In the Gaeltacht village of Ballyvourney, Co Cork lies a venerated pilgrim site dedicated to St Gobnait (Abigail in English). Archaeologist Dr Louise Nugent, an expert in medieval Irish pilgrimages, first visited the village on the Pattern Day of the Saint i.e. 11th February in 2013.
Dr Nugent authors and curates a blog on her research and findings on medieval pilgrimages. Below, you can read an abridged version of her experience of visit to St Gobnait’s pilgrim site in Ballyvourney.
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 a 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?
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 saint’s 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 nine white deer. She travelled 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 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.
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. Excavation of 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 legends 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.
Medieval Pilgrimage at Ballyvourney
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 saint’s cult in the 17th century, it is likely pilgrimage 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.
Devotion to Gobnait is again mentioned in the writings of Sir Richard Cox in 1687, who stated:
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.
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’Herlihys 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 of the church of Ballyvourney to this day.
The modern pilgrimage 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 met that a Mass in honour of Gobnait would be said at 11.30am and 16.00pm, and that a rosary would be said at the shrine at 15.00pm. I was also informed that people visit the statue of Gobnait and the shrine and 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 features 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.
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 now ready to perform the ritual called St Gobnait’s measure. This is a practice were pilgrims use the ribbons to ‘measure’ the statue.
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.
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.
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.
Modern information boards are found beside all the pilgrim stations and detail the required prayers for each station.
The following details of the rounds is taken from the book Saint Gobnait of Ballyvourney by Bernie Donoghue Murphy written in c. 2007:
St Gobnait’s House was in ruins in the 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), artefacts which many scholars believe were used to grind metal ores, are found close by at the site of Gobnait’s grave.
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 Gobnait’s 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.
Modern pilgrims have left their mark within the church. There are statues placed in putlog holes (small square holes used to hold wooden beams and 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.
There is a folktale associated the with the polished agate stone ball (called the bulla) and located in a rectangular recess in the southwest corner of the west gable of the church. 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 saint’s 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 moved away.
The holy well of St Gobnait
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.
I came across a book called Saint Gobnait of Ballyvourney by Eilís Uí Dháiligh written in 1983. This book notes that many pilgrims begin their 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)
Despite the lack of evidence for pilgrimage 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 and 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.
Read the original blog post here.