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.
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.
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.
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.