Friday, February 17, 2017

Saint of the Month: St. Fortchern of Trim!

St. Fortchern as portrayed by Eala Enamels, an artisanal enameling 
workshop in Bagenalstown, County Carlow, Ireland.

St. Fortchern of Trim

AKA: Foirtchern son of Feidhlimidh, son of Laoghaire, son of Niall of the Nine Hostages; also St Fortchearn, St. Fortiarnán, St. Foirtchernn
Feast Day: February 17, or perhaps October 11.

Really Existed? It seems fairly likely.
Timeframe: The fifth and perhaps early sixth centuries.
Place: Ireland.

Credentials: Recognized by tradition.
Martyrdom: None.

Patron Saint of: bell-founders.
Symbolism: "A bishop standing among bell-founders," says one site, although I have not been able to find such an image.

St. Fortchern of Trim really was of Trim, a town northwest of Dublin in County Meath. Tradition has it that in the 430s, when the famously industrious St. Patrick arrived in Ireland, he left his buddy St. Loman at the mouth of the Boyne river to watch over the boat. When Patrick hadn’t reported back after 80 days, Loman took the boat upstream as far as the ford at Trim. There he found Fortchern, the son of the local strongman, who immediately took to the gospel like a fish to water. By the time Patrick caught up, the whole Trim metro area was sold on Christianity, and everybody pitched in on the construction of a church, or possibly a monastery, or possibly a cathedral, or perhaps all three.

Patrick and Loman, so the tale goes, took on Fortchern’s education, trained him into the priesthood, and gave him positions of increasing responsibility in Ireland’s growing ecclesiastical infrastructure. Eventually he was abbot at a monastery founded by Loman, and seemed to be the logical successor when the latter's health began to fail in later life. Indeed, at Loman’s death Fortchearn became the Second Bishop of Meath. He only remained in the post for three days, however, until leaving to become a hermit.

That’s where the story ends in some tellings. There is an important coda, however, that sees the “hermit” Fortchern living for up to 70 more years and setting up a monastery and school of his own, where he would oversee the early training of St. Finnian. St. Finnian is a big deal in Irish history – he’s the founder of the important monastery and school at Clonard – so having him as a student is a big feather in Fortchern’s cap.

Why would Fortchern abandon his bishop’s miter after three days, and then start a whole religious complex of his own elsewhere? For that matter, how could he possibly have the means to do such a thing? Well, the key might be his parentage: he was apparently the grandson of the King of Ireland on his father’s side, and of the King of the Britons on his mother's. “King of Ireland” and “King of the Britons” are fairly problematic concepts in the 430s, but we get it: he was one of the beautiful people of the time and place. 

Maybe. The problem is that although Fortchern’s background might explain how he had the means to become such an influential person, it is also very possible that, as an influential person, he had an aristocratic background tacked on to his backstory in order to give it a little more pizzazz and prestige. This kind of thing is after all common as dirt in history and other forms of human storytelling. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) article on the Saints of Meath discusses how the biographies of St. Loman and other saints were “negotiated” in subsequent centuries by secular and ecclesiastic leaders in order to bolster their various claims to authority. Unfortunately, I don’t have a subscription to the ODNB, so our application of this general phenomenon to the specific case of St. Fortchern must remain conjectural.

I haven't quite figured out how it fits into all of the above, but there 
is also a tradition that St. Fortchen was a crack metalsmith, particularly 
adept at forging bells. This church window in County Carlow illustrates 
this aspect of his story.

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