Finnian (Vinnianus, Findbarr) , abbot, bishop, reputed founder of the monastery of Cluain Iraird (Clonard, near Kinnegad, Co. Westmeath), and saint in the Irish tradition, was most likely a localisation of the Ulster saint, Finnian (qv) (d. 579) of Movilla. This appears to have also been the case with a number of other saints, most notably Findbarr (qv) of Cork, whose identity as a localisation of Finnian of Movilla has been persuasively argued by Ó Riain. The tradition associated with Finnian of Clonard probably consists of a basic stratum representing the primary persona, Finnian of Movilla, overlain with late fabricated material designed to establish an exclusive founder and patron for Clonard and to validate its claims to an extensive paruchia.
Clonard would appear to have been of little significance until the late seventh century and there may have been uncertainty as to its origins and founder: the original foundation is said to have been at nearby Ard Relec, and it is probable that the foundation at Clonard dates only from the seventh century. In the hundred-odd years from the annalistic obit of Finnian (548/52) to the death of Abbot Colmán (qv) (654), only three abbots are recorded for Clonard, as against eight for the period 654–748, suggesting a lapse or discontinuity in the foundation or uncertainty in the early tradition. In later times, the annals sometimes refer to the comarbae (coarbs or successors) of Finnian and Mo-Cholm-óc (the aforementioned Colmán), almost as if the two were co-founders. It is probable that as Clonard rose to prominence, perhaps in the late seventh century, it refashioned traditions of Finnian of Movilla and created the individual personality of Finnian of Clonard. The cult of Finnian of Clonard is traceable only from the late eighth century; his relics were translated in 776, and were soon claimed to be performing miracles.
There are a number of Latin and Irish Lives of Finnian of Clonard. The Latin Lives seem to derive from a text compiled in an Anglo-Norman milieu in the twelfth century, probably in Meath. The Irish Lives are based on an original possibly dating from the ninth century. They are concerned mainly with Finnian's supernatural power and earthly prestige and with his numerous foundations, mainly in Leinster. They have been assessed as ‘propaganda written three or four centuries after [Finnian's] death by someone with intimate knowledge of his contemporary paruchia and access to a considerable body of earlier traditions’ (Hughes, 1954, 363). In the Lives and genealogies, Finnian is presented as being of the moccu Thellduib, a branch of an obscure north Leinster people, the Uí Lóscáin. This supposed lineage may reflect seventh-century relationships, the aforementioned Bishop Colmán, one of Clonard's most notable abbots, being also of that kindred. Finnian's father is said to have been named Findlug/ Fintan and to have been of Ulster origin – a possible echo of Finnian of Movilla.
According to the Lives, Finnian was baptised by ‘Abbanus’, probably St Abbán (qv) (d. c.520?). After his early ecclesiastical education under a bishop Fortchern, probably from Uí Drona (in Co. Carlow), Finnian established three churches in Leinster: Ros Cuire, Druim Fiaid, and Mag nGlas. He crossed to Wales, where he completed his monastic training under Saints Cadoc (qv) (fl. c.497–570), Gildas (qv) (d. c.570), and David (c.520–89/601). He befriended Cadoc, with whom he founded the churches of Meifod and Llancarfan, where a church dedicated to a Finnian allegedly later existed; he is said to have retreated for prayer to the island called Echni (Flat Holm) in the Bristol Channel. The Welsh interlude may represent traditions of Finnian of Movilla. The latter's chronology (d. 579) would suggest that his monastic training took place some decades into the sixth century, which would allow possible roles for Cadoc and Gildas. On the other hand, the training of Finnian of Clonard, who supposedly died c.550, reputedly at a very great age, would have taken place a generation before any of the three Welsh saints.
According to the Lives, Finnian returned to Ireland together with some British companions. He founded a church at Achad Aball (Aghowle, south-west Co. Wicklow), but later moved to Cell Dara (Kildare), where he spent some time in prayer and study. The Kildare sojourn may reflect the close relationship which that foundation enjoyed with Clonard at a later period; for instance, the annals record the death of a joint abbot, Do-Dimóc, in 748.
The monastery of Clonard had a great school attached; late tradition puts the number of students at 3,000 – hence Finnian's epithet ‘tutor of the saints of Ireland’, his reputation as teacher and scholar being most likely appropriated from Finnian of Movilla. His students were said to have included Ciarán (qv) (5th cent.) of Saigir, Ciarán (qv) (d. 545) of Clonmacnoise, Brendan (qv) (d. 565/73) of Birr, Brendan (qv) (d. 577/83) of Clonfert, and Colum Cille (qv) (c.521–597). Some of the Clonard students were said to have been women, including Finnian's own mother and two sisters. His sister Rígnach is reputed to have founded Cell Rígnaige (Kilrainy, Co. Kildare), a monastery for women; she was also claimed to have been the mother of Abbot Colmán, which could hardly have been possible, considering the chronology.
Later records claim that Finnian died as a result of the Yellow Plague that struck Britain and Ireland c.547; his Lives claim that he was then aged 140 (or 180) years. He is said to have been buried at Clonard, where his relics were venerated until burnt in 891. He features in the genealogies, in the litany of priests in the Stowe Missal, and in the Lives of various saints, including Cadoc, Colmán Elo (qv), Columba of Terryglass, Colum Cille, Molua of Clonfertmulloe, and Ruadán (qv) of Lorrhra. His feast on 12 December is noted in all the Irish martyrologies.