Word of the week

Word of the week: Fiacre

Tomorrow, 30 August, is the Feast of St Fiacre, a 7th century Irish saint. I am drafting these words in a hotel room in Kilkenny, before we relocate to Dublin for the next part of our Irish holiday.

Fiacre is celebrated here this time of year at a place known as St Fiacre’s Well, a few miles outside Kilkenny City. It’s near where my father grew up and although he was not a regular church-goer he tried to get back here, from London, for the celebrations whenever he could. This year, over two years after my father died, was the first time since 2019 that a public mass has been said at this place of pilgrimage. Over the last few days we have spent time in and around the city in memory of him, and I have visited the well for only the second time in my life.

As I wrote shortly after he died, my father gave clear instructions for his cremation and what should happen next. It amounted to a “direct cremation”, no friends or family present. I wrote at the time that his ashes were to be “collected and scattered at a later date at a particular spot in Kilkenny”. In fact his request involved something more specific than scattering his ashes. He wanted a golden beech tree to grow out of them, in a public spot that I am not going to name here. At the time I imagined that we would have to do this secretly, under cover of darkness, possibly wearing balaclavas. As it turned out, last autumn the tree was planted by other members of my family, officially. In daylight. Not a balaclava in sight. All necessary protocol was followed, although the fact that his ashes were tucked in under the roots of the tree, in a compostable pot, might not have been recorded officially. Either way, the tree is thriving and his ashes have merged with the soil in a way that cannot be undone. I was planning to be there for the tree-planting, but my son had shingles and I was taking care of him, so we couldn’t go.

We spent time near the tree on Friday and Saturday. It’s probably a bit closer to a children’s playground than my father would have liked. Yesterday morning (Sunday) we had a mass said for him at St Patrick’s Church on College Road. I only recall being their twice before, for funerals: my father’s sister in 2005 and her husband in 2015. We were joined at the mass by cousins on my father’s side and afterwards they managed to persuade the good people at the Hotel Kilkenny to extend their usual breakfast time to accommodate us.

I had set myself three tasks for the day in honour of my father, and managed all of them: first, spend the whole  day in a suit and tie, wearing a hat outdoors, like he would have done; second, attend both ceremonies (mass at St Patrick’s in the morning, and afternoon mass at the well); and, finally, drink a gallon of Guinness during the course of the day.

I didn’t spend much time reflecting on the life of St Fiacre. All that I knew of him comes from my Oxford Dictionary of Saints (Second Edition, 1987, © David Hugh Farmer), transcribed here:

“FIACRE (d. c670), hermit. One of the many Irishmen who sought ‘exile for Christ’, Fiacre came to Meaux, where its bishop, St Faro, gave him land for a hermitage at Breuil, a few miles away. Here he settled and lived as a hermit until his death. His cult flourished in France rather than Ireland, where his name did not come into the Martyrologies until the late 12th century. The presence of his Life in N.L.A. [Nova Legenda Angliae, ed. C. Horstman (2 vols, 1901)] reveals that he was known in late medieval England. He is a patron of horticulturists because of his skill in this craft during his life. His Legend also made him a misogynist both in life and after death: possibly this is connected with his patronage of those who suffer venereal disease. His relics were translated to Meaux, where they still rest; this was the centre of devotion to Fiacre which flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries; his clients included Anne of Austria, Bossuet and Vincent de Paul. The place where the saint lived is now called St-Fiacre (Seine-et-Marne); the hackney carriages which were let for hire were called fiacres because they plied their trade from the hotel Saint-Fiacre in Paris. The name remains for taxi-cabs. Feast: 30 August; 1 September (in France and Ireland), but 18 August in N.L.A.”

Local legend has it that despite his desire to be a hermit, he was plagued by visitors, and he (miraculously) caused a forest to grow around his cell to prevent people getting close to him. I also learnt that my grandfather built the steps that lead up to the outdoor altar at the well, still in place over 90 years later and looking good for at least a few more decades.

Since my childhood I had never visited this part of the world at the end of August for a very simple reason. My brother’s daughter (my first godchild) was born in Spain on 30 August 1986, and the family have lived there ever since. Whenever I left London at this time of year it was to celebrate her birthday. Tomorrow we will do so again, nine of us at a fancy hotel just outside Bray, before returning to our respective homes on Wednesday.

We’re having a good time.

Drafted 29 August 2022, finalized and published many months later.


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