St Fanchea

Abbess at Ross O(A)irthir and at Killaine. 5th and 6th centuries. Feast day: 1st January. Also known as St Fuinche/Fainc Gar¢, due to a famous ancestor called Niall Gar¢.

There does not appear to have been an official Life written about St Fanchea so that information about her comes from passing references in the Lives of other Saints of the period. Her father was a Conall Dearg, Prince of Oriel in Ulster and her mother Briga or Aibfinn of the Dalriada clan so that she had nobility on both sides. She was born at Clogher, Co Tyrone, which gives its name to an Ulster Diocese, in the second half of the 5th century. She would probably have been alive before St Patrick died and may even have met him. Her great significance for history is that she was the elder sister to St Enda of Aran and was instrumental in leading him to take up a religious Life. Their sisters, Lochina, Crecha (9th March) and Darenia also became Saints.

When young, St Fanchea was distinguished for a remarkable beauty and admirable virtues. She resisted parental efforts to marry as she had decided to devote her life to Christ. She diverted her principal princely suitor, Ængus Mac Natfraich, later King of Munster, to her sister St Darenia who married him and subsequently became the mother of St Colman (1st July), Bishop and Abbot of Derrymore Monastery. In this St Fanchea exemplified the independence of Irishwomen in those days and this was a fairly frequent occurrence with many of our female Saints.

St Fanchea gave others a bright example of self-denial and sanctity, particularly to others of her sex and many of them desired to follow her and be guided by her. Therefore, she founded a nunnery at Ross Airthir, now Rossory, near the Silleen river which flows into Lough Erne a few miles from today’s Enniskillen in Co Fermanagh. Around this time her brother Enda had succeeded to the kingship but she persuaded him to help her build her convent which he did, some of it even with his own hands. While helping, St Enda wanted to marry one of the women in the convent but she died after which St Fanchea influenced him further to turn his back on the lay life of a worldly prince, the wars and fighting and to dedicate his life to the greatest battle of all, that of the Spiritual. Later, St Fanchea went to Killaine, Co Louth to found another monastery and St Enda helped her there also.

St Fanchea encouraged St Enda to go to St Ninnian’s/Monenna’s monastery of Candida Casa in Galloway in Scotland, where he became a monk. Later he is said to have gone to Rome and became a priest and Abbot. These events led directly to St Enda founding his famous Monastery and School in the Aran Islands in 484 and his becoming the ‘father’ of Irish monasticism as many of the most famous Irish Saints from that time on went to Aran for training, e.g. Saints Colmcille, Ciarán of Clonmacnoise, Finnian of Clonard, Brendan the Navigator, Jarlath of Tuam, Carthage the Elder and many others. St Colmcille later called Aran the ‘Sun of the West’.

St Fanchea is said to have died in the early part of the 6th century, probably around 520 and she was buried in Killaine. Of this foundation, only the ruins of an ancient cemetery remains. St Fanchea then disappears from history.

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