The Mystery of Saint Fin

St Finian’s Bay or St Finan’s Bay? That is the question and one that is age old which never seems to be definitively answered.

There are old maps and older stories that suggest both are correct however in more recent times, all avenues seem to point to St Finian from road signs to modern maps and most online literature referencing that spelling. However there doesn’t appear to be a consensus on it, with some suggesting that the area has incorrectly become known as St Finian’s Bay.

Why? Were there two different Saints living in close proximity to one another perhaps – St Finan and St Finian? From speaking to older generations, we are all but certain that the area should be named after St Finan rather than St Finian however, we have used St Finian’s Bay on our media material for the timebeing as Google only recognises this name for the area.  Although in time, once established we hope to rectify this and use St Finan to get the area more widely known as St Finan’s Bay as it should be recognised. As it remains an enigma not publicly recognised we need to stand by Google rules for now!

To start as we mean to go on and give you more of an insight into the man we know locally in the area – who was St Finan?

Some of the below is extracted from an article written in 1912 by the Irish News Archive based in Dublin and states the St Finan spelling throughout. Unfortunately it isn’t very legible so we’ve provided a short summary to give you an idea of it’s history.

“St Finan’s ancestry can be traced back to O’Connor, former King of Ireland and his father Kennedy, son to Maenag, a noble chieftain and his mother Beenat, who was a daughter of Cian and of equally high descent. It is understood that St Finan was born in the barony of Coreaguiny, known as the O’Falvey’s country, Co. Kerry in approx. 530AD. Trained to holiness and virtue from his earliest years, he was while still very young, placed at the School of St Brendan of Clonfert, better known in history as “The Navigator”. In accordance with the missionary spirit of the time, when his studies were completed, and when he had entered the religious state, Finan, with the approval of the Abbot of Clonfert, gathered a few companions around him and was sent out to preach the Gospel.  St Finan subsequently established several religious settlements, totalling seven in all.”  

As far as we understand, he came to Skellig Michael to live with other Christian monks at the time and preach the word of God. Ireland was then known as the Island of the ‘Saints and Scholars’. St Finan would come ashore by boat, rowing the 8 miles from Skellig Michael to say mass at Cill Church (also referred to as  Keel) . It’s more modern ruins and amazingly it’s bell tower gable end still stand today in the heart of the Glen. The original church is understood to be one of the oldest in the diocese of Kerry. Later it is understood that he founded a small monastery at Cill, on the site of the old graveyard. There is also a Holy Well dedicated to him at the right-hand side of the strand on the grassy area below Michael and Bridie O’Connell’s cottage. St Finan’s day is celebrated locally on the 16th March and religious Rounds of the well are still sometimes carried out in honour of the tradition.

At the time of St Finan, there were many Pagan chieftains in Ireland, one of whom was the infamous local chieftain named Maol Maorna. He lived in the Glen and endeavoured to quash any advance of Christianity. He took a particular dislike to St Finan and struck up a cunning plan to kill the saint. The short story goes a bit like this…

“Maol Morna knew that St Finan always arrived early to say mass so the plan was hatched whereby the chieftain ordered one of his servants to wait inside the door of the church with an axe in hand and to behead the first person who came in. A simple twist of fate happened that morning and St Finan was late for the first time it seems, as he could not find his sandal before setting off for the church. Time slipped by and Maol Morna set out to see St Finans lifeless body for himself. The servant heard the footsteps approaching the door of the church steadied himself and took Maol Mornas head clean off with one swoop of the axe. The servant fled with fright once he realised he had killed his chieftain. A small altar boy who had hidden once he had seen a man with an axe approaching came to the door and saw St Finan walking up through the fields and told St Finan the gruesome tale of what had just transpired. St Finan was furious and walked down to the strand and cast his sandal into the sea. Legend has it, he cursed a part of the sea that day and a deadly current was created forever more. Locals call this part of the strand, Cuas a Phuca (a cuas being a little cove and a puca – the name given to a sprit or ghost in Celtic folklore).”

St Finan was widely revered for his skill on the water particularly at very high seas and it is locally known that fishermen down through the years have held great respect and devotion to him. It is understood that St Finan died on the 16th March and is buried on Church Island in Watervile Lake. Maol Morna is buried in Pagan fashion at Cill on Michael O’Connell’s farm not far from the old church ruins.

If this hasn’t whetted your appetite enough, here is a little further information about the area….

The Mighty Glen…

Up until 1841, the Glen in union with Portmagee and surrounding townlands consisted of a full parish, called Killemlagh. The principal church for the parish was the one mentioned above at Cill (Keel) in the heart of the Glen, while the two old burial grounds were at Keeluluaidh and Killkeveragh. Prior area parish only consisted of a small area embracing Dungeagan and it’s hinterland. At present, the name Killemlagh is long gone and the area is now called The Glen or St Finians’s Bay (or as locals know it – St Finan’s Bay 😊). Old stories and folklore also suggest that the Glen was once known as Ghleann an Orcain, which translates to ‘Glen of the Horns’. The horns being Ducalla head at one side and the tip of Puffin Island at the other end, which was connected to the mainland many moons ago. In between these two horns lays the Glen surrounded by hills on all sides. St Finian’s or St Finan’s Bay has been used by the County council and other public bodies in recent times.

We may never know which spelling of our Saint is correct or even if there is a correct spelling as Irish would have been spoken up until relatively recently, with him known as Naomh Fionán and perhaps the translation created the two different spellings but one thing is for sure, there are old stories and plenty of old material out there to debate it.

The question endures…

** With noted thanks to Pat O’Leary, local to the Glen, for providing the bulk of information and fact checking provided in this blog. For more literature on the history of the Glen and the area, please try and find yourself a copy of Pat O’Leary’s magazine from 1973 called “Welcome to a Kerry Glen” – It’s references to the challenges of living in rural Ireland are still very much relevant today….