Notes on the Foundation of the Diocese of Tuam

This article was written by Samuel J. Macguire and originally published in the 'Galway Reader' in the 1950s. The 'Galway Reader' is available from Galway Public Library.

Is Benignus the Founder?

In the town land of Tonlagee, about three miles from Tuam on the Ballinrobe side, lie the ruins of a monastic settlement, which is known as Kilbannon, i.e. the Church of Benignus. It is said to have been founded by St. Patrick during his sojourn in Connaught and Benignus is venerated in the locality as having been its first Abbot.

This is the popularly accepted account of the foundation, but there is considerable controversy amongst authorities as to its veracity. The confusion arises from the fact that Benignus could not possibly have done the amount of work in Connaught with which he is credited in the various records and it is obvious that either the sources are false or that there was another Benignus associated with Patrick in the Christianising of the West.

Knox (Notes on the Early History of the Dioceses of Tuam, Killala and Achonry) gives the benefit of the doubt to the latter theory and holds that there were two Benignuses, one the son of Sescnen, who succeeded Patrick as Primate in Armagh, and the other the son of Lugni, who was Abbot of DruimliasMonastery near Dromahare before coming to Kilbannon. In this he is supported by The Book of Armagh, written in the early part of the ninth century, and which incorporates the Annals of Tirechan, which were compiled in or about 701 A.D. It states that

"Binean, son of Lugni, writer and priest and anchorite, was son of the daughter of Lugaith Maice Netach, to whom his mother's race gave an inheritance in which he founded a Church consecrated to God and dedicated to Saint Patrick.""And Patrick marked the place for himself with his staff and himself first offered the Body and Blood of Christ after Binean had received Orders from him. And he blessed him and left him after him in his place."

Another note in The Book of Armagh states that Patrick left his pupil Benin in Druimlias where he was for seventeen years, and The Tripartite Life of St. Patrick contains a reference to the same foundation, stating that Patrick placed over it his pupil Benignus, who governed it for twenty years.

The question then arises as to why Benignus the son of Lugni, only received Orders when he came to Kilbannon if he had been twenty years Abbot of Druimlias. In fact, if he had been this time at Druimlias he could scarcely have been associated at all with St. Patrick in the foundation at Kilbannon, as the latter's journeying's through Connaught occupied no more than seven years entirely. Nor could Benignus of Driumlias have been the son of Sescnen who succeeded Patrick in Armagh and who died in 468 as the records of that Saint's activities do not allow for a protracted stay in Connaught. That outstanding authority on ecclesiastical history, Dr. Lanigan, refuses to admit the possibility of there having been a second Benignus. In his comprehensive study of the life of St. Patrick (Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, vol I) he does not refer to the Saint as having ever visited Kilbannon and he vehemently denies the possibility of his having founded Druimlias and of having left Benignus there. The reference to the other Benignus in The Tripartite Life he dismisses as having been introduced "merely to answer some objection against certain stories about the real Benignus, such as that of his having been Abbot of Driumlias."

Of the foundation as referred to in The Book of Armagh, Fr. Ryan (Irish Monasticism) merely states that it was "at some place that cannot easily be identified", but he acknowledges P. Grosjean's conclusion that it was at Kilbannon (AA.SS.Boll., T. iv Nov p. 178, n.8). Fr. Ryan refers to the foundation in his list of those entrusted to priests as distinct from bishops.

Next - Jarlath, the First Bishop and Abbot of Tuam?next