Finnian (Vinnianus, Findbarr) (d. 579), abbot and bishop of the monastery of Mag Bile (Movilla, near Newtownards, Co. Down) was a saint in the Irish tradition who seems to have later acquired a number of separate identities, his most notable localisations being as Finnian (qv) of Clonard and Findbarr (qv) of Cork (Ó Riain). According to the later genealogies, he was of the moccu Fiatach, an Ulaid dynasty mainly located in the present north Co. Down. His father was named as Cairpre son of Ailill, and his mother was named Lassar.
An alternative background is, however, more likely. A name seemingly applied to him in a number of instances, Vinnianus (a Latinised form), suggests a British origin. It is probable that he was born in our neighbouring island, possibly in an Irish settlement in Wales or Scotland. He may have trained there as a monk, eventually coming to Ireland as an accomplished scriptural scholar. Conflicting traditions as to his backround are suggested by two early ninth-century sources, the Martyrology of Tallaght and the Martyrology of Óengus (qv) (fl. c.830), both of which were probably compiled by Óengus, who was a bishop and in charge of the liturgy at Tallaght. The latter source refers to Finnian as a suí (scriptural scholar) who came across the sea from Britain, while the former carries separate entries for him as Finnio maccu Fiatach and as Findbarr Maige Bili, indicating some uncertainty. It is, perhaps, possible to reconcile the conflict regarding his origins and background by supposing that he was indeed of the moccu Fiatach but went to the neighbouring island to study, or that he was British and was adopted into the moccu Fiatach as an adult. Tradition claims that he received his early training under St Ninian (qv) (fl. late 5th/ early 6th cent.) at Candida Casa at Whithorn in Scotland.
While Finnian's alleged localisations, Finnian of Clonard and Finbarr of Cork, have been the subjects of a number of Lives, his only extant Life is a rather garbled text in a work of the fourteenth-century chronicler John of Tynemouth. He seems, however, to be more reliably documented in a number of annalistic and historical notices. In his ‘Vita Columbae’, Adomnán (qv) (c.624–704) names the teacher of Colum Cille (qv) as a Finnian (Findbarr/ Finnio/ Vinnianus), who can best be identified as Finnian of Movilla. Columbanus (qv) claimed in a letter to Pope Gregory I written c.600 that ‘Vennianus auctor’ (the author), again most likely Finnian of Movilla, had addressed an enquiry concerning monastic discipline to the renowned British ecclesiastic and historian Gildas (qv) (d. c.570); he also reported that Gildas had ‘returned a most elegant reply’, part of which is still extant among the fragments of the epistles of Gildas. It is most likely that Finnian of Movilla was the author of the penitential formerly credited to Finnian of Clonard. It derives from the British penitential tradition – a tradition also represented in a penitential attributed to Gildas. In formulating his own penitential, Columbanus was considerably influenced by that of Finnian.
In addition to historical notices, Finnian is well documented in secondary literature. The preface to what is known as Mugint's hymn (‘Parce, Domine’) in the eleventh-century Liber Hymnorum relays a tradition that places him at Candida Casa. He also features in a number of Lives of saints; apart from those of Colum Cille, these include the Lives of Berach (qv) of Cluain Coirpthe, Comgall (qv) of Bangor, Darerca (qv) of Killevy, and Fredianus (qv) of Lucca. In a poem on the patrons of various kindreds, Finnian is acclaimed as patron of the Ulstermen. The story that Colum Cille surreptitiously made a copy (the Cathach) of a psalter lent to him by Finnian, thereby causing the battle of Cúl Dreimne (561), seems to date only from the tenth or eleventh centuries.
It would appear that Finnian exercised considerable influence as scholar and teacher, and established the reputation of Movilla as a notable monastic centre. He can be credited with a notable contribution to the development of Irish monasticism, his model being characterised by its emphasis on spirituality, asceticism and scholarship. Finnian's personal reputation and the renown of Movilla resulted in his cult becoming widely diffused in the centuries after his death. It is probable that in a number of instances his tradition and persona were appropriated, consciously or due to a process of osmosis, by centres that lacked well-attested and credible founders, the most notable cases being Clonard, possibly as early as the late seventh century, and Cork, also at an early stage. Finnian's feast-day is on 10 September – his presumed localisations at Clonard and Cork are celebrated on 12 December and 25 September respectively.