The Life of Findchú – part 2 electric boogaloo

Miracles! We got your miracles!

We next join our hero as he is wandering Ireland looking for a place to establish his new monastery. He is directed by an angel to Cathal king of Munster whose seat of power was Cashel. Be sure not to confuse those two. Cathal would grant  Findchú any land he wants but the saint would only settle in the place where his bell would sound of its own accord. Findchú wanders off south-west, towards Fermoy and eventually his bell sounds on Fán Muilt, the Ram’s Slope. Once their herds and cattle have been scattered throughout the area Findchú and his people encounter a spot of trouble.

This is Cashel. It is not a man.
This is Cashel. It is not a man.

They are refused hospitality and someone starts nicking off with their cattle. A terrible state of affairs. So Findchú turns to his cook, Dronán, and sends him off to the big man in local area, Baeth Brugaid the king’s steward. It’s good to get powerful men on your side. Since sugar hasn’t been brought to Ireland yet Dronán goes to his neighbour to ask for some fire. However Baeth is in a bit of a mood and in a fit of pique he flings a burning brand at the cook. Dronán catches the flame in his cowl and, luckily for the cook, this is cowl had been lent to him by his saintly patron. Due to its holy origins the fire cannot burn a stitch of the cowl and Dronán safely carries the fire back to Findchú. As with most miracles, this leads to the repentance of the offending steward and everyone’s best friends from then on.

An accurate depiction of what Baeth did.
An accurate depiction of what Baeth did.

However all is not happy for long. When the king of Munster’s wife realises where Findchú has set up shop, she is not best pleased. “There’s rent due on that land and you know what famous saints are like”. So messengers go from the king asking if Findchú will pay the usual rent: a measure of malt from each of the nine townlands there, a white sheep, and all the washing you could want every year. Findchú is alright with this and so establishes a permanent dwelling. To celebrate he gives his place in heaven to Conaing king of the Déisi. On the face of it, a nice gesture, but of course this leaves Findchú down one place in heaven. There is only one way to get it back: extreme mortification.

Findchú commissions seven master smiths to make seven iron sickles for him to hang himself from for seven years. For payment the smiths ask that Findchú names his place after them. Thereafter his foundation is known as Brí Gobann, the Hill of the Smiths.

Get it?
Get it?

Our hero spends seven full years hanging from the sickles with only one night off. This is the story of the night off. Findchú’s cousin on his mother’s side, St Ronan, comes one day to ask for Findchú’s help. He is doing this on behalf of the southern Uí Néill and the people of Meath. These folk in the middle of Ireland were suffering terribly at the hands of invading Britons, who attack from across the sea burning every ship, ravaging every county and carrying off a hostage from every family. Findchú has a vision that Ronan is on his way and commands that a vat of ale fit to intoxicate fifty is prepared, along with food for a hundred men. When Ronan arrives he will not touch this feast at all until Findchú comes down off his sickles. This rather puts Findchú in a predicament. Does he offend his guest by not eating with him or does he offend God by giving up on his penance? Luckily an angel comes and tells him that he can have the night off so he goes to eat with Ronan – even though he is embarrassed by the holes and scratches on his skin.

Findchú also vows to help with the invading Briton’s problem. To this end everyone marches to Tara at the height of the invasions. From there the army of Tara and Findchú with his clerics march off to Dubchomar to face the marauders. Our saint is so enraged at the sight of them that sparks of fire spring from his teeth. This intense gingivitis sets fire to spears and forearms of some of the Britons standing near. In the face of this, surely they would accept terms? So Findchú asks what terms of surrender they would accept. When the messengers come back saying that invaders would not surrender, Findchú flies into an even greater rage and leads the charge. All the invaders’ ships are burned, their servants killed and a great pile of their heads was raised on the shore. For his help Findchú is given land in Dubchomar and a yearly tribute from the king of Meath.

I didn't know what to expect when I put
I didn’t know what to expect when I put “fire teeth” into Google.

The action now moves back to Leinster. Nuada, the king of Leinster has two wives, Anmet and Aife. When Aife falls pregnant Anmet asks, seemingly innocuously, if the child could be given into her power once it is born. Not confident of the child’s safety Nuada sends his pregnant wife to Findchú for sanctuary. Aife sets off for Brí Gobann with a small retinue. On the way her chariot breaks and she goes to seek shelter. While there, by a ford in the wilderness, her waters break and she starts to give birth. Findchú, performing more ascetic rites in a cold bath, miraculously sees this event and sends her a message. She should stay where she is until she has given birth, since Brí Gobann is a good monastic foundation and works on a no-girls-allowed policy. Once she has given birth, the (male) child is taken to Findchú to be baptised. He is called Fintan and Findchú decides to raise him himself. Being fresh out of the womb Fintan has not been weaned so Findchú miraculously produces breast milk to feed the boy. He turns out remarkably fine.

“It’s not weird, we just don’t like women.”

Next week: more battles!

Once more we see Findchú’s anger overtaking his supposedly Christian nature. This is the first of many battles Findchú will fight, mostly expelling foreigners. His ascetic practices are pretty intense, but these were something medieval Irish clerics were famous for. Finally we have the miraculously lactating breast. There are two parallels to this in other Irish saints’ lives and I have written a bit about these miracles – as have much more qualified scholars.

As ever the real Irish and archaic translation is here The Lives of the Saints from the Book of Lismore.


The Life of Findchú of Brigown – part 1

Our first story is the Life of Findchú of Brigown. If it seems odd that we are starting with a saint’s life, just wait, you’ll see why it fits in among the more traditionally heroic tales. As a saint’s life though it does go on a bit so we’ll be addressing this over a few weeks.

Birth and Childhood: Saint Babies.

In Ulster there lived a hospitaller, professional party thrower and all round pillar of the community. His name was Findlog. He had a wife for 30 years, which isn’t bad, but sadly she died. Findlog was obviously put into something of a sadness by these events. His foster brother, Fiacha, couldn’t stand to see him unhappy and thought that the only way he would get over a woman was to get under another (you come looking for medieval stories, you’ll get medieval ideas). He encouraged Findlog to find another wife, Idnait the daughter of Flann Lethderg. She eventually fell pregnant but not before Findlog and Fiacha went in for a bit of regicidal  treachery that got them all expelled from Ulster.

This is what all baby saints look like. Fact.

The family wandered throughout Ireland, together with pregnant Idnait who was known to have a wondrous child of prophecy in her womb. I think carrying high is the giveaway for that. Eventually they settled in Rath Ua Cuile in Munster. This deserved a celebration, so a great feast was thrown and the local king, Mellen, attended. During the feast Idnait went to the brewers to ask for some ale because even saints give you cravings. The brewers were not good people, however, and refused her.  Findchú, the child in the womb, was upset by this and did what any foetus would’ve done in this situation: he recited a poem. Idnait then went back home to see if any ale was left there, but after she left the hoops slipped off the beer barrels and ale went spilling all over the floor. The king, learning of what happened and smelling some magical deviancy afoot, blamed the woman and set off in pursuit of her. In utero miracles not complete, Findchú managed to cloak his mother in darkness until she reached home safely.

This miracle still speaks to me on a deep emotional level. So much wasted beer.

After the child was born he was taken to another saint to be baptised. This is where the story gets very name heavy, but this is often the case with saints’ lives so just bear with – we’ll be back on exciting miracles soon. St Ailbe of Emly is the one chosen to baptise him. While he did this, Ailbe confirmed a previous prophecy that the child will be a wonderful saint and should be handed over to monastic learning as soon as he is seven years old. After the baptism messengers come to Findchú’s family from his much older adult nephew, asking that the child be given to him to foster. In accordance with the custom of the age the child, Findchú was given to Cumuscach to be raised. Finally when the boy reached seven, Cumuscach was visited by St Comgall of Bangor, who was so struck by the holiness of the boy that he took him off to Bangor to learn monking.

We rejoin our hero in Bangor, which is back in Ulster if you’re interested, looking after one of Comgall’s fields. The king of Ulster, Scannlan, came with his army and set all the horses to graze on Comgall’s field. Like a good guard Findchú drove them away three times but three times the horses came back. This was too much for the little saint so in his anger he cursed the horses and they turned all to stone. As will become clear about medieval Irish literature, anger is met with anger and the king demanded that the boy who cursed his horses be handed over. Findchú would not be cowed by the flashing red eyes of the king and got even more angry himself. In his rage he made the earth grow up around the king to his knees, sticking him in the ground. Comgall, who was older, wiser and, calmer admonished the angry Findchú, whose burning fury was so great that his cowl burned right off his head. Comgall managed to make peace between Findchú and the king (fitting in a healthy subsidy from the king of Ulster to Bangor monastery in the process) and Findchú released the king from his earthen shackles.

Look! How am I supposed to ride this now?

Nine years later Comgall got a vision of his own death and so handed the abbacy of Bangor over to Findchú for seven years. At his death bed Comgall received the final eucharist from Ailbe and Ailbe was sworn to help Findchú in all things. Besties for life. But disaster struck and because there was not enough land in Ulster (don’t ask me, that’s just the reason given) and so Findchú was expelled and caused to wander the rest of Ireland, where we will join him next week.

If you want to know the actual twelfth century version of this life it appears in Whitley Stokes, The Lives of the Saints from the Book of Lismore. This early portion of the life is fairly typical, with the prophecies of greatness, youthfully rash miracle working and clashes with secular power. We will see more of these as we go on.