Who was St Molua?

St Molua was an Irish priest of the 6th century who like Columba and Gall trained in the monastery at Bangor, County Down (about twelve miles from Belfast). The saint’s real name was originally Lughaidh (pronounced Lua). However, the churches that he built were so popular and became such centres of worship and friendliness, that people began to refer to the saint as “my Lua”. The Irish word for “my” is “mo”, and so the saint became more widely known as Molua. Incidentally, in pronouncing the name the emphasis comes on the second syllable rather than the first: Mo-lua

However, lack of solid historical evidence makes it very difficult to write accurately about the Saint after whom the parish church of Stormont is named. Much of what is written about him is attributed to legend or tradition. To add to the confusion, Mary Ryan D’Arcy, in her book The Saints of Ireland, says that there were “some thirty-seven saints by the name of Molua in Ireland” (1).

O’Hanlon, in his Lives of the Irish Saints, lists only one Molua with a birthday on June 4, which is the day on which Stormont Parish holds its Patronal Festival, thus happily narrowing the potential field virtually to one (2). This saint is closely linked with Killaloe. The Dictionary of National Biography, which lists eleven saints with names which are recognised variants of ‘Molua’, in an entry obviously referring to the Molua of Killaloe and quoting several sources, gives the year of his birth as 554, and the date of his death as 4th August, 605, 608 or 609 (3). Other sources give his death as late as 617; so, all that can be said with any degree of confidence is that he was born in the mid-6th century and died in the early years of the 7th.

Like most Irish saints he appears to have been very hospitable, believing that in entertaining others he was entertaining Christ. He was kind to animals as well as humans and it was said that when he died all living creatures bewailed him. He had his frailties as well. A story is told about him leaving one of his foundations because he was being pestered by the women of the town who wanted to see a saint suggests a man ill at ease with the opposite sex. His father is believed to have been Coche or Carthach of the noble family of Ui-Fidgente from the Limerick area. Families with the same name lived in the Monaghan area. His mother, Sochla was from Ossory.

It was customary amongst the leading families in Ireland, even in the pre-Christian era when the Druids held sway, for children to be fostered during their formative years – a sort of early boarding school system. Those designated for the priesthood were sent, either to a monastery, or to live with an isolated cleric or hermit and be taught by him. Ryan’s assertion that Molua ‘frequented a cell inhabited by seven brethren priests’ suggests that he may have been one of the latter (4).

When a future monk lived in a monastery from childhood he often remained there for his religious training, but if his early years had been spent with an isolated hermit, and the decision to become a monk had not been made until maturity, he could choose his own school. The tradition was to choose a house at a distance from home and family distractions. The fact that Lua went as far afield as Bangor, for his formal religious training would seem to confirm that he had not been sent to a monastery as a boy.

There is a legend that St Comgall was visiting near where Lua lived and found him asleep in a field where he was tending his father’s flocks. Comgall recognised the boy’s holiness and brought him to Bangor. However, or why, he went there, one of the few certainties we do know about Molua is that he was a friend and student of Comgall’s at Bangor.

When Molua had completed his training as a monk, Comgall persuaded him to remain in Bangor until he was ordained to the priesthood. When this was achieved Comgall said to him, “Receive with you certain disciples my son and go to your native country and there you will build many places for God” (5). Molua went. The first church he founded was in County Monaghan, in a place now called Drumsnatt, where he remained for a time as abbot. While it is believed that he founded a number of other religious houses in the south of Ireland, records appear to exist for only two major ones. One was at Killaloe, near to his home and the other at Cluain Fearta Molua (Kyle in modern County Laois) on the Leinster/Munster border near his mother’s home. The first of the two to have been established appears to have been the church at Killaloe where, again, he remained for a time as abbot. One of his pupils was his nephew Flannan to whom Molua later transferred his abbacy and after whom the present Church of Ireland cathedral in Killaloe is named; the name of the town itself (Irish: Cill Da Lua or Church of Lua) commemorates Lua.

It was near Killaloe too that St Lua’s oratory was built on Friars Island in the River Shannon. A tiny building, only 6.5 feet wide inside, it became a place of pilgrimage for centuries until, in 1929, when the damming of the river for the hydro-electric scheme was about to drown the little island, the oratory was dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt, not at the 12th century St Flannan’s Cathedral, but at the more modem Roman Catholic Cathedral of Killaloe which stands on top of the hill where Brian Boru’s palace once stood. A stone believed to have been from the foundations of the original church was given to St Molua’s, Stormont by the Dean of St Flannan’s Cathedral.

According to Gwynn, in his History of the Diocese of Killaloe (6), St Molua’s family made life difficult for him when he was in Killaloe. Could these have been the women who wanted to see a saint? Whatever the reason, he moved from Killaloe to Clonard where he studied the teachings of St Finnian. (Not the same Finnian who is associated with Movilla Abbey in Ards, County Down).

From Clonard it appears he returned to Munster and was given a piece of land to build the ‘great and famous’ monastery of Cluain Fearte Molua (Clonfertmulloe) where again he remained for a period as abbot. It was a major establishment with at least one ‘daughter house’ near the village of Knock at Skirke and quite possibly more. Little remains today but a few stones and, in a field across the road, a multiple ballaun (from the Irish for a rock with cup-shaped depressions in it) called St Molua’s Stone. St Molua’s Trough has been removed to nearby Ballaghmore Church and St Molua’s Bell is preserved in the British Museum in London. The pro Cluain Fearte Molua ‘faction’ claims that, after many years good work, he died and was buried near his church. Unfortunately, rival and rather exaggerated proprietorial claims to the saint by Killaloe and Clonfertmulloe have created considerable confusion as to what the real facts are.

Legends abound about Molua, but there is little to suggest that many – if any – are authentic. It is said that he was an architect, but this is quite probably a misinterpretation of the expression a ‘builder’ of churches as opposed to a ‘founder’, although it is known that the churches in Ireland at that time were largely self-sufficient and that the monks were often skilled tradesmen in their own right. Some of the legends are about his healing powers, with many of the miracles apparently having been performed in his childhood. He is reputed to have cured his father of a cancerous foot – a tradition enshrined in stone on the outside of St Molua’s church at Stormont – and the ulcer of a man who cared for his father’s cattle. Little evidence remains of any writing St Molua may have done. He drew up a monastic rule for his monks, a copy of which he sent to Pope Gregory the Great, but no details of its content have been traced. It is said he preferred to teach by example.

One story is told of a boy called Conan who was a pupil of St Molua’s at Cluain. Conan was a poet and not only unused to physical labour but unwilling to attempt any, claiming that to do so would blister his delicate hands. The other monks wanted to send him away but St Molua thought differently. He took Conan with him on a walk through the woods, bringing with them two reaping hooks and a hay fork. Right in the centre of the wood was a huge thicket of thistles and Molua told the young man that he wanted them cleared. Conan protested, but Molua, taking one of the hooks, showed how simple it was to cut a single thistle down. He then helped the lad to do the same. That was all for that day, but the next day they returned and cut two thistles in the same way, and the next day three, and so on until the clump was cleared and Conan had begun to get satisfaction in the work he had said he could never do. With such an effective method of teaching it is not perhaps surprising that the saint did not need to write much.

As well as at Stormont, St Molua’s name is commemorated in three other present-day Church of Ireland churches, at Kyle in the Diocese of Killaloe, Drumsnatt and Magheracloone in the Diocese of Clogher.

(1) Mary Ryan D’Arcy, The Saints of Ireland (Dublin 1985) p.60
(2) John O’Hanlon, Lives of the Irish Saints Vol.VI (London)
(3) ed. Sidney Lee Dictionary of National Biography (London 1983) pp.263-4
(4) John Ryan, Irish Monasticism (Dublin 1931 2nd ed. 1972) pp.206-7

St Molua’s Church
Parish of Stormont
645 Upper Newtownards Road
Belfast BT4 3LR

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