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St Gobnait Monastic site, Ballyvourney

The statue of St Gobnait and first station
Place of pilgrimage

May God and Mary bless you,

O Holy Gobnait, I bless you too,

and come to you with my complaint.

Please cure me for God’s sake.

This is a fascinating and ancient site dedicated to St Gobnait, still much visited and revered, and still associated with healing.

St Gobnait is supposed to have been born in County Clare sometime during the 6C. Due to a family feud she was forced to flee, taking refuge on Inisheer, one of the Aran Islands. Here she was visited by an angel who told her to keep travelling until she spotted nine white deer whereupon she was to build a nunnery. Gobnait heeded the advice and set out. She eventually spotted three deer in Clondrohid, followed them until another six were seen in Ballyvourney. Here she stopped and founded a religious settlement for women which became famous as a place of healing. It still is in a way. It is a large and complex site, pilgrims often following a set path or turas where ten different stations have to be visited in a strict order. The first station is by the statue of the saint. This was erected in 1950 and sculpted by Séamus Murphy of Cork. She is decorated with bees, a reference to the fact that Gobnait in Hebrew means Deborah, which in turn means bee. Gobnait is also the patron saint of bees and is meant to have used honey in her healing. The stations continue clockwise around the site taking in the old church where many crosses have been scratched into significant stopping points over the years and the windows sills and niches are crammed with offerings. A tiny sheela na gig, a naked female figure, stands over the doorway and she is traditionally touched as part of the turas. An agate stone ball called the bulla, lying deep in the external wall, is also rubbed as part of the rounds.The story goes that when Gobnait arrived there was already a pagan shrine here. She threw her bowl at it and smashed it, and the bowl became embedded in the wall. Either that or it's a cannonball from the Cromwellian period! Also on the external wall is a small voussoir - a human head, reputed to be the likeness of a mason who worked on the church. He is mean to have stolen his colleagues' tools and his face set in stone is an eternal reminder of his shame. St Gobnait's grave lies outside the church, much revered and decorated and is another of the stations.

There are two holy wells on the site. The one by the statue is small but well used, a drink from this an essential part of the turas.The one down the road is the final station and much more potent and mysterious - follow the signs and you arrive at a small glade with a huge offering-adorned tree towering over the stone well. The water is clear and cold, and it is customary to collect some in bottle to take home. Many hopes and fears, wishes and thanks have been addressed at this place.

Personal pilgrimages take place through the year but the saint is venerated especially on her feast day the 11th February. On this day a thirteenth century statue of  Gobnait is displayed. It is made from oak and is reputed to have healing powers. Ribbons can be purchased or brought from home, cut  the exact length of the statue (68cm) they are used to touch or wind round the statue and are then taken home, imbued with healing powers.

The cemetery is still used for burials. Sean ó Riada, musician and composer is buried here. He was hugely influential in the revival of Irish traditional music in the 1960s.

N22 Macroom to Killarney, signed to the left from Ballyvourney by the bridge. Either park here and walk up through the woods, or continue up to the site.
Map 70, W1967 7688

The best way to approach this magical site is to park down by the river in Ballyvourney and then to walk up through the woods until you arrive at the old stone walls surrounding the cemetery.  There was a steady stream of people paying their respects at Gobnait's grave or doing the rounds each time I have visited, some chatting companionably, arms linked; others lost in their own thoughts and contemplation.So much history and layers of meaning and importance, no doubt going back hundreds, if not thousands of years as there must surely have been a pagan shrine here well before Gobnait arrived. The little church oozes atmosphere and calm; it is hard not to be drawn in to all the rituals surrounding it - the pagan and devout mixing effortlessly and continuously together. When I first visited the second well the tree and surrounding area was literally covered with offerings- photos, rosaries, shoes, crutches, glasses, toys, prayers, but many have since been removed and the whole area tidied up. Nonetheless there is still a powerful presence, the water is clear and cold, the prayers palpable.

11.2.2015 I visited the site on the St Gobnait's feast day. A Mass was held in the church in the village to celebrate the day, all in Irish. The wooden statue of the saint was laid out on a table.  The statue is made of oak, much worn but still discernible as a human figure. It probably dates from the thirteenth century.You could buy ribbons, Gobnait's Measure, the exact length of the statue which you then took and placed on the effigy - first lengthways, then around her head and then around her feet. Some people also kissed the statue. The ribbons would then be taken home to ensure good health or to help someone who was sick.

I then went to the monastic site. Many people were there, doing the rounds. There are five stations to stop at, each with a requisite number of prayers: the first is at St Gobnait's house; the second is St Gobnait's Grave; the third is near the old church; the fourth is inside the church and includes touching the sheelanagig; the fifth is at the priest's grave just outside the church and includes touching the bulla. A drink of water from the second well completes the round. The atmosphere was an interesting mixture of intensely spiritual and personal, yet also relaxed and joyful. People wished each other Happy Gobnait's Day and broke from their prayers to talk and engage. Whatever your beliefs, something profound was occuring.