Finbarr (also spelled Findbarr, Barra, Barr, Barry)
was descended from a clan in the
south-western Irish kingdom (now province) of Connacht,
which is also spelled Connaught, in the mid-sixth
century. In all probability his birthplace was at
Lisnacaheragh in what is now county Cork in the south
of Ireland. His father was a metalworker and his mother
was a royal slave. The name “Finbarr” means
“a white head” because he was born
fair-haired. This name was given him when he was
tonsured, but his original baptismal name was Lochan.
Young Finbarr may have studied at a monastery in Kilkenny
and also at Macroom – a town in the present-day
county Cork. St. Finbarr with several companions made at
least two pilgrimages to Rome and also visited Wales where
he communicated with St. David of
Mynyw, the patron-saint of that country.
St. Finbarr preached energetically in the south of Ireland
and, according to some traditions, also in Scotland,
though there is no written evidence to confirm that. The
saint of God spent a part of his life as an anchorite in
full seclusion on an island in lake Gougane Barra in
county Cork. With time the holy ascetic was joined by
numerous disciples, mainly from southern Ireland, and St.
Finbarr founded a monastery and a school near his
hermitage at Gougane Barra, both of which became very
famous and attracted a large number of monks and students
from the southern part of the emerald island. The saint
also erected at least several churches in the neighboring
area and one chapel at Kilbarry – a site associated
with his family.
But the man of God’s main achievement was the
foundation on the river Lee of his most important and
influential monastery, on the site called Cork, which in
the tenth century would become a thriving town. Now it is
a very beautiful city in the south of Ireland. In effect
the city of Cork grew and developed around the
saint’s monastery. Thus, Finbarr, the first Abbot of
Cork, was one of many early saints of the British Isles
and Ireland who contributed to formation of future large
settlements with their churches or monasteries at the
center of the community.
About the year 600, St. Finbarr was consecrated the first
bishop of Cork. The celebrated Monastery of Cork became a
center of monasticism in southern Ireland, and many pious
men gathered there from all over Ireland in order to be
trained in monastic life and to live in holiness. St.
Finbarr gained general love and respect as a brilliant and
experienced teacher and a loving father of his flock. At
the school-seminary that was founded at Cork Monastery,
spiritual and secular sciences were taught and students
prepared for priesthood. This place became known as a
center of learning, a seedbed of saints, a sanctuary of
Christian virtues, a refuge for the oppressed, a shelter
for the sick and the poor. St. Finbarr did not stop his
activities as a builder – he erected no fewer than
twelve more churches in the Cork region during his
ministry there. He preached the Gospel tirelessly
throughout his life, and as a bishop he trained and
ordained many deacons, presbyters, bishops. He baptized
many people, and became known as a great wonderworker.
Fintan often visited the monasteries and churches he had
founded as part of his pastoral care, especially Gougane
Barra – his most favorite creation – where he
sometimes withdrew for quiet prayer.
The later Latin and Irish versions of his Life praise many
virtues of this saint, calling him a torch of wisdom, an
orchard full of apples of sweetness, comparing him with
St. David the Psalmist, St. Paul the lover of truth,
John (the Baptist) the pure ascetic, and so on. Among
successors and spiritual heirs of St. Finbarr were at
least seventeen saints and hundreds of pious monks. His
biographers wrote that St. Finbarr was often guided by an
angel. He lived for some time as an anchorite in a cave,
healed many sick people, had visions of the spiritual
world, possessed the gift of prophecy, and even predicted
the day of his death.
The holy hierarch reposed peacefully in the place called
Cell na Cluaine (according to another version – at
Cloyne), where he had earlier built a church, on his way
back from a journey to Gougane Barra. The exact year of
his death is unknown: various sources give the years 610,
623 and 633. According to a legend, the sun did not set
for two weeks in Ireland after the death of such a beloved
saint! St. Finbarr was buried at Cork.
The Anglican cathedral (Church of Ireland) built in the
early French style in the city of Cork is dedicated to St.
Finbarr. It dates from the nineteenth century – a
work of the architect William Burges (1827-1881) –
and stands on the site of the monastery of St. Finbarr,
who from time immemorial has been venerated as the
heavenly patron of the city of Cork and the diocese with
the same name. One Catholic parish church in the city of
Cork, commonly referred to as “the south
church,” is dedicated to St. Finbarr. This is the
oldest Catholic church in the city; the present building
dates from 1766 and stands on the site of an earlier
church. The temple is richly adorned inside and has a
famous figure of Christ in the chancel along with a fine
statue of the saint. The Roman Catholic cathedral of Cork
is dedicated to Sts. Mary and Anne and it commemorates the
city’s patron-saint as well. Cork also has a
cemetery and a hospital, both of which are named after St.
Finbarr. It is really moving that the motto of University
College Cork (a constituent university of National
University of Ireland) reads: “Where Finbarr taught
let Munster learn”.
For many centuries the deep veneration of St. Finbarr has
continued at Gougane Barra (now the island has a causeway)
where ancient monastic ruins still survive and pilgrimages
are regularly arranged by the Orthodox and Catholics.
Today it is still a very isolated and idyllic site
surrounded by picturesque landscapes, and many travelers
consider it to be one of the most beautiful spots in
Ireland. It has the nineteenth-century Chapel (called
oratory) of St. Finbarr with beautiful stained glass
windows, eight circular prayer cells (formerly used by
Catholic penitents), a holy well in honor of the saint,
and the monastic ruins. The holy well with healing
properties may have appeared here due to the prayers of
St. Finbarr himself. There also used to stand an early
cross nearby which is associated with the saint. Many
legends are connected with this holy site—according
to one of them, St. Finbarr banished forever a terrible
dragon (that is, a demon), which had dwelt in Gougane
Indeed St. Finbarr is one of the greatest and most beloved
early saints of southern Ireland.
Outside Ireland St. Finbarr is venerated in Scotland.
Although it is impossible to assert that the saint visited
Scotland in his life, he has been continuously venerated
there, especially on the isle of Barra, which belongs to
the Inner Hebrides; ruins of an ancient church dedicated
to him can still be seen there. The great ascetic of God
is also venerated in the Scottish regions of Sutherland
and Caithness along with another site, called Dornoch. A
number of place-names of Scotland bear the name of St.
Finbarr, which indicates that students and monks of Cork
Monastery visited these areas in ancient times and brought
the veneration of their patron to the Scottish soil.
St. Finbarr is venerated in England as well. There is a
tradition that links him to the small town of Fowey in
Cornwall, where this saint supposedly built a church late
in the sixth century. The town’s fourteenth-century
parish church is dedicated to St. Finbarr. A very early
piece of folklore claims that in the first century A.D.,
St. Joseph of Arimathea, who was a merchant by trade,
landed at Fowey in south Cornwall (a county with a rich
tin mining history) together with the Infant Christ. There
are several other places in Cornwall and Somerset whose
ancient local traditions relate similar stories and claim
that the Savior was physically present there.
In the English county Derbyshire there is a village called
Norbury where the local medieval parish church is
dedicated to St. Mary and St. Barlock. The present church
is the third structure on the site – the first one
was Saxon. St. Barlock (also Barlok) is identified by
scholars with St. Finbarr who is also depicted on one of
numerous beautiful stained glass windows of this church.
The church was built in the twelfth century by Lord John
Fitzherbert, who earlier had been a governor of Waterford
in Ireland – hence the dedication to an Irish saint.
This village is also closely connected with the family of
Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880), widely known under her
pseudonym George Eliot – a prominent Victorian-era
A number of schools in Ireland, England and even Australia
are named after our saint. Catholic parish churches are
dedicated to St. Finbarr even far away from Ireland
– namely in Brooklin, New York, and in Naples
(Florida, the USA), along with several parishes in
St. Finbarr is venerated by many as the heavenly protector
Holy Hierarch Finbarr of Cork, pray to God for us!