‘Laois through the ages’: Finding St. Fiacc
This year 2015 is the 1600th centenarian year of St. Fiacc of Sleaty in Co. Laois. As outlined below he was undoubtedly an important and influential saint of the Early Irish Christian Church. Among his many achievements; he is credited with introducing the Latin alphabet to Ireland in the 5th Century A.D. Fiacc’s name is still a feature in the local landscape today with a number of places in the Graiguecullen area named in his honour. It is fitting that in this year the local community are planning a number of events to highlight his achievements. Here is his story.
Nestled on a low hillock approximately 500m west of the River Barrow, near Carlow Town, is the site of St. Fiacc’s monastery, in the townland of Sleaty or Sleibtach (House near the mountains). St. Fiacc was born to a son of a Prince from the ancient kingdom of Hy-Bairrche, mainly located in the modern day barony of Slieve Margy in the Irish midlands. This kingdom was associated with the Ui Bairrche family which is a generic form of the surname O’Gorman. His mother was a sister of Dubhtach, a chief bard and brehon of Erin. St. Fiacc is said to have been born in 415 A.D and lived to the ripe old age of 105 years, and according to early sources he passed away in the year 520 A.D. During his lifetime St. Fiacc was a famed poet or bard, which was an esteemed profession of considerable status in Early Medieval society. St. Patrick is said to have converted the Ui Bairrche to Christianity, whereby Fiacc was ordained a Bishop in which Sleaty became his seat. St. Patrick is also said to have given Fiacc a Latin alphabet, from which manuscripts could be written. St. Fiacc established two churches in the Kingdom, the first at Domnach-Fiech on the east side of the river barrow in present day Co. Carlow. After more than 60 of his fellow monks died in unknown circumstances, St. Fiacc is said to have received a vision to build a monastery west of the barrow, where its remnants stand proudly at Sleaty today. According to Jocelyn of Furness, Scotland, who was a 12th Century hagiologist (a writer of the lives of saints), St. Fiacc retreated to a cave nearby at Sleaty called Drum-Coblai during the Lenten period. This cave is not known today but it is plausible to assume it lies hidden in the landscape close to the abbey, in which limestone forms part of the local bedrock. Local tradition tells us that there was an underground passage or souterrain which connected Sleaty to a cave at Clopook, although this has yet to be found. According to an article in the Dublin Penny Journal 1834, an ancient tumulus was found some years previous close to the monastery. Perhaps this may have been used as a cave-like retreat by St. Fiacc. However there is no trace of this today. St. Fiacc is commemorated on the 12th of October and his remains were said to have been buried at Sleaty. Another famous abbot at Sleaty was Aed, who according to early sources as “Bishop of the city of Sleibte” commissioned Muirchu (a famous scribe) to write and document the famed “Life of St. Patrick” in the mid-7th Century A.D.
This story helped to chronicle St. Patrick’s time in Ireland and how he converted its pagan population to Christianity. Although this original has been lost in time, Muirchu’s work helped to influence later works which told the story of St. Patrick’s time in Ireland. This original manuscript may well have been written in a Scriptorium at Sleaty. Sleaty was considered as an extensive monastic settlement during the Early Medieval Period. References to the site in various annals from the time, illustrate the importance of Sleaty as a place where “foreign and native students were taught”. The river barrow, east of Sleaty, which flows to Waterford City, would have provided an invaluable transportation route which would have connected the site with the broader landscape and would have enabled foreign students to gain access to the religious school at Sleaty. It is somewhat ironic that today, Knockbeg College stands less than a kilometre to the north of a place that was once renown as a university of excellence in the times of the Early Celtic Church. Sleaty lies less than 4km east of Killeshin monastery, another Early Christian site of which only a later Romanesque doorway and church stand today. Again the Ui Bairrche or O’Gorman family was associated with this site. It is said that a street once connected both sites, whether this was literally the case or not, what it tells us is that there was a connection between both sites and that there must have been a sizable population living in this localized landscape during the Early Medieval Period. The fact that Killeshin was splendidly upgraded during the 11-12th Century, as is evident from its Romanesque doorway, it seems that Sleaty fell out of favour sometime in the past as an ecclesiastic centre with preference for the former site taking its place within the landscape. The last reference to the site was recorded in the annals in 1055 A.D. Today, Sleaty stands as a mere shadow of its former self. The only original features which can be categorically defined as Early Medieval in date are the two granite crosses which are located in the graveyard. The first and most prominent is the undecorated High Cross located at the west of the later church building. The second cross is much smaller and is located to the southwest of the larger undecorated cross. This second cross is said to be of the solid-ringed type, whereby a faint ring is visible incised around the cross head. These are certainly early examples of the Irish High Cross, as latter examples are generally more pictorial, having more decoration. Fanning describes these crosses as being of the “Barrow Group” which are estimated to be of between 8th and early 10th Century A.D in date. These crosses are hewn from the predominant stone found in the bedrock, that of granite, which is a difficult stone to work. Inside the southern doorway of the church on the ground to the west, one can see an undecorated granite baptismal font. This is very similar to the granite baptismal font seen at Killeshin, just to the north of the Romanesque entrance-way. The church at Sleaty appears to have been subject to a number of reconstructions in the past, with no western doorway evident, as one might expect to find at such a building. The church itself seems to have been reconstructed sometime in the later medieval period, with some large uncut stones possibly dating to an earlier stone structure incorporated within the later walling. Generally Early Medieval buildings were constructed of timber of which no visible trace would remain today. The surrounding landscape which has undergone years of modification, bares little trace of the former buildings and structures which one might expect to find at such an eminent Early Medieval site. Perhaps excavation sometime in the future might reveal something similar to what was found at Nendrum, Co. Down, which was also the seat of an Early Medieval Bishopric. Sleaty is well worth a visit and for those interested stay posted on the various events which will occur to commemorate one of Laois’s most important historical figures. A saint’s walk is planned later in the year which will include a visit to the cave and monastery at Sleaty, as well as additional information on the saint and the landscape at a lecture in Oisin House, Killeshin.