The Monarch and the Scribe: King Felim of Munster

A few miles outside of Castleisland, on the road to Farranfore, the passer-by will be forgiven for not recognising the place where once stood Kilfelim Church.  Nothing remains of it today; indeed, nothing remained of it when John O’Donovan enquired in 1841:


The site is pointed out in the south end of the townland of Kilfelim but no part of its walls remains; nothing in fact remaining of it but a remarkably green spot still bearing the name of the church.[1]


A mark on an old map (centre) is all that is left of Kilfelim Church. Left of the map shows the former Hussey family homestead in the vicinity, and on the right, Tomo Burke and John Roche of Castleisland District Heritage stand near the site of the ‘Church of Felim’


Kilfelim, in Irish, Cill Feidhlim or Cill Fheidhlim, was the ‘Church of Felim.’  The former spelling, Cill Feidhlim, was adopted by Tipperary native, Rev John Lanigan, DD, in his ecclesiastical history of 1822:


Flangus Mac-Lonsech, archbishop of Armagh, lived, as we have seen, until 826.  It is probable that he was assisted during part of his administration by Artrigius as his coadjutor bishop.  For we find this Artrigius acting as bishop for that see in the year 823, in which, as related in the Irish Annals, ‘the law of St Patrick was propagated throughout Munster by Feidhlim, son of Crimthan, king of Munster, and Artrigius, bishop of Armagh.[2]


The son of the King of Munster, ‘anchorite and scribe,’ later king himself, invites discussion about whether the above church which bore his name was founded by him.  A lament on his death, which occurred on 18 August, Age of Christ 845, appears in the Annals of Ireland:


Alas! O God, for Feidhlimidh;
the wave of death has drowned him!
It is a cause of grief to the Irish
that the son of Crimhthann of Claire lives not.[3]


It was portentous to the Gaeidhil,
when his last end arrived;
Slaughter spread through sacred Ireland
from the hour that Feidhlimidh died.


There never went on regal bier
a corpse so noble;
A prince so generous under the King of Ailbin
never shall be born.[4]


A modern assessment of Feidlimid mac Crimthainn described him as ‘one of the most enigmatic figures in Irish history’:


King and ecclesiastic, overlord of Leth Moga and aspirant to the high-kingship of Ireland, a pious ruler who solemnly proclaimed the Law of Patrick in Munster and who is gratefully remembered in the Vita Tripartita a friend of the Céli Dé ascetics, even a member of their order and regarded later as a saint, a renowned warrior.[5]


However, the author also pointed to the plundering and destruction attributed to this king in the Irish annals – at odds with the saintly perception in the lament:


At a most critical era in Irish history, when devastating Viking raids were succeeded by permanent base-camps and settlements, Feidlimid never once devoted his arms to attacking these heathen foreigners but distinguished his martial career by burning and plundering some of the greatest of Irish monasteries – Kildare, Gallen, Durrow, Clonfert, and above all, Clonmacnoise – captured and maltreated the abbot of Armagh, allowed the abbot of Cork to die without the comforts of religion in his prison at Cashel, and was finally struck down by the vengeance of St Ciaran.


Certainly the Annals of Ireland record a destructive career during the period 823-836:


Age of Christ 823: The Law of Patrick was established over Mumhan [Munster] by Feidhlimidh, son of Crimhthann … Galinne of the Britons was burned by Feidhlimidh, son of Crimhthann, with its whole dwelling-place and the oratory … A victory was gained by Cathal, son of Ailill, over Feidhlimidhin Magh-Ai, where many fell.[6]

Age of Christ 824: The burning of Dealbhna Beathra by Feidhlimidh, son of Crimhthann, ‘the army of Mounster with him.’[7]

Age of Christ 826: A royal meeting at Birra between Conchobhar, son of Donnchadh, King of Ireland, and Feidhlimidh, ie son of Crimththann, King of Munster.

Age of Christ 830: Feidhlimidh, son of Crimhthann, with the forces of Munster and Leinster, came to Finnabhair-Breagh, to plunder the men of Breagh.

Age of Christ 831: The burning of Tearmann Chiarain by Feidhlimidh, son of Crimhthann. The plundering of Dealbhna Beathra thrice by him also.

Age of Christ 832: A great number of the family of Cluain Mic Nois were slain by Feidhlimidh, son of Crumhthan, King of Caiseal; and all their termon was burned by him, to the door of the church.  In like manner [did he treat] the family of Dearmhach, also to the door of its church.

Age of Christ 834: A defeat was given by Cathal, son of Ailill, to Feidhlimidh, son of Crimhthann, King of Caiseal, in Magh-I, where many were slain; of which was said: The Connaughtmen were mighty; in Magh-I they were not feeble;/Let any one inquire of Feidhlimidh, whence Loch-na-Calla is [named].

Age of Christ 835: The taking of the oratory of Cill Dara upon Forannan, Abbot of Ard Macha, with all the congregation of Patrick likewise, by Feidhlimidh, by battle and arms; and the clergy were taken by him with their submission.

Age of Christ 836: The plundering of the race of Cairbre-Crom g by Feidhlimidh, son of Crimhthann.

Age of Christ 837: A great royal meeting at Cluain-Conaire-Tomain [Cloncurry, Kildare], between Niall Caille and Feidhlimidh, son of Crimhthann.

Age of Christ 840: The crozier of the devout Feidhlimidh was left in the shrubbery.  Which Niall by force bore away from them, by right of the battle of swords.[8]


Saint or Warrior


The record of saint versus warrior was questioned by Dr O’Donovan:


According to the old Annals of Innisfallen, preserved in the Bodleian Library, this Feidhlimidh was full monarch of Ireland, which agrees with Cambrensis … but the northern annalists do not number him among the sole monarchs of Ireland … It looks very strange that the Annals of Ulster should describe this Munster potentate as optimus scriba et ancorita, for his career was that of turbulence and depredation, and his death was brought about by his sacrilegious enormities.  He was succeeded on the throne of Munster by Olchobhar, son of Cineadh, Abbot and Bishop of Emly.


A church in the name of Feidhlimidh points to a more pious individual.  In the calendar of the saints, August 28 is celebrated as the Festival of Feidhlimidh, son of Cremhthann, King of Munster.  In tackling the history of this saint, Rev John O’Hanlon, in his comprehensive Lives of the Irish Saints, met with the same confusion as Dr O’Donovan, but conceded:


It cannot be doubted that Feidhlimidh not only exercised the power and privileges of the King throughout the province of Munster for a long period; but, that his influence and fame as a warrior caused him to be feared and respected, even by the recognised sovereign of Ireland, and by all the subordinate kings and chiefs.[9]


Rev O’Hanlon, who strove to accomplish a herculean literary task which would put on record the labours of the holy men, also remarked on the discrepancies in the date in which the King of Munster died (as had Dr O’Donovan before him[10]):


It seems strange, that when recording his death, at AD 846, the Annals of Ulster describe this Munster potentate as an excellent scribe and anchorite.  With the high eulogy of being the best of the Scoti, a scribe and an anchorite, the Chronicon Scotorum enters the demise of this prince, at AD 847 … The Martyrology of Donegal also records him at the 28th of August, as Feidhlimidh son of Cremthan, King of Munster.


And, just to add another ounce of confusion to the life and times of Fiedhlimidh, his name appends to another Abbot of Meath named Feidhlimidh, ‘an anchorite and celebrated scribe’[11] and another St Feidhlimidh, patron of the diocese of Kilmore, celebrated in August.[12]


What’s in a Name


Some twelve hundred years’ worth of water has passed under the bridge since the times of Feidhlimidh but what is certain is that his name carries the weight of history.  It must remain open to continued research if the monarch scribe-cum-warrior is a classic case of mistaken identity[13] or if, as generally believed, Feidlimidh sought penitence later in his life:


Notwithstanding his irregularity and great desire to spoil, the Annals of Clonmacnoise state, that Feidhlimidh was by some numbered among the scribes and anchorites of Ireland.  It is generally believed that Feidhlimidh governed the province of Munster for twenty-seven years.  After such a term of rule, he voluntarily abdicated his temporal state for a more spiritual life; and, to atone for his former excesses, he resolved to spend the remainder of his days in works of penance.  He therefore embraced the austere life of an anchoret – but in what place we are not informed.[14]


Who knows but that place was Kilfelim.


[1] John O’Donovan’s Ordnance Survey Letters, (parish of Killeentierna).

[2] An Ecclesiastical History of Ireland from the First Introduction of Christianity among the Irish to the beginning of the Thirteen Century (1822) by Rev John Lanigan DD formerly professor of Hebrew, The Sacred Scriptures, and Ecclesiastical History in the University of Pavia, Vol III, pp266-267.  Rev Lanigan added: ‘This was an archiepiscopal visitation of that province, in which the metropolitical rights of the see of Armagh, which at that time were extended all over Ireland, were enforced, after having been probably disregarded for some time, owing perhaps to the contentions which had prevailed concerning the right to the possession of said see.  The law of St Patrick comprised also certain dues, that used to be paid to the church of Armagh as the chair of our Apostle, and which had been established in earlier times; and hence we understand why it was necessary for the king Feidhlim to interfere on this occasion.’  

Further reference to Rev John Lanigan DD (1758-1828) in Irish Wits and Worthies; including Dr. Lanigan, his Life and Times, with Glimpses of Stirring Scenes Since 1770 (1873) by William John Fitzpatrick, LL.D., JP – a work dedicated to Thomas Carlyle.  It includes an illustration of Dr Lanigan’s tomb (p346).

[3]Claire – This is the name of a remarkable hill (near Duntryleague in the county of Limerick) on which Oilioll Olum, the great ancestor of this king, as well as the most distinguished families of Munster, was slain, and whereon his sepulchral monument is still pointed out’ (Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters (1856, Vol I) translated by John O’Donovan, LLD, MRIA).

[4] Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland (1966) Vol I translated by John O’Donovan, edited by D P Curtin (2017).  See also M845.4.  ‘Feidhlimidh, son of Crimhthann, King of Munster, anchorite and scribe, the best of the Irish in his time, died on the 18th of August of his internal wound, [inflicted] through the miracle of God and Ciaran.’

‘The popular tradition was, that while taking rest in his bed, St Kieran appeared to him in his habit, and with a pastoral staff.  With the latter he gave King Fedlim a thrust, which caused an internal wound, and from this stroke he never afterwards recovered’ (Lives of the Irish Saints, Vol VIII by Very Rev John Canon O’Hanlon, MRIA, p404).

[5] Quoted in ‘Feidlimid mac Crimthainn and the "Óentu Maíle Ruain"’ by Craig Haggart, Studia Hibernica, No. 33 (2004/2005), pp29-59.  Quotation from Irish Kings and High-Kings by Francis John Byrne (pp202-229).

[6] Last two entries from Lives of the Irish Saints, Vol VIII by Very Rev John Canon O’Hanlon, MRIA, pp400-401, ‘This reverse of his career is stated to have occurred in 834, by the O’Clerys, and it is related by an Irish poet, to have been at a place named Loch-na-Calla, or Lake of the Shouting, owing to the rejoicing of the Ui-Maine, on account of their victory over Feidhlimidh.’

[7] Otherwise AD 826: ‘The burninge of Bethre by Felim, the army of Mounster with him’ (Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, (1856) edited by John O’Donovan, p436).

[8] With regard to this entry, John O’Donovan observed: ‘This is inserted in a modern hand in the Stowe copy.  The reader must bear in mind that Felim, son of Chimhthann, was Abbot or Bishop of Cashel, in right of his crown of Munster.  It is stated in the old Annals of Innisfallen that Feidhlimidh, son of Crimhthann, received homage from Niall, son of Aedh, King of Tara in the year 824 [recte 840], and that Feidhlimidh then became sole monarch of Ireland, and sat in the seat of the Abbot of Cluain-fearta.’

[9] Lives of the Irish Saints, Vol VIII by Very Rev John Canon O’Hanlon, MRIA, pp398-405.  The Lives, which contain notes on thousands of Irish saints, appeared in nine volumes arranged by calendar, thus the first volume dealt with the saints associated with January, volume II February, etc.  Rev O’Hanlon (1821-1905) was working on volume ten at the time of his death on 15 May 1905, thus falling short of the twelve volumes he had planned.  ‘Sad it is indeed to think that such a great purpose steadily pursued for almost half a century should almost in the hour of its complete fulfilment be baffled by the hand of death.  Yet so it now must be that he whose prime saw a great undertaking launched, and who gradually grew grey and old and worn in the pursuit of his self-imposed labours, will be carried to his grave with his Lives of the Saints’ (obit, Irish Independent, 16 May 1905).  Rev O'Hanlon left an extensive corpus of literature including Irish Local Legends (1896) which contains a legend of Dingle, ‘The Confederate Peddlers’.

[10] ‘AD 846.  Feidhlimidh mac Crimthainn rex Muman, optimus pausavit scriba et ancorita – Ann. Ult.’ (O’Donovan’s Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland).  The passage appears in Rerum Hibernicarum Scriptores Annales Ultonienses (1826) edited by Charles O’Conor, DD as follows: ‘An. Dccc rI bí  Feidhlimidh ic Crimtain Rex Mumhain optimus pausavit, Scriba, et Ancorita’ (p217).

Very Rev John Canon O’Hanlon, MRIA, in a discourse on Feidlimidh, notes the discrepancies in the dates given in various annals.  See Lives of the Irish Saints, Vol VIII, pp398-405.

[11] ‘Age of Christ 809 [recte 814] the life of Feidhlimidh, Abbot of Cill-Moinne (Meath) ‘anchorite and celebrated scribe’ … ended’ … ‘Felim, Abbot of Killmoinni and Serjeant of Bregh from Patrick, a chief anchorite and an excellent scribe, happily ended his life’ (Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, p421).

[12] See O’Hanlon’s Lives of the Irish Saints (Vol VIII) ‘St Feidhlimidh, or Felimy, Patron of Kilmore Parish, County of Cavan, and of Kilmore Diocese (probably in the Sixth Century)’ pp130-133.  Celebrated on 9 August.

[13] The name Feidhlimidh appears frequently in the annals over the centuries. The following from Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters (1856, Vol I) edited by John O’Donovan, LLD, MRIA will illustrate: ‘The Age of the World, 4908.  The first year of Crimhthann Cosgrach, son of Feidhlimidh, son of Fearghus Fortamhail, in the sovereignty of Ireland’ (p85); ‘The Age of Christ, 586: Feidhlimidh, son of Tighernach, King of Munster, died’; ‘The Age of Christ, 754: Feidhlimidh, or Failbhe, Abbot of Ia [Iona] died, after the eighty-seventh year of his age’; ‘The Age of Christ, 809 [recte 814] Feidhlimidh, Abbot of Cill-Moinne [Meath] died..’ 

[14] ‘Like another royal penitent, before he had been called out of this world, Feidhlimidh in the trouble of his soul and body recognised his own weakness and dependence, having recourse to humble supplication, that the Lord should not rebuke him in indignation, nor chastise him in wrath, while he had renounced the works of iniquity, and had shed tears of remorse for his many transgressions.  Thus it happened in the case of Mary Magdalen, who from being a great sinner, afterwards became a great saint; and with St Paul, who from being a bitter persecutor of Christians afterwards became a glorious Apostle in the Church.  To the last moment of life, God is merciful to even the greatest sinners, and accepts their sincere repentance with forgiveness, while if they persevere in justice to the end, He has promised also to them the rewards of Heaven’ (Lives of the Irish Saints, Vol VIII, p405).