Statue of St. Gobnait erected 1950s.
Researching novels has taken me down some very interesting and often different paths, but all of them enjoyable. I suppose I wouldn’t pursue them otherwise. At the moments my travels have been to 5th century, Ireland around the community in which I live now. It’s a fascinating journey and one that has left me continually amazed at how often research and information has presented itself to me in the most opportunistic ways.
The novel I'm hoping to write is closely connected to the story of St. Gobnait, the local patron saint whose story I’ve always been drawn to. Of the tales that are known she always figures as a strong woman, protecting the community by throwing her stone bulla at an encroaching nobleman’s building, sending bees after cattle raiders, or ministering to their needs as a healer and also feeding and providing for the poor. She started a community of women, a convent of sorts, and it lasted well beyond her death. But it was bees and her healing honey that make her so distinct. She had several hives and used their honey for many things, primarily healing.
Taking St. Gobnait's measure
On her feast day, February 11, the Medieval wooden statue of her is brought out and people come to ‘take her measure,’ wrapping a ribbon around her torso and head and the length of her. They recite the prayer to Gobnait and keep the ribbon for healing. I was fortunate enough this year to be able to do just that and view the statue. A memorable event for me.
This past December, coincidently, the topic for the historical lecture at our local Éigse (music festival and workshops) was St. Gobnait, and with the help of a friend I was able to learn about details of Gobnait’s story and the community’s history as recounted by a late nineteenth century writer and local school master. This man, Donncha Ó Loinsigh was from Coolierher, specifically my house (well his house). His grandson was the last person to live here before we bought it. I’ve been able to glean details from this narrative and others that have been published over the years that are housed in our local library. I’ve also enjoyed and had the privilege to talk to some other local people about Gobnait’s story and the community’s past.
Traditional local bee skep
Such talks and sources have led me to explore Medieval Irish beekeeping and to find that it was such a feature in Ireland they established a set of Brehon Laws governing issues that could (and probably did) arise from keeping them. My choir director, locally known for his beekeeping, actually has a beehive created in the manner of medieval beekeepers ( called a skep) and, low and behold, had a copy of the Brehon Laws and an analysis of it. His skep, he explained was made of sedge grass and not straw as it would in England, because Ireland is wetter and the sedge grass would dry and air out more quickly. I certainly couldn’t argue with him on the ‘wetter’ aspect of his argument. He is a coordinator of the local history group and over the years have talked to many elderly people about old agricultural practices and re-constructed them.
So, in the course of pursuing this research, I’m learning much about farming in addition to what I’ve already gleaned (note agricultural word) just from living here in a rural farming community. I now know the difference between a heifer and a cow, a hen and a chicken and that each had a specific value in Brehon law. Bees, however are tricky fellows (and gals) and so they are treated at times like livestock and others like fruit. Yes fruit required legislation. If fruit fell in a neighbour’s field then the first year 1/3 belonged to the neighbour (or something like that). So if any of you might be in a dispute with a neighbour it might be well to consult the Brehon Law. You never know there might be answers there.
St. Gobnait's statue
This week and next are very times for feast days in the village and the area. This past week, besides being my birthday was also the feast day of St. Brigid (Lá Bríd), or St. Bríd as she’s known in Irish. She’s the patron saint of Ireland in many ways (sorry St. Patrick), being the Irish equivalent of Mary and the subject of veneration at many wells and other sites around the country. Her feast day (also Imbolc in the pre-Christian calendar) signals the beginning of spring, the time of lambing as well as the time to ask for health and prosperity in the coming agricultural year.
In this area there are still many customs associated with St. Brigid. In schools and other places and in some homes many make the St. Brigid’s cross out of rushes. Since I have rushes in my meadow I just step out the door and cut 16 lengths and have a go. Some years though, I’ve made them down at the library with a local woman who taught the cross making.
Besides making crosses, many older people around here hang out a bit of
cloth or ribbon the night before the feast day so that when St. Brigid passes
overhead she will bless the cloth. The next day, the feast day, the cloth is brought in and kept for when it might be needed for healing.
Even more important in the village is the feast day of St. Gobnait or St. Abbey as she’s known in English. She is the patron saint of the parish and the area. She arrived in the mid 6th century, travelling through on the look out for a sign that would tell her where she should settle and start her religious community. When she arrived in this area she saw 9 white harts knew that was the sign and she should settle here. In the religious community she started she had beehives and became famous for the healing the honey from those hives provided. Legend has it that she sent her army of bees to defeat enemies who threatened the area.
St. Gobnait's Well
Her grave is in the old churchyard cemetery, as is a statue and a heavy iron? ball inserted in the church wall ruins. Just down from the church ruins is a well dedicated to St. Gobnait that is full of clouties and other items invoking her blessing and healing.
Each of these sites feature in various
religious “rounds” or ritual circling while saying certain prayers that is done throughout the year to any devout person who wants to do it.
In the new church in the village itself resides an ancient statue of St. Gobnait. It’s about a 15 inches tall I think and is only taken out twice a year:
on the feast day and in July when they have the mass at the cemetery for
her. St. Gobnait’s feastday is 11 February. Many will descend on the village church to the three masses and the ritual measuring of the ancient statue. People line up and with a ribbon provided “measure” the statue in various places. The ribbon, blessed by this action, is to be kept for healing. It’s a ritual that many look forward to.
Measuring took on another meaning for me this past week too. My husband and I called down to our neighbour to return a book and take them some muffins. One of the family hasn’t been that well so we thought we would look in on them. We were discussing various stories about the person, Peter, who lived here and his many siblings (11 altogether who were now all dead and gone. The last one, a daughter died last year. I had some books that
originally had been in the house given to me from the neighbour. He’d found them when he was cleaning out the place after Peter died. In the course of our discussion he brought out something else he’d found while cleaning the place. It was a beaten metal box with a few holes (rust/rats?) chewed in the side. He opened it up and withdrew this massive measuring chain that had a handle on the end and little brass tags hanging down and certain intervals. “Backalong” apparently it was illegal too take drink in a pub on a Sunday if you were a local. You were permitted if you were a "traveller." To be classed as a traveller you had to live at least 3 miles from the pub. This chain was used by the guards (the police) to measure the distance from the pub to a home of anyone caught with liquor on their breath. As Peter was one for the drink (as they say) he seemed to have his own measuring chain to show he lived 3 miles from the village pub (only just I’d say).
“Chains” were an official form of measurement my husband assured me along with my neighbour. They both recalled there were something like 22 “chains” to a mile and a “chain” was so much standard length. I can’t remember the exact number, but I know it wasn’t on my American copybook at school like it was on both of theirs.
I found it an amazing piece of history there in that beat up metal box and thinking of the various ways we’ve measured things in the past. Measuring distance to be free to take a drink, “measuring” a statue to receive a healing blessing. No doubt Peter would have felt the drink a blessing on a wet Sunday afternoon.
Statue of St. Gobnait.
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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