A brief history of the monastic site know as “Eskerstephens".
Kathleen Connolly / Ann Mannion
Eskerstephens An Introduction
Nowadays we all associate St. Stephen with the monastic site that we know as “Eskerstephens.” This however may not always have been the case. In order to understand this change we need to look at both the name and the history of the Christian/Catholic Church.There are indications from Papal Letters dated 1462 & 1492, that the original name for “Eskerstephens” may have been “Disertpechyn”, “Dyssertpecay “ or “Yskertpechyn.” (“Disert/Dyssert or Yeskert” were all variations of the Irish “Dísert” which was used to describe a hermitage.) Given the way spellings were anglicised these might translate as “Dísert Fechín” or “Esker Fechín.”
Dísert comes from the Latin “desertum” meaning desert. During the 4th century there was a movement of hermits in Egypt & Syria retreating into the desert to live life in isolation and prayer. There appear to have been close links between the Eastern Churches and those of Ireland. There are references to Coptic Monks (from Egypt & Syria) in early Ireland. They were referred to as the “Desert Fathers.” It is probable that the idea of the “Dísert” came with them.
There were two St. Fechíns in early Irish history, one who founded a monastery in Fore, Co. Westmeath and another, lesser known, who was a priest and possibly at one time a missionary, and significantly his feast day is on Aug 2nd. He is referred to as St. Fetchnone or Feichnone, the apostle of the Scots (the old Latin name for the Irish) and the Picts (the name given to the old pre Celtic tribes of Britain.) It is believed that St. Fechín was attracted to what is now Eskerstephens because it was a good location for a dísert or hermitage. There was water from the lake, plenty of wildlife and herbs for food and medicine. It was remote and allowed him to devote himself to the monastic life without distraction.
The Roman Church
The name may have changed as a result of the many differences between the Celtic Christian Church and that of the Christian Church in Rome at the time. The Roman Church and its’ traditions were gradually gaining ground in Europe. The Irish Church practiced a form of Christianity closer to the original form practiced in areas like present day Israel, Egypt & Syria. The main differences centred on the Celtic Christians acceptance of married clergy, bishops and religious and the calculation of Easter, which the Church here calculated in a way that coincided with the Jewish feast of Passover.
In 664 the Synod of Whitby was held in England and the process of bringing all the Celtic Christian Churches both in Ireland and Britain under the umbrella of Rome began. Easter was to be celebrated according to the Roman calculations and the gradual abolition of other Celtic traditions began. It happened gradually but the history of the Celtic Church was obscured. As this happened, so did the name change, as a more acceptable saint was needed as patron of the monastic and ecclesiastical site. Thus it is suggested that the Church authorities chose St. Stephen, pope and martyr, who shares the same feast day – Aug 2nd – with St. Fechín.