Honouring St Barrahane

It’s December 3rd (yesterday) – St Barrahane’s feast day, that is. He’s one of our local saints and not a lot is known about him. There are other St Barrahanes – or St Bearchán as it’s more commonly spelled – a whole raft of them, in fact from around the country. But this one belongs to Castlehaven.

Now, I am not normally given to honouring saints’ feast days, but there are exceptions. St Patrick’s, after all, is a national holiday, and St Brigid’s soon will be, so it would be rude not to. St John’s Eve is big in Cork and this year I did the rounds in my local graveyard – see this post for my lovely experience. That’s Castlehaven graveyard, below, right on the sea – the sea that Amanda and I are bobbing around in, in the lead photograph.

You remember Conor Buckley and his adventure and outdoors company, Gormú? To jog your memory, take a look at Castlehaven and Myross Placenames Project and Accessible August. He’s an all-round dynamo, whose idea of fun is to take people swimming at dawn in the middle of winter. But on this occasion, there was heritage to back him up – a local custom of going to St Barrahane’s well to get water on Dec 3rd, as a cure, but also as a talisman against any kind of accident at sea. Important, in this maritime location.

We gathered at the top of the road at dawn and walked down to the sea. Conor invited us to go barefoot as the original pilgrims would have done, and there were actually a few takers.

Then up to the holy well – about 20 of us. Conor told us about the traditions associated with this particular well, and asked Amanda to speak about wells in general. Declaring that she “has done more for holy wells than anyone else in Ireland” he then invited her to be first to the well – being first was also particularly auspicious in the local folklore.

The well contains a sacred eel (to see it brought good luck forever) and a cure for fevers that lasted all year. People would visit at any time, but particularly on Dec 3rd to collect water and take a bottle home with them. By the 1930s, when this account (below, in Irish) from Dooneen School was given in the Dúchas Schools Collection, only a few people were still coming. The onus on the pilgrim was relatively light – just a few Hail Mary’s and the Sign of the Cross and then you could drink the water. Some people left rags or a coin.

After the student’s writing is a Nóta, written  by the headmaster, R Ó’Motharua. 

The information for the Nóta came from James Burke, a noted local historian, TD (member of the Dail, or Irish Pariament) and Editor of the Southern Star.* He took a scholarly interest in local saints, of whom Barrahane was a prime example. Here is my translation (corrections welcome).

There is mention of Bearrcháin or “Berchin” in a Papal letter in 1199 (Innocent III). In the manuscript “Onomastecan Gaedilicum” one sees Berchan – son of Máine of the Race of Lúghdach Maidhe (Page 440). In the book Celtic Miscellany (page 46-51) one sees the name of Bearcháin with Fachtna – the founder of Rosscarbery – he was reading with him an oration that was given after the death of the Abbot O’Gillamichil who was the patron of Teampall Bearcháin [St Bearcháin’s Church] in this parish. They called Gillamichil “Open Purse” – because of his generosity. His name is still in the parish in the townland of Farranagilla [meaning Gilla’s Land].


https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4798763/4796172

Farranagilla, by the way, is a townland halfway between Castletownshend and Skibbereen. This accords with other information I have from James Burke about St Barrahane. In a letter to Edith Somerville of February 1917 he says:

When we come to Saint Barrahane (Irish Bearćán) we are in more shadowy ground. 

There was a great St Bearchan a noted prophet of Cluain Sosta in Hy Failghe of whom there is much (exhaustive) knowledge but I have elsewhere tried to prove that the patron of Castlehaven parish was a native of West Cork and is identified with the Bearchan  mentioned in the genealogy of Corca Laidhe but he is only a name. He certainly was the patron of Castlehaven which as early as 1199 and no doubt much earlier was called Glenbarrahane. 

From a letter in the Somerville archives, Drishane House. Quoted with permission**

James Burke had originally set out this information in his paper for the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society of 1905 on Castlehaven and its Neighbourhood, pointing out that the original name for Castlehaven Parish was Glenbarrahane, after its patron saint. In his magisterial work, A Dictionary of Irish Saints (Four Courts Press, 2011, p96),  Pádraig O’Ríain agrees with the notion that the saint belonged to the Corca Laighde family, despite some misgivings. He also adds local tradition maintains that Bearchán came from Spain.

Why was James Burke writing about St Barrahane to Edith Somerville? She was researching appropriate saints for the window she and her family had commissioned from Harry Clarke (of which more in a future post). A lack of information didn’t stop Harry Clarke from imagining what Bearchán might have looked like. In his Nativity window in St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland, he gives full reign to his imaginative vision and depicts him as a monk.

He gets the full Harry treatment – large eyes, a face full of wisdom and compassion, long tapered fingers. He is writing on an extended scroll – and the scroll hides a surprise, only visible in close-up and upside down.

The well itself is a little beauty – half hidden in the undergrowth and accessed by a wooden bridge. It is festooned with fishing floats – fisherman left them here to protect them at sea – rags, and rosaries. The water is fresh and clear.

In fact, the water from this well is used to baptise infants in both the Catholic and Protestant churches of Castlehaven Parish! 

So there you have it – what we know about St Barrahane and the traditions that surround him. We collected a jug of the water from the well for anyone who wanted to fill a bottle. As Joey in Friends used to say – Could I be wearing any more clothes?

But, this being Gormú, there was more to the day – the visit to the Holy Well was to be followed by a swim! Yikes! Amanda and I egged each other on during the week (I will if you will)) and finally decided it had to be done. And guess what – it wasn’t that bad! In fact, the water felt if anything slightly warmer than the surrounding air. In case anyone thinks I am virtue-signalling here (Look at me, swimming in December!) we didn’t stay in long, and there was a lot of shrieking involved. Some of the real swimmers emerged half an hour later.

There was an immense sense of camaraderie as we chowed down on our hot porridge and tea afterwards. Vincent O’Neill presented Amanda and me with the latest issue of the Castlehaven & Myross History Society Journal.

It is a great thing that Conor and other local historians have taken on the task of re-activating this pilgrimage and it felt wonderful to be a part of it. 

*For more on James Burke, see A Tale of Two Editors: the Lives and Words of James Burke and Patrick Sheehy, in the Skibbereen Historical Journal, Vol 16, 2020, by Alan McCarthy
**With thanks to The Somerville Archives and Tom Somerville for permission to quote from the James Burke letter.

12 thoughts

  1. Great to see old traditions being given new life!

    One small typo in your Irish translation of the note: the papal letter was penned in 1199 (not 1100) 🙂

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  2. Wonderful to see so much interest in local history and folklore and such fascinating events being enjoyed by so many! When I spent time in Ballydehob in 1982 there was very little interest and no idea that it could be fun!

    Like

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