Monday 11 February 2013

Saint Gobnait of Ballyvourney, February 11

Saint Gobnait (Gobnata, Gobnet, Gobnat) is one of those saints whose memory is kept alive in popular tradition, but whose written Life has been lost. The seventeenth-century hagiologist, Father John Colgan, reported that in his time her Acts were extant in the south Munster area but had not been published. Her feast appears on the Irish calendars on February 11:

The Martyrology of Oengus records:

11. My Gobnat from Muscraige Mitaine, i.e. a sharp-beaked nun, Ernaide is the name of the place in which she is. Or Gobnat of Bairnech in Moin Mor in the south of Ireland, and of the race of Conaire is she : a virgin of Conaire's race.

The later Martyrology of Donegal entry reads:


GOBNAT, Virgin. At Moin-mor, in the south of Erinn, is her church, [and at Baile Mhuirne.] She was of the race of Conaire, son of Modh-Lamha, monarch of Erinn ; she is of the race of Heremon.

Canon O'Hanlon summarizes the mentions of Saint Gobnait on other calendars:

'The designation, Gobnat Ernaidhe, i Muscraidhe Mitine, occurs, in the Martyrology of Tallagh, at the 11th of February, The Calendar of Cashel enters, at the same date, St. Gobnata, the nun, of the village of Boirne, or Bairnigh, in Munster, and she belonged to the race of Conaire. Charles Maguire says likewise, at this day, Gobnata, of Ernuidhe—I know not where it is—or Gobnata, of Burneach of Moinmhor, in the southern part of Ireland, and she is of the race of Conaire. Marianus O'Gorman, also, states, St. Gobnata, virgin of Moinmor; her church lies in the southern part of Ireland. In Scotland, too, her memory was revered. The holy virgin Gobnat departed to Christ, on the iii. Ides—corresponding with the 11th—of February, according to the Kalendar of Drummond.'

Thus the calendar references establish her as being both a nun and of aristocratic lineage. They also concur that she flourished in the Ballyvourney, County Cork area, which is borne out by the survival of ruins of a church and other monuments bearing her name in that location. However, for other information, the only source we have is popular devotion and local folklore. The webpage of the Diocese of Kerry has collected some of this:

'The main centres of devotion to Gobnait are Inis Oírr (Aran Islands), Dún Chaoin in West Kerry and Baile Bhúirne near the Cork/Kerry border. There are a number of other places which carry her name - often as Kilgobnet or Cill Ghobnait - near Dungarvan and Milltown in Co. Kerry for example. All of these sites carry a link to the story of Gobnait and the journey undertaken by her to seek "the place of her resurrection".
Tradition records that Gobnait left her native Clare to escape some enemy and went to Inis Oírr where an early medieval oratory dedicated to her is extant on the north side of the island near the shore (cf. Archaeological Inventory of County Galway (West Galway), BÁC, 1993, p.96 No. 552, it is known locally as Cill Ghobnait). While on Inis Oírr an angel appeared to her and told her that the "place of her resurrection" was not to be there but in the place where she would find nine white deer grazing. Gobnait then left Inis Oírr and travelled through the southern, coastal counties - Kerry, Cork and Waterford. The foundations associated with her mark her various stops in her search for the nine deer. These places include Dún Chaoin as mentioned, Kilgobnet near Dungarvan and Kilgobnet (between the MacGillicuddy Reeks and the Laune, accessible from the Killorglin/Beaufort Road on the southern side of the Laune; it is interesting to note that this Kilgobnet is also said to have been the original site of the Lughnasa festival now held in Killorglin - Puck Fair! cf. Máire Mac Neill, The Festival of Lughnasa, Oxford, 1962, 299). At various stages of her journey Gobnait met white deer - three at Clondrohid and six at Baile Mhic Íre - but it was only when she crossed the Sullane river that she found the nine as foretold at Baile Bhúirne. This place, on a rise overlooking the Sullane and looking towards the Derrynasaggart hills was where she settled, died and was buried "to await her resurrection". She is regarded as the great protector of Baile Bhúirne and is much associated with healing. One story tells of how she cured one of her nuns who was sick and how she kept the plague away from Baile Bhúirne by drawing a line along the eastern borders of the parish with her stick beyond which the plague never came. Many accounts exist of how Gobnait prevented invaders (said to have been O'Donoghues of the Glens) from carrying off the cattle - on their approach she let loose the bees from her hives and they attacked the invaders, forcing them to flee. One version of the tale has the beehive turning into a bronze helmet and the bees themselves turning into soldiers. It is said that it was the O'Herlihys who sought her help and that they handed down the bronze helmet from one generation to the next as a great source of protection. M.T. Kelly, writing in the JCHAS , Vol.III No. 25. (1897), p.102 , suggests that Windele had come across accounts of this helmet but that it had been lost somewhere in Kerry. Another version has the beehive turning into a bell which then became Gobnait's bell.'
Another story is told of how, during her lifetime, foreigners came intent on building a castle in Baile Bhúirne, but that the locals opposed this (reminiscent of more recent times and rows over development!). Every night after the builders had left the saint knocked down their building by throwing her bell at the castle. Eventually they gave up, the site, 'Carraig an Chaisleáin' is still pointed out as proof of the power of Gobnait. Another version of this tale has Gobnait casting a stone ball at the castle each night. This ball is now said to be the one in the wall of the medieval church and can be seen on the rounds.

Saint Gobnait is an example of how a saint's memory and cult was kept alive by the oral tradition, in the absence of written accounts. Today this popular devotion centres around the holy well dedicated to her and there is also an old statue which is exhibited for veneration on her feastday in Ballyvourney. This has a specific ritual attached to it:

'A medieval wooden image of Gobnait, kept traditionally in a drawer in the church during the year, is venerated in the parish church on this day. The devotion is known as the tomhas Gobnatan. People bring a ribbon with them and 'measure' the statue from top to bottom and around its circumference. This ribbon is then brought home and is used when people get sick or for some special blessing. The statue is thought to belong to the 13th c.'

The photograph below shows someone taking 'Gobnait's measure' on her feastday:

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