Saint Fursa

Patron Saint of Killursa Parish, Co. Galway, Ireland

&

Peronne, France


Saint Fursa ( or Fursey as he is known in Ireland ), was a remarkable man whose beacon of light shone into Britain and Europe during the dark ages. He, along with St. Columbanus, are regarded as two of the greatest Christian missionaries ever to leave Ireland's shores and venture into danger and the unknown to spread the gospel. 

According to a 12th century written version of his life, ( called Beatha Fursa in Irish or Vita Fursaeus in Latin ), Fursa was born at Rathmat on the island of Inchiquin in Lough Corrib c. 584AD. His father was Fintan, King of Munster and his mother Gelgies, daughter of the King of Connacht. They had fled to sanctuary and St. Brendan's protection in Lough Corrib after some trouble in Munster ( Brendan was Fintan's uncle ). Fursa had two brothers, Enda ( later St. Enda of Aran fame and founder of Killeaney ) and Cunna (later St. Cunna who founded the Kilcoona monastic settlement ). Brendan's successor at his monastic community in Rathmat on Inchiquin was St. Meldan, of the Hua-Cuinn family, from which the island of Inis-Mhic-Ui-Chuinn took its name, and he educated the young boy and groomed him for the religious life. The story goes that Fursa eventually moved across to the mainland and established his own monastery at the site now known as Killursa where the cemetery exists on the road to Headford. Incidentally, the names of the townlands Kildaree, Ardfintan and Cahirfintan supposedly derive their names from Fintan, Fursa's father.

However, this story is at odds with the known information of Fursa's life before the 12th century version. The first version of his Vita was written a few years after this death in 650 AD at his monastic foundation in France and paints a different picture of his early life. Fursa was not a native of Inchiquin and indeed originally came from Ulster ( possibly the Cavan area ). He may have indeed visited St. Meldan at Inchiquin but he was not related to him or St. Brendan. He setup his own monastery at Killursa and soon built a thriving monastic settlement in the early 7th century. There is no evidence that he had brothers named Enda or Cunna either. In fact, his brothers as mentioned in his later travels, are stated as being Foltan and Ultan. There is indeed strong evidence that Fursa's early life story was altered in the 12th century to suit political expediency6 at that time.

What is not in dispute between the two versions of his 'Life' is that Fursa founded his monastic settlement at Killursa ( Cill Fhursa or Fursa's Church ) and we are told that the establishment flourished there. Many young men were attracted to the religious life and joined the energetic Fursa. It is likely the early stone church on this site was small but as the years passed and the community grew, it was enlarged and extended over several hundred years. The current structure, with its Gothic pointed doorway and large Gothic mullioned window was almost certainly erected after the Norman invasion ( 13th century ). There are still elements of the existing ruin which may date back to the 7th century so perhaps Fursa's own hands helped construct some of that original building. The monks would have lived in wooden huts around the church and tilled the land and raised cattle for meats, hides, leather, etc. They would have been self-sufficient in every way. Whether Killursa was a centre of scholarship and learning there can be little doubt but no manuscripts or other written material from that era has survived as being authored at this location. The most remarkable thing about Killursa is its founder and his subsequent life.

Ruins of Killursa Church, Co. Galway - 2005 AD

It was at Killursa that Fursa had his first ecstatic vision, which has made him unique and one of the most famous of 7th century Irish saints. These visions were also to render him famous in later medieval literature.

Fursa was siezed with an apparently mortal illness. He fell into a trance from 9pm until cockcrow next morning and when in this state was favoured by God with the first of his ecstatic visions. In this trance were revealed to him the state of man in sin and the beauty of virtue. He heard the angelic choirs of heaven singing. Two angles restored him to his body and urged him to become a more zealous labourer in the harvest of the Lord. On the third night after the initial vision, the ecstasy was renewed. He was raised aloft by six angels who contended six times with demons for his soul. He saw the fires of hell, the strife of demons and then heard the angels of heaven once more. Among the spirits of the just he recognized were his old tutors Saints Meldan and Beoan. They gave him much spiritual instruction concerning the duties of ecclesiastics and monks, the dreadful effects of pride and disobedience, the heinousness of spiritual and internal sins. They also predicted famine and pestilence. As Fursa returned through the fire with his angel 'bodyguards' a demon hurled a tortured sinner at him. It hit him on the shoulder and cheek and ever afterwards Fursa bore the scar of the burns he received.

These two episodes in quick succession seem to have had a life altering affect on Fursa. His brothers Foillan and Ultan joined him at Killursa but he slowly withdrew from administration of the monastic settlement there and instead devoted himself to preaching throughout the locality, frequently exorcising evil spirits. Exactly twelve months after the first vision, Fursa experienced a third ecstatic trance. This time an angel remained with him an entire day, instructed him for his preaching and prescribed for him 12 years of apostolic labour. This he faithfully fulfilled throughout Ireland and many places have sites attributed to Fursa of Killursa1.

After his 12 years of labour in the field, he stripped himself of all his worldly goods and retired for a short time to a small island in the ocean to pray and meditate.

Then, along with his brothers and a few other monks and bringing with him relics of Saints Meldan and Beoan, he went through Britain ( via Wales ) to East Anglia where he was received by King Siegbert in 633. St. Bede2 records this arrival in his writings3 :

WHILST Sigbert still governed the kingdom, there came out of Ireland a holy man called Fursa. renowned both for his words and actions, and remarkable for singular virtues, being desirous to live as a stranger and pilgrim for the Lord's sake, wherever an opportunity should otter. On coming into the province of the East Angles, he was honourably received by the aforesaid king, and performing his wonted task of preaching the Gospel, bv the example of his virtue and the influence of his words, converted many unbelievers to Christ, and confirmed in the faith and love of Christ those that already believed. Here he fell into some infirmity of body, and was thought worthy to see a vision of angels; in which he was admonished diligently to persevere in the ministry of the Word which he had undertaken, and indefatigably to apply himself to his usual watching and prayers; inasmuch as his end was certain, but the hour thereof uncertain, according to the saying of our Lord, "Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour. " Being confirmed by this vision, he set himself with all speed to build a monastery on the ground which had been given him by King Sigbert, and to establish a rule of life therein. This monastery was pleasantly situated in the woods, near the sea; it was built within the area of a fort, which in the English language is called Cnobheresburg, that is, Cnobhere's Town; afterwards, Anna, king of that province, and certain of the nobles, embellished it with more stately buildings and with gifts. This man was of noble Scottish blood4, but much more noble in mind than in birth. From his boyish years, he had earnestly applied himself to reading sacred books and observing monastic discipline, and, as is most fitting for holy men, he carefully practiced all that he learned to be right. Now, in course of time he himself built a monastery, wherein he might with more freedom devote himself to his heavenly studies.

Here, in East Anglia, Fursa laboured for some years converting the Picts and Saxons. He received King Sigebert into the religious state. Three miracles are recorded of his life in this monastery. Again, he retired for one year to live with his brother Ultan in quiet pray and contemplation.

When war threatened East Anglia, Fursa, disbanding his monks until quieter times should come, sailed with his two brothers and six other monks to Gaul ( France ). He arrived in Normandy about 642 AD. At the village of Ponthieu, Fursa raised a young boy to life; he was the only son of Duke Hayson the Lord of that country. His fame preceded him to Peronne, where Fursa and his band were joyously received by the ruler of that region, Erkinoald. He was offered any site for a monastery. He selected Latiniacum ( Lagny ), about six miles from present day Paris beside the river Marne, in a shady spot and abounding in fruitful vineyards. The site is close to present day Euro Disney.

Here, Fursa built his monastery and three chapels, one dedicated to the Saviour, one to St. Peter, and a third unpretending structure, afterwards dedicated to Fursa himself. Many Irishmen were attracted to this location and from here their mission spread throughout Europe.

Having certain premonitions that his end was near, Fursa decided to return to England to visit his brothers who had earlier returned to gather the scattered monks of Cnobheresburg in East Anglia and reestablish that monastery. However, he was struck down with illness in the very village of Ponthieu in which his prayer had raised the boy to life. There, on 16th January in 650 AD, Fursa died. The name of the village was changed at that time from Ponthieu to Forsheim, meaning House of Fursa and has remained so ever since.

In accordance with his own wishes his body was brought to Peronne and buried in the chapel of St. Peter along with the relics of his mentors, Meldan and Beoan. While the chapel was awaiting dedication before his burial, his body lay 'in state' there for thirty days, visited by pilgrims from many parts. His corpse remained uncorrupted and exhaled a sweet odour. Four years later the body was reloacted to a specially prepared place of honour near the altar; it was found his body was still completely free from decomposition. In the "Annals of the Four Master", Peronne is called Cathair Fursa ( Fursa's City ).

As stated earlier, Fursa's visions of Heaven and Hell prompted much later discussion and analysis in medieval times and are thought to have inspired Dante's Divine Comedy5. Most pictorial representations of Fursa show him in a trance-like state undergoing one of his visions. That is the depiction in the stained glass window shown above.

And so that believers might understand what Fursa experienced in his visions and how they affected him, Bede writes :

But as for the story of his visions, he ( Fursa ) would only relate them to those who, from desire of repentance, questioned him about them. An aged brother of our monastery is still living, who is wont to relate that a very truthful and religious man told him, that he had seen Fursa himself in the province of the East Angles, and heard those visions from his lips; adding, that though it was in severe winter weather and a hard frost, and the man was sitting in a thin garment when he told the story, yet he sweated as if it had been in the heat of mid-summer, by reason of the great terror or joy of which he spoke.

Notes

1 St Fursey's Well is situated in the townland of Killurley West, in the Parish of Caherciveen, Co Kerry. It lies at the foot of Knocknadobar (Mountain of the Wells). It supposedly got its name from St Fursey who washed his eyes there and was cured from threatened blindness. Also, a church in the townland of Ballymacgibbon, Cong is called Killarsa ( or Killarsagh ) and is attributed to Fursa.

2 Bede was born around the time England was finally completely Christianized ( 672 AD ). Raised from age seven in the abbey of Saints Peter and Paul at Wearmouth-Jarrow, and lived there his whole life. Benedictine monk. Spiritual student of the founder, Saint Benedict Biscop. Ordained in 702 AD by Saint John of Beverley. Teacher and author, he wrote about history, rhetoric, mathematics, music, astronomy, poetry, grammar, philosophy, hagiography, homiletics, and Bible commentary. He died in 725 AD.

3 Bede was known as the most learned man of his day, and his writings started the idea of dating this era from the incarnation of Christ. The central theme of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica is of the Church using the power of its spiritual, doctrinal, and cultural unity to stamp out violence and barbarism. Our knowledge of England before the 8th century is mainly the result of Bede's writing. He was declared a Doctor of the Church on 13th November 1899 by Pope Leo XIII when he was canonised.

4 This reference to Scotland reinforces the 7th century knowledge that Fursa was probably of Scotch/Ulster extraction and not born in Inchiquin as 12th century texts claim.

5 Dante Alighieri ( 1265-1321 AD ), an Italian born in Florence, completed his series of poems in three volumes of the Divina Commedia on the themes of Inferno ( Hell ), Purgatorio ( Purgatory ) and Paradiso ( Heaven ) in the 14th century. It is widely believed he was partly inspired by the visions of St. Fursa.

6 See 'Sanctity and Politics in Connacht c. 1100 - the case of St Fursa' by Padraig O'Riain in Cambridge Medieval Studies No. 17 (summer, 1989), pp 1-14. Also, see 'A Very Puzzling Irish Missal' by John A. Claffey in Journal of The Galway Archaeological and Historical Society Volume 55: 2003, pp 1-12. For a summary of the political intrigue that forced a rewrite of Fursa's early life, see here.


Copyright Michael H. Carroll, 2006