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St Mura of Fahan Patron Saint of the O’Neill Clan

Inis Eoghain/ Inishowen takes its name from Eoghan, son of Niall Naoighiallach ‘of the Nine Hostages’ +453, described as high king of Ireland. Niall may well have been in fact the leader of a successful war band, such as that which kidnapped St Patrick, but in any event, he is portrayed as leader and king of the Connachta, allegedly descended from Conn Céadchathach ‘of the hundred battles’, also said to be high king, but who was in all probability their ancestor god. The Connachta gave their name to Connacht. They were expansionist by nature. They spread into what is now Leinster, where they provided the kings at Teamhair (Tara) and captured much of what is now Ulster from the Ulaidh. According to the narrative, three sons of Niall annexed what is now Co. Donegal: Conall who gave his name to Tír Chonaill (then the south of what is now the county), Éanna who gave his name Tír Éanna and Eoghan who gave his name to Inis Eoghain or Inishowen. Tír Éanna was between the other two and eventually fell victim to both, before the descendants of Conall annexed Inis Eoghain also, but that is a story for another day.

Eoghan is said to have met and been converted by St Patrick, who baptised him at Iskaheen. It would look as if part of the place name Iskaheen has been lost, since Uisce Chaoin is in the genitive case, perhaps a word like Tobar (a well). The name itself would seem to indicate its importance as a source of fresh water, probably to sea-borne travellers on nearby Lough Foyle (Loch Feabhail). On the face of it, it would not seem an unlikely place to be baptised. The descendants of Niall were unable as yet to dislodge the Ulaidh from the island at Derry but they were soon in control of access to Inis Eoghain. Muireadhach son of Eoghan extended their power along the south-eastern shore of Lough Swilly/ Loch Súilí, giving his name to the area around Aileach, Críoch Mhuireadhaigh—the territory of Muireadhach—which included Fahan. Aileach Neid was to be for centuries the spiritual home of Cineál Eoghain, ‘the descendants of Eoghan’. Kings of the kindred would bear the name ‘king of Aileach’, which had of course been prominent since long before their time. In all probability Críoch Mhuireadhaigh had the same boundaries as the parish of Fahan, Upper and Lower together, has now.

Saint Mura in real life

Although Eoghan was baptised by St Patrick, and although in later times it would be claimed: Uí Néill ar chúl Choluim [Uí Néill (the descendants of Niall Naoighiallach) behind, i.e. under the protection of, Columba], the patron of early Cineál Eoghain was St Mura. To give him a more authentic feel he was fitted out with a genealogy which tied him closely to the royal house of Eoghan. He was said to be the son of Fearadhach, son of Rónán, son of Eoghan Méarchroim (bent-finger), son of Muireadhach, son of Eoghan, son of Niall Naoighiallach. The same genealogy is given in CGSH and in the Laud collection, except that they both omit Eoghan Méarchroim.

Muireadhach son of Eoghan son of Niall, according to all other genealogical tracts, had five sons, none of them called Eoghan Méarchroim. In another recension of genealogies, the Recensio Minor, also printed in CGSH, Mura is said to belong to Sliocht Fiatach Finn, adding that his mother Deirinill Ceatharchíochach was also the mother of Saints Domhanghart, Ailleán, Aodhán, Mochumma of Droim Bó and Cilleán of Achadh Caol in Lecale on the shore of Dún Droma. Saint Domhanghart is associated with Maghera, Co. Down, near Dundrum Bay. Dál Fiatach was the area in south-east Down with which all of these were associated, and when we examine the genealogy of Dál Fiatach we find there that Eoghan Méarchroim was the son of Muireadhach Muindearg (red-back) “whom St Patrick blessed in the kingdom of Ireland”. There can be little doubt then that Mura belonged to the royal house of Dál Fiatach. The genealogist of GRSH, wittingly or unwittingly, confused the two ancestors named Muireadhach. It is probable that Mura was born in the area where tradition claims that St Patrick started his mission in Ireland.

What does it matter? If Mura belonged to Dál Fiatach, he came to Inis Eoghain as an outsider and missionary. He is said to have died in 645, which would suggest a date for his arrival at Fahan around 600, about the time of St Colm Cille’s death. The annals tell us that there were two Fahans: Othain Mhór and Othain Bheag. Othain Bheag may have been a hermitage in the Buncrana area, perhaps even Desertegny.

Where he lived

According to the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, Aedh Uairíonach, great-great-grandson of Eoghan son of Niall, probably then king of Aileach and soon to become high king, “came through Othan Muru he washed his hands in the river that goes through the middle of the town. (Othan is the name of the river and from it the town is named).
He took a handful of water to put on his face. One of his men stopped him:
‘O king,’ he said, ‘do not put that water on your face.’
‘Why?’ asked the king.
‘I am ashamed to say,’ said he.
‘What shame do you have at telling the truth?’ asked the king.
‘This is it,’ he replied; ‘the clergy’s privy is over that water.’
‘Not only,’ said the king, ‘shall I put it upon my face, but I shall also put it in my mouth and I shall drink it.’”

“That was told to Mura, and he thanked God that Aedh Alláin had such faith. Then he summoned Aedh Alláin to him (Aedh Uairíonach was another of his names), and Mura said to him: ‘Dear son,’ he said, ‘as reward for that reverence you have given the church, I promise, in God’s witness, that you shall have the kingship of Ireland shortly, and that you will gain victory and the overthrow of your enemies, and that you will not be taken by sudden death, and you will receive the Body of the Lord from my hand, and I shall pray to the Lord on your behalf that it may be old age that will take you from the world.’”

“It was not long afterwards that Aedh Alláin took the kingship of Ireland and he granted fertile lands to Mura of Othan. Moreover he won many victories over the Laighin (men of Leinster) and over his other enemies. He was eight years in the kingship of Ireland and then mortal illness seized him and he sent for Mura. Mura came and the king said to him, ‘Cleric,’ he said you have deceived me, for I have neglected my penance, because I expected, through your word, that I would be aged in my lifetime; and it seems to me that death is near to me.’”
“True,’ said the cleric, ‘death is near you, and your life has been cut short, and you have incurred the Lord’s anger; so explain all that you have done to offend the Lord.’”

They discuss various of the king’s activities: his attempt to build a house on Carrleagh Mountain whose fire would be visible from Britain and Argyle, that he had tried to acquire lasting remembrance by building a marvellous bridge at Cluain Ioraird, but he had offended the Lord through his hatred which led him to wish to slay the men of Leinster and force their women and slaves north to serve the Uí Néill. Mura points out that in hating Leinster he had brought down on his head the prayers of the saints of Leinster, especially St Brigid whose prayers are more powerful than his (Mura’s). The king does penance, is anointed and goes to heaven. Elsewhere it is suggested that King Aedh Uairíonach did not enjoy good health. [His name may mean ‘of the cold-pangs’.]

One could plausibly be at Snámh Dá Éan / Swim-Two-Birds with a sceptical Flann O’Brien. The Fragmentary Annals tend to poke fun at Cineál Eoghain monarchs and seem less than impressed here with the powers of St Mura. The story has been re-worked: history re-told as prophecy, maybe in sympathy with Leinster, although John O’Donovan thought this fragment was of Ulster origin. In its attitudes and language it is much later than the events it claims to depict. It gestures in the direction of popular piety by recalling the trí bolgaim uisce, the three mouthfuls of water traditionally taken by the devout after Holy Communion. It stresses the national importance of St Brigid, the somewhat ersatz piety of the king and the limits of the power of Mura: offending St Brigid is more heinous than hating the men of Leinster or enslaving their women. The original purpose may well have been to account for St Mura’s position as patron of Cineál Eoghain (rather than St Columba perhaps) and for the good land that the monastery of Fahan possessed, but then found itself with the problem of having to account for the brevity of Aedh Uairíonach’s reign if the patron had blessed him. Aedh Uairíonach was high king from 604 to 612 while his descendant; the king more usually known as Aedh Alláin, was high king from 734 to 743.

From the story it is clear that Mura had arrived at Fahan a little before Aedh Uairíonach’s time. He chose his location well, near the royal seat of power at Aileach but not too near. His monastic site was known to the king’s attendants but not to the king, who knew him, at best, only by reputation. The annal is dated 605, but the initial event is clearly earlier than that, which would confirm what one would surmise from the date of his death (645). Unfortunately our story presumes on our knowledge of St Mura and adds nothing of much significance. Elsewhere we are told he was also known as Muran, Gnia (his pet name-something most early Irish saints seem to have enjoyed) and Dimma his baptismal name. St Mura’s feast day is 12 March.

His Teachings

The career of St Mura overlapped with that of St Colmcille. He wrote a verse life of St Columba which is no longer extant, although the Martyrology of Donegal quotes a verse of poetry about Columba, attributed to Mura by Mánas Ó Dónaill in his sixteenth century Beatha Cholaim Cille (Life of Columba):
Rugadh i nGartán dá dheoin He was born in Gartan by his will (i.e. of God)
hOileadh i gCill Mic Neoin He was reared at Cill mhac nÉanán
Baisteadh mac na maise The son of beauty was baptised
i dTulaigh Dé Dubhghlaise at godly Tulach Dubhghlaise.
Abbé MacGeoghegan refers to the high veneration in which the monastery at Fathan was held ‘on account of St Muran its patron but also for the valuable monuments of antiquity which were preserved in it for many centuries: amongst others there was a small volume of Scotic  verse by St Mura and a large book of chronology, filled with many historical passages, concerning the nation in general; this work was much esteemed, and is frequently quoted by the antiquarians of the country; there still remain some fragments of it, Colgan says, which have escaped the fury of the reformers of latter ages.’

The relics of the age of Mura left to us then are few. Bachall Mhura (his pastoral staff or crozier) is in the Royal Irish Academy; his bell in the Wallace Collection. There is some argument about the dating of St Mura’s Cross, a great example of early stone decoration, created in the mid to late seventh century, shortly after Mura’s death, although it has been described as a minor and imitative late work of the tenth century. One remarkable feature is that it is the only such stone monument in Ireland to have a Greek inscription. It bears a doxology seemingly derived from the Acts of Toledo of 633, which would argue for a date earlier than that of the insertion of Filioque (and by the Son) into the Nicene Creed by the Church of Spain, which would predicate a fairly close, ongoing connection between Spain and the north of Ireland. In that case the cross would date to shortly after Mura’s death, which might be just about possible.

His Legacy

Prominent among the successors of St Mura at Fahan were St Cillín Ó Colla, abbot and saint, who died in 724 on 3 January (his feast day) and Fotha na Canóine +818 who had a leading role in the eighth century reform of the Church associated with the Céile Dé movement. He also is recognised as a saint with feast day 3 February. He was a man of poetry and intellect with a national reputation, who was consulted on matters of moral, political, and even military, importance by high king and by colleagues. Also associated with Fahan was the Benedictine beatus, Blessed Marianus Scotus (Muireadhach Mag Rabhartaigh) +1088 who founded the Benedictine monastery, the Schottenklöster, at Regensburg in Germany, mother house of Benedictine abbeys in southern Germany and Austria—and briefly at Kiev in Russia. He belonged to the erenagh family of Fahan, whose family name was originally Ó Ceallaigh. They were descended from Rabhartach Ó Ceallaigh: one person by that name died in 762, perhaps a century or more too early to be recognised as their ancestor. [Surnames in Ireland date back to about 1000 AD.]