* Ballyvourney (a.k.a. Baile Bhuirne), County Cork, Ireland *
Named after the Matron Saint of Ballyvourney and sacred Bee-Keeping mistress, Saint Ghobnatan, this site is a holy pilgrimage location and monastic settlement known as “Tobar Ghobnatan”. This is the legendary home of St. Gobnait/Ghobnatan. It is located a kilometer south of the village of Ballyvourney where St. Ghobnatan’s church Móin Mór (a.k.a. Bairnech) was built. The site is believed to have been a pre-Christian Pagan site used to smelt bronze and iron. There are also two holy wells at this site, both of which are believed to pre-date St. Abban and Gobnait’s arrival to the land, most likely Pagan shrines or Fairy wells. Today these wells are called “St. Gobnait’s Well” and “St. Abban’s Well”. This Christian site was believed to have been founded first by St. Abban who founded a convent here and giving it to Saint Gobnait. It is however, primarily attributed to St. Gobnait, and both wells seem to carry her name and reputation, even though there is controversy as to which well belongs to which Saint.
The Statue of St. Gobnait
St. Gobnait’s cult and laity, as well as the Catholic population of the area, often come to the site for recreation, hiking, prayers, petitions, and doing the rounds or turas. However, every February 11th, the date that St. Gobnait was believed to pass away (year unknown), has become her official “Feast Day” which calls for tribute and celebrations for her. Pilgrims to the site do these rounds on the feast day by coming to the statue (station 1) and processing in a clockwise direction around the site scratching crosses on the stones of each station as they do their rounds. Just to the left of the statue the pilgrims begin reciting three sets of prayers seven times each at each station making a very long day to the rite and ritual involved. These are seven “Our Father” prayers, seven “Hail Mary’s” prayers, and seven “Glories of Christ”. The statue was erected in 1950 C.E. The turas however are believed to be done in the general vicinity of the statue for at least since the 17th century. No date is certain when the pilgrimage and practice began.
St. Gobnait’s Kitchen or House
Next to the statue is a round stone circular hut that is believed to have been either the kitchen or house of St. Gobnait. During construction of the statue and excavation of the site, post holes were found suggesting that the site was used for production of various crafts. From the 1800’s until 1950’s the hut and site was in complete ruin. The hut and site was restored after the site was excavated in 1950 by M.J. O’Kelly who rebuilt it to its current state. The excavations suggested that the site was used for metal craft working up to the early medieval period based on large amounts of iron smelting slag, a crucible, and other metal working artifacts found on the site. There are also Bullaun Stones found on the site. These were believed to have been used to grind metal ores in. It is believed the hut was a later addition and that the site’s original first use was for bronze or iron working. The circular hut, which has been restored, has an internal diameter of 6 meters. It was believed to have been used by iron and bronze smelters. It is also around this time that the well in front of the hut was believed to have been dug (called St. Gobnait’s Well). The House or Kitchen was deemed the second station of the turas. Here is the best example of the crude crosses scratched into the stones and markers during the turas on the site. This is done on the portal stones when they enter the hut, and on some of the stones atop the wall. Since this hut has evidence of an earlier site for smelting iron and bronze, folklore ties it to an earlier being or Deity … that of Goibnui, the Smith of the Tuatha Dé Danann that might be whom St. Gobnait replaced. One of the holy wells stands before the entrance to the hut. This one is definitely listed as St. Gobnait’s Well. The main well, found on the right hand side of the road down the hill before one comes up to the right side of the road as one drives up to the site. This main well is also called St. Gobnait’s Holy Well, of which both were revered as a site of healing waters and magic from their early beginnings to this very date.
The Graveyard / Church yard
The cemetery is a fabulous find just in of itself. Some of the grave markers are fantastically carved and decorated. Celtic crosses dot the landscape. There is a large sculpture of a woman believed to be a Goddess standing on an egg with a snake curled around her feet that is interpreted by some modern day Pagans as being a sculpture of the White Goddess. There is no documentation to authenticate this however. St. Gobnait’s purported grave is located here. This is marked Stations 3 and 4 on the pilgrimage stations/turas map. This consists of a small artificial prehistoric mound that looks like most other megalithic cists. On its south end is a large stone slab which is the location where many believe her body rests. Atop this stone pilgrims scratch the cross into the stone slab (Station 3). The slab atop the cist (Station 4) is also covered with scratched crosses. There are said to exist three Bullaun Stones here, the third of which may be in the station 3 stone slab.
The Ballyvourney Church – Stations 5-9 is the medieval church that is located in the graveyard. It is one of the major stops for pilgrims doing their rounds and is a location of more cross scratchings/etchings that are made during the turas/stations/rounds. This church was built atop an earlier church that may have been the original Móin Mór (a.k.a. Bairnech) church of St. Gobnait. Pilgrims begin at the northwest corner of the earlier foundation noted as station 5 and cite seven “Our Fathers”, “Hail Marys”, and “Glories” at each station. They go in a clock-wise direction circling the church saying a decade of the rosary visiting station 5 four times and all the other stations once. Station 6 can be found in the east wall window of the chancel where the altar was believed to first had rested. After prayers were made, they circle the church, re-enter, and pray at station 7 – rubbing the Sheela-na-gig carving above it which many believe is an image of St. Gobnait. Near the Sheela-Na-gig is the Flagstone of the Thief. The Flagstone of the Thief found in the graveyard and church ruins is believed to represent the tale when St. Gobnait fastened the thief and the cows he stole to the flagstone on which they were standing when they were caught, and the feet/hooves imprinted themselves upon the stone. There is a tale of this flagstone that states a robber once came to the church yard and tried to erect his own shrine here. Once Saint Gobnait learned of this, she took her bowl and threw it at the shrine, thereby destroying it. Since then, the bowl has been located along the west wall of the church and is a place where pilgrims go to touch it with a personal item used to gain healing.
Both of these particular carvings are believed to date from the 15th century C.E. From here the pilgrims would proceed to station 8 just outside of the south wall where the Chanel meets the wider nave. They would circumambulate the church again stopping at station 9 on the south side of the west wall just above the top of the steps at St. Gobnait’s Bowl. Pilgrims would reach into the bowl and touch the stone. Folklore states this bowl was used by St. Gobnait to defeat a local chief who was building near her monastery by destroying his fort. The final station is at St. Abban’s Holy Well (station 10). Here at the church each year on the 11th of February, the parish priest would bring out a 13th century wooden statue of St. Gobnait upon which pilgrims would measure a ribbon against the statue and wrap it around the figure, then take the ribbon home to use for healing magic.
No one knows for sure when the pilgrimages began at this site. Many believe early Pagan faiths came to this location for other reasons, most likely to pay tribute and make offerings at the fairy wells. Once Christianity took over the site, pilgrimages probably did not occur until after the death of St. Gobnait in the mid to late 16th century C.E. The earliest written accounts of pilgrimages to Ballyvourney date to the early 1600’s C.E. The Pope Clement VIII in 1601 granted a special indulgence of 10 years to those who came here on the feast day, went to Confession and Communion and prayed for peace among the “Christian princes”, for the expulsion of heresy, and for the exaltation of the church. Other works of art such as the poetry of Dáibhidh Ó Bruidar, the writings of Don Philip Ó Súilleabháin and Seathrún Céitinn clearly demonstrate that by the late 16th century the Saint Gobnait cult was strong and thriving. Donal Cam Ó Súilleabháin during his escape from Béara came to this monastic site in 1603 C.E. with his men to pray to Saint Gobnait offering her gifts asking for her protection. In 1645 C.E. the Papal Nunico Rinuccini wrote about the Cult as well from descriptions of his visit. In 1687 C.E. Sir Richard Cox wrote about Ballyvourney as being home to the Gobnait cult and location of the holy relic that makes cures and miracles to the pilgrims there, referring to the 13th century figurine of St. Gobnait used by the parish during the feast day. Traditionally the relics of Saint Gobnait were in the care of the O’Hierlihy family. It was cared for by this family until 1843 when it was passed on to the Parish priest. Today, the figurine is in care of the local Parish priest.
It is worthy to note that a ring fort that could have had ties with the Pagan pre-Christian use of the site, was destroyed by a local farmer. Information about this incident can be found at http://corkarchaeologist.wordpress.com/destruction-of-ringforts/. There are other wells dedicated to Saint Gobnait throughout Ireland. A magical well in Dunguin exists by the school house that consists of a shrine and well. Another is in Kilgore called the “Tovar Ghobnait” that is enclosed with two pillar stones and a cross stone. It is an ancient stone with a water mark impression that holds rainwater, and is said that the bowl never goes empty. During the summer months it is also said that the wild roses growing around the site will never root if transplanted elsewhere. It was here that the fairy tale of Morty Sullivan and the Black Steed takes place nearby as the location where he sought to atone for his sins at St. Gobnait’s shrine.
How to get here: Drive West from Macroom to Kerry on the N22. As you pass through Ballymakerry (Baile Mhic Ire), you will pass a church on your right-hand side and will take the first left hand turn after the church that has a sign post. Follow the road 400 meters and you will see the first (and main) holy well on the right. You’ll need to go up the hill a bit for parking as it is a very narrow road. Take the next right hand road (near where you can park by a graveyard) up the hill to see the other holy well, statue, hut, church ruins, and main graveyard. There is also a modernized porta-toilet in this parking lot so you don’t have to use the bushes. The GPS coordinates are: 79: W 1967 7688. Longitude: 9° 10′ 5″ W, Latitude: 51° 56′ 18″ N.
Article by Thomas Baurley, Leaf McGowan, Technogypsie Productions and Research Services: Technogypsie.com. © 2013: All rights reserved.
Article on the Church, Shrine, Graveyard, and Well found at http://www.technogypsie.com/reviews/?p=14339. Article on the Holy Well found at http://www.technogypsie.com/chronicles/?p=7591. Article on the Tobar Ghobnatan Wishing Trees, Saint Ghobnatan, and Tobar Ghobnatan cross etchings.
Continue reading Tobar Ghobnatan (St. Gobnait’s House, Church, Cemetery, Statue, & Well)