To Puncture the Mysterious – Finbarr and the Serpent

There are two St Finbarrs, Patron Saint of Cork – the one you read about in academic studies, and the saint of myth and legend. If you’re of a romantic turn of mind, I recommend you avoid the first of these. It will do your heart no good to read the forensic analyses of the origins of his cult and who he might really have been.

The legendary Finbarr: Arriving at Gougane Barra in this window in Caheragh by Murphy Devitt; and being consecrated as a bishop by angels in an Earley window in St Finbarr’s church in Bantry, donated by William Martin Murphy

No – far better to read the hagiographies, which lay out his virtues, for he was godlike and pure of heart and mind, like Abraham; mild and well-doing, like Moses; a psalmist, like David; wise, like Solomon; firm in the faith, like Peter; devoted to the truth, like Paul the Apostle; and full of the Holy Spirit, like John the Baptist. He was a lion of strength, and an orchard full of apples of sweetness.

St Finbarr’s monastic site as reconstructed by Fr Peter Hurley in the 1890s and still a place of pilgrimage. The window is in the Church of St Finbarr and the Holy Angels in Inchigeela and is a flamboyant example of Watsons of Youghal’s Celtic Revival style

He is associated with Cork, of course, but probably most closely with Gougane Barra, that idyllic mountain lake where he is said to have founded his first monastic community. Gougane Barra – the rocky cranny of Finbarr – lies in a cleft in the Shehy Mountains and from it the River Lee flows eastwards across Cork to empty itself into its mighty harbour.

The oratory at Gougane is an in-demand wedding venue and home to stained glass windows by Watsons of Youghal, including this one of Finbarr

Legend has it that when St Finbarr arrived to set up his cell the lake was occupied by an enormous serpent, called Lú (or Louie, in some accounts) who, having had it to himself naturally resented the saint’s arrival and on one occasion arose and tore the chalice from his hands as he was celebrating mass. Finbarr raged and prayed and with the power of God to sustain him he summoned Lú from the depths and banished him forever from the lake.

Lú underfoot, being banished by Finbarr

Lú departed, thrashing his giant tail as he went and such was his anger and strength that he carved a deep valley as he went. The water from the lake flowed into the valley and thus the River Lee (below) was formed.

Our favourite contemporary poet, James Harpur, has re-imagined this story as a classic spiritual struggle. He has given me permission to use his poem, Finbarr and the Serpent of Gougane Barra. This is the perfect answer to the desiccation and disappointment of academic analysis – the power of Finbarr’s legend lies in the timeless battle between good and evil – whether that’s between a saint and a serpent or between a saint and his demons.

Did it exist?

                   For hours I’d scan the surface

Hope for a splash, a shadow in the water,


               to puncture the mysterious.

At night I’d set the traps with squeaking bait.

But nothing came

                            except a badger and an otter.

Yet still I felt its presence by the lake.

At last, I snapped: I drove the serpent out

With curses, shouts – I exorcised the beast

Along with every slithering scaly thought.

But soon … I could not bear the certainty

Of absence, emptiness.

                                     I headed east

To settle where the plains of marshes lie

And built a trap, a cave-like oratory;

And here I pray for god

                                      to coil around me.


22 thoughts

  1. What a fabulous additional piece, Merrily! Thank you so much. I hope whatever was ‘the spinning moment of each wish’ that all of yours were answered.


  2. … an orchard full of apples of sweetness – what a wonderful way to be described. Beautiful images of this very special place and I enjoyed Merrily Harpur’s reply. There used to be an old tree hammered full of coins too but that was removed. Sadly that notice is still there!


  3. How lovely to find referenced my brother James’s poem about St Finbarr…
    It brought to mind another occasion on which his family and I visited the oratory, and which he also wrote about. There is a holy well there, and you used to throw a coin into it and make a wish or say a prayer to St. Finbarr. When we arrived at the island, with our small silver coins ready to cast into the well, we found a bossy notice, saying it is forbidden to throw in money. So, eschewing the desecrated well, we chose a little natural, secluded spot on the far side of the island, with a view over the lake to the mountains, which seemed to us holy, and threw our coins in there. But when we looked more deeply into the water where we stood, we saw hundreds of coins! Everyone else had had the same idea.

    Gougane Barra

    The mist sucks in our car to a world
    That’s pure except for leaves that drop
    like bits of flame or scraps of gold.
    We arrive just as the drizzle stops;
    The lake deepens the unpeeling hills.

    The pilgrim hostel has no guests.
    The chapel’s closed; and at the well
    We marvel at a sign’s request
    To refrain from throwing in our pence –
    As if officials could outlaw
    Whistling or smiling, song and dance.

    We walk beside the lake, and sure
    Enough the shallows buff a mine
    Of coins, like amber eyes of fish,
    That keep lit, and hard, the faith behind
    The spinning moment of each wish.

    James Harpur, from Angels and Harvesters, Anvil Press, 2012

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.