Saint Finbarr of Cork: His Feast Day and Folklore

The feast day of Saint Finbarr, the patron saint of Cork City, falls on the 25th of September, but the rounds are observed on the closest Sunday to this date. Like many of the most popular saints, this involves visits to the holy wells associated with them to perform the “rounds*” in the hope of gaining the blessing of the saint in question. The site of pilgrimage associated with Finnbarr is Gougane Barra but he is also associated with the site that is now occupied by the Anglican cathedral that bears his name in the city. This is reputed to be the site where he set up his monastic settlement at Corcach Mór na Mumhan (The Great Marsh of Munster). Although he is much loved and still revered by the city folk as their patron saint (with the name Finbarr still being a very popular name for boys) and the pilgrimage to his shrine still draws numbers, research by the the noted hagiologist Professor Ó Rían created waves when he claimed that the saint may never have set foot in the south, and that it was in fact his cult that came here and grew in popularity. This as you would imagine, was received very coldly by the locals! We have no contemporary accounts of Finbarr in Cork, with the first “life” of the saint being written in the 13th century. So, whether he set foot here or not may never be revealed, but we have no shortage of folklore built up around the saint, some of which I will share below. He is often depicted with a bright shining hand, said to be touched by God himself. This was said to be so bright that he had to wear a glove to hide it. The Harry Clarke stained glass window (shown in the banner picture) depicts him as such. His legacy today exists in the sheer number of churches, roads, estates, sports clubs, people and the cathedral named after him. He is also the patron saint of University College Cork whose motto is “When Finbarr Taught, Let Munster Learn”.

* The rounds or turas are usually a set number of pilgrim stations where the pilgrims circumambulate in a sunwise (deiseal) direction performing a proscribed number of prayers or a specific ritual such as carving crosses into a stone.

First I will detail the historic accounts of the pilgrimage to Gougane Barra.

Gougane Barra and the Pilgrimage

Gougane Barra is the supposed site of the hermitage of Saint Finbarr and was the site of pilgrimage for centuries. The pattern (the word pattern derives from the word patron, i.e the patron saint associated with the site) there was recently revived, albeit without many of the more profane activities for which we have accounts. Thomas Crofton Croker gives us a fine example of the mix of sacred and profane goings on at this pattern in his book Researches In The South Of Ireland. He is clearly shocked by how “drunken men and the most depraved women” are side by side with the pious pilgrims and how an “uproar of prayers and oaths, of sanctity and blasphemy” could be heard simultaneously. In most of the other accounts, the observers tend to draw a line between the sacred aspect taking place during the day and gradually giving way to revelry as the night progresses. In Croker’s account, he places them side by side and shows no end to the religious aspect, which continues through the night alongside the secular activities. Here he tells us that both the holy well and chapel are still crowded at midnight while the dancing, drinking and fighting were happening. He likens the tents set up to a gypsy camp, an interesting choice of language no doubt to point out its wild, secular nature. He also tells us how “intoxication  becomes almost universal” at these tents and goes to great effort to point out the hedonistic nature of these encampments where people are singing “rebellious songs” and have pipers in every tent. We can see clearly that he doesn’t agree with dancing being compatible with a religious event and claims it is an “amusement of which the lower orders of Irish are immoderately attached”. The most profane aspect he mentions in his writing is the lighting of bonfires on the hillside in the evening which he says has nothing to do with the pattern or the saint but instead harkens back to a bygone era with origins in pagan sun worship. In terms of how shocking many of the supposedly sacred practices were to the uninitiated observers, one can only imagine how striking it was to witness the hillside littered with fires reflecting on the lake below.

While on the subject of sacredness we will turn our minds to the sacred aspects of the pattern as recorded by Crofton Croker. Here he gives us detailed accounts of the religious side of pattern similar to the much more sombre side that we see today at these pilgrimages, albeit with much more rigorous observances. The extreme nature of the rounds are a common feature throughout multiple accounts with many obscure practices being recorded. In relation to Gougán Barra the most obscure ritual the author provides to us is the placing of a rusty iron object by the devotees on the head of the person next to them three times while reciting a prayer. Beyond providing a sketch of the item and telling us that it was of “considerable importance” and that it was passed around with “much ceremony”, we are told no more about this object.  We do however get the impression that this was a very sacred object and a crucial ritual in relation to the pattern. When speaking of the sacred aspect of pilgrimages, or indeed of pattern days, one cannot fail to mention the importance of the holy well. In terms of pattern rounds it is oft a central, if not the most important aspect of the observance. Of the sacred waters at the well in this instance, we are given a very graphic account of how people with “the most disgusting sores and shocking infirmaties” washed themselves and thrust their arms or legs into the water to obtain a cure. He also tells us of how people eagerly drank this “polluted water” in hopes of receiving a blessing. Rigorous prayer is another common feature of pattern accounts. In regard to praying Croker tells us that an “immense concourse” of people were involved in a number of different acts of devotion. Many prayed on their knees with their arms uplifted with “considerable gesticulation”. Just as in modern patterns, a certain number of prayers had to be said at each ‘station’ as part of the ritual. Here Croker tells us how people kept track of these prayers. Some “counted their beads with much apparent fervour” or used small pebbles as a substitute. He also notes how men notched their cudgel or a piece of stick. Here with the mention of the cudgel we most likely see an intersection of the sacred and the profane. Men first mark the number of prayers on the cudgel that they possibly use as part of the faction fighting that was often found at pattern days.

The ‘Péist‘ (water monster) at Gougane Barra

The saint was said to have encountered a péist, a type of serpentine beast often encountered by saints (postulated by some as being the domination of Christianity over paganism, though I don’t subscribe to that myself as the connection of snakes and paganism is extremely tenuous). He arrives at Gougane and successfully banishes the serpent. In its attempt to escape to the sea, it created the channels of the river Lee as we know it today and the stones thrashed up in the process formed the island where Finbarr would later set up his monastic settlement.

Folklore of the Saint

In the National Folklore Schools Collection (digitised on Duchas.ie) there is no shortage of folklore based around the saint and sites associated with him.

First we get a story from Séan Ó Brian, Castledonovan, Co.Cork. He tells us of the ’rounds’ at the well associated with Finbarr in the townland of Kilbarry. He tells us that these rounds are carried out for the benefit of diseases and that people would throw pieces of bread or apples into the well as they pass it. He also tells us that a great fair or Óenach was held on the feast day in the town of Drimoleague that people would travel from far and wide to take part. (NFSC,Vol.0303:224)

Mrs K O Riordan supplied a wonderful story of when the saint was making his way to Cork from Gougane following instruction from an angel to do so. As he and his retinue of other saints ran out of water he struck a rock with his staff and a spring burst forth (which would later become a holy well called “tobar na naomh” or “the well of the saints”. This particular motif is quite common in the lore of saints and is often listed as the origin of many holy wells). Following this he realised that he had forgotten his book and spectacles and left them on a rock at “drom a bpóca”. He had one of the saints retrieve them but it is believed that to this day that the rock still bears the imprint of the book and spectacles. (NFSC, Vol. 0456:304)

We have two stories from the collection that curiously feature fairy lore. The first comes from Mrs Daly from Granig, Co Cork. She tells of hidden treasure said to be located at the subtlety named Castletreasure, south of Douglas. Legend tells us that there was a large sum of gold, in a golden chest, taken from saint Finbarr’s college by the Danes (who often appear anachronistically in Irish tales). They were said to have hidden it for fear the Irish would happen upon them and take it back. Scores of people were said to have looked for it over the years, but were often thwarted by an otherworldly black bull and a fairy woman who have chased people away (and even said to have killed some). (NFSC, Vol. 0321:057)

The second story was collected from Denis MacCarthy and again features a lot of interesting motifs found in fairy lore. In this account we are told of a family who live near a rath/lios (fairy fort). The fort was said to have an entrance going into the ground (possibly a soutterain) from which ‘the other crowd’ were said to emerge. The father of the household had previously been taken by the ‘other crowd’. One night the son had arrived home from playing at a wedding and started playing a strange, haunting tune on his fiddle that he had heard coming from the fort. His mother warned him that it was fairy music, the exact same his father was playing prior to having been taken, and that he should stop playing it. He ignored this and later played it at a wedding. The ‘other crowd’ came and claimed him. His mother went to see the local wise woman and she produced a relic (bone) of saint Finbarr and said she would be able to get her son back. It is interesting here, IMO, to see the mixing of native (bean feasa, wise woman) and christian elements as a solution as they are often opposed to one another. They proceed to the fort and she sees her son surrounded by the ‘other crowd’. She runs up and embraces her son while holding out the relic. The ‘other crowd’ upon seeing the relic use magic to turn some plants into horses and flee. (NFSC, Vol.0346:127-9)

Bibliography

Croker, T.C. (1981), Researches in the South of Ireland, Irish Academic Press, pp.278-281

Corkery, K (2017, Cork Folk Tales, The history Press Dublin

Duchas.ie, National Folklore Collection,Vol.0303:224, Vol.0456:304, Vol.0346:127-9

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