Gardeners who, to a man, are dedicated to peaceful and meditative
pursuits, should care to know of the story of Saint Fiacre, the Irish
Prince who turned hermit, and after his death was hailed Patron of
He left Ireland, says the story, at that time when a missionary zeal was
sending Irish monks the length and breadth of Europe. As Saint Pol left
Britain and slew the Dragon on the Isle of Batz; Saint Gall drove the
spirits of flood across the Lake of Constance; Saint Columban founded
monasteries in Burgundy and the Apennines, so did Saint Fiacre leave his
native land and take himself to France, and there by a miracle enlarge
the space of his garden.
At Meaux, on the river Marne, near Paris, the Bishop Saint Faron had
founded a new monastery in the woods and called it the Monastery of
Saint Croix. To this monastery came the son of the Irish King, and made
his vows. It was early days in Europe, for Saint Fiacre died in or about
the year 670, and it is almost impossible to imagine the perils and
discomforts of his journey, for in Britain and Gaul fighting was going
on, roads were bad and unsafe, the sea had to be crossed in an open
But these Celts, driven west by war, now began to make their own war on
Europe, not with sword and shield and battle-cry, but with pilgrim’s
staff, and reed pen, and the device of Christ on their hearts.
Illumination, one of the marvels of monkish accomplishment, was spread
throughout Europe by bands of Irish monks, who, taking the wonderful
traditions of such work as “The Book of Kells,” and those works written
and illuminated at Lindisfarne, went their ways from country to country
spreading their culture as well as their message.
Saint Fiacre stayed a certain time in the monastery until, indeed, the
voice within him calling for more solitude and for another mode of life,
forced him to go to the Bishop. To him he spoke of his vocation, of
those feelings within him that prompted him to become a hermit.
The good Bishop seeing in Fiacre a good intention, and perceiving
doubtless the holy nature of the monk, granted him a space on his own
domain, some way from the monastery, on the edge of the woods and the
plain of Brie. To this place the monk repaired and began the great work
of his life.
Now it is not easy for the best of men at the best of times to live
solitary in a wood without becoming something of a self-conscious or
morbid person. Not so with these old hermits. They seemed to have the
grace of such excessive spirituality as to have been uplifted above
ordinary men, and to have lost all sense of loneliness in conversation
with the Saints, and in communion with God.
What finer means of reaching this exalted condition than by labouring to
make a garden in the wilderness? Saint Fiacre cleared a space in the
woods with his own hands, and in this space he built an oratory to Our
Lady, and a hut by it wherein he dwelt. All must have been of the most
primitive order; one of those beehive shaped buildings, such as still
remain in Ireland, for the oratory, fashioned out of stones and mud in
what is called rag-work, and most probably roofed with turf.
After the work of building he began to make his garden. It is evident
that his clearing was not near the river as the fountain or well from
which he drew his water is still to be seen and it is a considerable
Imagine the solitary life of this priest gardener, whose food depended
entirely on the produce of the ground. To any man the silence of the
woods holds a mysterious calm, a weird, haunting uneasiness. To dwellers
in woods, after a time, the silence becomes full of friendly voices; the
fall of Acorns; the crackling of twigs as a wild animal forces a passage
through the undergrowth; the snap of trees in the frost; the shuffling
of birds getting ready for the night. But here, in the wild woods of
Meaux in those early times, wolves, bears, wild boars lived.
It is possible to imagine the Saint on his knees at night, the trees,
dark masses round his garden, a heaven above him pitted with stars, the
smoke of his breath as he prays rising like incense. And, as has been
known to be the case, all wild animals fearless of him, and friendly to
him in whom they see, by instinct, one who will do them no harm. As
Saint Jerome laid down with the lions, as Saint Francis spoke with
Brother Wolf, and Sister Lark, so Saint Fiacre must have spoken with his
friends, the beasts. In the heart of a gardener lies something to which
all wild nature responds.
But consider a man of that time alone in the wood, at that time when men
knew so little and whose lives were full of superstitious guesses at
scientific facts. And think how much more full of dread Fiacre must have
been than an ordinary man, since he was one of a nation to whom fairies
and goblins of every kind are daily actualities. Think of the Saint
seeing his own face daily reflected in the well as he drew his water;
think of the mysterious quality of water in lonely wells when it seems
now to be troubled by unseen hands, now to lift a clear smiling face to
the sky. He must be a mystic and a man filled with a simple goodness who
can garden in a wilderness like this.
One can picture him seated at the door of his hut eating his Acorn mash
or Herb soup after a day’s work and prayer. A stout wooden spade rests
by his side, the shaft of Oak worn smooth by his hands. In front of him
what labours show in the ground! Huge stumps of trees that have been
uprooted and dragged away; herbs he has tried to grow showing green in
the heavy soil; wild flowers sweeting the air; here the beginnings of a
vineyard; there the first blades of a patch of Wheat, or Oats.
In various parts of Europe were other Irish people at work sweetening
the soil. Saint Gobhan near Laon, Saint Etto, at Dompierre, Saint Caidoc
and Saint Fricor in Picardy, and Saint Judoc also there, Saint Fursey,
at Lagny, six miles north of Paris; and a daughter of an Irish king,
Saint Dympna, at Gheel, in Belgium. These are but a few of the Irish who
ventured forth to save the world. Beyond all of these does Saint Fiacre
appeal to us who love our gardens.
Self-denial has been called the luxury of the Saints, yet the
phrase-maker would seem to such denials of unessentials as rich foods
and wines, and mortifications of the flesh which a man may choose to do
without any suggestion of Saintship. Here, in Saint Fiacre, we have a
man whose process of purification was symbolised by his work. The
uprooting of trees, the uprooting of a thousand superstitious ideas; the
purifying of the soil, the cleansing of his heart; the growing of food,
the sustenance for his spirit besides his body.
He leaves his native land, he becomes monk, hermit, gardener. He dwells
in the wilds of a forest, one man, alone, doing no great deed one might
imagine that would cause his fame to travel, living his quiet simple
life shut right away from the world by leagues of forest, more buried
than a man in the wilderness. For cathedral, the depth of his woods, the
aisles of great trees, the tracery and windows made by boughs and
leaves. For choir, the birds. He was, one would think, so utterly alone,
that no step but his own ever broke the silence of the woodland glades;
so isolated that no human voice but his own ever penetrated the brakes
and thickets. Yet he became known.
Doubtless some hunter, a wild man, to whom the tracks in the forest were
as roads, coming one day through the woods after game, burst into the
clearing, and stood amazed, paused suspicious, wondering to see the
little oratory, the hut, the garden all about. The hunter casts his keen
eyes about, here and there, alert, scenting danger, eyeing the new place
with anxious wonder, holding his spear in readiness. Then comes the
Saint from his hut and calls him brother, bids him put down his spear,
sit and eat.
The hunter goes; a swineherd, seeking lost droves of pigs turned loose
to fatten on the acorns, comes across the place. The news filters
through the country, reaches the huddled villages by the river, reaches
the dwellers in the hills, the people of the forest. They come to look,
to stare, to be amazed. To each Saint Fiacre offers his hospitality.
As men, drawn irresistibly by a strong personality, will throng towards
a well whose water is supposed to contain some virtue, or a stone to
touch which restores lost friends, so they came to test the holiness of
this man of the woods, and found him good, and true, and full of peace.
And they marvelled to find a garden in the wood, and, being entreated,
eat of its produce, and heard the holy man preach, and saw him heal.
Then the Saint was forced to build another hut for those of his visitors
who came from far to consult him, and, as the crowds grew greater he was
forced to go to the Bishop to ask for more land.
Saint Faron, the Bishop of Meaux, to whom all the forest belonged, knew
his man. One can imagine two such men leading lofty and spiritual lives
meeting in the monastery. I like to think of the Bishop as one of those
thin men full of years, with a skin like parchment, his holiness shining
out of his eyes, a man whose quiet voice, tuned to the silence of the
monastery, breathes peace. And Fiacre, bronzed with the open air, rough
with labour, with the curious eyes of the mystic, eyes that looked as if
they had pierced the veil of a mystery, standing before his Bishop
asking for his grant of land.
Coming from the depths of the heavy wood into the town, leaving the
silence of his forest for the noise of the place, he must have felt
strange. Those who met him were, I am sure, conscious of the atmosphere
he carried with him, the envelope all lonely men wear, the curious
reserve common to all dwellers in woods, and wilds.
The Bishop consented to the demand, and gave him his desire after a
curious manner. Perhaps to test this hermit whose fame had already
spread so far, perhaps to see how real were the stories he must have
heard of his spiritual son, this holy gardener, he granted him as much
land as he could enclose with his spade in one day.
Back went Saint Fiacre to his forest clearing, to his friends the birds,
his bubbling wells, his aisles of trees, his garden, now well grown,
and, breaking a stick he marked out far and wide the space of land he
needed, more than any man could in one day enclose with any spade. And
after that into the little oratory he went and prayed for help.
You may be sure every movement of this was carefully observed. A woman
envied him and spied on these proceedings. I take it she was some woman
to whom, before the Saint grew famous, the peasants came for spells and
simples, a wise woman, a witch, whose reputation was at stake.
The Saint’s prayer was answered. The woman, evil report on her tongue,
made her journey to the Bishop of Meaux, and accused Fiacre of magic, of
dealings with the Devil. Roused by the report, the Bishop came to see
the Saint and saw all that had happened. In one day all the wide space
Fiacre had marked out had been enclosed. After that the oratory was
denied to all women. Even as late as 1641, nearly a thousand years after
his death, when Anne of Austria visited his shrine in the Cathedral of
Meaux she did not enter the Chapel but remained outside the grating. It
was the legend, handed down all that time, that any woman who entered
there would go blind or mad.
Where the Saint had dug his solitary garden, and on the site of his cell
a great Benedictine Priory was built in after years, where his body was
kept and did many wonders of healing, especially in the cure of a
certain fleshy tumour, which they called “le fie de St. Fiacre.” After
many years, in the beginning of the seventeenth century, his body was
removed to the Cathedral at Meaux.
So it may be seen for how good a cause he became known as Patron of
Gardeners, and it must now be shown why he is called the Patron of Cab
Drivers. In 1640 a man of the name of Sauvage started an establishment
in Paris from which he let out carriages for hire. He took a house for
this business in the Rue St. Martin, and the house was known as the
Hotel de St. Fiacre, and there was a figure of the Saint over the
All the coaches plying from here began to be called, for short, fiacres,
and the drivers placed images of the Saint on their carriages, and
claimed him as their patron.
There is a Pardon of St. Fiacre in Brittany; and there are churches and
altars to him all over France.