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