St. Munna Of Taghmon


Dr Edward Culleton

MUNNA'S 'LIVES'

Of the many accounts of saints' lives which have come down to us, few are more informative than that of Munna of Taghmon. No saints' life was written during their lifetime, most of those surviving date to the 11th and 12th centuries. But the earliest life of Munna is thought by scholars such as Sharpe (1991,338) to date to around 800. This dating is based mainly on linguistic evidence but also on some historical references in the 'life'.

There are four versions of Munna's life, all in Latin. The earliest and fullest text is printed in Heist (1965, 198-209). A shorter version derived from this is printed in Plummer (1910, II, 226-238). In 1974, John Hunt, M.A.*, made a translation of Plummer's text, into English. A copy of this has kindly been given to me by his son-in law, Tom Williams. Unless otherwise stated the following account of the saint's life is taken from this version.

MUNNA'S GENEALOGY AND EDUCATION

Munna belonged to the Cinel Conaill of the Northern Ui Neill whose territory at this time covered most of Donegal and whose stronghold was Grianan Ailech. His father's name was Tulchan whose genealogy is well documented (O'Riain, 1985, 26). According to the Felire of Oengus (Stokes, 1905, 63) he was a druid; in fact, Munna himself was accused of being a druid in his youth (Manus O'Donnell's Betha Colaim Cille, edited by O'Kelleher and Schoepperle 1918, 161). Munna's mother, Fidelma, was also of Northern Ui Neill lineage.

The year of the saint's birth is not known for certain but it must have been around the middle of the sixth century. He was called Fionn, prefixed by Mo, a term of endearment meaning 'my'. The name Mo- Fhionn-Og was easily elided into Munno or Munna, the name by which he became known. This was sometimes latinised into Fintanus and later into Fintan, the name by which he is now called locally.

Columcille, who had obviously known him, gave a colourful description of the physical appearance of Munna (§vii) 'After my death there will come to you from Eire a certain youth, holy in character, renowned in intellect, fair in person, curly of head, and rosy cheeked, whose name is Munna and whom I often saw on earth'. He was highly educated, having studied under Comgall of Bangor, also at the monastery and school at Kilmore, Co.Cavan, founded by Columcille; and at Cleenish, an island in Lough Erne, under Silell Mac Mianaig. This place was noted for its harsh regime, a fact that may have strongly influenced Munna when he came to set up his own monastery at Taghmon.

MUNNA'S MISSIONARY WORK

Following his education Munna journeyed to Iona in 597 (Reeves, 1857, 372) wishing to become a monk there. But he was refused admission by the abbot on the orders of Columcille who had died in January 597, Columcille having foretold that Munna would found his own monastery in South Leinster (§vii) This story is also found in Reeves (1857, 18-19). The reference could mean that Christianity was not making great headway in this area and needed a dedicated missionary.

Munna reputedly returned to Ireland, founding several churches in Scotland on the way home (§viii). The life mentions two of these, neither of which can be traced. But in his notes on Adamnan's life of Columba, Reeves (1857, 22) states that his principal church there was at Kilmun, in Cowal, to which the Breviary of Aberdeen assigns his burial place, and where local tradition even marks the supposed site of his tomb by the name of Sith-Mon, despite the clear evidence in Adamnan's life of Columba that he returned to Ireland. There was also a church called after him on the island of Loch Leven, Argyle. This may be the island of Coirmrigi named in the "life".

In Ireland he travelled to Ely O'Carroll territory (roughly the diocese of Killaloe) before coming into Leinster where he is associated with the monastery of Tihelly, Durrow, Co.Offaly (Gwynn & Hadcock,1988, 407) and eventually into Ui Chennsalaigh (§xiv). It appears that he made his way into south Wexford, which was then still under the control of the Ui Bairrche, a non-Ui Chennsalaigh sept, which at one time ruled most of south Leinster. According to Byrne (1973, 146) the monastery of Bangor had been granted extensive lands in Leinster by an Ui Bairrche king who was a disciple of St.Comgall. This may explain why Munna was given control of an establishment run by monks of St.Comgall (§xiv). Munna, too, had been a disciple of Comgall and monks from Bangor were active all over the island (Ryan, 1931, 1992, 125). After twelve years in this place, named Ard Crema, Munna was asked to leave, which he did, but not before calling down a curse on the spot (§xvi).

In the Calendar of Oengus (Stokes,1880, cli) Munna is referred to as:

A splendid flame with the father's fervour
Fintan, true gold proven
Tulchan's son, strenuous, abstinent
A battle soldier, trustful, crucified.

'Crucified' refers to Munna's affliction with leprosy.

MUNNA FOUNDS MONASTERY AT TAGHMON

Next Munna came to a place called Acadh Liathdrom, meaning 'the grey field or ridge' where the chief, Dimma Mac Aedh, gave him land on which to build his monastery (§xvii). This Munna did, possibly towards the end of 597, i.e. after the death of Columcille, and the place became known as Teach Munna, which was later shortened to Taghmon. The site was marked out by four crosses made of timber (§vii); the broken stone cross now on the site of the monastery is of a later date.

Munna must have laboured for over thirty years in Taghmon. He was twenty four years there when he contracted leprosy. This disease was relatively common in Ireland in the medieval period - there was a leper hospital in Maudlintown (Hore, 1906, 228-229).

MUNNA THE MAN

Munna has been generally regarded as a harsh and strict taskmaster and this seems to be borne out in some of the stories in the life. The rules in some of the early Irish monasteries were particularly severe and Sinell's school on Cleenish, in Lough Erne, where Munna spent many years, had such a reputation. Thus, Munna not unused to these, became a strict disciplinarian as the following stories show:
After a sojourn in Scotland he did not visit his own people (§ ix).
He threatened to leave Ireland if his relations came near him again (§ x).
He was less than pleasant to the virgins who asked for his blessing (§ xii).
He put a curse on Ard Crema when the monks asked him to leave the place (§ xvi).
An angel warned him that he treated his monks too harshly (§xxv). While not taking this episode literally, it does show how he was regarded.

Another story found in Manus O'Donnell's "Betha Colaim Cille" (O'Kelleher and Schoepperle, 1918, 161) tells how Munna was called in as 'the hard man' to support St Patrick's demand to Christ, that he, Patrick, should be the judge of the Irish on the Last Day.

Munna's obduracy was shown on one of the few occasions that the Irish Church disagreed with Rome. The controversy surrounded the dating of Easter, a question still debated. In 525 Rome adopted a new system based on a more accurate lunar cycle of nineteen years in comparison to an older system brought to Ireland by St Patrick. In the famous convention held at Old Leighlin in 630 to discuss the matter Munna vigorously led the opposition to the new system. Although his side was defeated in the debate, the old dating system persisted in parts of Ireland for many years afterwards.

Plummer (1910, §xxxv) sees Munna in a different light 'a man of somewhat harsh and hasty temper, but placable and conciliatory when the momentary irritation was over'. And in the Martyrology of Donegal (Todd & Reeves. 1894) Munna is credited with the patience of Job for the way in which he endured his leprosy.

In An Irish Litany of Pilgrim Saints compiled around 800 (Hughes, 1959, 305-331) the following reference to Munna is found: 'Thrice fifty martyrs under the yoke of Munna, son of Tulchan, on whom no man may be found buried until doom'. 'Thrice fifty martyrs' is the standard number of monks attributed to the saints and has no basis in fact. The word martyr in this case refers to what the Irish called 'white martyrdom' indicating a harsh ascetic life, rather than 'red martyrdom' which meant death by violent means.

Enlarged copy of the 6 - inch Ordnance Survey map showing ecclesiastical sites in Taghmon,
(Based on the Ordnance Survey by permission of the Government -Permit No. 6424)

Aerial view of Taghmon - photo taken by the Ordnance Survey

MUNNA REMEMBERED

Munna, undoubtedly was a man of importance in his own lifetime. His monastery at Taghmon, which boasted around 230 monks, (Mart.Donegal, Mart.Tallaght) became famous and lasted until l061 when it is recorded in the Annals of Inishfallen that Domhnall Deisech died there.

St Munna's well, recently restored, is located in a secluded, picturesque area more commonly known as Brown's Castle, in Mulmontry townland, Taghmon. A smooth piece of shale bedrock nearby is called St Munna's bed.

There is also a well named Tober Munna located down a lane almost directly opposite the present Catholic Church in Taghmon.

Apart from Taghmon several places in south Wexford are named after him. Ishartmon, Ballymore parish, was probably the place where he had his 'diserth' that is his chapel or hermitage, when he wanted to retreat from worldly cares. St Mun's well was situated in the townland of Ballyboher, Ballymore.

The churches of Tacumshane and Mayglass are dedicated to St Fintan. A small promontory near Churchtown, Carne, is called Crossfintan Point. There was also a church dedicated to St Fintan at Carne in 1680 (Hore 1921, 60). St Fintan's well is situated in Churchlands, Mayglass. Gorteenminoge, Murrintown, may refer to the saint, mun having been changed to min, the original wording possibly being Goirtin-mo-Fhionn-Og, meaning Munna's field.

Munna is also commemorated in the townland name of Aughermon, near Rack's Cross. According to Williams (per.comm.), ancient pathways from Taghmon can be traced to here.

There was also a monastery at Taughmon, Co.Westmeath, founded by Munna (Gwynn and Hadcock, 1988, 406).

Up to recent times Mun was not uncommon as a Christian or first name in south Wexford.

MUNNA'S MIRACLES AND EXTRAORDINARY POWERS

In contrast to the 'lives' of other saints Munna's contains a minimum of fabulous episodes. This may indicate that the earliest lives of the saints, none of which survived long after their deaths, were less prone to embellishment. But, in keeping with the custom of the time, it was essential to attach extraordinary, superhuman powers to every saint to show that he was no common mortal, but that he had a close affinity with God and access to His almighty power. This was done by having the saint perform Christ-like miracles such as raising the dead to life. Munna is credited with two such miracles; on one occasion he raised his sister Conchinne from the grave (§x), another time he brought a dead man back to life (§xi).

He also had prophetic powers predicting the death of Guaire for disobeying him (§xv), he foretold the contrasting futures of Dimma's two sons - one to be a murderer, the other to be a bishop (§ xxi) and the imminent death of one of his monks (§xxx).

He was believed to know the thoughts of his monks, a good strategy, no doubt, for keeping them in check. Munna also had magic powers. Once he saved Dimma's life by making him invisible to his enemies by wearing his, Munna's, tunic (§xxii).

HISTORICAL VALUE OF MUNNA'S 'LIFE'

Unlike many saints' lives which simply recount miracles, extraordinary powers and fabulous exploits, the life of Munna provides real historical information. Thus, the names of most of the people mentioned can be verified from other sources and the places named give a genuine topographical background for the events described.

The genealogy of his father, Tulchan is recorded in the literature. While the place where he was under Comgall's rule is not listed, the other two places where he studied are well documented. Kilmore, Co. Roscommon, was founded as a monastery and school by St Columcille and Cleenish on Lough Erne, Co. Fermanagh was founded by Sinell Mac Mianaig (Gwynn & Hadcock, 1988, 31, 39-40).

There is something of a puzzle when we come to Ui Chennsalaig territory. Dimma Mac Aedh Chamchos is given as a chief of the Fothart (O'Brien, 1962, 85) but his fortress is in Taghmon (§xvii). This would appear to be in Ui Bairrche territory. But perhaps as Dalton (1921, 25) states, the Fothart lands were more extensive than previously realised.

Munna reputedly came into south Wexford (§xiv). This area would seem to have been under attack from the Ui Chennsalaigh further north around the end of the 6th century. Munna's life describes how one of them, Guaire Mac Eoghain, seeking the kingship of Ui Chennsalaigh, plundered the people and drove off their flocks and herds only to be slain by his enemies (§xv).

Quite a few place-names in Ui Chennsalaigh are mentioned in Munna's life but few of them can be identified with certainty. Thus, when Munna enters the area, his first stay is at Ard Crema (§xiv) alongside the sea, among the Ui Bairrche. This place was obviously in an elevated (įrd) position beside the sea but its location has not been established. Artramont may be a possibility as the Ui Bairrche probably still controlled south Leinster at that time (Smyth, 1982, 60) The place in which Munna located himself was Achadh Liathdrom (§xvii) meaning 'the grey field on the ridge'. This is undoubtedly Taghmon (in regionibus Fothar, Heist, 1965,15) where his monastery was established. Though not in Plummer's 'life', Airbriu is listed in other versions of the saint's life as 'the place of Cuan, the anchorite' (Heist, 1965, §18). This is very likely the present site at Kilcowanmore, Bree parish. Airdbriu indicates an elevated site that would not apply to the low-lying Kilcowan in Rathangan parish.

More problematic is the location of the island of Barry (insula Tobairri, §xxii), although Bannow Island seems the most likely place. The island of Liachan (insula Liac Ilain §xxiii) is also unknown. The fact that boats were used to reach it points to either one of the Saltee islands or the Keeraghs. The Hy MBarchi, whose chief, MacDonald, attended the synod at Leighlin in 630 (§xxvi), refers to the Ui Bairrche of the Slieve Margy area of Co.Laois.

Though not of strictly historical value several anecdotes in Munna's 'life' throw a little light on the mores of the time. For example, to be shaved in front of someone was considered insolent (§xv); beheading was the favourite way of killing an enemy (§xv, xviii, xxvi). On one occasion Columcille seems to be acting like the charismatics, chanting 'of those things, which the Holy Spirit dictated'.

The monasteries were obviously schools for the sons of nobles. For example, Dimma sent one of his sons to Taghmon to be educated and another to St Cuan at Kilcowanmore (§xxi). The monasteries were also open to people from abroad as shown by the description of the monk who came to Taghmon from Britain and who 'was learned in the craft of wood and who used to make wagons and other appliances for the brethren'. (§xxviii)

MUNNA'S DEATH AND BURIAL

Munna's death is recorded in the 'life' as follows: 'And one day the saint, knowing that the day of his reward was come, directed his people should be summoned to him and blessing them he committed to them all the divine commands. Afterwards, having received the Body and Blood of Christ in the presence of his disciples, on the 2lst day of October, he happily sent forth his spirit among the choirs of angels into the presence of Jesus Christ, who with God the father and the Holy Ghost lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen' (§xxx).

According to the Annals of the Four Masters, Munna died on 21 October 634 and his feast is celebrated on that date. The Annals of Ulster also give the year of his death as 634. It seems certain that the saint would have been buried in his own monastery at Taghmon.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I am grateful to Mr Tom Williams for making John Hunt's English translation of the life of Munna available to me and also for his comments on an earlier draft of this paper. John Hunt's English translation is available for consultation in the County Library, Wexford.

REFERENCES

* The paragraph marks ( § ) throughout this article refer to the paragraph numbers in John Hunt's English translations of Plummer's text.

Annals of Four Masters, 1845-51. ed. J. O' Donovan, Dublin

Annals of Inishfallen, 1951, ed. Sean Mac Airt. Royal Irish Academy, Dublin

Annals of Ulster, 1887. ed. W.M. Hennessey, Dublin

Bethe Colaim Cille, l918. eds. and trans. by A.O'Kelleher and G.Schoepperle, Urbana, Illinois

Calender of Oengus,1880. ed. and trans. W. Stokes, Irish Manuscript Series, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin

Byrne, F.J. , 1973. Irish Kings and High Kings, London

Dalton, J.P. 1921. St Vauks of Carne, The Past, No 2.

Felire of Oengus, the Culdee, 1905. ed. and trans. W.Stokes, London

Gwynn, A. and Hadcock, R.N. 1988. Medieval Religious Houses in Ireland. Irish Academic Press, Dublin

Heist, W.W. 1965. Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae e Codice olim Salmanticentis nunc Bruxellensi, Subsidia Hagiographica, 25

Hore, H. F. 1906. The History of the Town and County of Wexford, vol.5. Wexford and Taghmon

Hore, H.F. 1921. The Barony of Forth, The Past, No. 2

Hughes, K. 1959. On An Irish Litany of Pilgrim Saints compiled c. 800. Analecta Bollandiana, lxxvii, 303-331, Societe des Bollandistes, Brussels

Hunt, John. 1974. The Life of St Munna, otherwise Fintan, abbot of Taghmon, translated from the Latin life in Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, Plummer, 1910, vol. 11, Oxford

Martyrology of Donegal, 1864. Trans by J. O'Donovan, eds. J.H. Todd and W.Reeves, Dublin

Martyrology of Tallaght, 1931. ed. R.I. Best, Henry Bradshaw Society, London

O'Brien M.A., 1962. Corpus Genealogiarum Hiberniae. Vol.1. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

O'Riain, P. 1985. Corpus Genealogiarium Sanctorum Hiberniae, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

Plummer, C. 1910. Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, vol. ll, Oxford

Ryan, J. 1931. 1992. Irish Monasticism, Four Courts Press, Dublin

Reeves, W. 1857. The Life of St Columba, written by Adamnan, Dublin

Sharpe, R. 1991. Medieval Irish Saints Lives. Clarendon Press, Oxford

Smyth, A.P. 1982. Celtic Leinster, Irish Academic Press, Dublin