Tom Barron pictured with a student.

Cardinal O’Fiach and the Cavan historian

Jonathan Smyth, in this week's Times past column, looks at Cardinal Ó Fiach and his correspondence with the late well-known Cavan historian Tom Barron...

On Tuesday, May 15, 1990, I watched the funeral of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiach. He had been overseas on pilgrimage to Lourdes when he became ill and died at the age of 66 years. At the time I was then in secondary school in Dundalk and a television was setup for the funeral that afternoon.

Years later while researching the life of historian Tom Barron, I found a series of letters written between both men. The cardinal was a keen historian and former editor of the journal of Seanchais Ard Mhacha (Armagh), and in 1989 contributed a paper on St Kilian of Mullagh to Breifne, the journal of Cumann Seanchais Bhreifne.

The cardinal is remembered as a warm-hearted religious figure, with a fondness for singing, and importantly, he also believed in the necessity of achieving a ‘unity of hearts’ across the island of Ireland. He was greatly respected and popular amongst many as witnessed by his funeral Mass in which every one of the 1,500 seats in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, was filled.

Tom Barron’s first correspondence with the Cardinal began on November 28, 1983 after publishing a research article on ‘St Patrick’s relationship with Bishop Cormac: The first Bishop to sit in Patrick’s Chair’, in Guth agaus Tiarim, volume 4, 1983. Addressing ‘His Eminence’, Barron wrote, ‘may it please your Eminence, you already remember that I have been for many years involved in the history of the district in this county, East Cavan, anciently known as Sliabh nDee alias Sliabh Bó Guaire’. He requested the cardinal to consider publishing a rewritten portion of the article with an additional two new ‘chapters’ for inclusion in the Armagh historical journal. Here are some interesting aspects covered by Tom in his article for Guth agaus Tiarim.

St Patrick and Cormac

According to tradition, in 462 AD, St Patrick appointed Cormac as bishop of the ‘Uí Nialláin of Crioch Laoghaire’ in Sliabh Guaire of the Gaileanga. A territory known as the Commair in the hills just North of Skeagh Lake, along Sliabh Guaire, is where the Blackwater River has its source, a watershed that divides the water systems of the Erne and the Boyne. If you were travelling from Kells, ‘as the crow flies’, the Commair was a short twenty-mile journey and the road which led in that direction, known as Rí-Bhothair would have been familiar, especially to a person by the name of Conall, son of Niall Nóigiallach better known as Niall of the Nine Hostages. Tom Barron claims that the pre-Christian Corleck shrine which included the three-faced Corleck head (now in the National Museum because of Tom’s foresight), may have been dismantled in a drive against ‘idolatrous’ practise when Patrick of the Confession and Conall (an aristocratic convert) teamed up together. Conall was later killed in 464 AD by the ‘old folk’ of Magh Sleacht in West Cavan when they cornered him ‘unprepared’ and unable to defend himself.

The Uí Nialláin clan later migrated from Cavan to North Armagh in 474 AD, the year that Patrick became bishop of Armagh. Barron acknowledges that the ‘Patrician problem’ of discovering the correct dates of Patrick’s life, bar the very portals of Irish history. Cormac it is believed, was St Patrick’s friend for more than thirty years and came from the townland of Drumbannon, originally known as Benen’s Hill, homeplace of the Uí Nialláin clan. The Uí Nialláin were ‘folk of the Fiacra Cassán, who settled in East Cavan sometime after the battle of Commair in which they helped the Tuathal Techtar to victory in the early second century. Eochaid Mugmedon, who was grandfather to Conall the aristocratic convert, was killed in the battle of Dub Commair, along the Commair, near Skeagh Lake.

Patrick at Magh Bolg

At Magh Bolg, that is Moybologue, or the ‘plain of the Firbolg, legend has it that St Patrick defeated a witch, or Cailleach of the Firbolg, when she came into confrontation with the saint, being possibly jealous of the ‘new Faith’ which had invaded her territory.

The story goes that the Cailleach who came in the form of a beautiful young women was riding on a horse, ‘attended by a horse-boy, and as she approached Patrick’s Mass’, on a Sunday morning, she requested her servant to pick some blackberries, but he reminded her that she should be fasting and refused to pick any.

Annoyed by the new rules, she got down off the horse and picked some for herself, and no sooner than the berries touched her lips, than she was transformed into a monstrous pig, a ‘devourer of men’. Enraged, she swallowed the horse-boy, and the horse, before making her way towards Patrick and the congregation, chewing up late-comers she met on the road.

On hearing the ruckus, Patrick took his crosier and went outside to meet the monster. He went down on one knee and took ‘careful’ aim at the creature, and throwing his crosier, smashed her into thousands of rock fragments which afterwards, people showed as evidence of what became of one who disobeyed. There was for many years a rock in Moybologue bearing the imprint of ‘Patrick’s knee’; this however has faded in recent times.

Cardinal Ó Fiach’s reply

In his reply to Tom Barron, the Cardinal stated that he was no longer editor of the Armagh society journal, but that he would be pleased to pass the article on to Paddy Campbell, the new editor. Cardinal Ó Fiach was still ‘keenly interested in local history’ and said that it was a pleasure to hear from Tom and to have ‘read another’ of his interesting articles ‘on the early history of the Breffni area’. They continued to stay in touch, sometimes disagreeing over different theories about St Patrick, but always ending on a cordial note of enquiry into the other’s health.

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