The 25th September, is the Feast day of St Finbarr, also known as Gougane Sunday. St Finbarr is the patron saint of the city of Cork and the Dioscese of Cork. Gougane Barra, where he established a monastic cell in the sixth century, was, and remains, one of the main pilgrimage destinations in County Cork. An annual Mass is still held here followed by the rounds, including a visit to the two wells on the site. I had to participate.
The drive inland to Gougane is a spectacular one, the road small and winding as it wends its way up through the mountain passes. As you turn off the main road nothing prepares you for the sight at the end of the long, winding lane. Suddenly the landscape opens out and there is a magnificent rocky amphitheatre with a huge lake, and in the centre, the small island with its picturesque Oratory.
It was here that Finbarr founded a monastic cell way back in the sixth century, wild and remote, ideal for a hermitage and life of quiet contemplation. It’s still pretty wild and remote but not always so quiet as it is an extremely popular place for weddings – typically 100 weddings are celebrated here annually. Today a crowd of a different sort were gathering. There were coaches slowly navigating the small road, people pouring out of cars and some arriving on foot from way up in the mountains, all assembling to take part in the annual Gougane Sunday. The Rosary was scheduled for 2pm followed by a Mass. Rows of chairs were laid out in front of the Oratory, loud speakers were humming with hymns and some pilgrims were already bagging their places, sensibly clad in rain hats, thick macs and umbrellas for although the day was bright, a ferocious wind was blasting off the lake and the showers when they came were torrential.
Pilgrimages have been made here for hundreds of years though what can be seen today is fairly modern. The Oratory was not built until the early years of the twentieth century and is modelled on Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel and today the causeway leading to the island, once rather ramshackle, is beautifully maintained. The expected rounds and rituals are clearly displayed at the entrance to the site:
2 – 12. At each of the following:
Slanán (health stream)
say Our Father 5 times, Hail Mary 5 times and Glory Be 5 times
13 Finally at Father O Mahony’s tomb say the Creed, 1 Confess, I Our Father and I Glory Be to the Father etc
Optional prayers may also be said at the Oratory.
The following prayer may also be said: St Finbarr pray for …..
Then get half a bottle of eater form the Holy Well and half a bottle of water from the Slanán
to sprinkle on the person(s) for whom the Intentions is for.
The first place of devotion on the island is up the steps and into the enclosed area which contains several small stone cells and a wooden huge cross. This is where St Finbarr is meant to have had his original cell, but what we see today dates from the eighteenth century and was the work of Father Denis O Mahony who’s tomb was passed on the way in. Thomas Crofton Croker in his book Researches in the South of Ireland, published in 1813 describes what the site was like 200 years ago:
The principal building on the island is a rudely formed circular wall of considerable solidity, in the thickness of which are nine arched recesses or cells, called chapels, severally dedicated to particular saints, with a plain flag stone set up in each as an altar. In the centre of this enclosure, on a grassy elevation, that appears to have been formerly surrounded by stone steps, stands a wooden pole, the upright remains of a large cross, braced with many pieces of iron. Hundreds of votive rags and bandages are nailed against it, and hung upon it, by those whose faith has made them whole, intended as acknowledgments of their cure. Also the spancels of cattle that have been driven through the lake, as a preventive against the murrain. Without this circular wall are the ruins of Father O’Mahony’s dwelling; the gable ends and tottering chimneys still remain, covered with stonecrop, a variety of rich lichens, and that hardy little plant the London pride, which is here indigenous, and seems to grow more luxuriantly in the crevices and upon the naked rocks about Gougaun Lake, than when cultivated in a garden. The digitalis also flourishes profusely on the neighbouring mountains.
This photo, taken before the Oratory was completed, shows the extensive remains of earlier buildings on the right. It is interesting to read that the cross replaced a pole once adorned with rags, much like a clootie tree. The reference to spancels is also fascinating. A spancel is a hobble for cattle and once cattle were encouraged to swim in the lake to ensure good health for the coming year, their spancels left behind as offerings to reinforce the prayers. Today, a steady stream of pilgrims were paying the rounds, stopping in front of each cell and reciting prayers. Some stopped to etch over crosses already inscribed in some of the stones, using smaller stones left for the purpose. What a magnificent setting with the mountain looming behind.
The next station is a visit to the old altar. The original altar, a large slab of stone inscribed with many crosses, was bizarrely stolen in June 2015 but a similar stone has been put in its place. This is a magical area, containing the remains of ancient buildings, now mossy and hard to distinguish, willowy trees and everywhere stones etched with pilgrim crosses.
Next to the stone altar is a gnarly tree – look carefully for many coins have been hammered into it. When I fist visited Gougane over 30 years ago, there was an even older tree that was completely rammed with coins. This has since been removed.
The eleventh station is the holy well near the entrance to the site. It’s not a spring but a section of the lake water enclosed for devotions. Today it was beautifully decorated with fresh flowers – roses and zinnias spread colourfully over the top of it.
Many people stopped, took a little water from the chained metal cup, some filling their own bottles. Some, like me, washed their faces in it. The well is large, rectangular with a drystone well house, with a huge stone slab on top, now rather attractively and naturally thatched with mosses and grasses. Several steps lead down to the well basin. A rather intrusive notice asks you not to throw coins into it, usually ignored.
Thomas Crofton Croker offers some tantalising insights into what the well once looked like and what went on there:
The door or opening to the front of the well was so narrow as scarcely to admit two persons at the same time. Within, the well was crowded to excess, probably seven or eight persons, some with their arms, some with their legs thrust down into the water, exhibiting the most disgusting sores and shocking infirmities. When those within came out, their places were as instantly filled by others. Some there were who had waited two or three hours before they could obtain access to this ‘healing fount.’ The blind, the cripple, and the infirm jostled and retarded each other in their efforts to approach; whilst women and boys forced their way about, offering the polluted water of the well for sale, in little glass bottles, the bottom of broken jugs and scallop shells, to those whose strength did not permit them to gain this sacred spot. The water so offered was eagerly purchased, in some instances applied to the diseased part, and in others drank with the eagerness of enthusiasm. In the crowd, mothers stood with their naked children in their arms, anxiously waiting the moment when an opening might allow them to plunge their struggling and shrieking infants into the waters of the well.
No doors or shocking infirmities visible today but it’s just about possible to imagine the scenes he described. Interestingly Croker mentions that the well was dedicated to St John rather than St Finbarr and the occasion he visited was St John’s Day, 24th June. Traditionally, it seems that two pattern days were held here annually, St John’s Day and Gougane Sunday. St John’s Day incorporated the pre-Christian Midsummer festival which was, and still is to a certain extent, celebrated throughout Ireland.
The twelfth station is a visit to the second well, the Slanán or health giving well. It’s actually a stream running down from the mountain and ending in the lake. Rather unfortunately, some toilets have been built near it – admittedly they are award winning toilets, rather incongruously shaped like an iron age roundhouse. But I saw no one visiting this little stream even though the instructions are clear that should you be taking water home with you, your bottle should contain half from the holy well and half from the Slanán
The final station is the tomb of Father O Mahony, the hermit who lived here during the eighteenth century. Today his grave was decorated with a handsome banner proclaiming the day.
At 2pm the Rosary began, broadcast out and the place continued to fill up with young and old: the more mature had arrived early and grabbed the front rows, but many people were arriving with their own folded chairs and were well wrapped up against the biting wind. At 2.30 the sound of bagpipes filled the air and the official procession wend its way down from the hotel, led by children in white robes, presumably those recently confirmed. They were followed by a small girl, looking magnificent and solemn, as she lead in the Ballingeary Pipe Band. They were followed by the church dignitaries including Seán Brady, Cardinal of Armagh and John Buckley, Bishop of Cork. A rather wonderful sight, whatever your beliefs.
Afterwards I suspect most pilgrims then left for a cuppa at the very good tea shop or went on to the hotel. In the eighteenth century, like at many pattern days throughout the country, once the religious solemnity of the rounds had been completed, the secular took over and the partying began often rather enthusiastically. Here’s Croker again describing what he witnessed:
As night closed in, the tent became crowded almost to suffocation, and dancing being out of the question, our piper left us for some other station, and a man, who I learned had served in the Kerry militia, and had been flogged at Tralee about five years before as a White-boy, began to take a prominent part in entertaining the assembly by singing Irish songs in a loud and effective voice. These songs were received with shouts of applause, and as I was then ignorant of the Irish language and anxious to know the meaning of what had elicited so much popular approbation, I applied to an old woman near who I sat, for an explanation or translation, which she readily gave me, and I found that these songs were rebellious in the highest degree. Poor old King George was execrated without mercy; curses were also dealt out wholesale on the Saxon oppressors of Banna the Blessed (an allegorical name for Ireland); Bonaparte’s achievement were extolled, and Irishmen were called upon to follow the example of the French people….. We left this scene, so calculated to excite compassion and horror, and turned towards the banks of the lake, where whiskey, porter, bread and salmon were sold in booths or tents resembling a gipsy encampment, and formed by means of poles or branches of trees meeting at angles, over which were thrown the proprietor’s great coat, his wife’s cloak, old blankets, quilts, and occasionally a little straw. Above the entrance of each was suspended the name of the owner, if he happened to possess a license; when this was not the case, a jug, a bottle, or pipe were displayed to indicate that spirits and porter might be had within, and not unfrequently were added a piece of ribbon, and an old shoe, the first to distinguish some popular party, the latter emblematic of dancing, to which amusement the lower orders of Irish are immoderately attached.
Almost every tent had its piper, and two or three young men and women dancing the jig, or a peculiar kind of dance, called the rinkafadah, which consists of movements by no means graceless or inelegant. The women invariably selected their partners, and went up to the man of their choice, to whom they freely presented their hand. After the dance was concluded, the men dropped a penny each, or, such as were inclined to display their liberality, something more, into an old hat which lay at the piper’s feet, or in a hollow made in the ground for the purpose. The piper, who seldom makes a moment’s pause, continues playing, and another dance immediately commences. I recollect having seen, in Cork, a painting by Grogan, (a native artist) of the breaking up of an Irish fair, in which he has happily expressed the ceaseless motion of the musician’s fingers on such occasions by the introduction of a man holding a jug of porter to the piper’s lips, which he drinks without interruption to the dance.
The Church was not amused by these goings-on and by 1817 the pattern day had become so rowdy that the Bishop of Cork issued a Decree of Excommunication, banning anyone from taking part! This was eventually revoked.
And St Finbarr himself? He is said to have been born near Bandon around 550. There were signs from a very young age that he was something special. His father was Amergin, chief smith to a king of Connacht, who married a slave girl against the king’s wishes. Rather harshly they were sentenced to be burnt but a torrential downpour saved them, seen as God’s intervention. When the baby that arrived shortly after was born the king came to view him. The young Finbarr, or Lochán as he was originally called, apparently waved his tiny hands and spoke words of benediction to him! Later, aged just seven, three hermits returning from Rome happened upon him and remarked that they saw the Grace of God resplendent in his face. His father offered to let them take the child with them there and then but they promised to return later when he was more mature. This they did and Lochán eventually became a monk and on taking the tonsure for the first time, the man shaving his head said: The hair of this servant of God is beautiful. Another replied: You have spoken well, because his name will be changed and he shall be called Finn-barr, that is ‘beautiful hair’, from the beautiful head he offered in sacrifice to God. And you wouldn’t believe how many different ways there are of spelling Finbarr!
Eventually Finbarr was guided to Gougane by an angel. First, as seems to be traditional with holy chaps, he had to wrestle with the local monster. This was a fierce, winged sea serpent called Tú that lived in the lake who had somehow escaped St Patrick’s notice. Eventually Finbarr prevailed and the serpent left at speed carving out a channel from the lake to the sea that eventually became the river Lee!
Later the angel returned and told him this is not the place of your resurrection and guided him to the Great Marsh of Munster (later known as Cork!) where he founded a monastery and school, renowned for its learning. St Fin Barre’s Cathedral is now built on the site and and even today the motto of Cork University is: Where Finbarr taught, let Munster learn.
Many miracles were attributed to Finbarr, in fact so fierce was his holiness, that his hand literally glowed and he had to wear gloves. It is said he brought a woman back to life having blessed her with water- was this from a holy well? He eventually died in Cloyne in 633AD but was brought back to Cork. Apparently his followers prayed to have him with them for just a little longer and the sun did not set for twelve days after his death. His grave can be seen St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork behind the high Altar. St Finbarr:
… the crystal spring in which were washed the sin-stained souls of the faithful