About the Félire Óengusso

The Félire Óengusso, or, in English, the Martyrology of Óengus is essentially a calendar of saints and martyrs. It is called a ‘metrical martyrology’ because it was written as a lengthy poem, and is the earliest of its kind in a vernacular (that is, not written in Latin). The main part of the texts consist of 365 quatrains – one for each day of the year. Each quatrain gives the names of the saints or martyrs commemorated on that day. Since each quatrain is limited by the constraints of the metre, little information is given about each saint, but the many glosses that built up around the text over the many years of copying help to clarify which saints were meant.

The text is preceded by a Prologue of 85 quatrains (340 lines) and followed by an Epilogue of 141 quatrains (564 lines), in which the author, Óengus, shows us something of his personality. An important theme in the Prologue is the everlasting fame of the saints who have deserved to go to Heaven, as opposed to the fleeting fame and power of the earthly world. He describes at length the demise of various earthly rulers and cities, and contrasts them with the fame of the saints and of the great monastic settlements of his day. He interprets this as the triumph of Christianity over paganism. Óengus writes (loosely translated):

In bith trúag hi táam                    The wretched world in which we are,
is duthain a ríge                              its sovereignty is short-lived
in rí con-ic aingliu                         the King who rules over angels
in coimdiu cech thíre.                   is the Lord of every land.

In the Epilogue (called the ‘Second Prologue’ in Irish) he beseeches Jesus and the saints to protect and save him and describes the many benefits of reciting the félire. It serves as a prayer when recited, having the same effect as reciting all 150 psalms, and will guarantee entry to heaven. It will protect against demons and temptations, heal pestilence and prolong life and can also be used to pray for the deceased. Óengus also lists various companies of saints, bishops, monks, priests and others who are included in the calendar. It ends with Óengus’ plea to Jesus to deliver him from this world.

In the Prologue and Epilogue Óengus also tells us a little about how he composed the martyrology – and cautions against changing his composition! He mentions that he has consulted many books in order to make his martyrology, but he renounces any claim to authorship. He writes that a ‘noble synod’ came to him: that each saint composed his own verse.

At a later date, a Prose Preface was written to accompany the text. This Preface gives us the ‘who, what, where and when’ of the Félire and describes the metre for us. It tells us that the metre is called rinnard and that it has six syllables in every line, with each line ending in a two-syllable word. It further gives examples of the different combinations of rhyming features we can expect to find in each stanza, and that stanzas may involve two, three or all four lines in this decorative pattern. Typically, the last words of lines b and d rhyme, e.g. ríge and thíre in the quatrain quoted above rhyme according to the rules of early Irish poetry. In addition, you can find, e.g. alliteration, internal rhyme, a type of ‘half-rhyme’ called ‘consonance’ among other features (this is something for a different post!).

The Prose Preface also tells us that the Martyrology was written in the time of Aed Oirdnide son of Niall Frossach, successor of Donnchad son of Domnall, and, luckily, we know from the Annals of Ulster (AU) that this Aed son of Niall died in AD 819. But the Félire itself gives us additional information that helps to narrow down to the date. For instance, Óengus laments his teacher (aite) Máel Rúain of Tallaght, who died in AD 792 (AU). Moreover, the two most recently departed kings to be mentioned in the Félire are Bran Berbae (Bran of the Barrow) and Donnchad dric rúad rogdae (Donnchad the wrathful, ruddy, chosen). The first is identified in a gloss to the text as Bran son of Muiredaig, king of Leinster, who died in AD 795 (AU). The second is the Donnchad son of Domnall just mentioned, who was king of Tara until his death in AD 797 (AU). And by identifying the successor of Bran son of Muiredaig we can narrow down the date even further; Finsnechta son of Ceallaig, who killed Bran and his wife, himself died in Kildare in AD 808 (AU). The traditional view is, therefore, that the text was written after AD 797 and before AD 808. This view was challenged in 1990 by Professor Ó Riain, who proposed that the text was written between AD 828 and AD 833 on the grounds of new identifications of persons in the text. This dating is currently disputed.

Lastly, the Prose Preface tells us that the text was originally begun in Cúil Bennchuir (Coolbanagher, Co. Laois), continued in Clúain Eidnech (Clonenagh, Co. Laois) and finished in the monastery of Tallaght. It provides a little anecdote explaining what motivated Óengus to compose the Félire. It says that, one day, Óengus went to Coolbanagher and saw a grave with many angels above it. After enquiry, he learned from a local priest that the man whose grave it was used to enumerate the saints of the world when he woke up and before he went to bed. Upon hearing this, Óengus decided that, since this man had deserved the grace of angels by doing so, putting the names of the saints into verse must surely have a great reward too, and thus he began composing the Félire.

You can read the entire Martyrology in Whitley Stokes, Félire Óengusso Céli Dé: The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee (London, 1905; reprinted by DIAS, 1984). The Prologue, Epilogue and selections from the text are also translated in John Carey, King of Mysteries (Dublin, 2000).

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