IRISH FOOTPRINTS IN BELGIUM
By Joseph Canning
This is a small town on the left bank of the River Meuse in the province of Liege. Its outstanding building is the church of St. George and St. Ode. There is a pilgrimage here each year on 1st May in honour of St. Brigid. It is customary in the surrounding countryside to bless soil in her honour and the farmers take it home to put in the stables and byres. However, as Tomás Ó Fiaich remarks, it is difficult for this custom to survive against the increasing use of tractors. In January 1977 in the course of excavations in the church of St. George, a seventh century sarcophagus was discovered beneath the high altar. It was unusual in that on one side the figure of a woman engraved and the fact that one side had Irish decoration was proof for Ó Fiaich of how early devotion to the saint had come to Belgium.
Belgium’s second city is one of the largest ports in Europe and a diamond centre of world importance. Its main interest for Irish people is that it was the location for one of the many colleges that were established on the Continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for the education of Irish clergy. There was severe weather in Belgium towards the end of 1607 and we are indebted to an Irishman for a description of conditions in Antwerp. In his account of the departure of the Earls from Ireland Tadhg Ó Cianáin tells us that the frost was so keen “that horses and coaches and wagons might travel on all the lakes and rivers” and he goes to describe an incident at Antwerp, which did have fatal consequences though not as bad as might have been expected. He says: “There was a great sheet of ice on the river at Antwerp, and the inhabitants of the city were accustomed to go out on the ice every day for amusement and to cool themselves. One day, when large numbers went to eat and drink, to sport and dance, the ice warmed because of the crowds, and gave a great roar aloud. Then there came a cleft and separation between it and the banks. When the strong river got the ice moving and separated from the banks, it carried it and all that were on it with it”. Later he goes to describe a visit that the Earls made to the city. This was on 9th February 1608. The river at Antwerp was frozen over and they had to lead their horses across the sheet of ice. After they had arranged accommodation they went to view the castle which is described as “one of the greatest fortresses in Christendom.” It was surrounded by the river and was guarded day and night by a thousand Spanish soldiers. After listing the various pieces of ammunition that were in position to defend the building Ó Cianáin tells us, “They allow no nation at all to see or examine the work, except Spaniards and Irishmen”. The Earls’ party then went round the city walls; these were twenty-five in width and were described as being as strong as any in the world. Ó Cianáin then remarks that in spite of the recent disaster on the ice “there were about twenty thousand persons then sporting and dancing at one time on the ice”. The next morning the Irish party went to visit the Irish College. It is described as being “very beautiful, with numerous apartments and many students”. They attended High Mass which “was sung, with sweet melodious organs and instruments of music of all kinds”. Afterwards they went to see the house and gardens of the Burgomaster. This was followed by visits to a glass factory, the city hall and finally to a remarkable house called a “guest-house” where there were “sleeping-rooms and dining-rooms prepared for every traveller of every nation in Christendom”.
Variously described as Venice of the North, the Treasure House of Belgium, the Pearl of Flanders, this city’s unique character has been rewarded by UNESCO with designation as a World Heritage site. The treasury of the Cathedral of Saint Saviour contains an object of Irish interest. It is called “The mantle of St. Brigid of Ireland”. It is a piece of rough, knotty cloth, about ‘2 X 2’. The colour, originally pink, has faded with the passing of time. It is now kept under glass in a wooden frame that was made for it in 1866. Tomás Ó Fiaich admits that it would be impossible to trace it back year by year to the saint’s time, but says that it is extremely old and that there is no evidence against the theory that it came from Ireland, having been brought from there to Bruges by princess Gunhild, sister of Harold, King of England. He lists three points in support of this theory:
- Harold and his brother spent a long time in Ireland in 1051-52, and since they stayed with the King of Leinster, it is likely that they paid a visit to the monastery of St. Brigid in Kildare;
- Gunhild settled in Bruges after the death of her brother in the battle of Hastings in 1066;
- The cloth is similar to the cloaks of rough cloth that were worn in Ireland in ancient times.
The earliest instance of Ireland’s connection with Belgium is to be found in the town of Geel. It is situated in the province of Antwerp, being about 42 km. east of that city and it is about 38 km. northeast of Leuven. The patron saint is Saint Dympna, and there is a very strong local tradition that she came from Ireland. Attempts have been made to identify her with Saint Damhnat of Tedavnet in County Monaghan, and one result of this has been the twinning of Tedavnet and Geel; however, scholars do not support this view.
According to tradition she was the daughter of a pagan king. When his first wife died he decided to marry again but it would only be to the most beautiful female then alive. His servants were sent out to find out such a person, but it turned out that the person was his daughter. Nevertheless, he decided that he would marry her. When she became aware of this she fled the country with her confessor and eventually made her way to Geel. Her enraged father decided to pursue her along with some of his soldiers. She was eventually discovered in Geel. The soldiers proceeded to kill the priest and when Dympna persisted in resisting her father’s demands he became enraged and murdered her with his own hands.
Because of her unnatural death at the hands of her own father, she has been honoured from time immemorial as the patron saint of the mentally ill. Crowds of people came to Geel to ask her intercession and numerous miracles were attributed to her. By the thirteenth century her church had a hospice for the sick. As time went on the town and the surrounding area became a kind of outpatient facility, with the inhabitants devoting themselves to kindly provision and specialised care for the mentally ill. Geel has become famous in more recent times for its advanced treatment of the mentally ill. The basic feature is that patients spend time with a host family where they have access to family life of which they would otherwise be deprived. The number of people availing of the treatment reached almost four thousand by the late 1930’s.
On the saint’s feast day (May 15th) her relics are taken in procession through the town. The square opposite the church – the Dympnapleiin – is thronged with crowds of people.
A number of manuscripts are preserved at Geel, which help to illustrate the medieval and later history of the town. Canon O’Hanlon was able to see some of these on a visit there. One of them is the Book of the Confraternity of Saint Dympna. It contains a list of the names of members and associates of the confraternity. Among these are the names of Irish people who probably came as pilgrims to the town and were enrolled in the Confraternity. Lay people and priests are included, the majority of the latter are Franciscans, and one of these is Father Anthony Gearnon, author of Parrthas an anma.
Staying in the early Christian period, the next place in Belgium with Irish connections is the town of Fosse-la-Ville in the French-speaking part of the country. This town is situated in the province of Namur, being approximately 20-km. southwest of the city of Namur and 54 km. due south of Leuven. The population at January 1st 2010 was 9,775.
The Irish saint who is very much associated with this town is St Faolan (sometimes spelt Foillan, Feuillen in French). He is one of three brothers who are listed among the saints of Ireland, the others being Fursey and Ultan. The three brothers travelled to East Anglia where the King Sigebert built them a monastery in Suffolk. After a number of years Fursey set out on a pilgrimage to Rome and Faolan was left in charge of the English mission. However, the monastery was destroyed by the Mercians, and as a result Faolan and his comrades had to leave, bringing with them as many of their sacred objects and books as they could carry. They ended up in France.
By this time Fursey was already dead and had been buried at Peronne, a town in the north of France. Already large numbers of pilgrims were flocking to his tomb. So many of these were from Ireland that a monastery was built for the use of the Irish on the continent and Faolan was appointed the first abbot. In the meantime Gertrude the abbess of a double monastery of Nivelles had learned of the reputation of the Irish monks for their profound knowledge of Sacred Scripture, liturgy and sacred music and invited Faolan and Ulltan to assist in instructing her monks and nuns. Her mother, Itta, later gave Faolan land at Fossse on which to build a monastery. Faolan placed Ultan in charge while he continued with his missionary work. It was in the course of one of his missionary journeys that he was murdered by bandits. His death was made known to his brother Ultan in a vision in which he saw a snow white dove, its wings dripping with blood, ascending to heaven. Several weeks passed before his body was found, and, on the instructions of Gertrude, it was sent to Fosse for burial. His memory is still held in high veneration, and one proof of this is the elaborate procession, which is held every seven years to celebrate it.
Cardinal Ó Fiaich was obviously very impressed by the story of St Faolan as he visited Fosse on a number of occasions and has given in his work, Gaelscrínte san Eoraip, detailed descriptions of the church dedicated to the saint and the septennial procession. Excavations carried out under the church indicate that there was originally a Roman dwelling, and it was on this site that the monastery of the Irish was built. The church was made of wood and there was a little oratory at the side in which the body of the saint was placed. The first stone church was built around 800 but was destroyed by the Normans. A much larger building was erected in the 10th century. Devotion to the saint increased greatly from that time and in 1086 the body of the saint was placed in a silver shrine which was located at the back of the altar. Around this time a crypt was constructed and the present square tower erected.
When the main church was built in the 10th century a group of canons was put in charge who, in addition to celebrating Holy Mass each day, would have recited the Divine Office. That is why it is still called “Collégiale Saint Feuillen”. The stalls of the canons, dating from the 16th century, are a striking feature of the interior; different events from the life of the saint are carved in the wood. Also outstanding are eight large paintings dating from the 18th century on both sides of the choir illustrating scenes from the life of the saint. Since Cardinal Ó Fiaich’s book has been published a new altar has been erected in the centre of the church and these scenes have been reproduced on its sides. Among other paintings two are worth noting. One in the side chapel of St. Ultan shows that saint saying Holy Mass and a bloody dove flying up through the bright clouds. The other is of Faolan showing him dressed as a bishop between two murderers, one with a sword the other with a club.
With regard to the procession held every seventh year in honour of the saint, it is impossible to say when it started, but there is documentary evidence that it was held in 1086, while it is possible to prove that it has been held regularly since 1549. The shrine of St. Faolan is carried along the boundary of what was formerly the territory of the monastery and it is followed by groups of men from the town and surrounding villages dressed in military uniforms of former times. The procession begins at 6 a.m. with reveille being sounded on drums and High Mass is celebrated at 8 a.m. After that the procession sets out in the following order: whistles and drums, local and other “companies”, the clergy and the Blessed Sacrament, the shrine of the saint, and the crowds of pilgrims and visitors. There is a break at midday and the Blessed Sacrament and shrine are returned to the church. The procession resumes about 2 o’clock and travels through the forest with guns being discharged at seven different points. Darkness is usually coming on by the time it reaches the church again.
A special parade was held in December 1918 when the Irish connection was recalled. A number of Irishmen who had served in the British army in the war were in the area and were allowed to carry the saint’s relics. When the first parade was held after the Second World War a special address was presented by the Catholics of Ireland. In 1949 and 1956 up to 50,000 witnessed the event. However, the crowds have declined since. The next procession will be held this year.
Gent is a University City and a major industrial centre. It was here that St. Oliver Plunkett was ordained archbishop of Armagh on 1st December 1669. The ceremony took place quietly in the private chapel of the residence of the Bishop of Gent. Two Irish clergymen are buried in this city, both in the church of St. Nicholas. One is Roger Nottingham and the other is Nicholas French who became bishop of Ferns. Nottingham was born about 1616 but the exact place of his birth is not known. He attended the Irish Pastoral College in Leuven and the University. He became parish priest of the church of St. Nicholas in Gent. In 1668 he was among those recommended for one of the sees then vacant in Ireland. In 1692 he established a bursary for the education of students at the Irish Pastoral College in Leuven.
Nicholas French was born in Wexford about 1604. Part of his education for the priesthood took place in the Irish Pastoral College in Leuven. Some time after his ordination he was appointed parish priest of Wexford in 1640, and in 1645 was ordained bishop of Ferns. Following the fall of Wexford to the Cromwellians in October 1649 he left Ireland. He held a number of Episcopal appointments on the Continent – auxiliary to the archbishop of Santiago (i652-1666), auxiliary to the archbishop of Paris (1666-1668) and finally auxiliary to the bishop of Gent (1671-1678). He established a scholarship for students at the Irish Pastoral College at Leuven. His death took place on 28 August 1678. He was buried in the church of St. Nicholas near the high altar. Unfortunately, when the church was being renovated his tombstone was covered over by the new floor.
A few years after the end of the World War I another link was formed between Ireland and Belgium.
Whereas during the war thousands of people were involved, this time there was only one. However, there was a connection with the first Irishmen who had set foot in Belgium. The link was formed in the Benedictine Abbey of Maredsous. This impressive building is located in a heavily wooded area in the valley of the Molignée, a tributary of the Meuse. On 21 November 1886 an Irish priest arrived at the abbey to become a monk. His name was Joseph Marmion. He was born in Dublin on 1 April 1858, the seventh of the nine children of William Marmion and Hermione Marmion (née Cordier). After secondary education at Belvedere College he entered Clonliffe College, the major seminary for the Dublin diocese in January 1874. He remained here until December 1879 when Archbishop McCabe selected him for further theological studies in Rome.
He spent eighteen months studying at the Propaganda College and was ordained on 16 June 1881. Even though he had been recommended to go forward for a doctorate he decided for health reasons to return home. His first appointment back in Dublin was as a curate in the parish of Dundrum. He spent a year there and was then appointed professor of philosophy in Clonliffe College. He also served as chaplain to a convent of Redemptorist nuns and women’s prison. In October 1886 he received approval from the then archbishop of Dublin to join the Benedictine order. During his time in Rome one of his fellow students was Benedictine from Maredsous and on one occasion when he was returning home on holidays he paid a visit to the abbey in company with this student. The visit not only gave him an interest in the monastic life but it was to this abbey that he came in November to carry out his plan to become a monk.
The monastic life began in the novitiate and apart from problems of a new language and culture and the difference in age from his fellow novices the discipline was very demanding. He made his solemn profession on 10 February 1891. His first job as a monk was to serve as a housemaster to junior boys in the abbey school. The work here was not very satisfying and he found something more congenial when he was appointed to teach philosophy to the junior monks. He began to build up a reputation as a spiritual guide as a result of pastoral work on a small scale in the local area. In 1899 he was one of a group of monks who were sent to Leuven to found the Abbey of Mont-Cesar in Leuven. Here he was appointed prior and professor of theology and spiritual director for the young monks who were studying in the city. He spent more time in giving retreats not only in Belgium but abroad as well. Among his other tasks was acting as spiritual director to communities of nuns and also at the American College in the city. He had links with his fellow Irishmen in the Franciscan College of St. Anthony.
During this period Dom Hildebrand de Hemptinne was abbot of Maredsous but at the request of Pope Leo XIII he became first Primate of the Confederation of Benedictine communities. This appointment entailed frequent stays in Rome and hence the need for a replacement as abbot at Maredsous. On 28 September 1909 Dom Columba Marmion was elected and on 3 October received the abbatial blessing. He was now at the head of a community of more than 100 monks, with a secondary school, a trade school and a farm to run. He also had to maintain a well-established reputation for research on the sources of the faith and to continue editing various publications.
In spite of these responsibilities he was still able to find time to respond to requests for his assistance outside the abbey, for example in preaching retreats and in giving spiritual direction. In 1913, when the community of Anglican monks on Caldey Island, Wales, decided to convert to Catholicism, Dom Columba became deeply involved in the spiritual and canonical process of their reception into the Catholic Church. The First World War was a very trying time for him. His decision to send the young monks to Ireland so that they could complete their education in peace led to additional work, dangerous trips and many anxieties, It also led to misunderstandings and tensions between the two generations within this community already shaken by the war.
His only comfort during this time was preaching and giving retreats. His secretary, Dom Raymond Thibaut, prepared his conferences for publication. The first to appear was Christ The Life Of The Soul in 1916. This was followed by Christ In His Mysteries (1919), Christ The Ideal Of The Monk (1922) and Sponsa Verbi (1923).
Marmion died on 30 January 1923 just eight weeks short of his 65th birthday during a flu epidemic. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 3 September 2000. In his homily at the beatification ceremony had this to say about Dom Marmion’s writings: “Dom Marmion has left us an authentic treasure of spiritual teaching for the church in our time. In his writings he teaches a simple yet demanding way of holiness for all the faithful”.