Sunday 6 December 2015

Saint Berechert of Tullylease, December 6

December 6 is the feast of Saint Berechert of Tullylease.  Last year I discussed some of the difficulties surrounding the identity of this saint, who may be one of the Saxons who came to Ireland after the Synod of Whitby. Below is a paper on his life from the Ulster Journal of Archaeology by Bishop William Reeves:


The ecclesiastic whose memory is held in highest esteem in that part of the north-west of the county of Cork which forms the barony of Duhallow, is St. Beretchert of the Irish calendar, or St. Benjamin as he is vulgarly called in modern times. His festival is properly the 6th of December, at which day he is commemorated in the calendars of Marian Gorman and of Donegall as Beretchert Tulcha-leis, 'Beretchert of Tulach-leas.' He is not noticed in the more ancient calendar, called the Feilire of Aengus the Culdee; and the omission is an argument in favour of the early date of that remarkable poem, whose author is supposed to have flourished about the year 800; while the obit of the saint is assigned by the Four Masters to the year 839, in these words Berichtir Tulcha-leis decc 6 December, 'Berichter of Tulach-leis died on the 6th of December.' This date, if correct, will help to fix the age of St. Gerald of Mayo, who was his brother, but whose death is placed by the same annalists at the year 726. According to the life of this saint, he, Balan, Berikert, Hubritan, and a sister Segresia, were the children of Cusperius, a Saxon prince, and Bernicia his wife. They are represented as leaving England after the defeat of Colman, bishop of Lindisfarne, at the synod of "Whitby, and as coming over to Ireland with a great many followers. They first landed in Connaught, at the mouth of the Shannon ; afterwards they proceeded to the river Moy; and finally obtained a settlement in Mayo, where they erected a new monastery, or extended the existing one. St. Gerald, though not the founder, became in time the patron saint of Mayo, which was styled "Magheo- Saxonum of Gerald." Balan, called Ballon in the calendar of Marian Gorman, was the founder and patron of Teach-Saxon, that is, ‘House of Saxons’ a church giving name to the prebend of Taghsaxan, in the cathedral of Tuam, and now called Templegal, in the parish of Athenry. His day is the 3rd of September. Hubritan, or Uildbrit or Huiltbrith, as he is called in the calendars of Tallaght and Marian Gorman, was commemorated on the 24th of April.

The name of the other brother, being a Saxon one, is variously written in Irish authorities. The calendars call it Beretchert; St. Gerald's Life, Berikert ; the Four Masters, Berichtir ; and the inscription on his tombstone, Berechtuine. In a modern inscription at Tullylease, the name is written Bericheart, and in composition it appears in the form Kilberrihert, Kilberehert, pronounced Kilberrahurth. The name seems allied to Beret, and Ecgberct, and Brechtrid of Annal. Ult. 697. The local tradition about him is that he came to Tullylease from Cullen, a parish lying south-west in the same barony, where he had been some time in the society of three sisters, one of whom was called Lassar, and another Ingen Buidhe. The foundations of his house and church are shown there. Near the church is marked in the Ordnance Survey St. Laserian's Well, and it is said that stations used to be held here on the 24th of July, although St. Lassar's day is entered in the calendar at the 23rd, instead of the 24th. In the adjoining parish of Kilmeen, is the townland of Killasseragh, called from the same saint. The story is that the brother and three sisters composed a little conventual society, and that in their nocturnal studies or devotions, when fire was wanted to kindle a light, St. Lassar used to go to a neighbouring forge, and bring home the "seeds of flame" in her apron. But at length, happening to require a new pair of shoes, she went to a shoemaker, who did not disguise his admiration of the beauty of her foot, and thus ministered to her vanity, which being a sinful emotion, her apron lost its asbestic property, and the next time she went to carry embers, a hole was immediately burned therein. This was interpreted by St. Berecheart as a signal for his departure and greater seclusion; so he proceeded on his way, and journeying to the north-east, he placed his abode at Tulach-Leas, ' the hill of the huts,' now known as Tullylease, a parish at the north-west border of the county of Cork and diocese of Cloyne. The peasantry have a derivation for the name Berecheart, which is founded on a legend similar to that of St. Benen or Benignus of Armagh. They say that, on arriving at Tullylease, our Saint engaged in a public controversy with a druid who sought to hinder the conversion of the people; and it was finally agreed upon, that both should enter a hut built of inflammable materials, whereupon it was to be closed upon them and set on fire, and that the survivor of this ordeal should be considered the just claimant upon the popular regard. The legends of Benen and Berecheart thus coinciding, and furnishing a familiar etymology for the latter name, the real subject of the story seems, in later days, to have supplanted, or at least modified our saint's name; for, among the peasantry, and the crowds from all parts of Limerick and Cork who come annually to visit his "patron" he is known by no other name than St. Benjamin!

The legend of St. Benen, as given by Muirchu in the Book of Armagh, will prepare the reader for the local tradition of St. Berecheart:

[But after the performance of all these things in the presence of the king, between the Druid and Patrick, the king said, Cast those books of yours into the fire, and him whose books shall escape uninjured, we will revere. Patrick answered, I will do so. But the Druid said, I am unwilling to enter into the trial by water with him; for the water is undoubtedly tenanted by a deity, (he had heard of baptism administered with water by Patrick.) Then the king answering said, Try it by fire. And Patrick said, I am ready. But the Druid was unwilling, and said, This man, every second year, turn about, worships either the water or the fire as a deity. And the saint said, It shall not be thus, but you yourself shall go, and one of my disciples with you, into a detached and closed-up house, with my garment on you, and your garment on him, and thus ye shall be both set on fire. And the proposal was agreed to, and a house was built for them, half of which was constructed of wet material, and the other half of dry. And the Druid was placed in that part of the house which was moist, and one of the disciples of Saint Patrick, named Bineus, having on the Druid's garment, in the other part. The house was then secured outside, and set on fire in the presence of the whole multitude. And it came to pass, in the self-same hour, through the prayer of Patrick, that the flame of fire consumed the Druid with the moist half of the house, Saint Patrick's cowl alone remaining intact, for the fire did not affect it. Put Benineus, an the other hand, came off sale, with the dry half of the house, according to what is written of the Three Holy Children. The fire did not touch him, neither was he hurt, nor did he feel any unpleasantness; only the cowl of the Druid, which had been on him, was, by the will of God, burnt up.]

This is a very ancient legend; its writer flourished about the year 700, and it is in a book which was written before the year 807.

St. Berecheart's counterpart is as follows:

Hard was the test on which they settled:
A person from [each] person to put into one house;
Both ends of the house to set on fire at the same instant,
And he who was not burned, his God they were to worship.
Lest charms should be in their clothes,
They exchanged garments with each other;
Burned was the Druid, and it lighted not over Benin:
And then was given a judgment, righteous, holy.

These lines are given in John O’Connell’s poem on the antiquities of Ireland. According to the etymology contained in the last line, Berecheart is quasi Breith-cheart, “Righteous judgement”. Locally the derivation is thus given:

The Druid was burned, and not a spot was reddened on him. And hence he was called Beir-a-cheart i.e. Carry-the-right. Or, in metre:

He was not burnt,
But the Druid was, quite;
And hence he was term’d
St. Carry-the-right

On this story, probably, is built the vulgar belief, that stones picked out of the wall of what is called the 'Saint's House' possess the virtue of securing the bearer against fire and storm; and as a natural consequence, the little structure has nearly disappeared, for there is scarcely a cabin in the neighbourhood into the walls of which a stone from the sacred edifice has not been built as a religious 'policy of insurance' against fire ; and no emigrant thinks of leaving the country for a distant region without first providing himself with St. Berechert's life-preserver !

Every male child who is born on St. Berechert's day is called by his name, which is regarded as the Irish for Benjamin ! But the Saint's day has been unaccountably transferred from the 6th of December to the 18th of February. It could not have been owing to the employment of St. Benen's day, as of his legend, for his festival falls on the 9th of November.

The other places where St. Berechert's name is preserved are the following:

I. KILBERRIHERT, a townland in Knocktemple, the parish adjoining Tullylease on the southeast, also in the barony of Duhallow. The name signifies 'Berechert's church, but there are no vestiges of such now remaining.

II. KILBERRIHERT, a townland in the parish of Aghabulloge, barony of Muskerry East, situate to the south of the last. In the Ordnance map " Kilberrihert burying-ground" is marked in the demesne a little south of Kilberrihert House, and west of the Roman Catholic chapel. This old cemetery is now only used for the interment of unbaptized children. It contains no ruins or monumental stones. In another direction there is a holy well, which the peasantry call Tubber Berrihert, and sometimes St. Bernard's Well. St. Olan is the patron of the parish church.

III. KILBERCHERT, a townland in the parish of Ballincuslane, where the barony of Trughanacmy adjoins that of Duhallow in the county of Cork.

All these, however, were but inconsiderable stations in comparison with Tullylease, which was the principal church of the saint. O'Brien, in his Irish dictionary, calls it "St. Brendan's church of Tullaleis." But this is clearly another alias for Berechert, like the Benjamin and Bernard already mentioned. He is correct, however, in stating that the "O'Nunans were hereditary wardens or protectors of the church of Tullaleis in the county of Cork, and proprietors of the lands of Tullaleis and Castle-Lysin, under obligation of repairs and all other expenses attending the divine service of that church, to which these lands had originally been given as an allodial endowment by its founder." These lands, now the two townlands of Tullylease and Castlelishen ('Caislen-a-lishin,') have become secularised, and are held, the former by the Rev. Crosbie Morgan, and the latter by John Gibbings, Esq. and Sir J. Fitzgerald. But the Noonans, though they have ceased to be proprietors, are still numerous in the parish, and claim the chancel of the old church as their burying-ground; and one of the family still prides himself on possessing the guardianship of the edifice. Another Noonan, seeing a clergyman of the neighbourhood searching in the chancel for a piece of St. Berechert's tombstone, sent him word that if he disturbed his father's grave, he would shoot him! And there was a time when this preliminary message would have been dispensed with. But the name Noonan is a strange corruption from Ua Inmainen, its ancient and correct form. Of this we have proof in an interesting notice of Tullylease preserved in the Annals of Inisfallen, in which, at the year 1042, is recorded Dunadach hua Inmaineain airchinneach Tulcha-leis quievit, " Dunadhach O’Inmainen, herenach of Tulach-leis, rested:' a curious process Ua Inmainen becoming Noonan ! This is the only notice of Tullylease which the writer of this paper has been able to discover in the Irish annals, besides the obit of St. Berichter in the Four Masters: for it is a mistake to suppose that the entry in these annals at 804, where it is related that "Dunchu, abbot of Tulach-lias was slain," has reference to this church, as the learned editor supposed. The sequel, "the plundering of Ulidia by Aedh Oirdnidhe, the king, in revenge for the profanation of the shrine of Patrick, against Dunchu" shows that the county of Down was the scene of the transaction, and points to Tullylish, a parish in the diocese of Dromore, the Tulach-lis in Ui Eachach, 'Tullylish in Iveagh,' of the calendars at the 12th of May, where a reliquary called the shrine of Patrick seems to have been preserved.

According to Ware, a priory of Regular Canons of St. Augustin was founded here, at an unknown date, by Matthew Fitz Griffin; but it seems to have existed as such only for a short period, having been annexed to the great priory of Kells in Ossory before the fifteenth century; for in 1412, Henry the IVth confirmed the possessions of that house, and among them the " Ecclesia de Tyllaghlesche et terra sanctuarire." The rectorial tithes are now impropriate. The benefice is a vicarage in the diocese of Cloyne, and in the patronage of the bishop.

The old church, which stands in the parish church-yard, is in ruins. It consisted of a nave and chancel, the former 51 feet 8 inches by 30 feet wide, the latter 35 feet 4 inches by 23 feet. A window in the south side of chancel, and door-ways on the same side of chancel and nave, indicate the 13th century as the date of the building. At the western extremity of the nave, there are evidences of a habitation having been attached to the church, in the form of a loft or upper room. The door was on the south side, about two-thirds of the way towards the west angle. Prom this door to the angle there arc putlock-holes in the north and south walls where the joists formerly rested; and on the south side are the remains of the window which lit the chamber, high up above the other windows of the building. Leaning against the inside of the east wall, at the north side of where the altar stood, is the sculptured slab which is represented in the illustration that accompanies this paper. The old people of the neighbourhood believe it to have been the shelf of the ancient altar; but this is clearly an error. For, though more decorated than the generality of ancient Irish tomb-stones, its monumental character cannot be mistaken. It is a plain flag of sandstone, measuring three feet in length, and two feet in breadth. It is elaborately finished, and the edges well defined. Unfortunately, the upper corner at the right side has been broken off, and though the most careful search was made for it by the accomplished and zealous curate of the parish, it could not be found, and the only result was the discovery of some fragments of stone, having circular patterns of very great age, similar to those in the angles of the slab. There can be no doubt that it contained the letters IHS Jesus, as a counterpart to XPS Christus, which occupies the other angle. The legend below is in a rude form of Irish letter QUI CUM QUAE HUNC TITULUM LEGERIT ORAT PRO BERECHTUINE. The use of qua for que, and orat for oret, is agreeable to the barbarous orthography found in Hiberno-Latin records, where the vowels are written according to their value in the native pronunciation. Of the form orat we have an appropriate example in the colophon of an ancient MS. of the Irish school; and it may be remarked here, that the present legend possesses more of the style of a scribe's subscription to a book, than of the monumental formulas in use among the Irish. The colophon to the gospels of Mac Regol is - Quicumque legerit et intellegeret istam narrationem orat pro Mac Reguil scriptori. The form of the saint's name, Berechtuine, is peculiar, and is probably the result of unskilful carving. It might easily, in the hands of an ignorant stone-cutter, arise out of the correct form, as may be judged by the juxtaposition of the words in Irish character:

A rough drawing on stone of this monument was printed, for private circulation, in 1851, by Mr. John Windele, on a single sheet of letter paper; who, in the November of that year, kindly sent a copy to the present writer; and he having occasion to visit his birth-place, Charleville, in 1853, took an opportunity of going over to Tullylease to examine this interesting stone. He made a careful rubbing of it on the occasion, and having afterwards put it in the hands of his valued friend, J. Huband Smith, Esq. obtained a positive drawing, from which the accompanying lithograph has been reduced, with a considerable amount of artistic skill. Prom it the reader will be able to form a very good idea of this remarkable stone, which, though probably not so old as some of those represented in Dr. Petrie's Round Towers, is more ornate, and more historically interesting. Leaning against the same wall, in the middle, is another slab, on which is a coffin-shaped frame in relief, inside which stands out a figure of a man having a curled head of hair, a swallow-tailed dress coat, breeches, and boots, under which is engraved in modern letters,

B e r i c h e a r t 

The face is perfectly flat, from the repeated osculation it has undergone by the mouths of pilgrims and devotees; and thus serves as an index of the amount of veneration which is rendered to the saint, for the stone is hard and close-grained, and is not more than twenty years in its present position, the figure having been made by a stone-cutter of Charleville, about twenty years ago. The church-yard, it should be observed, is situate at an angle of the road, on its east side. In a field at the opposite side, about 100 yards distant on the north-west, is the Tobar Berecheart, or 'Well of Berechert,' having an old thorn-tree overhanging, covered with votive rags. This well is supposed to possess great virtues in curing diseases, and all around it are little crocks of ablutions, and other indications of pharmaceutical appliances. The writer visited the place on a broiling hot day, and being very thirsty, was about to drink from the well, when he received the timely hint that there was scarcely a disease, from itch to cancer, which had not its deposits in the pool. Close to the margin of the well, on the south side, are the traces of a small angular building, standing east and west, measuring about 28 by 18 feet in the clear. This is what is called Tigh Berecheart, or 'The Saint's House:' from its walls all the charmed stones have been supplied, and from its foundation grows the ancient thorn which overhangs the well. On the same, side of the road as the church, and about 120 yards north, is the Tobar Muire, 'Mary's Well,' where the people go their rounds before visiting St. Berechert's well. It is cased inside with blocks of oak, about three feet deep, rudely squared; and it is believed to have been formerly lined with lead. This well is called by the common people, Poll-a-mheir, i.e. ' the pool of the finger,' and it gives the name of Poulavare to the townland in which it is situate. The name is accounted for by the story that a certain sacrilegious person, having stolen the sheeting of lead which lined the well, was punished by the saint, who caused his finger to drop off into the water!

In a field lying to the south-west of the church, is a rude stone called Cloch na h-eilite, ' the hind's stone.' It has a basin-shaped cavity, with a small hole passing through underneath. There is a legend that a deer used to fill the cavity every morning with milk for the use of the workmen employed in building the church, but being watched by some inquisitive person, she kicked the hole in the vessel, and left the workmen to drink for the future out of the holy well.

A few yards from the burial-ground stood, in former times, a building called the Comharbach, i.e. ' belonging to the Coarb,' the trace of which is discernible, but only that, for the stones of the walls were removed some time ago by the present occupant of the land. It was probably the abode of the Coarb, or hereditary tenant of the church property, who was generally a cleric of some order.

All these religious spots seem to have been originally on glebe-land (though it is now alienated), and to have been enclosed by a circular fence, having the church nearly as centre. Tradition represents it as about 18 acres in extent ; but the Down Survey (No. 26 B.M. of the county of Cork, Record Office, Custom House, Dublin,) sets it out as 15 acres, 2 roods. The outline of nearly half the circle has been lately traced, and in some places the rampart is nearly perfect.

[For many of the forgoing particulars, the writer is indebted to the Rev. Thomas Olden, curate of Tullylease, through whose exertions, and partly on whose pecuniary responsibility, a new parish church, at a cost of £640 has been lately built in Tullylease.]

Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Vol 6 (1858), 267-275.

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Anonymous said...

I had this very cross with me for years. It hung on my wall and many years later it smashed on the floor. I was always amazed at its intricate lines and have always been a Celtic art fan

Marcella said...

Glad it brought back some good memories for you, although sorry to hear your cross was broken.