Last week, driving up in the Autumn sunshine, on the road to St Arvans to Devauden, I called at Llanishen, where I left the road, drove slightly down the hill and to the church at the side of the road. The autumn leaves fell on each side,but the view was breathtaking, and unchanged from when the blessed Abbot St Isan toiled here for the Kingdom.
Whilst the church building looks a bit unloved, it has been well cared for and immediately you can see the llan area, all around it. The llan for the early British Church was the ‘circle of heaven’, cleared, prayed over, fasted over for forty days and nights and the church built as its beating heart at the centre. The boundary was hedged or built in stone and the abbot (as he was known) and his twelve monks would toil in the fields and attend the Opus Dei and Mass during the day in the Church according to ancient rights. Penitentials were fierce in the monks desire for holiness. The Mass and daily Church devotions were all in Latin and the families of the ecclesial community lived all around. Some llans were ‘con-hospitae’ with both monks and nuns living and taking part in the liturgical life of the community.
So it was for St Isan at Llanishen. . In A.D. 535 two monks set out eastwards from the monastery of Llan-Illtyd Fawr, aiming to establish new settlements, or "llans", in the wild terrain below Caerphilly mountain. One of these monks, Isan, established his "llan" on the present-day site of the Oval Park, an ideal location offering a ready fresh-water supply at a natural spring and the nearby Nant Fawr stream. He seems to have later departed to the ancient church he had heard about in Gwent, near the Severn,dating from Roman times, reputed to have had a relic of the martyred French Saint Denis. Unlike most of the early Cambro-British saints, we cannot trace his parentage as there simply is not enough information.
However we are told he was a Saint or a monk of Bangor Illtyd, or Llan-illtyd Mawr-now Llantwit Major. Baring Gould and Fisher maintain he is mentioned in the Life of St Illtyd, and it appears Abbot Isan was the holy man, who with another abbot visited St Illtyd just before his death.
Llanishen in Glamorgan-was probably his first llan. The Liber Landavensis or ‘Book of Llandaff’ refers to him as ‘Lann Ysan’ and also’ Llan Nissien’. The Normans made of it, the holy martyr of St Denis, patron of Paris, on whose martyred blood the city was grounded. This was from the savage era of persecutions from Rome in which St Maurice also died-also similarly ancient, since they could find no details of St Isan immediately. They rededicated many churches, yet the saintly abbot Isan, was, nevertheless the founder. In the Tintern Charter, to which it later belonged, it was referred to as ‘The Church of Dionyus (Dennis) of Lanissan. The Glamorgan Charter calls it ‘CAPELLA DI SANCTI DIONYSII’ as in the Tewkesbury Charter of 1180 AD. This was sixty years after the canonisation of St David for his defence of Catholic teaching against the Pelagians at Llandewi. It is said there are remains of a still earlier church in the parish called CAPEL DENIS which may even indicate there was a church here (like that at Tredunnock) in Roman times, commemorating a much loved martyr in a time of terrible persecution, which also saw the holy Caerleon Martyrs shedding their blood for the faith. The Feast Day of St Denis (whom I believe is carved in stone above ) is OCTOBER 9th as he is Apostle and Patron of France.
Abbot Isan, who later built his ‘llan’ around this site lived and toiled there. His own Feast Day (although not entered in the Welsh Church Calendar) is December 16th, the day of his death in the sixth or seventh century, which would have made him contemporary with St Derfel.
Sanctus Dionysius .Ora pro nobis
Sanctus Isanus.Ora pro nobis. Amen