Pilgrimage to St Gobnait at Ballyvourney, Co. Cork

Saint Gobnait: first impressions

I first came across St Gobnait when I wandered in to the Honan Chapel  around 14 years ago.  The Honan chapel is  very  beautiful  church located on the campus of University College Cork. It has many splendid stained glass windows by Harry Clarke, who in my opinion was Ireland’s finest stain glass artist.

As I wandered around the chapel I looked up at one of the many windows which depicted various Irish saints and there was Gobnait. Her window is one of the most beautiful depictions of a saint I had ever seen. The window shows  Gobnait of Baile Bhúirne/Ballyvourney adorned in blue robes and surrounded by bees, at her feet  are two men with   fearful expressions.  My curiosity immediately demanded that I find out who this saint was, where she came from and most importantly what was the connection with the bees?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/feargal/6388195535/

Stain glass image of St Gobnait in the  Honan Chapel . Taken by Fergal of Clabbagh (http://www.flickr.com/photos/feargal/6388195535/)

Who was Gobnait and where did she come from?

Much of what we know about Gobnait comes from folklore. Unlike many other Irish saints, Gobnait’s  life story was not written down during the medieval period. Tradition  and  links with  St Abban (also associated with Ballyvourney) suggests  she lived during the 6th century.  Today the main centres of devotion to Gobnait are  on  Inis Oírr/Inisheer ( one of  the Aran Islands), Dún Chaoin in West Kerry, Kilshanning, Co. Cork  and Baile Bhúirne/Ballyvourney near the Cork/Kerry border, where the local people venerate the saint on her feast day,  the 11th of February. Evidence of the saint’s cult  is also found in the dedications of churches and holy wells in the counties of Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Waterford.

There are two  folk versions of the  saints life. One  tells us that Gobnait was born in  Co Clare and due to a family feud fled of to the island of Inisheer where she founded a church. One day an angel appeared to her  and told her to head inland and  to find the  place of her resurrection. She was told she  would know this spot as it would be marked by  the presence of 9 white deer. She travel south in search of  this place and her  many stops  are marked by  churches and  holy wells dedicated to her, such as the medieval church at Kilgobnet,  Co Waterford.

At various stages of her journey Gobnait met  with white deer of varying numbers but it was only when she reached Ballyvourney that  she found the nine deer grazing  and it was here she  ended of her journey. In a Kerry version of her life, Gobnait  was said to be the daughter of a pirate who came ashore at Fionntraigh (Ventry, Co. Kerry).  Once ashore an angel appeared to her and  told her to go forth and search for the site  of her resurrection  and to travel on until she saw nine white deer grazing, which she did in Ballyvourney.

I will post more in the coming months about  Gobnait’s journey around Ireland and the other sites associated with her.  This post  will focus on the  evidence of  pilgrimage at Ballyvourney.

Metal working and bees

Gobnait was likely the patron saint of iron workers. The hypocoristic (pet name) form of her name Gobba come from Gabha which means smith.  Excavations  St Gobnait’s House/Kitchen at her shrine in Ballyvourney  in  the 1950’s,  prior to the erection of the modern statue of St Gobnait, revealed evidence  of iron working (smithing and smelting).

Gobnait was also the patron saint of bee keepers and kept her own bees.  There are a number of  legend  in which she unleashes her bees to attack enemies. In one  story soldiers came to Ballyvourney and stole livestock, as they left the village the saint  let loose her honey-bees upon them.  Another version of this tale has a band of robbers stealing her cattle and she sends her bees  after them and they promptly return the  cattle. It is this legend that inspired the Harry Clarke window. Many modern depictions of the saint  associate her with bees such as the  statue at her shrine in Ballyvourney by  Séamus Murphy.

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St Gobnait in the rain. Statue of St Gobnait created by Seamus Murphy in the 1950s.

Medieval Pilgrimage at Ballyvourney

Gobnait is not the only saint associated with Ballyvourney. St Abban had established a monastery here prior to her arrival. Abban gave her land and  helped she established a nunnery here. The traditional  site of Gobnait’s nunnery is the old graveyard and medieval parish church known as Teampall Ghobhatan ( the church of Gobnait).   I will come back to St Abban and his links to Ballyvourney in another post.

There is  little evidence  to suggest when pilgrims first began to come here. Unfortunately the archaeological and historical sources tell us nothing about pilgrimage prior to the 17th century.  Given the popularity of the saints cult  in the 17th century it is likely pilgrimage  likely  began many centuries prior to this date.

The silence of the historical and archaeological record concerning pilgrimage at Ballyvourney, should not be seen as  evidence that pilgrimage was not taking place in the early or later medieval period. Pilgrimage is seldom mentioned in the historical records and the act of pilgrimages  in most cases leaves little physical trace behind.

The earliest written reference to pilgrimage at Ballyvourney dates to the early 1600’s.   In 1601 Pope Clement VIII granted a special indulgence  of 10 years to those who, on Gobnait’s  feast day, visited the parish church, went to Confession and Communion and who prayed for peace among  ‘Christian princes’ , expulsion of heresy and the exaltation of the church’.  It is clear from this and other 17th century references,  such as the  poetry  of Dáibhidh Ó Bruidar, the writings of Don Philip Ó Súilleabháin and Seathrún Céitinn, that Gobnait’s  cult  was strong and popular during this period.

In 1603 Donal Cam Ó Súilleabháin during  his flight from Béara  stopped at Ballyvourney with his men to pray at Gobnait’s shrine, to offer gifts and to ask for her protection. The importance of Gobnait’s cult  is also attested by the  visited of  the Papal Nunico Rinuccini   in 1645 (Ó hÉaluighthe 1958, 47).

Devotion to Gobnait is again mentioned in the writings of Sir Richard Cox  in 1687,  who stated

Ballyvorney, a small village, considerable only for some holy relick (I think of Gobbonett) which does many cures and other miracles, and therefore there is great resort of pilgrims thither.

The relic  described by Cox is  a small  13th century medieval statue of St Gobnait, now in the care of the parish priest of Ballyvourney.

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Medieval statue of St Gobnait

Gobnait’s statue was again mentioned in 1731 when it is noted that

this Parish is remarkable for the superstition paid to Guibnet ‘s image  on Gubinet’s Day.

The literary sources suggest that  the hereditary keepers of the shrine and relics of Gobnait (the statue) were the  O’ Hierlihys family. Many of the relics of Irish saints  survived the reformation as they were kept  by individual families and passed down from generation to generation. These families were descendants of the family of stewards, or airchinnaigh, who controlled monastic lands and were often remunerated with a specific plot of land and fees when the relic was used. During the 18th & 19th century many of these families  fell on hard times and sold the relics some have been lost but thankfully many are now in the National Museum of Ireland. The statue of Gobnait continued to be cared for by the O’Herlihy family until 1843 when the statue was given into the care of the parish priest and it remains  in the care  to  church of Ballyvourney to this day.

John Richardson, a protestant gentleman with a low opinion of pilgrimage, gives an account of the 18th century pilgrimage at Ballyvourney in his book The Great Folly of Pilgrimage.  His account suggests that  devotion was focused on the aforementioned statue of St Gobnait  and makes no mention to any of the stations visited by modern pilgrims.

An Image of Wood, about two Foot high, carves and painted like a Women, is  kept in the Parish of Ballyvourney, in the Diocese of Cloyne, and the County of Cork; it is called Gubinet. The pilgrims resort to it twice a year, viz on Valintine’s Eve and on Whitsun Thursday…. it is set up for adoration on the old ruinous walls of the church. They go around the image trice on their knees saying a certain number of Paters, Aves and Credos. Then following prayer in Irish ‘A Gubinet, tabhair slan aon Mbliathan shin, agus sábháil shin o gach geine agus sórd Egruas, go speicialta on Bholgach’ and they conclude with kissing the idol and making an offer to it every one according to his ability, which generally amounts in the whole to 5 or 6 pounds.  The image is kept by one of the family of the O’ Herlihy’s and when anyone is sick of the small-pox, they send for it and scarifice a sheep to it, and wrap the skin about the sick person, and the family eat the sheep. But the Idol hath now much lost its Reputation, because two of the O Herlihys died lately of the Small pox. The Lord Bishop of Cloyne was pleased to favour me with the narrative of his rank idolatory, to suppress which he hath taken very proper and effectual methods (Richardson 1723, 70).

He goes on to say

Pilgrims kissed the statue, rubbed aching limbs to it, tied handkerchiefs about its neck, to be worn afterwards as a preventative against sickness (Richardson 1723, 71).

Richardson’s writings are very anti Catholic and written at a time when pilgrim was viewed as superstitious and backward by the established church, despite his negative tone his writing provides one of  the most detailed of the early accounts of pilgrimage at Ballyvourney.   During the  18th and 19th century pilgrimage was not just under pressure from the established church, many Irish pilgrimages were suppressed by the Catholic clergy  but thankfully the efforts of the then Bishop of Cloyne  to eradicate the pilgrimage at  Ballyvourney were in vain.

The modern pilgrimage at Ballyvourney on the saint’s feast day

I have been to Ballyvourney  on a number of occasions,  but this year was the first time I attended a pilgrimage. I arrived in the village around 10.30 am.   I was  told by some people i meet that was mass in honour of Gobnait, would be said at   11.30am  &  16.00pm  and that a rosary would be said at the shrine at 15.00 pm.  I was also informed  that people  visit the statue of Gobnait and  the shrine &  holy well to do their ’rounds’ (pilgrim prayer) throughout the day .

I headed first to the church to see the medieval statue of St Gobnait. The statue is a treasure possession of the parish of Ballyvourney and it is fascinating to think that it has survived here in this parish since the 13th or 14th century. Made of oak, it is approximately 27 inches/ 68 cm tall. The back is hollowed out from the shoulder to the feet. The face is now very worn and traces of  paint can be seen  on the front of the statue.  The folds of the saint’s dress and a belt are still visible. The feature of her face are now undiscernible but the details of her hands  (one hand is raised  to her chest and the other by her side) are clearly visible.

St Gobnait's Statue showing detail of hands

St Gobnait’s Statue, photo  showing detail of hands & robe

On the saint’s feast day the statue is displayed within the church. On the occasion of my visit it  was placed on a small table in the church in front of the altar.  A table with a large jar of colourful ribbons, key rings and booklets about Gobnait (all for sale) was located a few meters away  from the medieval statue in front  of a modern plaster statue of the saint.  People queued up and purchased fistful of ribbons and formed orderly lines to approach the medieval statue. The pilgrims armed with their ribbons (which they had brought with them or just  purchased) , were  no ready to  perform the ritual called St Gobnait’s measure. This is a practice  were pilgrims use the ribbons  to ‘measure’ the statue.

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Pilgrim’s taking ‘St Gobnait’s measure’ after mass in Ballyvourney church.

The ribbon(s) is held along the length of the statue and then wrapped around the neck, then the  waist and finally the feet of the statue. Some pilgrims make the sign of the cross when this is done, others pick up the statue and kiss it, while  others bless themselves with the statue.  The ribbon or in most cases ribbons are  then brought home and  used to ward off and to cure sickness.  Farmers often  placed  the ribbons in outhouses where there is livestock. As I sat in the church waiting for mass there was a constant line of people waiting to get to the statue. The scene reminded me of Richardson’s description  of pilgrims in 1723,  which tells of pilgrims tieing  handkerchief to the statue and then wearing them about the neck  as a preventative against illness.  It was fascinating to see that  modern pilgrims  are interact with  the statue in much the same manner as their ancestors almost 300 years before.  The church soon filled to capacity and a  mass was said in Irish.  There was a mix of people from within and outside the parish in attendance. Many  people had travelled some distance to get  here  and I heard one man say he came  that morning with his son from Killorglin in Co Kerry.

After  mass a new group of  people lined up  to visit the statue with their ribbons. I was told people would come throughout the day to visit the statue but the main burst of activity focused around mass times. When I passed by the church later at 16.15 the car park was again chock-a-block with cars.

Pilgrim stations at St Gobnait’s shrine.

A short distance from the village is St Gobnait’s shrine,  the other focus of devotion for pilgrims to Ballyvourney. As I mentioned above St Gobnait’s shrine is the traditionally held to be the site of St Gobnait’s nunnery and the burial-place of the saint. Throughout the year it  attracts pilgrims on a daily basis. The main peaks in pilgrimage are Whitsun, the feast of St Gobnait, on the 11th of February and an open air mass in July.

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Aerial shot of St Gobnait’s shrine (taken from http://www.leevalleywalking.com/about.htm)

The landscape of the shrine is divided  in two  with  St Gobnait’s house, holy well and statue  separated from  the other stations by a  modern road.  During the course of my visit  I meet another  blogger  Richard Scriven  (Geography UCC)  who is currently doing PhD research  on the modern pilgrimage at Ballyvourney. For more details of Richard’s research check out his blog http://liminalentwinings.com/.

The day was  very cold with light to heavy showers but during the time I was here there was a constant  stream of pilgrims. Most  pilgrims  were  in  small groups of two or three and many were alone.  A small crowd gathered  at  15.00, for the rosary ,  in the area beside St Gobnait’s house.  Many of the people here who attended  the rosary  left afterwards perhaps to catch the 16.00 mass, while a small group remained to do the stations.

Pilgrim's at the Rosary  at Ballyvourney

Pilgrim’s  hiding from the rain during the recitation  of the rosary at Ballyvourney

Modern  information boards  are found  beside all the  pilgrim stations and detail the required prayers for each stations.

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One of the modern notice boards located at the shrine.

The  following details of the rounds is taken from the book  Saint Gobnait of Ballyvourney by  Bernie Donoghue Murphy written in c. 2007.

Pilgrimage begins in front of the  statue of Gobnait.  The  pilgrim recites  7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Mary’s and 7 Gloria,  then walks clockwise ‘ ar deiseal’  around the outer path (around the periphery of the site) reciting the Apostles Creed. The practice of  pilgrims walking in a clockwise circuit can be traced back to early medieval times and  continued in post medieval and modern times.

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Pilgrims beginning their round  before the modern statue of St Gobnait.

At St Gobnait’s House (station 2)  the pilgrim recites 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Mary’s and 7 Gloria.  The pilgrim  walks clockwise around the  station reciting the apostles creed. I also saw people go inside the hut and walk clockwise around the interior and finish by marking a modern pillar with a cross.

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Pilgrim within St Gobnait’s house marking the centre pillar with a cross.

This station  was in ruins  1950s. It was restored   following an  excavation of the site by M. J. O’Kelly  and rebuilt  to its current state. The results of this excavation suggests the structure was used for craft working in the early medieval period. Large amounts of slag (the waste product of  iron smelting),  a crucible  and other artifacts connected with iron working were recovered. Two  bullaun stones (stones with man-made depressions), artifacts which many scholars believe were used to grind metal ores are found close by at the site of Gobnait’s grave.

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Pilgrim praying at St Gobnait’s house (Ó hÉaluighthe 1958, Pl. 2)

Modern pilgrims  have marked  stones around the  shrine  with crosses as part of their prayers.  The two entrance stones to St Gobnait’s house are marked by crosses,  as are the  modern  cylinder shaped pillars within the  hut and various stone in St Gobnaits church. This practice is seen at other pilgrim sites such as St Declan’s well at Ardmore. Such activity dates to  post medieval and modern times. Small pebbles are left on top of these stone for  pilgrims to  incise the sign of the cross.

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Crosses marked on the top of the modern pillar.

Having finished the prayers at station 2 ,  the pilgrim goes to the near by holy well , one of two wells associated with Gobnait at the shrine. The pilgrim then kneels down and  drinks some water from the holy well.

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Holy well beside St Gobnait’s house.

The remaining stations are  found  within the old graveyard. The pilgrim then crosses the road and enters the old graveyard.

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Crosses etched on the modern styles

Station 3 & 4 are located beside each other, close to the main entrance to the graveyard.  At station 3  the pilgrim  recites 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Mary’s and 7 Gloria. The pilgrim  walks  twice clockwise around the this station ( station 4 is at the centre of this path) reciting the apostles creed.

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Pilgrims praying at Station 3 & 4.

Station 4  is a sod-covered mound of loosely packed stones (4m N-S; 5.6m E-W; H 1.3m) known as  St Gobnait’s grave. The pilgrim recites 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Mary’s and 7 Gloria.  The pilgrim then walks  twice clockwise around  this station reciting the apostles creed.

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Station 4 St Gobnait’s grave.

On top of the mound is a large flat slab which pilgrims  have  incised with a  cross. A small pebble is left beside the cross. This station is very colourful and eye catching. Pilgrims have  left  behind votive offerings such as  holy statues, medals,  rosary beads & crucifixes.

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Cross incised by pilgrims on slab on top of St Gobnait’s grave.

From here the pilgrim walks past the 19th century Church of Ireland to Station 5, located at the corner of the  old church. The pilgrim  recites 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Mary’s and 7 Gloria.  The pilgrim  then walks  around St Gobnait’s church 4 times, reciting at each  circuit,  one decade of the Rosary.

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Pilgrim’s doing rounds of the church.

The pilgrim then enters the interior of the church. Station 6  is located  at the east gable of the church.  The pilgrim recites 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Mary’s and 7 Gloria .

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Station 6 in the interior of the church.

Modern pilgrims have left there mark within the church. There are statues placed in putlog holes ( small square holes used to hold wooden beams,  used in the initial  building of the church) some of the stone in the fabric of the church and   two 19th century grave stones have  had  crosses incised on them.

The pilgrim then moves on to station 7, located at the window at  east end of the south wall of the church. A  rectangular recess (cupboard) has been filled over the years by pilgrims  with statues and beads and other religious memorabilia.  The pilgrim recites 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Mary’s and 7 Gloria.

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Station 7

On completion of prayers  the pilgrim reaches out through the window and makes the sign of the cross above the top lintel on a piece of  medieval sculpture known as  Sheela-na -gig. Sheela  are  figurative carvings  of naked women, usually bald and emaciated, with lug ears,  squatting and pulling apart their vulva.  These carvings are found many medieval churches, sometimes castle sites in  Ireland and England. There is much uncertainty as to their original function some think, they were used to ward off evil, warn against lust or even fertility figure.

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Window with Sheela-na-gig

The pilgrim then moves outside of the church to station 8, which is known as the  priest’s grave.  The grave marks the burial of Fr Daniel O’Herlihy  was buried here in 1637. The pilgrim then  recites 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Mary’s and 7 Gloria  at this station.

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Station 8, the priest’s grave

Station 9 is at the southwest corner of  the west gable of the church. The focus of devotion  is a polished  agate stone ball, call the bulla. The ball is located in a rectangular recess and  is renowned for its healing power. The  pilgrim  recites  7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Mary’s and 7 Gloria. Some pilgrims had left a religious medals  and a  piece  of paper probably with a petition to the saint beside the ball.

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Station 9  the polished agate ball surrounded by votive offerings.

There is a folktale associated the with the stone.  Legend has it an invader decided to build a castle in the area. Gobnait could see the castle walls from her church.  Throwing the bulla  at the castle  she razed the castle walls to the ground.  The stone then miraculously returned to the saints hand. Each time the walls of the castle were rebuilt the saint would knock them down again with the bulla. Finally the invaders gave up and move away.

To complete the pilgrimage the pilgrim walks down the road to St Gobnait’s well (Station 10). The pilgrim recites 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Mary’s and 7 Gloria,  one decade of the rosary and drinks the water from the well.

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St Gobnait’s well

Like many holy wells in Ireland  St Gobnait’s well is associate with a  rag tree and there is a tradition of leaving votive offerings at this tree. Below is a photo of the tree taken when I last visited here in 2006,  as you can see is covered rags and bead  and tokens left be pilgrims. I think it  looks quiet lovely.   Since my last visit   most of these offering have been removed but a few are still to be found.

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Tree beside St Gobnait’s well taken in 2006.

I came across another book  called Saint Gobnait  of Ballyvourney by  Eilís Uí Dháiligh written in 1983. This book notes that many pilgrims begin there stations with the traditional prayer

Go mbeannaí Dia Dhuit, a Ghobnait Naofa,

Go mbeannaí Muire faoi mar a bheannaím féin dhuit.

Is chughatsa a thána ag gearán mo scéal leat,

Go dtabharfá leigheas i gcuntais Dé dom.

May God and Mary bless you,

O Holy Gobnait, I bless you too,

and come to you with my complaint.

Please cure me for God’s sake.

She also notes the traditional finishing prayer is

A Ghobnait an dúchais

do bhiodh i mBaile Mhuirne

Go dtaga tú chugamsa

le d’chabhair is le d’ chúnamh

(O St Gobnait of Ballyvourney, come to my aid).

Uí Dháiligh  gives instructions for  the pilgrimage as follows (taken directly from her book pages 25-26).

There are five  Stations or Ulacha and each has a particular significance.

I The First Station or Ula Uachtarach is the site of Gobnait’s House. (Stop 1 & 2).

II The Second Station or Ula láir is her grave (stop 3 & 4).

III The Third Station brings us to her Church (stops 5 & 6).

At each of the three stations the pilgrim walks ar deiseal, that is clockwise, and prays. The  customary practice is to say seven Paters; seven Aves; and either seven Glorias or the Apostles’ Creed at the outer ring of each Station which is traversed twice. The same is repeated around the inner circles twenty-eight Paters; twenty-eight Aves; and either twenty-eight Glorias or four Creeds in all.

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Pilgrim praying at Station 5 and a group of pilgrims praying at Station 9 the bulla stone

IV The Fourth Station (Stops 7 & 8) is inside the church where one pater; one Ave; and either one Gloria or one Creed is said. The pilgrim pauses at the south window in honour of the effigy over the window head through by some to be an old image of Gobnait herself.

V The Fifth Station consists of a visit to the Priest’s Grave which lies outside the right corner of the East Gable, where one pater; one Ave, and one Creed are said (stop 9); a visit to the bulla in the south corner of the west gable (Stop 10) and the journey to the well (Stop 11). The pilgrim goes down the main road a little distance and enters the grove where he will find the old Well. Here he says one Pater, one Ave, and one final creed. He drinks the water and says a final prayer.

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Cups and statues left on top of St Gobnait’s well.

Conclusion

Despite the lack of  evidence for pilgirmage in the medieval period, I have no doubt that pilgrims were coming to Ballyvourney from an early date. Gobnait’s reputation as a healer and miracle worker  would have attracted pilgrims from the immediate locality and further afield. We can never know how medieval pilgrims interacted with the shrine, but the  pilgrim rituals would not have been  static and  would have  constantly evolved as evident from the slight variation of the accounts of the modern stations described above.  The  medieval pilgrims to Ballyvourney like those in the 17th , 18th century  would have  come here for much the same reasons as modern pilgrims, to ask for help from the saint and in search of  healing.  Above all it is  the devotion to Gobnait  through the  little wooden  statue  that links the people of Ballyvourney with their medieval forefathers.

© Louise Nugent 2013

References

Chaomhánach, E. ”The Bee, its Keeper and Produce, in Irish and other Folk Traditions’. Department of Irish Folklore.http://www.ucd.ie/pages/99/articles/chaomh.pdf accessed 8/07/2012.

Power, D. 1997. Archaeological Inventory of County Cork: Mid Cork v. 3. Dublin: Stationary Office.

Henry, F. (1952) The decorated stones at Ballyvourney, Co. Cork. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 57, 41-42.

MacLeod, C.  1946.  ‘Mediaeval figure sculpture in Ireland’ JRSAI Vol. LXXVI, Part II.

Harris, D. 1938. ‘Saint Gobnet, Abbess of Ballyvourney’, JRSAI Vol. LXVIII, 272-277.

Ó’ h-Éaluighthe, M. A. 1958. ‘St. Gobnet of Ballyvourney’, JCHAS Vol. LVII,  43-62.
O’Kelly, M. J. (1952) St Gobnet’s House, Ballyvourney, Co. Cork. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 57, 18-40.

Richardson, J. 1727. The great folly, superstition, and idolatry, of pilgrimages in Ireland; especially of that to St. Patrick’s purgatory. Together with an account of the loss that the publick sustaineth thereby; truly and impartially represented. Dublin: Printed J. Hyde

http://www.dioceseofkerry.ie/page/heritage/saints/st_gobnait/ (accessed 21/01/2013).

http://www.seandalaiocht.com/1/post/2010/11/st-gobnets-house-ballyvourney-co-cork.html (accessed 18/02/2012).

The modern pilgrimages at Faughart on the feast day of St Brigit

Last week I managed to make it to Faughart, one of Irelands most interesting of pilgrim sites. My visit coincided with  the feast of St Brigit the patron of the area. Faughart  claims to be the birth place of St Brigit and the landscape of the area has a strong cult association with the saint.

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Map showing Faughart in relation to Dundalk (after google maps)

This has been one of the most difficult posts I have written. It was difficult as  there is so much to say regarding the cult of Brigit,  the history and the archaeology of the pilgrimage at Faughart. After a lot of thought,  I decided to focus on my experience at this years St Brigit’s day pilgrimage and at a later date to write another post on  the origins and history of pilgrimage at Faughart and the cult of Brigit.

Location

Before I begin to describe my pilgrimage  just some words on the location of the site. Faughart is situated about 1-1.5 miles outside of Dundalk. The modern pilgrimage landscape stretches between the old graveyard  at Faughart hill with its medieval church and holy well dedicated to St Brigit  and St Brigit’s shrine a series of station,  holy stones and modern oratory  located along the  banks of the a small stream know as St Brigit’s stream.

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Map showing the old graveyard and St Brigits shrine at Faughart

The distance between the two sites is about half a mile.

Faughart is a very popular pilgrim shrine and  pilgrims come here each day throughout the year.  It  is renowned as a place of  healing. The main days of  group/mass devotion  are the 1st of February, the feast day of Brigit and the 1st  sunday in July,  a  day of the national pilgrimage.

My visit coincided with  on the 1st of February. I return also on the 3rd of February when I joined a group of pilgrims walking from Dundalk to Faugart. This second pilgrimage was part of the annual ‘Brigid of Faughart Festival’, a four-day  annual event with lectures, workshops and pilgrimages that  focuses on Brigit . The festival  is a celebration of Brigit, both Goddess and Saint.   For more information  about the event see the link http://www.doloreswhelan.ie/events/brigid-faughart-festival/ .  St Brigit is very important to the people of Louth and  because of her pre-christian origins she bridges the gap between the christian and pagan world. She is a very interesting saint  and I will discuss her cult further at a later date.

St Brigit’s Day at Faughart/pilgrimage part I

Faughart is the other end of the country from where I live, so I travelled up to  Dublin on St Brigit’s eve and headed to Faughart the morning of the 1st of February. I had been to Faughart once before in 2006  but my memory of how to get there was a little rusty.  I decided to stopped first at Dundalk and get directions at the tourist information office .  A big thank you to Sinead who works there for all her help.  I also dropped in to the County Museum where the staff were equally helpful.

I eventually arrived about mid day to St Brigit’s shrine which is the main attraction for modern pilgrims. This site consists of a series of holy stone located on the banks of St Brigit’s stream. The shrine fills  a long rectangular field divide in two by a road. The stream known as St Brigit’s stream runs through its centre.

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Map showing the landscape of the shrine of St Brigit. The shrine is located within the tree covered area and the field showing the stream channel (after google maps).

The  car park was full to capacity  so I packed along the side of the road with the other cars . There was a constant stream of people coming and going . The area of the shrine is quiet large so its easy to underestimate the numbers.  One of the first things I noticed  was   people selling St Brigit’s crosses, candles and  holy mementoes and like any good pilgrim I left with about four St Brigit’s crosses which I have since  distributed among friends and family .

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A vendor selling religious memorabilia and St Brigit’s crosses

Dotted about the shrine  are set instructions for the traditional  stations at the shrine  and   many pilgrims still adhere to them  but others  seem to follow their own  route around the shrine.  As I arrived the day was dry and sunny but it soon turned into  a ‘fine soft day’ Irish code for  a constant light rain.

Instuctions for the traditional stations

Instructions for the traditional stations at the lower end of the shrine

Pilgrimage  begins at the upper shrine.  This is  a lovely place  with lots of  mature trees and a  stream running  through the centre. During the main day of pilgrimage relics of St Brigit (owned by Kilcurry parish) are kept in a simple oratory dedicated to the saint  and many begin their pilgrimage here entering through the main gates and  climb the steps to the oratory past the statues of SS Patrick, Colmcille, Malachy and Oliver Plunkett.

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A pilgrim climbing  the steps to St Brigit’s oratory

Pilgrims then pause in front of the oratory to  pray.   For St Brigit’s day a priest in charge of the relic,  is in the oratory during set times  and the  pilgrims can go to  be  blessed by the relic of St Brigit if they wish. The  relic is a  tiny piece of bone (skull)  kept   in a small box with glass lid. The story of the relic  is an interesting one and I will come back to it in another post.

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Pilgrims praying at oratory

The reliquary ( which  holds relic) is place on forehead  of the pilgrim and prayers recited by the priest who asks  St Brigit  to pray for and bless the pilgrims.

The traditional stations begin at the fountain  a stone structure    that reminded me of the corbelled well  (St Brigit’s well) at the nearby old graveyard.  Water from the stream that flows through the site is pipe into the structure  and flows into a large  stone with a hollow  which like many of the other hollowed stones at the site may be  possible bullaun stones.

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Pilgrims praying at station 1

This structure has been renovated since my last visit and  two concrete paths  placed across the once open stream  just opposite it.  At station  1 the pilgrim is to recite one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria.  I saw many  queue  up here to take the water  home in plastic bottles and to simply bless themselves.

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Station 1 taken in 2006 not the open stream bed in the background which leads to station 2.

Station 2  is located beside station 1 and the pilgrim  must walk a few steps and cross to the  far side of steam. The stream   is railed on either side and the pilgrim must recites one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria .

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Photo of station 2 & 3 & 4 taken in 2006

Station 3  is a stone located at the center  of the stream bed, the pilgrim recites one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria here .

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Station no 3 taken in 2006

The photo above shows station 3 in 2006.  Since this date the stone has been incorporated into the concreted  path (mentioned above) to link the two banks.  I wonder was this done for insurance reasons to make the crossing safer for those who are unsteady on their feet ?  Unfortunately it is not as aesthetically pleasing as before, but I suppose it is safer.  The rest of the site seems unchanged.

Once station 3 is complete the pilgrim crosses over  to the other side of the  stream and begins Station 4 . This station is  at the modern looking celtic cross. Here the pilgrim is to perform 10  circuits  reciting one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria at each circuit . Most of the people I observed just prayed in front of the cross, although I did see some people do the circuits.

The pilgrim continues south along the east bank of the stream, they pray at the  stations of the cross which are dotted along the bank. Some also stop and pray at   a grotto dedicated to the Our Lady.

Pilgrims praying at the stations of the cross

Pilgrims praying at the stations of the cross

This route takes the pilgrims  across the road   into the lower shrine which is much more open and landscaped. One lady I meet told me in the past there was a lot more bushes and trees here which she felt gave more privacy for pilgrims praying.

As one enters the lower part of the shrine  on the left is a small chapel.  According to the noticeboard on the 1st of February mass was said here at 10.30, 12.00 and 13.00.

The stream  continues down slope.  I also notices a modern well type structure built over the stream. Pilgrims  made their way down slope  stopping  to pray at the stations of the cross and some at the well structure  and some people also collected water from here in plastic bottles.

pilgrims saying stations of the cross

Pilgrims at the lower shrine

Pilgrims begin station 5  at the point  just where the stream turns and heads east  along the field boundary wall  of the shrine.  Again the   pilgrim recites one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria .

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View of pilgrims at stations 5-10.

Close by is station 6,  which is  known as the  hoof stone.  Again pilgrims recites one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria.

Hoof stone

Station 6 the hoof stone

Stations 6-10 are all invested with origin legends connected with St Brigit.  If I remember correctly, folk tradition states that St Brigit was living with her sister at Faughart but a young prince wanted to marry her and wouldn’t take no for an answer. One night she decided to run away to escape him  and  as she was making her way out of Faughart following the stream the prince  who had heard about her leaving came  in pursuit.  Brigit knelt down to pray beside the stream leaving her knee prints in the stone. She then plucked out one of her eyes to make herself less attractive and unrecognisable.   The prince caught up with her but didn’t recognise her and the hoof mark of his horse was left behind in the  stone known as the hoof stone.

Station 7  is  the knee stone, which marks the spot where the saint knelt to pray. It is a large rock with two hollow. The pilgrim kneels in the hollows of the  stone  and  then on top of the stone while reciting one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria .

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Station 7, the knee stone

Others  simply  recite their prayers standing beside the stone.

Pilgrim kneeling in the knee stone

Pilgrim praying in the knee stone on the 3rd February

The pilgrim continues  along the modern path to station 8  which is known as the waist stone . I noticed that some pilgrims sat on the stone but most stood by it . The pilgrim is required to recite one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria .

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Station 8 the waist stone

Station 9  is called the eye stone ( this supposed to be  the eye the saint plucked from her head, a similar stone was said to have existed in Dunleer). The traditional prayers require  here are ten circuits of the stone while reciting one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria at each circuit.

Eye Stone and modern Grotto

Eye Stone and modern grotto

I saw some pilgrims sit/lie on the stone  they then blessed themselves with water from a little hollow on top of the stone.

Pilgrim sitting on eye stone

Pilgrim sitting on eye stone 3rd February

Many pilgrims also pray at the  modern grotto beside this stone. The final station (station 10)  the head stone  is a large stone with a hollow whose outline has been pained in white.  The stone is part of the boundary wall and rags and tokens, the same type of thing you get on rag trees, are tied onto the fence  in the boundary bank. The pilgrim places his/her  head in the stone  and recites  one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria.

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Station 10 the head stone.

This ends the  pilgrimage at St Brigit’s shrine and stream. I noticed that many pilgrims stated  at the headstone and ended their prayers at the eye stone, reminding me that pilgrim rituals are fluid.  I will delve more into the history of the shrine and these stones in my next post on Faughart.

St Brigit’s Holy well on Faughart hill

St Brigit’s well is located in the nearby graveyard,  it is also a focus of pilgrimage in the area, although on a much smaller scale. I  headed up to the old graveyard at Faughart hill around three. There were significantly fewer people here but again there was a constant flow of people coming and going .  Buckets  of water from the well had  been place outside the walls of the graveyard  for those too busy to go to the well.  I saw several people arrive  armed with plastic bottles , some filled them from the buckets and then left .  Others went into the graveyards and followed the path down to the holy well  located below the ruins of a 12th century church.

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Water from St Brigit’s well by the wall at Faughart old graveyard

During the 19th century pilgrimage at  the well was much more popular.  The well  a corbelled structure is entered by walking down steps (added in the 1930’s) .

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St Brigit’s well.

Pilgrims continue to come here and take water away with them and  pray. The  bushes that surround the well are covered with rags and rosary beads showing that pilgrims still come here to ask  Brigit for help.

Local lady carring water from the well

Local lady carrying water from the well

Also at the site  are two  penitential  station  which were visited by 19th century pilgrims, again I will discuss these further in the next post on Faughart. One is a circular mound surrounded by kerbing  is called St Brigit’s pillar. The base of a medieval cross sits on top of the cairn.

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St Brigit’s pillar

The second station is a horse-shoe shaped   mound with two upright stones at the entrance, it is known as  St Brigit’s  bed.

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St Brigit’s Bed

I didn’t see anyone visit these  two stations  during my time here, generally people left after visiting the well and collecting  their water. A local man I meet, told me that no one does prayers at them anymore.

So I headed back for some food and  came back again to Faughart for part II of my pilgrimage  the annual torch-light procession.

Torch Light proscession/pilgrimage part II

The procession  is a night walk  from the old graveyard at Faughart to the shrine of St Brigit. This year it began at  8 o’clock and I roped my friend Nikolah  into coming along. It had been a wet day and but when we arrived at Faughart Hill  the night was cold with a clear sky full of shining stars. The lights from Dundalk and the motorway below were spectacular. The procession is really an event for the local community to connect with Brigit and people of all ages from tiny tots to the elderly were there. Everyone was in good spirits despite the cold and I spotted some very fancy lanterns.  The procession began with the  priest reciting a prayer to St Brigit, then   two men carrying a large processional St Brigit’s cross and flags set off  down the road,  those carrying the reliquary containing the saints relics fell in behind and then everyone else assembled on the hill  fell in behind them  and we headed off on our pilgrimage.

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  Finding our way in the dark wasnt as difficult as I had thought. There was something very relaxing about walking under the stars. You have to be aware of those around you so you didn’t trip or trip someone who was walking at a slower pace. Prayers and songs were sung and the journey  felt like no time at all.  When we  arrived at St Brigit’s shrine there were many people already  there. We all lined up along the banks of the stream at the upper shrine , while the reliquary was brough to the small shrine mentioned earlier. The parish priest  stood at the shrine gave blessing to all present and he also blessed the St Brigit’s crosses , which most people had brought along with them. Prayers were recited in English and Irish. It’s hard to gage how many people were there but there were 100’s  one estimate  I heard was 600 people.  There were also guardaí present to make sure there were no traffic or crowd control problems. The atmosphere was great and I really enjoyed  the experience.

Pilgrims at the end of the Torch light procession

Pilgrims at the end of the torch light procession

Many of those present  proceeded to do the pilgrim stations in the dark before heading home. The procession was one of the nicest pilgrim experiences I have  had. It has been running for the last 37 years . Night pilgrimage and vigils were very important in the medieval world and it is really lovely to see this  tradition being adapted  in the modern world.

Saturday was my day of rest  but Sunday was the last  day of  my pilgrimage.

Sunday Imbolc Festival Pilgrimage walk/Pilgrimage  part III

The final part of my pilgrimage to Faughart took place on Sunday the 3rd.  As I mentioned earlier this pilgrimage walk from Dundalk to Faughart was organised as part of the  St Brigid of Faughart Festival 2013 (link to their site in references). The walk was  followed by a historical tour of Faughart given by local historian Pat O’Rourke.

The walk began at the peace shrine at Linenhall Street in Dundalk.  The group was made up of around 20  women, our local historian Pat O’Rourke and a sheepdog called tara .  I couldn’t have met a more lovely bunch of people. The walk leader Dolores Wheelan, one of the organisers of the Imbolc festival  gave an introduction to the walk and the ethos of the  pilgrimage.  A candle which had been brought from Kildare on St Brigit’s eve  was lit in front of the peace monument  and was then  carried at the front of the group  as we walked along.  Each member of the group  got to carry the torch and lead the group.

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The walk  was about 1-2mile to shrine. This would have been the traditional route chosen by pilgrims from Dundalk to Faughart. The road heads out of Dundalk and  crosses over the motorway by a foot bridge.  Members of the group were free to  engage in the pilgrimage walk as  they wished, some chatted to  each other, others walked in silence , while some chanted a simple  line Oscalite mo Chroí  (Open my heart). We were asked simply to think of Brigit and any prayer that we had  for her while walking along  and to be respectful to other people.

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Once we crossed over the motorway we were walked along quiet county roads.  As we neared the shrine  most people around me  fell silent and were deep in contemplation.

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Pilgrim leading group  while carrying the  light of Brigit

When we reached Faughart  we were treated to hot tea, coffee and soup and  tea  brack.  A very welcome treat for the pilgrims.  After our refreshments Dolores  brought us around the lower shrine  and explained the significance of all of the holy stones and we were all given the opportunity to do our own pilgrimage around the shrine.

The final stage of our  journey was  a historical tour of  old Faughart given  by Pat O’Rourke .  Pat explain about Faughart’s past, from pre-historic to modern times. He  brought us around Old Faughart graveyard  and pointed out many interesting  facts about the well, the church and the penitential stations.

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Historical tour of old Faughart graveyard

I must say I had a very enjoyable day. The group also called my attention to a new pilgrimage walk planned for the summer called Slí Bhride.

During the summer Faughart will  be part of a new exciting pilgrim walk.  A new pilgrimage walk is planned on the 7th July -15th of July  2013  called Slí Bhride. The walk will start at  Faughart in Co. Louth, pass through Louth, Meath and Kildare and end in Kildare Town. I will keep you all posted as I find out more  but  if anyone is interested in finding out more check out  www.brigidsway.ie

or email

eolas@doloreswhelan.ie

I am going to write more about Faughart in the coming months so watch the space

© Louise Nugent 2013

References

http://www.doloreswhelan.ie/events/brigid-faughart-festival/( accessed 2/02/2013).

http://www.createlouth.ie/brigid-festival-dundalk (accessed 2/02/2013).

http://j2.catholicireland.net/mass-times?task=churchbyparish&ParishID=1300 (accessed 25/01/2013).

http://www.faughart.com/local-history-page26988.html (accessed 27/01/2013) excellent source for the history of the site.

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Two stones dedicated to St Patrick, in South Co. Tipperary

Over the course of my research on pilgrimage in south County Tipperary, I came across two curious stones associated with St Patrick.

Map showing the location of St Patrick stones and Cahir town in Co. Tipperary, taken from Google maps

 

The first, St Patrick’s stone at Grangemore  is located in the middle of a T-junction of a small by-road leading the Cahir Equestrian centre, a short distance from the town of Cahir. The stone is embedded in a diamond-shaped island in the middle of the junction, probably not the safest place for such an ancient monument. I could see traces of green paint on the stone, suggesting it was painted green to make it more visible.

St Patrick’s stone in diamond-shaped island

The stone is a what archaeologist call a ‘bullaun stone’. Bullaun stones are artificial basins or hollows/depressions in rocks, boulders and stone and are held to be of early medieval date. The majority are found at early medieval ecclesiastical sites but some like this stone are found in isolation. There is some question over the original use and function of bullaun stones in early medieval times. Some scholars believe that they are medieval pilgrimage stations/ monument pestles to ritual or devotional use of turning stones within the hollows. Others advocate a more practical use such as grinding metal ores or herbs. Whatever their original use many of these stones over time developed associations with saints. St Patrick’s stone has two,  circular depression, the largest (diam. 0.19m x 0.2m; depth c. 0.1m) and the smaller (diam. 0.17m x 0.15m; depth c. 0.7m).

St Patrick’s stone, a bullaun stone with two hollows

 

As its name suggest the stone is associated with St Patrick the national saint. According to Power in 1908,  the stone was held with veneration  as it was believed to have been  used  as a cushion by St Patrick and the depressions were made by his knees.

St Patrick’s stone, Killaidamee townland

A few miles away close the ruin medieval church of Ballybacon, is another stone known as St Patrick’s stone located in the townland of Killaidamee. It is located opposite the junction of the Ardfinnan to Goatenbridge road and the Ballybacon road, it is not a bullaun stone but a natural shaped limestone e boulder  c.  .40m in height and  .70m in length.  It has a natural shallow curved groove in the upper surface on top of the stone.

The upper surface of St Patrick’s stone Killaidamee

 

It was formerly located in the ground in a roadside location and an OS bench mark is located on the side. It was moved to its present location, a concrete slab  when the road was widened in the 1980s. There is no tradition of local veneration of the stone.

 

Both stones are located in isolation and there is no  tradition of  modern pilgrimage to either stone, although we know the Grangemore stone was held in some regard in the early 1900’s  however the  stones do represent the spread of the cult of St Patrick in South Tipperary.