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.
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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