St. Patrick at Aill Finn (Elphin)

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On his missionary tour through Connaught (having crossed the Shannon at Drum-boilan, near Battlebridge, in the parish of Ardcarne) in 434 or 435, St. Patrick came to the territory of Corcoghlan, in which was situated the place now called Elphin. The chief of that territory, a noble Druid named Ono, of the royal Connacian race of Hy-Briuin, gave land to St. Patrick to found a church and monastery.

 

From Moyglass (near Toberpatrick) Patrick went into the territory known as Corca Ochland, as it is called in the Tripartite (Life of Patrick). It was north of Sliabh Badgna, now Slieve Bawn, the most conspicuous object on the southern horizon; but it was on ‘this side,’ that is, to the south of Hy Ailella, for the men of Tirerrill then claimed as their own all the mountain land from Lough Gill, near Sligo, to the neighbourhood of Elphin. At the present time the district is comprised in the barony of Roscommon, and was always considered a part of Magh Ai. But the term ‘Corcagh Achlann’ was in later times more properly applied to the eastern part of the district from Strokestown to Elphin, which was the tribe-land of the O’Brennans and O’Hanlys.

Two brothers were biding in that place, that is, near Elphin, namely Id and Hono; Druids they were and owners of the fertile plain around them. Patrick, as usual, asked the site of a church. Then said Hono to Patrick:—“What wilt thou give me for the land” (that you want)? “Life eternal,” answered Patrick. Then said Hono, “You have gold; give me some of it.” Patrick thereupon replied, “I have given away all my gold; but God will give me more (to give you).” And God did give him more. For, thereafter, Patrick found a lump of gold where the swine were rooting, and he gave that mass of gold to Hono for his land. Tir-in-Brotha, that is, ‘the Field of the Lump,’ ‘is its name,’ says the Tripartite. But though Patrick gave the gold to Hono, he liked not his avarice in selling the field to God, wherefore he added, “Thou shalt not be a king, nor shall any of thy seed reign after thee.” Then fear conquered avarice, and Hono burst into tears, so that Patrick, touched with pity, added, “Although thou shalt not be king, nor thy seed—still he shall not be king, whom thou and thy posterity will not accept and ordain.” If they were not to be kings, they were yet to be, to some extent, king-makers. ‘And that has been fulfilled,’ adds the author, ‘for the race of Mac Erce (sons of Hono) are the mightiest and firmest in Connaught, but they never ruled as over-kings of the Province, nor, indeed, as kings at all.’ This Hono, or Ono, was son of Oengus, son of Erc Derg, son of Brian, the great father of the Connaught Kings.

HOW ELPHIN GOT ITS NAME

When the promise was made, and he had got his gold, Hono the Druid gave to Patrick his own royal dwelling, on the crest of the beautiful ridge of Elphin, to be the site of the new church. It was then called Emlach Onand, from the name of its owner, ‘but to-day it is called Ail Find, from the White Stone which Patrick took up from the stream just in front of the church.’ It is not unlikely that this was deemed a ‘sacred stone,’ from which the fountain flowed, and that it was worshipped by the Druids as the god of the waters. Wherefore, Patrick took it up out of the fountain, which he blessed at the same time. But the rock still remained on its margin before the church, and ever after gave its name to the church, the parish, and the diocese—that is Ail Finn—the Rock of the Clear Stream, from which the apostle had raised it. The ancient church of Elphin is gone, the rock is gone too, but the fountain flows for ever clear and strong before the door of the ‘new’ Protestant church, that now stands on the site of the edifice founded by St. Patrick.

Over this church of Elphin Patrick placed Bishop Assicus, and Bite, son of the brother of Assicus, and Cipia, mother of Bite, or Biteus, the Bishop. They were of the race of Hono the Druid, for Patrick had promised, and said, “Thy seed shall—not reign—but be blessed, and there shall be victory of laymen and clerics from thee for ever, and they shall have the inheritance of this place.”

Herein Patrick showed consummate prudence. The family of Hono were of the priestly caste; but they were also of the royal race of Connaught, and hence possessed a double influence. To set up a Briton or a stranger in Elphin would have been a dangerous experiment, so he chose one of their own race to be the bishop of the place, a skilled artisan, too, in metal-work, just such a man as he wanted to do the work of the Church. The mention of Bite, nephew of Assicus, shows that the former was now rather advanced in years, and that his title as bishop was rather an honorary one. The work was to be done by Bite, but Assicus was the nominal ruler, and the holy mother of Bite, the nephew of Assicus, undertook to look after the new church in those ways which a woman can best manage. The name of Assicus is not found in that form in our ancient martyrologies, but the Martyrology of Tallaght commemorates Asaach under date of April the 26th, which has long been regarded as the feast day of Assicus of Elphin. This goes to show that our Assicus of Elphin must be identified with Essa or Essu, who is described as one of the three artisans of Patrick in the lists of his household. His nephew, Bite, is the second, and Tassach, who ‘gave Patrick the Sacrifice’ at his death, was the third; so that Elphin supplied two of the famous artificers of Patrick, who were, perhaps, the most indispensable and most valuable members of his religious household.

This is recognised by the Author of the Tripartite, for he adds that the ‘Holy Bishop Assicus was Patrick’s copper-smith; and he made for Patrick altars and square patens and book-covers, in honour of Patrick, and one of these patens (doubtless with its cup) was in Armagh, and another in Elphin, and another in Domnach Mor Maige Seolai, on the altar of Felart, the holy bishop of the Hy Bruin Seolai, far west from Elphin’—near Headford, in the Co. Galway.

We are told that Imlech Onand was at that time the name of the place where Ono dwelt, which he offered to Patrick to be the site of his church, ‘but,’ adds the Tripartite, ‘it is called Ail-Find to-day. The place is so named from the stone (ail) which was raised out of the well that was made by Patrick in the green, and which stands on the brink of the well; it is so called from the water.’ The writer first says the place got its name Ail-Find from the ‘White Stone’ taken out of the water; then he seems to say that the stone gets its name from the clear water, so that Elphin would mean the Stone of the Clear (Stream), rather than the White Stone (over the well).

The ‘clear stream’ of most excellent water is still flowing in the ‘green’ before the spot where the church of Assicus once stood. But the white stone itself which stood on its margin was broken and carried off for building material, it is said, by the Rector of the Protestant church, which now stands on the commanding site where the original church of Assicus formerly stood. The Catholic church is at the western end of the town, a new and very commodious edifice.

 

BISHOP ASSICUS IN EXILE

The subsequent history of Assicus, as told in the Tripartite, is not without its own pathetic human interest, and the mere recital of the story is of itself an evidence in favour of the authenticity of those ancient documents.

“Assicus thereafter in shame, because of a lie told by him—or, rather, of him—went in flight into the North to Sliabh Liacc (now Slieve League) in Tir Boguini. He abode there seven years in an island (that is Rathlin O’Beirne), and his monks went a-seeking of him, and at length, after much trouble, they found him in the mountain glens—(Glen Columcille)—and they brought him away with them, but on his journey home he died in the wilderness; and they buried him at Raith Cungai, in Sereth—now Racoon, near Ballintra—for he declared that he would not go back again into Magh Ai on account of the falsehood that had been circulated there. Hence came the proverb, ‘it is time to travel into Serthe,’ that is, we may assume, to do penance. But the holy old man was rightly deemed a saint in Serthe, and the king of the land gave to him, and to his monks after his death, the grazing of a hundred cows, with their calves, and of twenty oxen, as a permanent benefice. ‘His relics are in Raith Cungai, and to Patrick belongs the church,’ as it belonged to his disciples, ‘but the community of Columcille and Ard Sratha have taken possession of it.’

The venerable Assicus, if he sinned, did penance. It is a far cry from Elphin to Rathlin O’Beirne, a small, storm-swept island at the very extremity of south-western Donegal. Even at the present day, though green and fertile, no one dwells there but the lighthouse keeper. There is no lonelier spot around the wild west coast of Ireland, yet there he dwelt away from men for seven long years, sometimes, perhaps, coming ashore to the glens, where his monks found him working at his craft, after long seeking throughout the black North. Reluctantly, it seems, he consented to return. ‘He was ashamed to go back to Magh Ai,’ because of the lie told there, and he sickened by the way—the long, rugged road that leads down to the North—between Ballyshannon and Ballintra, at a place that still bears the ancient name, shortened into Racoon, in Magh Serthe. There he died, and there they buried him as a saint on the summit of a small round hill to the west of the highway near Ballintra. We searched the place in vain for any trace of his grave. It is still used as a burial place for children, but the planter who got the ancient site of his monastery in i knows nothing of Assicus. Still, he has spared the holy spot, and the grave of Assicus has not yet become common earth. In our view this noble shame of the artist-bishop, bred up, as he was, in paganism, is a higher testimony to his virtue and nobility of character than if a whole volume of miracles were attributed to him by later, but less trustworthy, writers.

 

ST. PATRICK FOUNDS SHANKILL

Thereafter Patrick went from Elphin to Dumacha Hy n Ailella—the Mounds of the Hy Ailella—and there he founded a church known as Senchell Dumaige, the Old Church of the Mounds. This place is only one mile north-west of Elphin, on the very verge of the southern bounds of what was then the territory of the sons of Ailell. It still bears its ancient name, and gives title to the parish of Shankill, west of Elphin.

The old church was just at the cross-roads beyond the Deanery, and the ‘mounds’ that gave it its ancient name may still be noticed. But, the building itself has now completely disappeared, although the graveyard is still much frequented.

It may be, however, that the Mounds of the Hy Ailella does not signify that the territory was theirs, but that it was merely a place name, where some of that clan fell in battle, and so their burial mounds gave the place its name. It seems rather to have been in Magh Ai. At this point Patrick was at the meeting of three territories, Tir Ailella, Corcu Achlann, and Magh Ai, in its stricter sense, which designated merely the royal demesne of the Connaught kings. Their palace lay straight before him to the south-west, about four miles distant, on the brow of the beautiful ridge which overlooks one of the fairest scenes in Ireland.

But before leaving Shankill, Patrick, as usual, provided for the future of the young church which he founded there. He left in it Maichet and Cetchen and Rodan, a chief priest, and, moreover, Mathona, the sister of the youthful Benen. There Mathona received the veil from Patrick and from Rodan, and thus became their spiritual daughter. It is interesting to observe how carefully Patrick provided for his clerics and for his nuns, according to their seniority, so to speak. First of all, he left the two Emers at Cionbroney. They were the earliest holy maidens whom he ever knew in Ireland, and now he leaves, at least for a time, Mathona, the sister of Benignus, who was probably the next of the Christian maidens, who, following her holy brother’s example, resolved to give her life for Christ. Of Maichet and Cetchen, the presbyters of Shankill, we know nothing. Their names appear to be British, and it is not improbable that they were amongst the British disciples of Patrick who had followed him to Ireland. Only one Rodan is mentioned in the Martyrology of Tallaght under date of the 25th of September. The name merely is given.

The text of the Tripartite would seem to imply that from Shankill Patrick went into the Tirerrill country and founded the church of Tamnach (Taunagh) beyond Lough Arrow to the north, over which Mathona was either then or later on appointed Superioress. Our view, however, is that these things are said by anticipation of what occurred afterwards, that Patrick from Shankill went straight towards Cruachan, which was his purpose from the beginning, and that the visit of the Saint to North Tirerrill took place at a later period, after he had gone round through the west of Connaught. It is likely, too, that this Mathona was sister, not of Benen of Meath, but of Tirerrill, as we shall see later on.

From Shankill, then, Patrick went by the high ridge stretching over the small lakes and marshes that intervened on the south by Cloonyquin towards Tulsk or Tomona. It was the road to Cruachan, and he probably pitched his camp for the night not far west of Tulsk. When the morning sun rose over the hills near the Shannon he and his clerics went at sunrise to the well, namely Clebach, on the eastern flanks of Cruachan Hill. The well is there still, a great rushing fountain coming out from the rocks just under the road from Tulsk towards Cruachan, close to the spot where stood the ancient church built expressly to commemorate this most touching scene in the whole history of St. Patrick. Even the old chroniclers felt its charm, and were almost melted into poetry when they described it. It never fades from the mind of those who read the history of St. Patrick, and to this day no one can ever hear the story unmoved. But to appreciate it fully, one must visit the place or, at least, try to realize the scene.