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.