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Gobnait: Woman of the Bees

Attendance at holy wells goes back a long, long way in Ireland. Many of the wells were originally the sites of pagan shrines. When Christianity came, veneration of the wells was adapted and assimilated into the new religion. Folks come to the wells anytime, but usually there is a special day, the Pattern Day, when large crowds traditionally assemble.

Gobnait's Pattern Day is February 11th and is still celebrated by the community of Ballyvourney, in County Cork. During a Mass at the well, everyone takes water from it.

Gobnait (pronounced GAWB-net) is known for her care of the sick. One story tells how she kept the plague out of Ballyvourney by designating it consecrated ground. She had a strong relationship with bees and used the properties of honey in the treatment of illness and healing of wounds. Her name is the Irish equivalent of the Hebrew name Deborah, which means "Honey Bee." The Bees have long been important in Irish society and were part of the ancient laws called the Bech Bretha (Bee Judgments). In prehistoric times the soul was thought to leave the body as an insect, either a bee or a butterfly.

Gobnait was born in County Clare in the 6th century. Fleeing from Clare, she took refuge in the Aran Islands, where she encountered an angel who instructed her to go on a journey. The angel told her that when she came upon nine white deer, that would be her place.

She duly traveled across the south of Ireland until, near Clondrohid in County Cork, she found three white deer. She followed them to Ballymakeera, where she saw six more deer. When she found the nine white deer in Ballyvourney, she stayed and founded a women's community. Today, Ballyvourney is a strong pilgrimage site, one of the most popular with the people of the county. Now Christian, it is unmistakably pagan in origin.

In Ballyvourney, Gobnait's well is a popular place marked with a wrought-iron archway and old trees that form a dark cave-like approach. The tree beside her well is adorned with personal tokens left by pilgrims visiting this site. You will come across them in every corner of Ireland -- little shrines built around a spring or a well. There will be small objects left as votive offerings: rosary beads, "holy" pictures, little statuettes, usually of "our lady", poems, requests, prayers. Often there is a tree or bush nearby where clooties, or rags and ribbons, flutter in the breeze. There is cup to drink from and usually some type of a cross nearby.

A stile leads from the well to the churchyard; among gravestones is a lovely white sculpture of the White Goddess standing upon an egg with a snake curled around her feet. Over one of the church windows is a Sheela-Na-Gig carved into an oval recess in the lintel. Considered a protector of the site, she is standing upright, with her hands gently resting upon her abdomen and genitals.

A much-worn 13th century wooden figure of Gobnait is kept by the parish priest and taken out on the saint's day, which is February 11th, and Whit Sunday. Some folks still use a Tomhas Ghobnatan, a length of woolen thread or ribbon which is measured against the statue and used for healing.

By another well rests a statue set up in 1950, in which Gobnait stands on a beehive surrounded by bees. Inside the churchyard is her grave, a small mound with three bullaun stones (deep hemispherical cups hollowed from rock). Pilgrims have scratched crosses in stone here.

The turas involves going around each of these places in turn. Each well has its ritual. This usually consists of doing "the rounds;" that is, encircling the well a number of times, usually three or three times three, while reciting a set number of prayers or invocations. This is always done clockwise, sunwise. Anti-clockwise movements are considered not only unlucky but actually blasphemous, and could bring severe retribution on the person and his/her animals or family. The pilgrim offers water to the earth in thanksgiving, then to his/her face. Then the pilgrim sips the water from the well and fills a bottle with the blessed water to bring home. If the well serves a fishing community, a bottle of well water will accompany each boat as it goes out to sea. At Ballyvourney, pilgrims touch the Sheila-na-gig carving as part of the turas (journey) around the church.

A well-known local story tells of a robber who arrived in the area and tried to erect a shrine here. Gobnait threw her bowl, which demolished the shrine. The bowl is now attached to the west wall of the church and a tradition has grown up of touching it with a personal item for healing.

The celebration of Gobnait extends beyond Ballyvourney. About a half mile east of the church is an early cross pillar known as Gobnait's Stone. Both faces have a Maltese cross inscribed into a double circle. On one side, the circle is surmounted by a figure with a crosier (staff). The pillar was found at a local site of a dried-up well many years ago.

There are several other wells dedicated to Gobnait in Ireland. In Dunguin, where "Ryan's Daughter" was filmed, you walk past the schoolhouse built for the movie and follow a graveled road uphill to Gobnait's shrine and well. One of my favorites is found on the Dingle Peninsula in Kilgore, named simply Tovar Ghobnait. It sits among oratory remains, enclosed with two pillar stones and an old cross pillar stone. In summer, wild roses abound there and legend has it that these roses will not root if transplanted anywhere. The well is simply an ancient stone with an impression where water resides, and the bowl is never empty

Graphics Credits

  • Gobnait, Gobnait's Grave, photos © S. Geoghegan. All rights reserved.
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