In 2014, I went to Ireland. I went armed with the known details of three great great grandparents. I was hoping to find and walk on the land they came from and, if I was lucky, I was hoping to find some living descendants. And I was lucky: I sat at kitchen tables with ‘relatives’—some definite, some probable; I was shown family headstones—some likely; and I was shown the original baptismal record of a great great-grandmother by a genealogically inspired Monsignor—absolutely definite. The trip surpassed all my expectations.
But, that’s not the story I want to tell you here. Instead, I want to tell you about an experience I had on a ‘day off’ from relative hunting which fed right into Irish folklore.
A ‘Day off’
‘There’s a beautiful walk just across the road,’ says my ever helpful B&B hostess, Sheila, ‘up through the woods. If you keep going up to the top, and through the cemetery,’ she continues, ‘you’ll come to a shrine.’
A shrine. A cemetery. Ireland. Perfect.
It’s my last day in Ballyvourney, County Cork. Tomorrow, I head back to Dublin to return the hire car. I’ve spent nearly two weeks sitting in it; aquaplaning over the middle of Ireland, looking for land and following leads, but now it’s time to get these hips out of their 45 degree angle.
I need to walk…desperately.
I wait a few minutes to cross the road. Tourist buses hurtle by on their way to the tourist spots of Killarney and the Ring of Kerry. For the briefest of moments this morning I thought about joining the hordes but the prospect of spending more hours with flexed hips didn’t thrill me.
It was time for this body to do some exercise.
After a safe crossing, I head for an opening in the woods I can see on the other side of a green open area running alongside the River Sullane.
The day is beautiful: the sky cloudless, the sun so gentle…not like our harsh Aussie sun. There’s no wind either, just perfect stillness. I lengthen my stride. My hips are loving it.
On reaching the opening, a Messerschmitt in the form of a winged, hairy ball accelerates towards my head.
I duck. It follows. I weave. It weaves. In, out, up, down. I’ve never seen one before but I’m pretty sure it’s a bumble bee.
I can see the newspaper headlines now:
Australian woman stung to death by bumble bee in quiet Ballyvourney. Giant hive found in her hair.
Fortunately, the frantic dance only lasts a few seconds and my hair and the rest of me avoid contact and colonization. I run into the woods and the bee disappears.
Adrenalin still surging, I walk on. Head down.
Halfway up an ascent, I eventually slow and stop.
I’m in the midst of a magnificent glowing, lime green forest. The sun’s rays are glistening through the leafy canopy above and they’re creating patches of dappled light that skip and play along the path in front of me.
There’s no sound, no people, and, best of all, no bees.
I suspect some people would find the isolation unnerving but I find it surprisingly comforting. Yes, I’m on the other side of the world to my home, I’m by myself and I’ve nearly been ravaged by a bee, but I feel safe. There’s a magical, mystical quality about this place, this moment.
I try to soak it all in. With camera in hand, I attempt to get the best angles; trying to capture the brilliance here, but I suspect the photos will never do it justice.
I venture further into the woods. The light changes. The arching, protective arms of
the tortured, dark branches overhead create a more subdued light allowing masses of spongy moss to form on the shaded sides of the trunks and fallen logs.
Further up there’s yet another incline and the light changes again. Bright sunlight reappears…
At the very top of the hill a small gate divides the woods from a cemetery. I reluctantly pass through. I’m sorry to leave the dappled light of these beautiful woods behind.
It’s the first Irish cemetery I walk through where I won’t be looking for ‘relatives’.
I note the recurring surname of the husband of my B&B hostess on the headstones. It’s not surprising as his family has lived in the area for many generations. I’m drawn to a child’s grave. The white stones on top are covered with every variety of winged cherub. A much-loved child.
The sun is hot now, or as hot as an Irish sun can be. There’s no longer any escape from its direct rays. I take off my jumper and continue on through the cemetery to the church further up. I try the door. It’s locked. Still further on, I can see some seats facing a grey statue of a cloaked woman on a large plinth. This is no doubt the shrine Sheila was telling me about. I head on over.
A man in his 60s is escorting a girl of about 12 years of age around the site. As he points to the statue he appears to be telling her about the woman the statue represents. I’m intrigued.
‘Hello,’ I say, as he passes nearby. ‘Could you please tell me who the statue represents?’
‘That’s St Gobnait,’ he says.
‘Who?’ I ask.
‘St Gobnait,’ he repeats.
Never heard of her. Has my Catholic upbringing been so remiss?
He continues on in his delightful Cork accent. ‘She’s a medieval saint from the sixth century. She’s highly venerated around here. She performs miracles; heals the sick…if you believe in that sort of thing.’
The Sermon on the Mount.
The ‘knowledgeable Irishman’ continues the history lesson, no doubt realizing he has a captive audience. I sit back and listen. His musical, lilting accent lulls me into a kind of stupor.
He’s on a pilgrimage from Cork, he tells me, with his niece and her daughter. He talks about the statue’s sculptor Seamus Murphy who has also sculpted the gravestones of the poet, Sean O’Riordain and the composer, Sean O’Riada, both of whom are buried in the cemetery.
Occasionally, he interrupts the soliloquy to advise the young girl on the best camera angles then he returns to me and continues.
‘There’s a holy well just off the road on the way up here,’ he says. ‘People drink the water from the spring and pray for healing. I don’t know why they bother there’s cows all around it, shitting, and contaminating the water.’
There’s a contrariness to the ‘knowledgeable Irishman’: I can’t quite work out whether he’s a ‘believer’ or not.
I’m happy to keep listening and he’s happy to keep talking, but there’s something he says that finally brings me out of my stupor.
‘St Gobnait is the patron saint of bee keepers,’ he says.
‘Did you say beekeepers?’ I ask.
‘Yes. Look,’ he says, pointing to the statue. ‘She’s standing on a beehive.’
Oh, my goodness, so she is. And there’s ornamental bees dotted around its base. I’m struck by the coincidence.
I tell him about my experience with the furry, kamikaze sentry. He’s all ears.
‘Go on,’ he says, in that Irish way of saying, that’s really fascinatin’. Tell me more…
So, I do.
As I finish the story, he asks for some confirmation.
‘You came up through the woods, you say?’ He’s now rubbing his chin, eyes looking afar.
‘Yes,’ I confirm. ‘I came up through the woods.’
Is that significant? He doesn’t elaborate. It appears that most people pay their homage to St Gobnait by driving up from the main road.
After some pondering he returns to the now and says, ‘We’re going to Gougane Barra next.’
‘So am I,’ I say. ‘My B&B hostess tells me it’s a magical place.’
‘It is,’ he says. ‘When you go there, have a look inside the chapel. There’s some beautiful stained glass windows of St Gobnait in there.’
And with that he walks back to his car, his great-niece in tow.
‘We might see you there,’ he calls out.
A Holy Well
I walk back to the B&B via the road. As much as I loved the walk through the woods I don’t want to chance another confrontation with the sentry bee. I stop off at the holy well the ‘knowledgeable Irishman’ was telling me about. It’s slightly off the beaten track. Cows moo as I pass. I recall his thoughts regarding the contaminated spring water. I have to agree with him, the cows’ proximity to the well is a little worrying. I don’t drink.
There is one young calf, especially, who eyeballs me with a fixed stare like he’s frozen in time. It’s unnerving. Perhaps he’s in cahoots with the bee? Did he tell you I was coming? I’m starting to get suspicious…even superstitious.
I hasten my return to the open road. Heading down the hill vistas of far off green pastures and undulating hills appear. Several cars pass me on their on their way up to the shrine. One pulls over. A lady of obvious Irish origins asks, ‘Do you know where the holy well is?’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I do’. I give her instructions and secretly hope she doesn’t drink from it.
Back at the B&B
I risk my life again crossing the road back to the B&B. Safe inside I tell Sheila about my walk, the bee, the saint, etc.
‘And a funny thing happened…’
Sheila’s eyes widen as I relay the story of the menacing sentry bee.
‘And it wouldn’t leave you alone,’ she says. She’s rubbing her chin now like the ‘knowledgeable Irishman’ and she’s got that far away look too.
‘Yep. That’s right,’ I confirm.
I can almost hear the cogs in her brain spinning around, trying to make sense or meaning out of this Australian woman and the bumble bee. Finally she says, ‘Ohhh. I think something good’s going to happen to you.’
Oh, that’s a relief. I thought it might be a bad omen. I left her still pondering and I set out in the car for Gougane Barra.
More St Gobnait…
It’s Sunday and it’s packed.
Gougane Barra is a beautiful forest park in Co. Cork with a huge lake in the middle of it. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to partake of the many forest walks but I do have time to take a quick squizz at St Gobnait in the chapel as suggested by the ‘knowledgeable Irishman’.
The chapel is a very quaint stone building. I enter after a wedding concludes and not surprisingly I find the ‘knowledgeable Irishman’ and his great-niece already inside. They’re surveying the windows and taking more photos. We nod.
And Yes. There’s St Gobnait in all her glory, with her trusty beehive beside her.
The Mills Inn, Ballyvourney
In the local pub that night I partake of the local beer, ‘9 White Deer’. A card on the table tells the St Gobnait story in Ballyvourney:
Saint Gobnait followed a Celtic prophecy to our village where she would find 9 white deer grazing at the source of a mystical spring who’s (sic) waters have healing powers. Local folklore tells of a long white stag that still appears at the well of St Gobnait.
And it’s a very nice brew too!
The next morning it’s time to leave the lovely Ballyvourney. After breakfast Sheila makes a request: could I please visit the local church, St. Gobnait’s, and light some candles for her and her family?
I get the feeling I might have become some sort of conduit between the living and the dead after my brush with St Gobnait’s bee and especially since I work in palliative care.
‘Sure,’ I say. ‘Will do.’
St Gobnait’s Church has a very impressive stained glass beehive shining down over a statue of St Gobnait.
I light some candles for Sheila and her family and I light some for my family as well…just in case.
Back in Dublin
Back in Dublin I head for the The National Museum of Ireland-Archaeology. I’ve always had a fascination with the Irish bog bodies and maybe a little fascination with death, as you may have suspected by now and I’m hoping they’re on display.
I get a brief rundown of the plan of the exhibits from the guy at the information desk.
“What are you interested in?’ info guy asks.
‘The bog bodies,’ I say.
‘Is that how you like your men to be treated?’ Cheeky.
Without further ado I head for the display.
Below is Oldcroghan man. He was found in May 2003 on a parish boundary of County Offaly during the digging of a bog drain. At the time of his death he’s estimated to have been over 25 years old and 6 ft 6 in tall. His torso had been severed under the thorax and he had been decapitated.
I’m fascinated by the excellent preservation. According to the Irish archaeology site:
[The preservation] is primarily due to the cold, acidic, oxygen-free conditions that persist beneath peat bogs and which prevent decay and mummify human flesh.
The more I looked at that hand the more I thought it was going to move.
‘How did you go?’ ‘info guy’ asks as I finish my visit.
‘Loved the bog bodies,’ I say.
Sensing ‘info guy’ likes a chat and seeing I haven’t used my voice for a while I tell him about my bee story.
‘A funny thing happened to me in Ballyvourney…’ I start off.
‘Info guy’ leans forward.
‘There was this bee…’ I continue.
Not long into the story, I sense a queue building behind me.
‘Just go on in,’ ‘info guy’ says, as he waves at least ten people on through the entrance. ‘There’s no entrance fee’, he adds. The patrons do as they’re told but they look a little bewildered.
‘Info guy’ leans forward again and says to me in a low voice, ‘I don’t have to molly coddle them. They can find their own way around. Now keep goin’,’ he urges. ‘I love these kinda stories.’
‘Well, when I reached the top,’ I continue, ‘there was this shrine. I asked this guy who the statue was of….’
I reveal the Saint’s name and I tell him about her predilection for bees and beekeeping.
‘How fascinatin’,’ ‘info guy’ says. He starts rubbing his chin and getting that far away look like Sheila and the ‘knowledgeable Irishman’.
I don’t dare look behind me again, but I’m sensing another queue is forming. ‘Info guy’ is not worried.
‘But I’ve never heard of her,’ he says. ‘How do you spell it?’
‘G-o-b-n-a-i-t,’ I spell out for him. He looks puzzled. He seems to be having trouble with my accent so I write it down. He turns on his computer, a relic of the ’80s, and says with some glee, ‘I’ll Google her.’
‘Info guy’s’ attention is now consumed by the small screen so I take my leave.
Back in Australia
‘Telling the bees’
I do a bit of research on bees and Irish folklore when I get back home. In her article ‘The Bee, its Keeper and Produce, in Irish and other Folk Traditions’ Eimear Chaomhánach of the Department of Irish Folklore states that,
…in folklore tradition bees are seen to have a sense and understanding of death.
[They] are seen to share much of the magical ability possessed by the saints who acted as their patrons. They are seen to protect and remain loyal to their master.
Apparently, there’s a custom in Irish bee keeping of ‘telling the bees’ of any significant event in the family such as a birth, death or marriage so that they won’t take offence and leave.
It is believed that the bees like to be ‘involved’ in the affairs of the family.
There’s other beliefs that a single bee landing on someone’s head means that this person will experience great success in life.
Maybe, I should have let that bee land…
A writing course
Still full of my trip, I attend an all day writing course. I’m hoping the stimulation of other writers will give me the extra shove I need to stop procrastinating and write a book about my Irish travels.
One of the participants in the course is convinced she knows me. We go through all the places we’ve ever worked, lived or travelled. No connection. I tell her about my recent trip to Ireland. She tells me how she married her Irish pen pal. I tell her about my bee/St Gobnait story.
‘That’s funny,’ she says. ‘When I was pregnant we used to call our baby ‘Gobby’ after St Gobnait.’
‘You’re kidding,’ I say. ‘I’d never heard of Gobnait before this trip.’
I was gobsmacked (pardon the pun). Here I was thousands of miles away from that little village in Ireland and its adoration of a saint named Gobnait and the person I was sitting next to knew and had a familiarity with the Saint.
Maybe Gobnait was our connection!
- The proposed book didn’t happen—my stories turned into this blog instead, and,
- I’m no nearer to knowing whether the bee incident and ‘meeting’ St Gobnait has had any influence on my life, but I’m still open to possibilities, and,
- I’m still fascinated with death—in a healthy way!
A little about St Gobnait’s Wood
The site of St Gobnait’s wood has been classified as a Special Area of Conservation in Ireland:
…the canopy is dominated by a mixture of birch and oak with abundant old beech and rowan. Ash and sycamore occur widely…and Alder is occasional…The trees vary in height from 14m to 17m or more in height although a few old Scots Pine and fir occur as emergents.
The shrub layer consists of Hazel, Rusty willow, Holly and Hawthorn and the herb layer has such plants as Bluebells, Bramble, Wood Anemone, Ferns and Bracken and others with great names such as St Patrick’s cabbage, Yorkshire-fog and Enchanter’s-nightshade.
Well worth a visit if you’re ever in Ballyvourney—but watch out for bees!
If you want to read more about St Gobnait, please click on the following links: