Saint Fursa

His Early Life - Fact or Fiction ?

According to a 12th century 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.

What brought about this change from the 7th to the 12th centuries. Due to political intrigue and Irish Catholic Church reform in the 1100s, the exact account of Fursa's early life is shrouded in mystery, some controversy and a lot of misinformation.

Towards the end of the eleventh century ( after the Battle of Clontarf and banishment of the Vikings from Ireland but before the Norman invasion ), the Irish episcopate was a source of complaint by outside critics, including successive archbishops of Canterbury and other continental archbishops. Letters from these senior churchmen to Murteach O' Brien, king of Munster and leading king in Ireland in the 1090s, complained about bishops in Ireland being chosen at random and often under lay control. Often bishops had no fixed seat or diocese and were 'floating' appointments, and were not consecrated according to strict Canon law either. Basically, according to the external continental Church, Ireland was a law unto herself as regards implementing Church policy.

A radical reformation of Irish episcopal jurisdiction is generally attributed to two landmark synods or councils of the twelfth century. These are the Synod of Rath Bresail, convened in 1111 AD, and the Synod of Kells, held in 1152 AD. The consequences for the Province of Connacht can be summarised at this point. Rath Bresail drew up diocesan boundaries for the whole of Ireland and assigned each diocese to just one of two archbishoprics, Armagh and Cashel. This reflected the political situation pertaining at the time where the country was split along an east-west boundary between Ulster and Munster kings. The then king of Connacht, Turlough O'Connor, was subservient to the Munster king and therefore had no clout in seeking an archdiocese status for Connacht. The record of the Rath Bresail synod lists the boundaries of five Connacht dioceses - Clonfert, Tuam, Cong, Killala and one variously designated as Ardcarn ( Roscommon ) or Ardagh ( Longford ). It was stated at the synod that the clergy of Connacht could alter their diocesan boundaries if they wished but were restricted to a maximum of five dioceses.

Forty one years later at Kells, a different political scene had imposed itself on the Irish landscape. O'Connor's kingdom of Connacht had gained considerable power and sway and this directly impacted on the status of the church in Connacht. The 1152 synod raised O'Connors territory to an archbishopric, centred on his base in Tuam. The new ecclesiastical province of Connacht, recognised for the first time in 1152, included the dioceses of Mayo, Killala, Roscommon ( Elphin ), Clonfert, Achonry and Kilmacduagh. Dublin was also raised to archdiocese status at Kells and essentially, the four archdioceses created in 1152 still exist today - Armagh, Cashel, Dublin and Tuam.

Although not listed in Rath Breasail or Kells, the diocese of Annaghdown survived nonetheless for many centuries through monastic outreach from Annaghdown Abbey and patronage of the O'Flahertys who controlled the area east of Lough Corrib before the Norman invasion. Several 'bishops of Annaghdown', from 1189 to 1485, were systematically elected by its 'Cathedral Chapter' and, despite many counterclaims from Tuam, some were approved by Rome. In 1485, when the Wardenship of Galway was created, Annaghdown was formally united with Tuam by Papal decree, and some of its former parishes ( Claregalway, Moycullen and Shrule ) were formally attached to the new wardenship. When the Diocese of Galway was created from the Wardenship of Galway in 1831, these parishes became part of that see. That is why Shrule is still today an island parish of Galway diocese surrounded totally by the archdiocese of Tuam.

Back in 1152, Killursa, Killeaney and Cargin parishes, along with Killannin on the western shore of Lough Corrib were part of Annaghdown diocese and indeed were always in the sights of the Archbishop of Tuam along with Annaghdown itself. The present ruined walls of Cargin Chapel in the cemetery there date from this period. It is believed this 'chapel' was created as a parish church for an 'archdeacon' of Annaghdown diocese and was probably reached by using Lough Corrib as a means of transport. It also explains why Cargin is not associated specifically with a 'saint' as Annaghdown, Killeaney or Killursa is, for example.

The patron saint of Annaghdown is Brendan and that of Killursa is Fursa ( Fursey ). As an attempt to gain control over these outlying parishes, the archbishop of Tuam Domhnall O'Dubhaigh ( Donal O'Duffy ) commissioned a 'missal' for the cathedral in Tuam which included litanies to the saints Brendan and Fursa. This manuscript1 still exists today and is housed in the Bodliean Library at Oxford University. Also as part of the attempt to commandeer Annaghdown into the Tuam archdiocese, there is strong evidence that O'Duffy persuaded the monastery at Langy in France ( where Fursa had established his continental base in the 7th century ) to 'rewrite' the early part of the Life of Fursa ( Beatha Fursa in Irish or Vita Fursaeus in Latin ). The reasoning behind this was to give the impression that Fursa was a native of the area, was of royal blood ( which implicitly tied him into a connection with the king, Turlough O'Connor ), and had a direct relationship to St. Brendan in Annaghdown (i.e. Brendan was his great-uncle ). O'Duffy had a common ancestor with Brendan also thus making a water-tight case - and in O'Duffy's eyes, a God-given right - for Tuam controlling Annaghdown. The 12th century version of Fursa's life is the one that most commentators use today as the definitive version. What happened to Fursa after he founded Killursa and left Galway is not in question and, as it is possible to confirm this via other sources in Britain and France, there is nothing to dispute. 

What the Archdiocese of Tuam did however, in the late 12th century, was to change the early part of Fursa's life story to suit its own political ends at that time. Its a bit ironic that it took them nearly 300 more years to finally achieve their aim of making Annaghdown's eastern shore parishes part of the Archdiocese of Tuam!



1 - Corpus Christi College MS282, generally referred to as the 'Corpus Missal'. It is a small bulky volume of 212 folios in vellum, measuring about 17cm x 12cm. Its medieval leather satchel also survives. It is lavishly decorated and was probably written in the decade 1120 to 1130 AD. The pages of the missal can be viewed online here.

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Copyright Michael H. Carroll, 2006