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,

Anything

               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.

 

Alma Mater

The Clock Tower, University College Cork

The Clock Tower, University College Cork

We have lovely friends visiting from Canada and we have been out and about every day showing off West Cork, so this is just a little post from me today. When we went to pick them up at Cork Airport we had some extra time, and spent it at University College Cork.

The Quad

The Quad

I attended UCC from 1968 to 1973 and graduated with a BA and MA. The University (or De College as we called it) was much smaller then – I seem to remember there were a couple of thousand students, whereas now there are 20,000. Student life revolved around the Quad, the Rest (restaurant), the library and the lecture halls.

Aula Maxima

Aula Maxima

The Aula Maxima, a beautiful book-lined room, was used for exams, conferring ceremonies and concerts. I first saw The Chieftains there in the early 70s. As a student of history and archaeology, the Stone Corridor was important to me – see Robert’s post for more on this.

Window in the Aula Maxima

Window in the Aula Maxima

UCC was founded, as Queens University Cork, after Queen Victoria, in 1845. It’s motto, Where Finbarr Taught, let Munster Learn, reflects the importance of Cork as a centre of Early Christian learning led by St Finbarr. Today, it is highly regarded internationally for its research and innovation. Most of the teaching and learning takes place in smart new buildings with modern labs and high-tech facilities.

St. Finbarr keeping and eye on things

St Finbarr keeping an eye on things from the Honan Chapel

If you’re visiting Cork, drop up to UCC and soak in the ambience of a traditional university, with cloistered corridors, old oak floors and echoing stone hallways. And say hello to the the shades of St Finbarr.

The English Market

teeth

We’re both looking at markets this week: Finola is concentrating on the delights of our local Christmas community fairs, while I am looking at the ‘big market’ further afield.

moynihans

The Republic’s second largest city can trace its history back to a community of monks, scholars and scribes which St Finbarr established on the banks of the River Lee in the 6th century. The area was known as an Corcach Mór – ‘the Great Marsh’. This settlement became a notable centre of learning, giving rise to the phrase Ionad Bairre Sgoil na Mumhan – a motto adopted by the modern University College Cork as ‘Where Finbarr taught let Munster learn’.

Finola approves Walter's stall

Finola approves Walter’s ‘pop-up’ stall

First a town and then a city grew up around the marshes and in the 18th century large tracts of low lying land were drained and reclaimed, forming the area which is now the commercial centre of Cork, including Saint Patrick’s Street, the Grand Parade, Grattan Street and Cornmarket Street. In 1786 the Corporation of the City undertook to create here a new meat market ‘in the English style’. A grand opening took place on 1st August 1788. This was before the emerging United States of America had elected George Washington as its first President, and in the same year that Captain Arthur Philip’s First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay with its cargo of convicts – ‘The Founders of Australia’.

queen

ooysters

The English Market in Cork is an essential part of any visitor’s itinerary. Even the Queen went there for a look around during her Irish tour last year and reportedly was very impressed with it. We followed on last week, to visit the new Fresh from West Cork stall which has been set up over the Christmas period to sell the delicious produce which emanates from our small part of the world, and which has justly gained a country wide reputation. The stall is being ably run by Walter from Loughbeg Farm – just down the road from us, and it’s hoped that this trial period will result in Fresh from West Cork becoming a permanent fixture at the market.

loaves

cakes

shelves

cheese

It’s no longer just a meat market – you can find every variety of good food there, as these pictures hopefully show, and an excellent cafe upstairs. If ever you are passing through, don’t forget to call in.

farmgate

jugs