As we prepare to mark the feast of St Patrick Mary O’Regan salutes the fearless St Gobnait and her outstanding neighbour St Finbarr Amighty thunderstorm shook Cork the night that St Finbarr was born in 550 AD. Finbarr’s parents thought it a blessing. His mother was a slave girl. Unbeknown to the chieftain to whom she was subordinate, she had married a metal worker. The night of the tempest, the young parents and their golden-haired infant fled into the deepest recesses of west Cork. The lashing rain washed away their tracks and they settled in the mountainous region where the River Lee rises, and where the chieftain did not reign. Little did the young couple suspect that this place of epic rural beauty would be named Gougane Barra after their son.
Gougane Barra means “Finbarr’s retreat”. The lake is surrounded by forested slopes and the horizon trimmed with the lace of the mountain tops. St Brendan, who travelled there and baptised Finbarr, was certain that the young man was destined for great things. St Brendan had been a foster child of St Ita, one of the most dynamic of the early Irish saints. St Ita’s influence extends from St Brendan to St Finbarr to St Colman, who was a spiritual son of St Finbarr. These were the saints who came after St Patrick, inherited his mission and laid extensive groundwork in Ireland for the Catholic Church in Ireland.
Finbarr did leave the peaceful lake of Gougane to spend years studying the monastic life in Scotland, something which would serve him well during the decades he spent forming seminarians as Cork’s bishop. On returning to Cork, Finbarr founded his first monastery with a number of other ascetics on the tiny island in the middle of Gougane’s lake, known as Holy Island, which today is connected to the shore by a causeway. Not merely a quiet, self-effacing monk, Finbarr was also renowned for his courage. He reputedly expelled a fierce serpent that slithered around the lake of Gougane.
St Finbarr made the journey on foot from Cork to Rome to be consecrated a bishop by the Pope and was Bishop of Cork until his death in 633. Astoundingly, he was reportedly led by an angel from Gougane, down the River Lee to its source, where he established his most important monastery. From there, the site and see of Cork city grew. Now known as St Finbarr’s Cathedral, it is under the care of the Church of Ireland and faces Cork’s university.
In 1900, St Finbarr’s Oratory was built on Holy Island. It is a small chapel that seats 50. The chapel is bordered by wooded hilltops and steep, soaring cliffs, which impress upon the visitor thoughts of the eternal. People may not be escaping powerhungry chieftains, but “Finbarr’s Retreat” is a world apart from our frenzied, secular existence. Close your eyes and there is the serenity of Lourdes.
German tourists come with packed timetables for hill-walking, fishing for trout and cycling along the river, but scrap their plans and bathe in the tranquillity. Often when a boyfriend and girlfriend visit the lake, the man is overcome with a spontaneous urge to drop on one knee and propose. Thoughts of marriage are never far away in Gougane. Up to three weddings are held in the oratory each day. Locals joke that that Gougane must hold a national record for the number of marriage proposals and weddings that take place there.
The faith has been preserved because of Gougane’s secluded and inaccessible geography. During penal times, when the Mass was driven underground, a Mass rock was erected on the South Lake Road, a waterside location between Gougane’s neighbouring villages of Ballingeary and Inchigeelagh. In the aftermath of the Ryan Report in July 2009 a Mass was held at the Mass rock in atonement for the abuse scandals. The theme was “Lord have mercy”.
Ballingeary is a few miles from Gougane and is an Irish-speaking village. It is shaded by the Shehy mountains, which filter the natural light, and a bright yellow glow streams through the village. Ballingeary is the home of the first Irish college, built in 1904. Young people from all over Ireland go there to learn the Irish language. Catholic symbols are integral to the Irish language. One example is that the fuchsia, a flower grown commonly in West Cork and Kerry, is called “God’s tears” in Irish. This is probably because the tight red buds of the fuchsia resemble the tears of blood Jesus shed in the Garden of Gethsemane.
If Ballingeary and its surrounds has St Finbarr, the village of Ballyvourney, which has a 20-minute drive away, has the fearless St Gobnait. Gobnait was a feisty sixth-century nun who scared away rapacious pagan chiefs with beehives. When a plague threatened Ballyvourney she marked the parish out with her stick and the plague did not touch the locals. St Gobnait was given worldwide recognition in 1601 when Pope Clement VIII granted an indulgence for pilgrims to her shrine and in 1602 published a full office for her feast.
Visitors to Ballyvourney may walk through this picturesque village and encounter the ruins of Gobnait’s church where there is an iron ball fixed in the church wall. This is known as Gobnait’s Bowl. It is said that she used it to demolish a fort built by a pagan chief on the north hills of the village. Each year many pilgrimages make a turas, meaning “trip”, around her church, drink the water from the holy well and venerate a wooden statue of her from the Middle Ages.
Reading the lives of the early Irish saints and their adventures, one is struck by their go-getting initiative and resilience. Ryanair was not running flights, but this did not stop Finbarr going to Rome to see the Pope under his own steam. While the general perception is that women were only liberated in modern times, a millennium and a half ago Gobnait tackled the pagan chief’s stronghold and crushed it to the ground. Irish saints: do they make them like they used to?