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Finnian

(d. 549)


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(d. 549),

abbot of Clonard. The 10th-century Life stresses his Leinster birth and education, probably at Idrone (Co. Carlow), near which he made his first three foundations: Rossacurra, Drumfea, and Kilmaglush. After these beginnings he went to Wales and studied the traditional monasticism of David, Cadoc, and Gildas. When he returned to Ireland, he made foundations at Aghowle (Co. Wicklow) and Mugna Sulcain. Having visited Kildare, he moved on again to the most important achievement of his life, the foundation of Clonard (Co. Meath) in a strategically central geographical position. Here he gathered numerous disciples (3,000 are claimed for his whole period there); its special characteristic was to unite study, especially of Holy Scripture, with the Welsh (and ultimately the Eastern) form of monastic life. Finnian personally had the reputation of ‘Master’ or ‘Teacher of the Saints of Ireland’, in particular of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, some of whom, however, are anterior in date. When his monks left Clonard, they took with them a gospel-book, a crozier, and a reliquary, round which they later built their churches and monasteries. Finnian died of the plague on 12 December: ‘As Paul died in Rome for the sake of the Christian people lest they should all perish in Hell, so Finnian died at Clonard for the sake of the people of the Gael, that they might not all perish of the yellow pest’, said the writer of the Irish Life.

The Penitential of Finnian is probably his: it is based on Welsh and Irish sources, and on Jerome and Cassian, but is in large part original and influenced that of Columbanus. It is the oldest surviving example of its kind and spread the influence of Clonard in penitential discipline and Scripture studies.

Finnian's relics were enshrined at Clonard until their destruction in 887. His feast is testified by a Spanish Martyrology of the early 9th century. After his death his monastery came under the power of the northern half of Ireland, ruled by the Ui Neill, and it built up a paruchia in Connacht rather than in Leinster as Finnian had done. It came to share an abbot with Kildare or with Clonmacnoise. Later still it was refounded as a house of Austin Canons, from whom there survives an Office of St Finnian, some of whose elements were taken from a source, otherwise unknown. Feast: 12 December.

Irish Life in W. Stokes, Lives of Saints from the Book of Lismore (1890), pp. 75–83 and 222–30;Latin Life in W. W. Heist, Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae (1965), 96–106;R. A. S. Macalister, The Latin and Irish Lives of Ciaran (1921);K. Hughes, ‘The historical value of the Lives of St Finnian of Clonard’, E.H.R., lxix (1954), 535–72;id., ‘The cult of St Finnian of Clonard from the eighth to the eleventh century’, Irish Historical Studies, ix (1954), 13–27;L. Bieler, The Irish Penitentials (1963);J. T. Macneill and H. Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance (1965).

Subjects: Christianity.


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