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.

Accessible August 

It’s been a very busy week! The best part about it was that my sister, Aoibhinn (pronounced Eeving), is visiting and she and I were able to do lots of things together. That’s her in the coral jacket, above. You see, she has ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and she was really nervous about her ability to participate in the activities I had booked or planned, or stay the course once on them. 

Aoibhinn does really well at managing her condition, but she has to be very careful or she can end up in a major crash. She struggles with tiredness and pain all the time (sore joints, headaches) but finds that sea swimming helps her cope mentally, so she was up for one of the things we planned to do together, our Dawn Swim and Pilgrimage with Gormú. We met Conor and Celine, and two other participants at Castlehaven and started off by walking the short way up to the Holy Well, where we heard of St Barrahane. Readers may remember Conor from the Placenames post.

Next came the swim. While Aoibhinn opted for a short immersion, I surprised myself by swimming all the way to Faill Dic, with encouragement from Conor, and the lovely safety valve of a float if I needed it. Breakfast was so welcome – porridge, fruit and hot tea made by Celine and Conor (below) – while we listened to more stories, all set around the cove we were in. It was a fantastic experience – I highly recommend it!

The Ellen Hutchins Festival and Heritage Week are both in full swing this week, so there are any god’s amount of things to choose from. We concentrated on botany and butterflies during the week and ended with stained glass and history yesterday. 

Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington and Nick Scott led us through the Glengarriff Woods. While this walk involves an uphill section, the pace is easy because it involves lots of stopping to talk about the plants we encounter along the way. We loved Nick’s descriptions of the forest environment, and all the layers that make up the plant life from the canopy down. And we were riveted by Micheline’s focus on the Arbutus (AKA the Strawberry Tree), a rare tree that occurs only here and in the Iberian Peninsula. 

Micheline is investigating her theory that it may have come with the Bronze Age miners who came to exploit the rich copper resources of West Cork and Kerry. Her recent article in Archaeology Ireland sparked my interest and I was thrilled to be able to go along on this walk with her.

The photograph above illustrates the challenges in tracking Arbutus trees – they grow on cliffs and in inaccessible places.

Our Wednesday walk was organised by the Cork Nature Network and was led by my friend Damaris Lysaght, a real local expert in plants and butterflies. And as if that wasn’t enough, it was at Three Castle Head, one of the most beautiful spots in Ireland and a place dripping with history

Once again, although this walk involved picking our way through long grasses and scrambling over rocks, the pace was slow, with frequent stops to ooh and aah over butterflies and hear Damaris talk about their habitats and plant requirements. Some of the plants were so tiny that we had to see them through a hand lens to really appreciate them.

We had a rest day on Thursday, and on Friday it was time for Seaweed and Sealing Wax 2. This was the second production masterminded by Karen Minihan, based on the correspondence between Ellen Hutchins and Dawson Turner. See Robert’s post from last year for an account of Seaweed and Sealing Wax 1. This year, we were joined by the poet, Laura McKenna and the botanical artist Shevaun Doherty. That’s Shevaun surrounded by audience members in the top photo of this post, while Laura is in the photo below.

While Karen and I led the audience through the letters, Laura read a selection of poems that responded to Ellen’s life and work, and Shevaun worked away on painting a piece of seaweed, explaining her process to the audience at one point. 

At the end, Madeline Hutchins, Ellen’s great, great, grandniece, showed us some of Ellen’s books and letters. As with last year, we were under a tent in the grounds of Sea View House Hotel, right next door to where Ellen herself had lived in the opening years of the nineteenth century. 

We finished the week with a trip to Timoleague, where I was booked to give two stained glass talks at the Church of the Ascension Open House. This is part of a huge community effort to save and safeguard the fabulous mosaics in this church and I am always thrilled to be a part of it. Take a look at this video by the Rev Kingsley Sutton, Touching Heritage, to get an excellent overview of the whole project.

The church is truly one of West Corks hidden gems, and the fund-raising effort needs all the help it can get. In between the talks, we were whisked off to lunch at a fabulous private house right on the sea. Nice work if you can get it!

So – it’s been an incredibly busy week of flowers, talks, and butterfly hunting (above) and I am feeling it now. But all of our activities were  accessible to Aoibhinn, with time to rest in between, or go for a lovely dip locally. So – if there’s anybody out there who wonders if you would be able for a botany walk or a dawn swim and ‘pilgrimage’ – no need to be intimidated by a title or a description when the pace is leisurely and, as Aoibhinn found, there’s always a handy rock to sit down on for a while.