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An Introduction to Fintan of Clonenagh (Irish)

FINTAN OF CLONENAGH (d. 603), abbot. Born in Leinster and educated by St. Colum of Terryglass, he founded Clonenagh which was famous for great austerity; he himself was reputed to live on a diet of barley bread and clayey water. This, however, did not prevent him from establishing a milder regime for some neighboring monks. When some of his monks left the monastery without permission he received back at least one of them. When some soldiers came to the monastery bearing the severed heads of their enemies, Fintan had these buried in the monks’ cemetery in the hope that by Doomsday they would have benefited from the prayers of generations of monks; “since the principal part of their bodies rest here, we hope they will find mercy.” Feast (all over Ireland) 17 February.

– David Farmer, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, fifth edition, 197


The monks of Fintan Mac Úi Echach; they fed on nothing but herbs of the earth and water. There is not room to enumerate them because of their multitude. Eight Fintans among them. – Litany of Irish Saints

FINTAN OF CLONENAGH. Fintan was a common enough name as may be judged from the above lines from one of the old Irish litanies of Irish saints. There are a number of Fintans listed as saints, 22 in the Martyrology of Donegal, but there is also the possibility that some may be duplications of the same individual. Fintoc is a variant spelling, whence the Scots name M‘Lintock (Mac Gille Fhionntaig—son of the servant of Fintan).

Fintan of Clonenagh was born in Leinster, baptized and later educated by a holy man of Cluain mac Trein—perhaps Ross mac Trein, modern New Ross. Later he went to St. Colum of Terryglass, with whom he was associated in making his own great foundation in Clonenagh.

Clonenagh is yet another of the great early monastic houses that cluster round the Slieve Bloom mountains. It is east of the hills, on the Mountrath-Port Laoighise road, about 2 miles from Mountrath. When O’Hanlon visited the ruined church and graveyard there in August of 1856, he was told that the place was called the “Seven Churches of Clonenagh” (the number always ascribed to such sites!) and further that the local people could still point out the sites, at Clonenagh, and the two that were still some little distance from it.

Fintan’s rule at Clonenagh was renowned for its austerity, and one may be reminded of St. David’s title of the “Waterman.” In general Ireland did not follow so hard a regime, and the ‘Life’ of Fintan includes a story of a deputation of Irish saints, headed by Cainnech coming to urge Fintan to moderate it. Fintan would not do so for himself but did agree to relax the rule for the rest of the community. They are said to have done all the work on their land by hand and owned no domestic animals, not even a cow. Neither milk nor butter was allowed in the monastery. The gloss in the Martyrology of Oengus quotes a little couplet thereon:—

Generous Fintan never ate anything during his time
except bread of woody barley and clayey water made of clay.

 – selection from Daphne D. C. Pochin Mould, The Irish Saints, 171-2