FINNIAN, Saint (d. 550), of Cluainiraird, now Clonard, in the county of Meath, son of Finlugh, son of Fintan, a descendant of Conall Cearnach, one of the heroes of the Red Branch, was born in Leinster. He was baptised by a Saint Abban, and afterwards placed when of suitable age under the charge of Fortchern. With him he read 'the Psalms and the Ecclesiastical Order.' On reaching the age of thirty he crossed the sea, and according to the Irish life went to Tours, called by the Irish Torinis. where he became a friend of St. Caeman. But the Latin life, the author of which, according to Dr. Todd, had the Irish before him, substitutes Dairinis, an island in the bay of Wexford, in which there was a well-known monastery. The resemblance in sound may have suggested the correction, as Caeman was connected with Dairinis. But as the 'Office of St. Finnian' also mentions a visit to Tours, and two of St. Finnian's pupils, Columcille and Columb Mac Criomthainn, are said to have visited Tours, the Irish life may be correct. Finnian, probably on his way back, was at Cell Muine, or St. David's in Wales, where he met David, Gildas, and Cathmael or Docus. Here he is said to have stayed thirty years, and to have spoken the British language 'as if it was his own native tongue.' Finnian was employed to negotiate with the Saxon invaders, and failing in this is said to have overthrown them by supernatural means. An angel warned him to return to Ireland, which was in need of his teaching, instead of visiting Rome as he wished to do. He obeyed the divine call, and landed, according to Dr. Lanigan, first at the island of Dairinis, where he paid a second visit to St. Caeman. Leaving the island he coasted along, and finally landed at one of the harbours of Wexford, where he was well received by Muiredach, son of the king of Leinster, who honoured him, not as Dr. Lanigan says, by prostrating himself before him, but by taking him on his back across the fields. The king having offered him any site he pleased for a church, he selected Achad Aball, now Aghowle, in the barony of Shillelagh, in the county of Wicklow. Here he is said to have dwelt sixteen years. Moving about and founding churches in several places, he arrived at Kildare, where he 'stayed for a while, reading and teaching,' and on leaving was presented by Brigit with a ring of gold, which she told him he would require. Afterwards a slave at Fotharta Airbrech, in the north-east of the King's County, complained that the king demanded an ounce of gold for his freedom. Finnian having weighed the ring (ring money ?) given him by Brigit, found it to be exactly one ounce, and he purchased the man's freedom. This slave was St. Caisin of Dal m Buain. Crossing the Boyne, he next founded a church at Ross Findchuill, also called Esgar Brannain, now Rosnarea. One of a raiding party from Fertullagh in Westmeath passing by his church became his disciple, and afterwards his successor at Clonard. This was Bishop Senach of Cluain Foda Fine, now Clonfad, in the county of Westmeath. It was probably at this time that he established his school at Clonard, in A.D. 530, according to Dr. Lanigan. Disciples came to him from all parts of Ireland till the number is said to have reached three thousand, and he acquired the title of 'the Tutor of the Saints of Ireland.' Many celebrated men were educated under him, among them Columcille, Columb of Tir da Glas, the two Ciarans, and others. To each of his pupils on their departure he gave a crozier or a gospel (i.e. a book of the gospels), or some well-known sign. These gifts became the sacred treasures of their respective churches. From his disciples he selected twelve who were known as 'the twelve Apostles of Ireland.' These, according to Dr. Todd, formed themselves into a kind of corporation, and exercised a sort of jurisdiction over the other ecclesiastics of their times. They were especially jealous of the right of sanctuary which they claimed for their churches.
A bard named Gemman, also termed 'the master,' and mentioned in Adamnan's 'Columba' as a tutor, brought him a poem celebrating his praises, and asked in return that 'the little land he had should be made fertile.' Finnian replied, 'Put the hymn which thou hast made into water, and scatter the water over the land.' This is in accordance with Bede's description of the virtues of Irish manuscripts when immersed in water (Eccl. Hist. bk. i. chap, i.) In the Latin life he orders Gemman 'to sing the hymn over the field.' Some of the pupils of Finnian having been attracted to St. Ruadan of Lothra, formerly one of his disciples, he visited that saint at the request of his school, and an amicable contest took place between them, with the result that Ruadan consented 'to live like other people.' The special reason for the flocking of students to Lothra is said to have been 'a lime tree from which there used to drop a sweet fluid in which every one found the flavour he wished.' His next journey was into Luigne, now the barony of Leyney, co. Sligo, whither he was accompanied by Cruimther (or presbyter) Nathi. Here he founded a church in a place called Achad caoin conaire, now Achonry, where his well and his flagstone were shown.
When he had thus 'founded many churches and monasteries, and had preached God's word to the men of Ireland,' he returned to Clonard. Here his pupil, Bishop Senach, observing 'his meagreness and great wretchedness,' and 'seeing the worm coming out of his side in consequence of the girdle of iron which he wore,' could not restrain his tears. Finnian comforted him by reminding him that he was to be his successor. His food was a little barley bread, and his drink water, except on Sundays.
In the 'Martyrology of Donegal ' he is compared to St. Paul, the parallel being carried out in detail. Finnian was the chief of the second order of Irish saints ; he is sometimes said to have been a bishop, but it is not so stated in his life, and it is improbable, as the second order were nearly all presbyters. He died at Clonard, and, according to the 'Chronicon Scotorum,' of the pestilence known as the Buidhe Conaill, or yellow plague, which ravaged Ireland in A.D. 550. The language of his life is ambiguous, but seems to agree with this : 'As Paul died in Rome for the sake of the Christian people, even so Finnian died in Clonard that the people of the Gael might not all die of the yellow plague.' The 'Annals of the Four Masters' place his death at 548 (549), which is too early. Colgan's opinion that he lived as late as 563 is founded on a statement referring not to him but to St. Finnian of Maghbile. He is said in the Irish life to have reached the age of 140, and if his stay in different places was so long as mentioned, this would seem to be necessary, but the numbers can scarcely be intended to fee taken literally. 'Thirty' seems to be used indefinitely in the lives of Irish saints. St. Finnian's day in the 'Martyrology of Donegal' is 12 Dec., though 11 Feb., 3 Jan., and 26 March have also been mentioned.[Lives from the Book of Lismore, translated by Whitley Stokes, D.C.L., pp. 222-30; Lanigan's Eccl. Hist. i. 468, &c., ii. 21, 22 ; Dr. Todd's St. Patrick, pp. 98-101 ; Martyrology of Donegal, p. 333 ; Annals of the Four Masters, A.D. 548 ; Reeves's Adamnan, p. 136.]