11th February is St Gobnait’s Day, the feast day of a very popular saint in north Cork and one who still has a very well attended Pattern Day where many pilgrims visit the sites in and around Ballyvourney to pay their respects and do rounds (Turas Ghobntan).
It seemed an appropriate day to visit. Many people seem to first attend Mass in St Gobnait’s Church (there were several Masses being held throughout the day), then go to the old church and St Gobnait’s shrine to do the rounds, finishing off with a visit to the second holy well just down the road. I went back to front and ended up at the second well first. This has recently been tidied up with smart new entrance gates and a large sign advertising its presence.What a beautiful place though, right on the edge of the river and nestling amongst mature trees. No one was there when I arrived but a jumble of plastic bottles were available for those who wanted to take the water home with them and a neat row of cups and glasses were lined up on top of the well. The well is sturdily constructed with steps down to the basin, and seating arranged around it.
The water is exceptional – clear, and very cold. A large tree behind is adorned with a variety of offerings. A woman came down with her grandson. She drank two cupfuls of water with gusto and declared the water good. I fully agreed.
I then went to the old church. Actually there are two churches there now – a church of Ireland church, and the ruins of a much older church. Many people had already arrived and were doing the rounds. The pilgrimage starts at the statue of St Gobnait, takes in the small well to the right of this, and finishes at the second well down the leafy lane.
Most walked slowly and respectfully, stopping at each of the five station to say prayers, others just came in and visited St Gobnait’s grave, took the water and shot off again. There are some intriguing artefacts that are now part of the stations: a tiny carving of a Sheila na gig high above a window, and an agate ball embedded in the wall – both of these are traditionally stroked as part of the turas or round.The atmosphere was reverential but also had a holiday feel. Everyone smiled and greeted each other.
Bees & Deer
Everywhere you will notice deer and bees for the story goes that St Gobnait was born on the Aran Islands and an angel appeared and told her to travel until she found nine white deer grazing together, and there she would find her resurrection. After much travelling she finally spotted the deer in Ballyvourney. Here she built a religious establishment for women. She became famous for her healing and for many miracles. One miracle concerned cattle rustlers who were trying to steal all the local cattle. She sent a swarm of bees after them; the rustlers were blinded and the cattle restored.
The bees are especially beautiful on the statue of St Gobnait carved by the renowned sculptor Seamus Murphy. Incidentally St Gobnait is patron saint of, among other things, bee keepers and metal workers.
I then went on the current Catholic church in the village. Mass had ended but a steady stream of visitors, young and old were coming in and out. This is the only day of the year that the ancient statue of St Gobnait is made available to pilgrims. It is supposed to date from the 13th century and is made of oak, now much worn but what an extraordinary artefact it is. She is laid on a table and people queue to visit her. First though you must buy your ribbons, each cut to the length of the statue (Tomas Gobnatan, or Gobnait’s Measure). You wait your turn then once at the statue wind the ribbons around her neck, around her body, lengthwise on her body and some people scrunched the ribbons up and placed them over her heart. Finally St Abbey, as I heard her referred to, is kissed or embraced. (Abigail or Abbey is the anglicised form of Gobnait).
You take the ribbons home and they protect you from illness over the coming year. It seems she was once considered effective against smallpox for this prayer was regularly said in Irish:
O Gobnait, bring us safely through the coming year, and save us from every harm and infirmity especially smallpox.
It looked as though many people still thought she was very potent. She seemed much loved and respected, almost like a much adored member of the family.
Kilgobnait holy well
I then decided to visit the well and shrine of her supposed brother, St Abbán, found just outside the village but you’ll have to wait for this, he deserves his own blog entry! I did travel a little further out of Ballyvourney to Kilgobnait and visited a spot where St Gobnait is said to have prayed. This small walled enclosure right on the side of the road, now surrounded by fir trees was an extraordinary place. It seems it may have originally been a cillín (unconsecrated childrens’ burial ground) for there were many stone markers and interesting bumps and contours. Most extraordinary of all was the little well: a large ballaun stone filled with water, an odd milky blue. Quartz stones had been carefully laid around it, a few cups thoughtfully provided, and a small statue of Infant of Prague watched proceedings. There is also a large circular stone – could this be associated with the ballaun as a wishing or cursing stone? A tiny tree growing up behind it gave this place a magical quality. Originally this formed part of the rounds on St Gobnait’s Feast Day but I don’t know how many other visitors it was going to get today.
A small postscript to Kilgobnet. I have just had supper with a friend from the area who confirmed that it was indeed a cillín and one held with special reverence as the site was considered to be as good as consecrated ground as it had St Gobnait’s blessing and protection.