Saint Fursey: Monk, Mystic and Missionary

by Leonard Hurley

These words were written in the ninth century by the German Monk Strabo. For at least two hundred years before Strabo wrote these words Irish monks had a presence on the Continent. The collapse of the Roman Empire saw Europe descend into the dark ages. Irish monasteries remained places of learning. From the sixth to the twelfth century a veritable flood of Irish wandering missionaries, pilgrims and scholars spread all over Europe as far east to Jerusalem and Kiev.

They left a rich tradition of sanctity and learning. Today their names are found in towns, villages and cities across the continent. The illiterate Emperor Charlemagne held Irish monks in the highest esteem issuing an edict to treat them properly as they were holy men of learning. Arthur Porter, Yale Professor, said that their achievement was a religious and political event of the first magnitude and Cardinal O’Fiaich says even allowing for exaggeration of numbers their achievement “culturally as well as religiously, borders on the incredible.”

St Columba only overshadows St Fursey. His role as a visionary made him a hugely influential figure throughout Western Christianity. He was born c. 584AD and died in France in 650. In French he is Furci, Latin Fursaeus, Irish Fursa (virtue) and in English Fursey. Monks were dressed like the literate druids in white heavy woollen robes with a hood. Their Celtic tonsure added to their mystique, shaved front of the head from ear to ear, was a sign of high status and differed from the Roman tonsure, a shaved circlet at the crown.

These ‘God-intoxicated’ monks were restless travellers. Leaving their native place forever without a predestination was the supreme self-sacrifice, White Martyrdom, ‘for the healing of the soul,’ ‘an exile for the sake of Christ.’ They simply trusted God to show them the way. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that one day in 891 three Irishmen landed in Cornwall in a boat with no oars. They said that they wanted to ‘live in a state of pilgrimage, for the love of God, they cared not where.’

Two versions of Fursey’s life exist, one written shortly after his death and the other in the 12th century. St Bede, the father of English history, known as the most learned person of his time helped preserve Fursey’s memory for posterity. Bede saw Fursey as an ideal representative of Celtic Christianity stating, “there came out of Ireland a holy man called Fursa,” “converted many to Christ,” “outstanding in virtue,” and “inspired by example of his goodness”. It was Fursa’s “out-of-body experiences,” in which he met angels and devils, which had a pivotal role in the Western Church. In one vision an angel said to him: “you do not know the depth of the mysteries of God.” The poet, Dante, father of Italian was inspired by Fursey’s visions of Heaven and Hell when writing his “Divine Comedy”.

His father Fintan was from South Munster and his mother Gelges from Connacht. He was baptised by his father’s uncle Brendan the Navigator thus suggesting a Kerry connection. Dr Michelle Brown, Curator of Manuscripts British Museum, states that Fursey was ‘raised partly in Co. Kerry, with its rich early Christian tradition’. A martyrology, catalogue of saints and martyrs, dated c. 800 AD, states that Fursey was in the Abbey of Mochta in Louth.

Professor P. O’Riain, Cork University, believes that Fursey was from Connacht and that his ‘cult seems already to have been there by the early ninth century’. Fursa founded a thriving monastic settlement at Killursa, (Church of Fursa) Headford Co. Galway. The remains of a Norman church stand on the grounds of an earlier church, Fursa’s. St Fursey is the Patron Saint of the Parishes of Headford, Haggardstown and Blackrock, Co. Louth. It is said that after one vision Fursey washed his eyes establishing the tradition that Saint Fursey Holy Wells contain a cure for blindness.

The Revd Platten, Dean of Norwich Cathedral suggests that in 633 Skellig Michael was “Fursey’s point of embarkation” for England. Near the departure point for Skellig Michael St Fursey’s well is at the foot of the pilgrim mountain, Cnoc Na dTobar, and close by stands Killelan (Church of Foillan) Mountain near Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry. Cardinal O’Fiaich suggests that Foillan is Fursa’s brother. Arriving in Norfolk Fursey and his followers, including his brothers Foillan and Ultan, set up a monastery within the Roman Fort at Burgh Castle near Yarmouth.

In 1893 a well was uncovered there believed to be a St Fursey Holy Well. Three miracles are recorded of his life in this monastery. Stained-glass windows of St Fursey can be seen in Norwich Cathedral, Felixstowe and Gorleston churches. A Celtic cross in honour of St Fursey stands in the grounds of the parish church, Burgh Castle. To mark the millennium the people of Alpheton, Suffolk commissioned a stained-glass window of St Fursey for their parish church.

In 642 Fursey moved with his followers to Gaul (France). Passing through Ponthieu, near Mezerolles he raised the son of the local Lord to life. The name of the village was changed to Forsheim, meaning House of Fursa. Canon David Abraham, Norfolk states that “evidence of Fursey’s journeys and work in northern France are everywhere. Churches in Picardy and the Somme are dedicated to him, his name is on maps, and relics survive.”

He established two monasteries, one at Lagny-sur-Marne in 648, close to present day Euro Disney. St Fursey is the patron saint of Lagny and his holy well in the town still stands. He set up a second monastery at Peronne. The “Annals of the Four Master” describes Peronne as Cathair Fursa (Fursa’s City). His relics are in St Furci’s chapel in the local church. He died near Peronne in 650.

St Fursey is today venerated in Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox churches. An inter-faith group, Fursey Pilgrims, hold an annual conference in Norfolk related to aspects of the saint’s life. Dr Ann Buckley a musicologist of Trinity College Dublin discovered a manuscript dated 1256 in the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Paris called Vespers for the Feast of Fursey. It was sung in Latin in Norwich Cathedral, for the first time in centuries, on the 16th September 2011.

St Fursey’s Feast Day is celebrated on 16th January. Dr Michelle Brown suggests that St Fursey, Monk, Mystic and Missionary, is an ideal model for ‘the ecumenical celebration of the Christian faith.’

A Prayer of St. Fursey
7th Century – died 650 AD
The arms of God be around my shoulders,
The touch of the Holy Spirit upon my head,
The sign of Christ’s cross upon my forehead,
The sound of the Holy Spirit in my ears,
The fragrance of the Holy Spirit in my nostrils,
The vision of heaven’s company in my eyes,
The conversation of heaven’s company on my lips,
The work of God’s church with my hands,
The service of God and my neighbour in my feet,
And a home for God in my heart,
And to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit my entire being.

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