Local Saint with a Larger Mission
Senan's Legend is alive and well
(Extracts from an article written by Tim Sheehan and originally published in The Examiner)
In a recent article I stated that St Senan’s first foundation on the bank of the River Lee, 100 years before St Finbarr, was at Inniscarra, and his second was at Innislinga, Dripsey, almost three miles upstream, where he accommodated many of the 50 European students who came to him at Inniscarra wishing to train as his disciples.

These disciples, when ordained, moved to contiguous areas in the district, including Berrings and the townland of Kilnamuckey, Tower, where a St Santan left his footprints. It has not been exclusively established whether St Santan was a disciple of Senan, or of the later St Finbarr who moved east from Gougane Barra to consolidate the earlier evangelist’s work.

At any rate the early work of Christianising the valley of the Lee brought Matehy into focus.

It needs to be borne in mind that parishes as we know them were not in existence during the period of Senan and Finbarr. Early Christianising was the work of ascetics in a monastic-style development of the Church. It is understood that St Patrick’s instructions on coming to Ireland as a consecrated Bishop in the fifth century included the organisation of the Church in Ireland on parish divisions of administration similar to the situation in Rome and intended to embrace Church development throughout the Roman Empire.

Matehy, which is now in Inniscarra Parish, must surely have been in the designs of St Senan; but, perhaps, was not Christianised until a century later when tribal kings, or ris, targeted by the evangelists, hand over their duns or forts on the high ground overlooking the river valleys, for the siting of early churches. The present Matehy graveyard, now in the parish of Inniscarra, is situated hat-like on the summit of a high ridge overlooking much of the Inniscarra parish eastward and southward to the River Lee.

This area had a place in early Irish history. The circular configuration of the graveyard and its position give credence to the accepted belief that it was in pre-Christian times the dún or residence of a leading tribal chieftain named Teichthec, and the district in early times was the Plain of the Sons of Teichtec, its earliest name written “Mag mac Teichech”. On being translated into English eight centuries ago the shortened version was Matehy.

Matehy, from the Irish, means flight, and it is based on the belief of an unexplained flight at the battle hustings in early times. At a later date the placename was distorted in a fable about a mysterious night flight of bodies exhumed in a field across the Shournagh River and re-buried in Matehy graveyard by their relatives.

Strangely, it is this legend, with its origins in the middle of the 17th Century, that has given Matehy such a prominent part in the Christianising work of either St Senan or St Finbarr.

Parish organisation was delayed in Ireland (but not in England) until it was introduced here at the Synod of Kells in 1152. Subsequently, Matehy was organised as a parish and had taken shape on both sides of the River Shournagh at the time of the coming of the Normans 20 years later. It continued as a distinct parish until the upheaval resulting from the Reformation.

Though submission to the new Protestant faith was not general, there were a number of Church figures in Ireland who accepted it for personal advancement. In that situation, Protestanism acquired a presence in Matehy and that denominational parish extended south and westward to include Dripsey East and West and the Berrings district.

Its designation as a parish in the Church of England continued up to the Disestablishment Act of 1869/70, when the appellation changed to Church of Ireland. The upper public house close to Matehy graveyard is understood as having been erected as the residence of the vicar who was, perhaps, subject to a rector at Inniscarra.

The situation in the last 20 years of the 16th century caused the old contiguous parishes of Inniscarra and Matehy to unite as a single entity, and the first parish priest of the united parish was a Fr John Murphy, who lived at Gurth, Vicarstown. His house was more or less two fields east of the present graveyard. In the transaction there was a schismatic change in territory which transferred the townlands of the old parish of Matehy, across the River Shournagh to Grenagh parish. Fr Murphy was the only parish priest of the united parish which was then named, and has since been, Inniscarra. Some of those parish priests chose to be buried in Matehy which, unlike the graveyard at Inniscarra, has no section reserved for Protestants. Down the years, priests and laity in the united parish have revered the name of St Senan as the figure who brought Christianity in an organised form to the district. He is honoured as the patron saint of the parish. But, strange to relate, not many children born in the parish have been christened Senan.

It should be remembered that, unlike the present time, few, if any, of those early Celtic saints were canonised on grounds of miracles. They were listed as saints mainly through the records of their lives as successful evangelists who achieved superhuman results in converting allegiance of the people from the pre-Christian Druidic religion to Christianity. On doing so, Ireland is credited as one of the countries in the world where Christianity was implanted without bloodshed. St Odhran, St Patrick’s charioteer, is the only one recorded as having lost his life from a spear wielded by a druid.

In that context, we may assume St Senan’s work in implanting the faith among a deeply entrenched druidic people was nothing short of a miracle which earned him sainthood. Those early Irish saints were associated with wells in their districts named after them. A well at Innislinga Abbey, Dripsey was known as St Senan’s Well. The Abbey and well were submerged in deep water when the backwater flooding of the River Lee, on the completion of the Inniscarra Hydro Electric Scheme was completed in 1957.

However, no human power has submerged, or obliterated the name and fame of St Senan whose legacy is flourishing in an unshakeable degree in the parish he founded.