November 13 is the feast of Saint Caillin of Fenagh, a saint of whom many stories are told. The character of some of these tales gave the writer of the following account, the 19th-century Anglican cleric Thomas Olden, pause for thought, although in truth his reservations were often shared by Catholic writers of the period. The understanding of hagiography as a distinct genre of writing with its own logic and rules didn't exist at this time. I hope to explore some of the episodes referred to by Rev. Olden in future posts, there is a wonderful resource on the saint and his writings available online here. The translation of the Book of Fenagh mentioned in the article is also available through the Internet Archive. So, let us enjoy a lively presentation of the life of Saint Caillin, complete with a fascinating account of the relics preserved at his church from The Dictionary of National Biography:
CAILLIN (fl. 560), Irish saint, son of Niata, was descended from Rudraighe, whose grandson, Fergus Mac Roigh, flourished at the beginning of the Christian era. His mother was Deighe, granddaughter of Dubhthach, chief poet of King Laogaire in the time of St. Patrick. The authority for the history of St. Caillin is the ancient 'Book of Fenagh,' a series of poetical rhapsodies, written about 1400, a copy of which with a connecting narrative in prose was made in 1516. This was published in 1875 by Mr. D.H. Kelly, with the competent aid of Mr. W. M. Hennessy, and from an examination of it it appears that the transcriber of the sixteenth century added a good deal which he thought likely to increase the veneration for his saint. But fortunately many of these interpolations are of so extravagant a character that there is no difficulty in distinguishing them.
Disregarding the fables, which even in 1690 were complained of by readers, we may gather the following facts of St. Caillin's history from this curious repertory of ancient traditions: 'The descendants of Medbh and Fergus, viz. the children of Conmac, Ciar, and Core, grew and multiplied throughout Ireland. The children of Conmac especially were in Connaught.' Those were the Conmaicne of Dunmor, kinsmen of Caillin's. Resolved to remedy the congestion of the population by killing each other, the Conmaicne would no doubt have carried out their plan but for the interference of St. Caillin. By the advice of an angel they sent messengers to him at Rome, whither he had gone for his education. Caillin came first to the place where his own kinsmen, the Conmaicne, were, 'to prohibit their fratricide and enmity.' 'My advice to you,' said the saint, ‘is that you remain on the lands on which you at present are. I will go moreover to seek possessions and land for you as it may be pleasing to God.' St. Caillin then left Dunmor, where this conversation seems to have been held, and went to Cruachanaoi in the county of Roscommon, thence to Ardcarna, near Boyle, where his friend Bishop Beoaedh lived. Passing on to the east, he crossed the Shannon, and obtained land at Moynishe in the county of Leitrim, and finally reached Dunbaile in Magh Rein, afterwards and still known as Fidnacha or Fenagh, so called from the wooded character of the country. In all these places, which are included in the counties of Roscommon, Mayo, Leitrim, and Longford, the Conmaicne afterwards had settlements.
When he arrived at Dunbaile, then the residence of Fergna, king of Breifney, he endeavoured to persuade the king to become a Christian, but without success; the king ordered his son Aedhdubh to expel St. Caillin and his party. The prince accordingly proceeded to obey the order but when he 'found the saint and his psalmists engaged in prayer and prostrations,' he and his followers forthwith became believers. Aedhdubh was afterwards baptised, and then presented the fortress of Dunbaile to St. Caillin that he might erect his monastic buildings within it. The historical accuracy of this statement is rendered probable by the existing remains at Fenagh. The ruins of St. Caillin's Church are still to be seen, and traces of the stone fortress, which was of great extent, are still visible (PETRIE). The fortress was of great antiquity even in the sixth century, being also known as Dun Conaing, from Conaing the Fearless, a prehistoric king to whom its origin was ascribed.
Enraged at his son's conduct in not carrying out his orders, King Fergna directed his druids to banish the Christians. Aedhdubh, now a Christian, commanded his men to resist the attack, but here St. Caillin interposed, and the story went that he caused the druids to be turned into stones, which are still standing. On the death of Fergna, who continued obstinate in his paganism, St. Caillin inaugurated Aedhdubh as king; but though now king the prince was dissatisfied with his dark complexion, whence his name of dubh, and requested St. Caillin to transform him into the likeness of St. Riocc of Innis-bo-finne. The saint by means of prayer complied with his request. Similar stories are told in the lives of St. Moedoc of Ferns and St. Finnchu of Brigown, and it may perhaps be regarded as a fanciful way of describing the change for the better wrought in the demeanour of a pagan chieftain under the influence of Christian teaching and example. When recognised as the teacher of the Conmaicne, Caillin bestowed on them as a cathach, or battle standard, a 'hazel cross with the top through the middle.' St. Columba in like manner gave a cathach to the Cinel Eoghain. When Caillin's church of Fenagh was built, it was a matter of importance to attach the tribe as much as possible to it, and to make it their burial-place.
For this purpose the body of Conall Gulban, the famous ancestor of Aedhdubh, was disinterred, and buried again with great pomp at Fenagh. It is thus we may venture to interpret the story that St. Caillin raised him from the dead, and then buried him again. A remarkable cromlech still to be seen at Fenagh is supposed to mark the site of his grave. Aedhdubh (now become Aedh finn, or the fair, from the change already mentioned) was also buried there, and it is stated that nineteen kings lie in the burial-ground. The church of Fenagh also possessed relics reported to have come from Rome. These are stated to have been 'the relics of the eleven apostles and of Saints Martin Lawrence and Stephen the martyr,' and 'that in which they were preserved was the cloth that the Virgin Mary made, and which was around Jesus when a babe,' or, as afterwards explained, 'when he was being fed.' These objects were kept in a shrine, together with the crozier of the saint and his bell. The bell is still preserved at Foxford, and the shrine was in the possession of the late Dr. Petrie. The tribute to the church as ordained by King Aedh was as follows: The king's riding horse and his body raiment; the same from every chieftain; the same from the queen and each chieftain's wife; a cow from every biatach (farmer), and from every chief of a bally; a screpall (three pinginns or pennies) from every sheep owner: a fat cow out of every prey from every son of a king and chieftain; the same from every fosterson and every sister's son of the race of Aedh. This tribute was due every third year. All the veneration attracted to Fenagh tended to secure the payment of the rental due to the institution, and the chief object of the transcript of the 'Book of Fenagh' made in the sixteenth century was to substantiate the claim of the monastery to the tribute.
When St. Caillin's end approached he was in the church of St. Mochoemog, who was a kinsman, attended by St. Manchan. After giving directions to St. Manchan as to what part of the burial-ground he was to be interred in, and appointing him his successor, he desired that in twelve years' time, 'when his bones should be bare,' they should be removed to his church at Fenagh. Accordingly they were taken up and enclosed with the other relics in the shrine.
The dates of his birth and death are not found in the native records; but as we know those of his contemporaries, St. Columba, St. Ciaran, and the two St. Brendans, and as he was the grandson of Dubhthach, St. Patrick's contemporary, we cannot be far wrong in assuming that he flourished in the second half of the sixth century. His peace-loving disposition is the chief characteristic emphasized by Caillin's early panegyrists. His day in the calendar is 13 Nov.
[Life of St. Caillin, MS. 3, 54, p. 6, Royal Irish Academy; Book of Fenagh, Dublin, 1875; Martyrology of Donegal, p. 307; Book of Leinster (facsimile), p. 349 e; Annals of the Four Masters, A.D. 464, and iii. 311; Petrie's Inquiry into the Origin and Use of the Round Towers of Ireland, pp. 444-5.] T.0.
L. Stephen, (ed.), Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 8 (London, 1885), 211-212.
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