The monastery of Brigown gives its name to two-thirds of the modern parish of Mitchelstown. It was founded in the seventh century by a warrior monk named Fionn Cú, or Fanahan (White Hound). Apparently, Fanahan was born at Rathealy, near Fermoy, and was the son of an Ulster petty chieftain exiled in Munster. As was common in Early Christian times, Fanahan entered religious life at a very early age. He joined the monks at the monastery of Bangor, County Down, where he was attributed with a quick temper and astonishing spiritual powers.
A quarrel with his brethern led to Fanahan’s expulsion from Bangor. He and a few of his followers made their way to the King of Munster’s residence at Cashel, where he told King Cathal MacAedha that he wished to have land to build a monastery in Munster. The monarch duly obliged the holyman with a grant of Fan Muilt (The Wether’s Slope), which was at that time a great dairy farm owned by the King’s wife, and roughly equivalent to the 19th century civil parish of Brigown. We are told that it was here Fanahan ‘proclaimed and gave evidence of Our Saviour and was a flame against guilty men.’
The origin of ‘Brigown’ as the name of his monastery is described in extraordinary terms by the 14th century Book of Lismore. It says that Fanahan had given his holy soul to the King of the Deise, in return for the king’s sinful soul, and considerable property and lands. In return, Fanahan had to perform various acts of penance so that he might win a place in heaven for his new soul. He commissioned seven smiths to make seven sickles, from which he hung for seven years as a form of self mortification. The smiths refused payment for their work, but instead asked that the new monastery would be named in their honour. Fanahan agreed to call his church Bri Gobhann which means ‘Smiths’ Hill’ and promised his seven employees that they and their children would always have the gift of master craftsmanship, so long as they practised their skills in Brigown.
Fanahan died about 660. A cult of prayer and pilgrimage developed at Saint Fanahan’s Holy Well, just a short distance from Brigown Church, which is all that is now left of the monastic city founded by Fanahan. This religious devotion culminates on the saint’s feast day of 25 November, when thousands of people visit the well to pray and to drink its water.
Two other monks of note also lived in the neighbourhood during the sixth and seventh centuries. Saint Abban of Leinster blessed Brigown and founded a church at Kildrum. Saint Molagga was the founder of several churches in the locality, including Ahacross, Leabba Molagga and Tullach Mhin Molagga.
A noted missionary, Molagga was reputed to have been born of peasant parents at Liathmuine, the residence of Cuana MacCalchine, Prince of the Fir Muighe, whose fort stood beside the Funcheon at Cloghleafin. Cuana’s hospitality was famous throughout ancient Ireland. However, a great friendly rivalry developed between Cuana and Guaire, King of Connaught, as to who could show the greatest hospitality to a guest. Cuana established the Laws of Liathmuine, which set down codes of hospitality and conduct. These rules were observed throughout Ireland, and were in many ways forerunners of the Laws of Chivalry.
Molagga’s oldest church in the neighbourhood was at Baunnanooneeny. But the best known of his foundations is Aghacross the ford of the cross, on the banks of the Funcheon river, where there was also a renowned holy well. However, pilgrimages to the well have more or less died out. This church and the one at Brigown were restored in the 1980s and ‘90s by Cork County Council’s Historic Monuments Committee. Also on the Funcheon, and near to Aghacross, is the ruined church of Marshalstown, which gives its name to the other third of the Mitchelstown area. The most prominent feature in this site is the old Protestant church, now in ruins. A doorway and parts of some walls are all that remain of its medieval parish church.
This locality was occupied, following the Norman invasions of the 12th century, by the St. Michels, a family whose patron saint was Saint Michael. It is from this family that the name of Mitchelstown is derived.
There is no factual foundation to claims that the town was held by the de Cauntetons (Condons), or that the town was named after a member of that family. The Placenames Commission, as well as numerous historians of impeccable standing, reject claims that ‘Mitchelstown’ has a de Caunteton origin. On the basis of evidence from 1286 and 1288, it seems certain that the placename involves a surname, not a first name. In 1286, Villa Michel was held by the heir of Geoffry Michel. In 1288 the same man held the ‘Vill of Michel.’ Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that this Norman soldier of fortune was the founder of modern Mitchelstown, which he probably obtained in reward for his military services.
A summary of the usage and evolution of the name is set out here.
Year Name in use
1286 Villa Michel
1288 Vill of Michel
1580c Baile an Bhisdeluid
1618 Michelstown alias Ballyvisteala Michellstown orse. Ballinvisteale
1625 Mitchelstowne alias Ballinvostially
1772 a mBaile Phisteil
1806c a mBaile Mhisteala
1806c a mBaile Mhisteala
1808 a mBaile Mhisteala