St. Donatus, Bishop of Fiesole

Patrick Weston Joyce

In this manner the pilgrims made their way right through France and on through north Italy till they arrived at Rome. This was the main object of their pilgrimage, and here they sojourned for a considerable time. Having obtained the Pope's blessing, they set out once more, directing their steps now towards Tuscany, till at length they reached the beautiful mountain of Fiesole near Florence, where stood many churches and other memorials of Christian saints and martyrs. They entered the hospice of the monastery, intending to rest there for a week or two, and then to resume their journey. At this time Irish pilgrims and missionaries were respected everywhere on the Continent; and as soon as the arrival of those two became known, they were received with honour by both clergy and people, who became greatly attached to them for their gentle quiet ways and their holiness of life.

It happened about the time of their arrival here that the pastor of Fiesole, who was a bishop, died; and the clergy and people resolved to have Donatus for their pastor. But when they went to him and told him what they wanted, he became frightened; and trembling greatly he said to them in his gentle humble way:—

"We are only poor pilgrims from Scotia, and I do not wish to be your bishop; for I am not at all fit for it, hardly even knowing your language or your customs."

But the more he entreated the more vehemently did they insist: so that at last he consented to take the bishop's chair. This was in or about the year 824.

We need not follow the life of St. Donatus further here. It is enough to say that notwithstanding all his fears and his deep humility, he became a great and successful pastor and missionary. For about thirty-seven years he laboured among the people of Fiesole by whom he was greatly loved and revered. Down to the day of his death, which happened about 861 when he was a very old man, he was attended by his affectionate friend Andrew. He is to this day honoured in and around Fiesole as an illustrious saint of those times. His tomb is still shown and regarded with much veneration: and in the old town there are several other memorials of him.[3]

Like St. Columkille, Donatus always cherished a tender regretful love for Ireland; and like him also he wrote a short poem in praise of it which is still preserved. It is in Latin, and the following is a translation of part of it made by a Dublin poet (the Rev. William Dunkin) a century and a half ago:—

Far westward lies an isle of ancient fame,

By nature bless'd; and Scotia is her name

Enroll'd in books [4]: exhaustless is her store

Of veiny silver and of golden ore.[5]

Her fruitful soil for ever teems with wealth,

With gems [6] her waters, and her air with health;

Her verdant fields with milk and honey flow [7];

Her woolly fleeces [8] vie with virgin snow;

Her waving furrows float with bearded corn;

And arms and arts her envied sons adorn![9]

No savage bear with lawless fury roves,

Nor fiercer lion through her peaceful groves;

No poison there infects, no scaly snake

Creeps through the grass, nor frog annoys the lake;[10]

An island worthy of its pious race,

In war triumphant, and unmatch'd in peace!


[3] A detailed and reverent and very interesting account of Donatus's work in Fiesole, of the legends told about him, and of the memorials of him still preserved there will be found in Miss Margaret Stokes's book "Six Months in the Apennines."

[4] I.e., Scotia is the name by which it is known in books. Scotia was one of the names of Ireland; but at home the natives always called it Erin.

[5] Ireland had mines of gold in old times; and silver was also found. Great numbers of Irish gold ornaments, found from time to time in the earth, are now preserved in museums.

[6] Pearls were then found in many Irish rivers; as they are sometimes to this day.

[7] The Venerable Bede, a great English historian writing in the eighth century, calls Ireland "a land flowing with milk and honey."

[8] Ireland was noted for the plenty and goodness of its wool.

[9] Ireland had great warriors and many learned men and skilful artists.

[10] See page 5, above.