Off the M8 – A High Cross and a Complex Saint

We haven’t had an ‘Off the M8’ for quite some time. You remember that, on our journeys from West Cork to Dublin, we would go (literally) off the beaten track to find new places of interest to visit – making a ‘grand day out’ of every trip. However, the unexpected arrival of the Covid19 pandemic severely curtailed our travelling – and everyone else’s – for many months. Covid is by no means over, even now, but we are slowly venturing further afield and, last week, made the trip up to the Dublin area, following all the guidelines. Nevertheless, we couldn’t resist trying out a fresh route which adds about 40 minutes to the overall journey but which takes in a new (for us) medieval stone cross and a historic site with thought-provoking associations. It is situated with fine views of the Slieveardagh Hills to the west.

We followed the normal route as far as Cahir, on the M8, then headed off east on the N24 and N76 towards Callan. Just after Ninemilehouse (Ireland has some wonderful place names!) you cross from County Tipperary into County Kilkenny and, within a few minutes (watch carefully), you’ll see a small signpost directing you off to the right down a tiny boreen to Killamery High Cross.

The first thing you’ll see, at the end of this lane, is the ruin of a significant church. Some distance beyond it you’ll make out the distinctive shape of the large, carved stone cross but also many other treasures including old grave slabs, bullaun stones and a very fine holy well dedicated to Saint Nicholas.

The site is associated with an Irish holy man, as you would expect: Saint Gobhan, Gobán Fionn, Gobban – or even Gobanus – who lived from c560 to c639AD. Foundations associated with this saint were many, including Portadown, Co Armagh, in the north; also as Abbot to the monastery of Old Leighlin, County Carlow, where in 633AD he presided over a great Synod held to debate the timing of Easter (we seem to remember only the later Synod of Whitby – 664AD – which also set out to regularise the date but which led to irreconcilable disagreement between the Irish and Roman factions). Latterly, Gobhan was linked to the Kingdom of Kerry – near Tralee, but we are interested today in the monastery he set up by a holy well in Killamery. He had a thousand monks with him and it is said that an army of angels helped build the walls.

The angels must also have helped to eradicate that monastery as there is now no trace of Gobhan’s foundation in County Kilkenny, just a lonely 19th century church, the well (pictured above), a burial ground and this very fine High Cross. The cross is well worth a visit: some say it’s the oldest of the Western Ossory high crosses, which are themselves considered to be a distinct group. I have looked previously at the Kilkieran examples. Here at Killamery there is just the one cross and, perhaps for that reason, it stands out in the memory. Some scholars reckon it could be 8th century, but most attribute it to the 9th. It’s ancient by any standard, certainly, and it’s probably unavoidable that the carving is so weathered.

The Duchas signboard (above) describes the scenes depicted on the various elements of the cross,  but most of what we can decipher today is limited to geometrical patterns – very much in the ‘Celtic’ tradition. There may have once been other visible motifs: the large plinth stone is completely worn on all surfaces.

The cross certainly predates any of the other artefacts, bullauns and stone markers which surround it today, but it is likely that the adjacent holy well is even more ancient: it is dominated by an intriguing, large shaped monolith.

Among the artefacts which have arrived at this site is a fine 17th century (probably) cross slab and a memorial to the United Irishmen who lost their lives at nearby Carrigmoclear in 1798 – both shown below.

The origins of Gobhan himself merit some consideration. He has associations with metalworkers and, of course, we know that Saint Gobnait was their patron saint. Could there be some fusion of names in folk history and oral tradition? Like Gobhan, Gobnait is revered at many sites around Ireland and undertook diverse travels around the island in search of the nine white deer which set her destiny.

There’s nothing more Irish than the experience of finding references to hundreds of years of history hiding down a lonely boreen to nowhere in the rural heart of this land. More than anything, it makes us want to know more. What is real? What is myth – although made to seem logical and credible through stories which are still told? Of course, we can never know the reality, but we can share in the spirit of the stories, and wonder at a piece of stone beautifully carved, perhaps, thirteen hundred years ago . . .

Once you have visited this fascinating site, find your way across to the M9 (it’s straightforward enough) and you’ll be up to the big city in a jiffy!

A Murmuration

We stood still and listened: the air was filled with humming – Bees swarming in February? But no… it was the murmuring of the pilgrims saying the decades of the Rosary by the grave of St Gobnait…

Making the Rounds at Saint Gobnait's Shrine on the Feast Day

Making the Rounds at Saint Gobnait’s Shrine on the Feast Day

We travelled up into the Muskerry Gaeltacht on Wednesday – 11 February: the Feast Day of Saint Gobnait. It’s a fair journey, and we felt that we had really gone into another world: we crossed over the Mountain of the Fairy – that’s my interpretation of the Shehy Mountains (Shee is Fairy) – others say the Irish Cnoic na Síofra means ‘hills of the animal hides’. For the first time in my life somebody – a passer by – addressed me in Irish… “An bhfuil hata agat le spáráil?” they said – “Have you got a hat to spare?” (I think it was a wry comment about the headgear I was wearing on the day).

Our goal was Saint Gobnait’s Church in Ballyvourney, where the Mass was to be heard celebrated in Irish. Also, we wanted to see the 13th century wooden statue which is brought in to the church on this day. When we arrived there was already a queue to buy ribbons and ‘measure’ them against the statue. In fact, it was quite an intricate ritual: first you wrapped your ribbons around the neck of the statue, then around the feet. Some did the same around the stomach – others passed the ribbons under the body of the statue and rubbed them along the surface. Many people kissed the statue and some picked it up and made the sign of the cross with it. We joined in and came away with a clutch of ribbons, now blessed by Saint Gobnait and imbued with health-giving and good-fortune-bringing properties.

ribbons

Wrapping the ribbons

Making the 'Measures'

Making the ‘Measures’

The church was completely full for the Mass (it was also broadcast outside), which was celebrated by two Priests and a very robust men’s choir – beautiful singing in Irish. It was an uplifting experience, even though I hardly understood a word. A friendly atmosphere imbued all who were there, and excitement was in the air. Afterwards, we visited the statue again and then headed for Saint Gobnait’s Holy Well, her grave and the ruins of her ancient church, where the ‘Rounds’ were being performed all day. That’s when we heard the humming – it should have been Bees: this Saint has always been associated with them, and her statue which overlooks the pilgrimage site (and which was carved by Seamus Murphy in 1950) is decorated with Bees and with a Deer. This is also part of her story: when she was travelling through Ireland looking for a site to establish her community she was told she must continue on her way until she met with nine white Deer. She found them in Ballyvourney and that’s why in our time the little settlement flourishes on this February day.

We heard that there is another Holy Well, hidden in the woods just outside the town and seldom visited. This is known as Tobar Abán – Saint Abban’s Well. That saint seems to be closely associated with Saint Gobnait although not much is known about the lives of either of them – they lived back in the sixth century.

In the local shop

In the local shop

A visit to the Post Office provided us with the information we needed to get to this intriguing sacred site: walk over the bridge, go into the fields and look for a lone oak tree on the distant boundary – this marks the point where a trackway leads up through the woods. We made our way across a muddy pasture; the oak tree was prominent enough, and the track – but once inside the wood everything was quite densely overgrown. We would never have found it without the instructions, but we also had the help of red and white ribbons tied to trees and posts in strategic places – they had been there for some time: we wondered who set them up?

Tobar Abán is a wonderful site – a lonely outpost of religious sanctity but, for me, probably the most beautiful of all the holy places I have visited in Ireland so far. It’s an unexpected find: set away from everything, deep in an ancient oak wood, silent, still – one could imagine that it has always been like this, passing through generations of turbulent history and yet untroubled by it. Archaeologically it appears to be a cist with a cairn of stones built around it: this would imply pre-Christian origins. The lid of the cist (a burial chamber or repository for bones) is not visible – possibly it is under the large ballaun stone which rests on top. Above this is a small, relatively modern concrete cross embellished with offerings, beads and ribbons: other icons and objects are scattered around the site. The whole mound has a boundary defined by three standing stones, one of which is inscribed with ogham. Everything is covered in a layer of moss which seemed to exude a luminescence in the moist shade of the wood.

crucifix

Saint Abban (or Abbán moccu Corbmaic) seems to have been active in many parts of Ireland, and tradition has it that he lived for three hundred years. The stories that are important here are the ones that link him with Saint Gobnait. It has been said that he founded a monastery in Ballyvourney before she arrived, and that he was her mentor and gave the foundation to her. Some say that Abban and Gobnait were brother and sister. Most important, perhaps, is the tradition that Abban had a cell or church just outside Ballyvourney and that he was buried in that cell when he died in 520. Could it be his grave that we found?

Saint Abban's Shrine - cell - or grave?

Saint Abban’s Shrine – cell – or grave?

Saint Abban’s Well is a little distance from the cist, and is quite unassuming, especially compared to the elaborate wells around Saint Gobnait’s old church. It is merely an opening in a rock set in the ground: an old tray covers it and keeps the leaves out, and a wooden box beside it contains some cups and plastic bottles for collecting the water.

Tobar Aban - Saint Abban's Well

Tobar Abán – Saint Abban’s Well

As we were making our way back across the fields we were surprised to see a lady in a red coat walking with a stick towards us. “Did you find it?” she asked. We assured her we had found the well and the shrine. “And did you see his bones?” she continued, “Last time I was there I lifted up the lid and saw the Saint’s bones inside…” We watched her go off towards the woods; when I looked back again she had disappeared.

Cist, Bullaun and standing stones

Cist, Bullaun and standing stones

There’s so much about the day: the journey across the Mountain of the Fairy; the Irish Mass and the ritual of the ribbons involving a 13th century wooden figure; the Rounds and the humming of the Saint’s Bees; the magical shrine in the woods – and I really do wonder about that lady in the red coat…

Offering at the Shrine of Saint Abban

Offering at the Shrine of Saint Abban

Mount Gabriel

Trails over Mount Gabriel

Trails over Mount Gabriel

Only a few kilometres from Nead an Iolair – as the Crow flies – sits Mount Gabriel: at 407m elevation it’s the highest piece of land in West Cork. Cork mountains are dwarfed by those from Kerry: McGillycuddy’s Reeks has the highest peaks in Ireland, at over 1,000 metres. However, our own local mountain is nevertheless impressive and on a good, clear day provides a view not to be missed – to all points of the compass.

Looking west to the Mizen

Looking west to the Mizen

I spent a while researching why a mountain in the west of Ireland should be called Gabriel. There is no received opinion about this. I suppose there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be named after the Archangel himself: after all, we have Croagh Patrick (after St P) and Mount Brandon (after St Brendan) and many others: Ireland’s landscape is alive with place-names having religious connections, although such associations are likely to be fairly young. In Irish the mountain is Cnoc Osta – possibly ‘hill of the encampment’ – so there’s no clue there.

Roaringwater Bay

Roaringwater Bay

I did find this fascinating piece from the Church of Ireland Magazine, dated 1826 – written by John Abraham Jagoe, Vicar of Cape Clear …where I have no protestant parishioners… and Curate of Schull …where interspersed amongst moor and mountain, I have fifteen hundred Protestants, to visit and oversee… It’s well worth a verbatim extract:

‘…amidst these everlasting hills arose, in peculiar prominence, Mount Gabriel. Why, my lads, said I, is yonder mountain called such an outlandish name; one would think it was brought here by Oliver Cromwell, it has such an un-Irish – such a saxon name. O! says Pat, it is a pity that the blockhead is not here to tell the gentleman the story about this, for sure and certain such poor garcoons as the likes of us know little, and care not the tail of a herring for such old stories. And who, said I, is the blockhead? O, says my friend, the blockhead is an old man living up on the mountain, who, from his great memory, his knowledge of cures for cattle, charms against fairy-struck people, experience in bleeding, acquaintance with legends about the good people, the Milesians, and Fin McCoul, is called far and near, the blockhead.

My dear fellow, will you tomorrow bring me to that man; I would pilgrimage over all the hills in Cork and Kerry to get into chat with him: says I to myself, this is just the man that I want. Ah my good friend, do bring me to the blockhead to-morrow. Why yes to be sure, – but stay, can you speak Irish? Not a word, to my sorrow be it spoken. Well then go home first and learn Irish, for Thady Mahony can speak no other language. – Well boys, can none of you (as I cannot get it out of the blockhead) tell me about Mount Gabriel; O! yes, Sir, says Pat Hayes, my Godmother used to tell me it was called after the Angel Gabriel, who came, you know, from Heaven to deliver the happy message of mercy to the Virgin – ever blessed be her name. And so on his return, as he was flying back, he looked down upon Ireland, and as he knew that in time to come, this honest island would never part with the worship and duty it owes to the Mother of God, he resolved to take a peep at the happy land, that St Patrick was to bestow for ever on the Virgin. So down he came, and perched on the western peak of that mountain; the mark, they say, of his standing is there to this day, and his five toes are branded on the rock, as plain as if I clasped my four fingers and thumb upon a sod of drying turf; and just under the blessed mark, is a jewel of a lake, round as a turner’s bowl, alive with trout; and there are islands on it that float about up and down, east and north and south; but every Lady-day they come floating to the western point, and there they lie fixed under the crag that holds the track of the Angel’s foot…’

Hidden Glen Fuschia

Hidden Glen Fuschia

Well, there’s enough in those few lines to keep us going on field trips for some time to come! We did find, on the western slopes, a beautiful hidden valley holding the ruins of a one roomed cottage. I have convinced myself that this must have been the dwelling place of the blockhead Thady Mahony, who may once have been the keeper of all the secrets of the mountain. But we have yet to find the jewel of the lake with its trout and its miraculous floating islands, notwithstanding the Archangel’s footprint…

View from the summit

View from the summit

One other possibility for the name is a corruption of the Old Irish Gobhann – which means smith, as in a metal smith. Remember Saint Gobnaitt? She was the patron saint of ironworkers (blacksmiths) and her name is supposed to be rooted in Gobhann. There is also a Goibhniu in Irish mythology: he was the smith of the Tuatha De Danaan and forged their weapons for battle with the Formorians. So – Gobhann, Goibhniu, Gabriel…? Too much of a leap of faith? But it is known that Mount Gabriel was the site of extensive copper mining a few thousand years ago – remains of pits, shafts and spoil heaps can be seen:  so perhaps there just could be something more ancient inherent in the name.

golf ball

There is mythology attached to the Mountain: the Fastnet Rock was torn from the slopes and thrown into the sea by a giant; once we were searching for a piece of Rock Art within sight of the mountain and the landowner assured us that the carved stone had been thrown there by Finn MacCool (we didn’t find it).

giant stamp

The story about Mount Gabriel that most captures my imagination is the suggestion that the last Wolves in Ireland inhabited the rocky landscape there back in the eighteenth century (although it’s true that several other places make the same claim). Until that time Wolves were commonly seen in the wilder parts of the land and feature in local stories and folklore. Interestingly they were often portrayed in a positive way and were sometimes companions of the saints. There are very few records of Wolves having maimed or killed humans, yet in 1653 the Cromwellian government placed a bounty on them – 5 pounds for a male Wolf, and 6 pounds for a female: worthwhile prize money in those days. This encouraged professional hunters and, coupled with the dwindling forest habitats, the fate of the animal was sealed.

grey wolf

Mount Gabriel today is relatively benign, although it still has its remoter parts. The Irish Aviation Authority has kindly provided a road up to the summit, where sit the distinctive ‘golf ball’ radar domes and aerials of an Air Traffic Control installation. From these heights we can see Rossbrin Cove, Ballydehob, Schull and all the islands of Roaringwater Bay set out in a magnificent panorama – on a clear day.

iaa

Aerials and view to the north

Aerials and view to the north

Modern events have affected the mountain: a German plane crashed here in 1942, and in 1982 the Irish National Liberation Army bombed the radar station, believing that it was providing assistance to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, allegedly in violation of Irish neutrality.

IMG_3573

For us the mountain is a landmark and, like most of our view, its profile changes with the weather on a daily – perhaps hourly basis. As a repository of archaeology, human history, lore and nature Gabriel provides a rich resource.

Gabriel

Gabriel