as a punishment from on high.
St. Macnessius is said to have been advanced in years, when the time of his death arrived. This was in the early part of the sixth century, although the exact date has not been ascertained. However, he departed this life, on the 3rd day of September, and in the year 514, according to the most probable accounts; although the Annals of Innisfallen name the year 506, as a date for his death, with the words, "Quies Macnisse Condire." The "Chronicum Scotorum" places his death at A.D. 508. Others have it during the year 507; the Annals of Tigernach at A.D. 510 and Colgan, A.D. 513. The holy Bishop and founder of the see was buried in the city of Connor.