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St Eugene's Church

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St Eugene.
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Saint Eugene (Patron of the Derry Diocese)

Eoghan / Owen / Eugene (died circa 618)

The name Eoghan means ‘born under the (protection of the sacred) yew tree’, and has no connection with Eugene apart from being similar in appearance. (The original Greek Eugenios means ‘well born’). Eoghan was born of a south Leinster father while his mother belonged to the Múorna of south Down/Monaghan, although it has been suggested that the family she actually belonged to is traceable in the place-names Mourne and Glenmornan. Seventh-century bishop Tírechán claims that Patrick ordained Mac Erca as bishop of Ard Sratha, thus making Ardstraw subject to Armagh. As a result the Calendar of Aenghas suggests that Eoghan/ Eugene was the son of Bishop Erc of Slane. This is of course fanciful, but is not the only fancy that has been foisted on him. Tíreachán was writing out of the situation at his own time when Armagh was trying to build up its prestige and authority in the Church in Ireland, which would mean that the church of Ardstraw was then an independent foundation. This independence is underlined by the way authors stress the friendship between St Eoghan, St Cairbre of Coleraine and St Tiarnach of Clones, starting when they were educated together by St Ninian of Rosnat/ Whithorn in Scotland, as were a number of the early Irish saints. Despite the claim that they arrived there after being kidnapped it is in fact more likely that they went there to discover the civilisation of the Roman empire which included not merely Christianity and the legal and economic system but, sometimes overlooked, the use of an alphabet to read and write - rather than unwieldly Ogham - the equivalent in our time of learning to ‘surf the net’. According to his late biography he was kidnapped twice, taken the second time to Armorica, now Brittany, which may mean no more than that he was caught up in the some of the invasions which helped break up the Roman Empire in Britain.

This Latin life of St Eoghan was written long after his time. It is along the lines of a glorification of his life with accounts of his miraculous powers and has little historical value, but some probable facts do emerge. He returned to Leinster from Whithorn to found the monastery of Cill na Manach, south of Dublin, where he became well known for educating a number of bishops and priests. The author of the Life includes amongst them as his nephew St Kevin of Glendaloch. According to the genealogies, however, Kevin seems to have been a younger cousin. The Life places Eugene in a monastic setting, even in Ard Sratha, but in the genealogies he is almost always called Eoghan easpag, Eoghan the bishop.

It is reasonable to assume that Eoghan came north not just as a missionary to pagans, but also ‘as a pilgrim for the sake of Christ’ in exile. It was not necessary to go abroad to do this. Due to the division of Ireland into a grid of independent states or tuatha, exile meant leaving one’s own and taking one’s chances in another tuath. Without personal resources one had no honour or personal standing outside one’s own tuath. When Eoghan came to Ard Sratha he came as an exile, but bearing with him the aura of a seasoned monastic founder in the new Christian religion that had swept the Roman Empire and was spreading also in Ireland. His perceived expertise in Roman language, religion, law, economics and power made him attractive to the Irish (who had never been within the empire). Grace after all builds on nature. Since Christianity spread first to south-east Ireland it is not surprising that a missionary effort in the north should begin from Cill na Manach. After all St Columba’s mother was a Christian from south Leinster. We must not forget that the careers of Colm Cille and Eoghan overlapped - with Eoghan having much the greater impact at that stage on west Ulster.


St Patrick is said to have ordained Mac Earca as bishop for the Uí Fiachrach Ard Sratha, with the result that later writers claimed that Eoghan was the son of Bishop Earc. The Patrician connection is now seen as evidence of Armagh's claim to supremacy. Ard Sratha formed an alliance with Clones and Coleraine, but eventually is found to be part of the paruchia of Colm Cille, linked to Drumcliff in 923. No doubt this resulted from the decline in importance of the Uí Fiachrach and the rise of Cineal Eoghain to power from their original base in Inis Eoghain at Aileach and Derry. The few clerics of early Ardstraw whose names have survived seem to belong to the ruling house, including St Coibhdeánach d.706.

When territorial diocese were established as part of the Twelfth Century Reform of the Irish Church, Ardstraw was proposed as seat of a diocese whose boundary with the diocese of Connor was to be at Benevenagh and with a diocese to be called Derry or Raphoe at Carn Glas between Raphoe and Castlefin. For political reasons the system agreed upon was in fact different - divisions within the area to be ruled from Ardstraw, and the wish of the Cineál Eoghain King Domhnall Mac Ardgháir Mac Lochlainn to secure an expanded kingdom covering what is now county Derry and North Antrim, and a Donegal Kingdom ruled by his son. This would seem to be part of the reason for the transfer of the seat of the bishopric from Ardstraw to Maghera. The claim by Clogher in the thirteenth century that Giolla an Choimdhe (Gelasius) O Cearbhalláin, bishop of Derry, had taken west Tyrone by force from the diocese of Clogher seems to result from an internal feud within Cineál Eoghain and to reflect a time when diocesan boundaries were somewhat fluid.

One of the marks of the importance of Ardstraw is the number of times in the Annals that it is attacked or burnt. Such attacks were often a rough and ready form of tax gathering or a way of asserting superiority - the Normans even found their way there in 1197. Raids were carried out only on places where the pickings were well worth the effort. The bridge at Ardstraw was a favoured place for negotiations between local lords in conflict and the agreements reached were sealed in the church there. The importance of Ardstraw is reflected in the extent of the townlands set aside for the support of the church and the clergy after parishes were formed in the thirteenth century. In the Middle Ages the efficacy of having oneself as close as possible to one's patron saint was emphasised. Ardstraw was recognised as the place of burial of the local princely families like O Gormlaigh, and ecclesiastical families like O Farannáin, and poetic families like Mac Con Mí. Amongst them lies buried Tarlach Luineach O Néill d. 1595, descendant of the kings of Ulster, the immediate predecessor as earl of Tyrone of Aodh Mor, Hugh the great Earl, who with Hugh rua O'Donnell, earl of Tirconnell, led the Nine Years War, although Tarlach Luineach's own sons eventually found themselves on the opposing side, joining Docwra in Derry.

Ardstraw then came to occupy an important place in Ulster's ecclesiastical life and the name of its founder retained its prominence when the founders of similar churches were forgotten. While Colm Cille is always seen as monk and abbot, Eoghan is always called "bishop" to the extent that there is a medieval Christian name Giolla Easpaig Eoghain or "devotee of bishop Owen." [Due to reverence for such saints, Gaelic practice in Scotland and in Ireland was that the person was called not directly by the saint's name but with giolla or maol ("tonsured") added to it to indicate devotion]. Gaelic names were unlike the names common within the Roman Empire, and so, by contact with the continental church, they were latinised, sometimes by translation, sometimes by choosing a name that looked more or less similar to the original. And so we come back to Eugene, not perhaps the most fortunate example of the craft.

Rev Kieran Devlin PP.