Tuesday, April 2, 2019

"Saint Gobnait’s Honey" by Catherine Connelly, Australia

‘Saint Gobnait’s Honey’ Essay – Cath Connelly

Bees… Vital for the continuity of edible plant-life for humans, working together harmoniously, creating honey that is both sweet and healing, bees are an extraordinarily magnificent part of this most sacred of planets.

For the past four months I have been a bee-keeper.  Still feeling inadequate in my knowledge of good husbandry for my hive, I am nonetheless wildly passionate about this undertaking and study voraciously all that will inform me of their ways.  In great anticipation of my first jar of honey, I designed the above embroidery, intending to use it as my label on any jars of honey that I give away.

It is no coincidence that I selected St Gobnait for my honey-jar label.  Not only is she the Irish patron saint of honey (St Ambrose holds this distinction in the Roman calendar), St Gobnait epitomises much of the ‘strong woman’ archetype of the Celtic psyche.  In reading her life through the lens of feminist theology, thus looking for those aspects of the life of St Gobnait that empower women, we find much that teaches us of liberation, both for the individual woman and for her work in the wider community.  It is this model of a strong feminine archetype that we desperately need in the twenty-first century.

Gobnait’s association with bees extends further than her probable skills as an apiarist.  Early miracle stories tell us that ‘a band of cattle thieves attempted to steal the cattle of the neighbourhood; but Gobnait let loose a swarm of bees, and the robbers abandoned their rustling in terror.’[1] Another story relates how a powerful chief prayed to Gobnait for assistance, recognising his troops to be incapable of victory. Gobnait granted his request by transforming a hive of bees into military men.[2]  Bees, honey, wax and pollen in early Irish society all held a special place of reverence; indeed, the ancient laws of Ireland were called the Bechbretha, the ‘bee-judgements’.  These laws included six different terms in Gaeilge for the kinds of bee swarms, the proper ways to decide ownership of a swarm of bees, how to punish the theft of hives or honey, how much honey a beekeeper should offer their neighbours, and the Caithchi Bech, the trespassing of bees.[3]  Gobnait would have been familiar with these laws, indeed they may well have been in the forefront of her mind when,as leader of her community, she dealt with disputes that arose throughout the valley.

Certainly beehives only survive if the colony works together.  Each member of the hive has her or his distinct role and fulfils this role with great dedication.  This is a beautiful metaphor for the idyllic community that Gobnait is said to have fostered.  The members of the community ‘herded sheep and cows, made butter and bread, and kept a hive of bees… it was a self-supporting settlement, including a limited amount of metal and bronze workmanship among its craft output.  Vegetables and wild berries added to their daily fare, and their main meal they shared each evening.’[4]   The invitation for us in the twenty-first century to look at the harmonious lifestyle of this sixth century community and ask serious questions about sustainability, ecology, food-miles, ethical farming techniques, wise use of limited resources and issues around a lifestyle based on radical simplicity.  As women we have a vital role to play in bringing about a new / ancient way of being in harmony with Earth and all that relies on her for our survival. 

St Gobnait is important as an exemplar of important characteristics of a Celtic Christian spirituality.  It was Gobnait who teaches us how to follow a vision, to trust in a dream. Folklore tells us that an angel told Gobnait that she would find her ‘place of resurrection’ once she came across nine white deer grazing together.  Such was the power of this dream, such was the conviction with which Gobnait believed the truth of this insight, that she travelled across the south of Ireland, finding first three, then six, then finally nine white deer.  The trust in her dream was exonerated and Gobnait built her community on this place of the nine deer in what is now known as Ballyvourney, Co. Cork.  How often do we ask for direction in life but do not have the courage to step out to claim the answer?  St Gobnait gives us courage to trust in our own dreams as revelations of that which will liberate us, showing us at the same time that we do not have to settle for less than the complete fulfillment of our dream – it was not sufficient for Gobnait to stop after seeing three, then six white deer, for only nine deer would truly show her that her vision was fulfilled.

It was said by the angel that if St Gobnait followed this vision, she would find her place of resurrection.  ‘Go until you find nine white deer grazing,’ the angel told her. ‘It is there that you will find your place of resurrection.’[5]  One of the core archetypal images of the early Christian Irish community was that of a (usually male) monk casting himself off into the oceans with nothing but a wattle and skin coracle to protect him until he landed on an unknown landmark from which the monk would wander until he found his place of resurrection.  St Brendan and St Columba were both such perigrini.  Gobnait’s journey to Ballyvourney can similarly be seen in this light, traversing the countryside rather than the oceans, trusting in God to show her the final stopping place. 

The idea of finding one’s place of resurrection comes from Abraham and his decision to leave his homeland and secure surroundings to head off for ‘a place that I will show you’ (Gen 12:1).  This story had an enormous impact on the Celtic imagination.  It became the inspiration for untold number of Celtic saints – both men and women - to head out into the unknown, in trust that God had a plan for each one’s life and that a journey in faith would uncover that plan.  ‘We see them moving into hermitages deep in the forest, heading off in their coracles or currachs or walking across the countryside in faith and expectation.  Many monks found their way to Europe, establishing communities of faith throughout the continent.  The inspiration of Abraham’s journey led Irish monks to recognise the divine call within themselves to leave the security of home and to travel to where the spirit would lead them.’[6]

The motivation of these women and men to wander the countryside was not to spread the news of the Gospel; this was the end result, but not the motivating force.  The effect they had on local populations wherever they travelled was a fruit of their lives but not the object of their lives.  The reason these monks cast themselves off into the unknown was to find their place of resurrection.  ‘For the Celtic wayfarer, the ‘place of resurrection’ was sensed as a space of deep awareness of the harmony and wholeness of all things, as well as, quite literally, a place in which to settle, physically and spiritually, to await the fullness of life and experience, and to prepare for death as the gateway to new life, the end of the old cycle and the beginning of a new.’[7]

The connection between the eternal world and the physical is nearly unidentifiable in a place of resurrection – as they are knitted together in an inextricable pattern where neither can be separated from the other. The place of resurrection then is the combination of both this world and the world beyond the veil; Ballyvourney was to be St. Gobnait’s place.  I think the core of the understanding of our place of resurrection is around finding that stance that keeps our eyes sparkling in the service we do and are for others.  In our transient twenty-first century, where the place of resurrection is not necessarily located in space, it is as much an interior place as a physical place.  It may be described as a living out of that place where our work is a joy rather than an obligation.   It is both a place of service and of at-one-ness.   It is here that ‘our deepest gladness meets with our greatest hunger’[8].   Perhaps it can best be said that the place of resurrection is the pinnacle – ‘that place where one’s spirit is totally whole, at home, with no longing or yearning to be anywhere else. A place of resurrection is not only the place where one’s spirit will resurrect from its lifeless body upon death, but also the place where that spirit is most alive inside the living body. And I believe that a place of resurrection is the spiritual home where one is most completely alive and able to create, to discern, to prophesy … to be wise.’[9] 

Another feature of the community that emerged around St Gobnait that holds significance to us as women of Celtic Christian intent is the presence of a sacred well.  Perhaps Gobnait selected this particular site, not just because of the presence of nine white deer, but because a pre-existing well already existed in this place.  Whatever this particular well’s beginnings, it has now become a popular site for those pilgrims who come to honour St Gobnait.

The symbolism around sacred wells is rich and full.  At its core, Earth is the dwelling place of the goddess and water emerging from earth is thus seen as a conduit between the realm of the goddess beneath Earth and our own realm upon Earth.  All the major rivers in Ireland are named after Celtic goddesses[10] for the land is feminine and rivers are the outflowing of this knowing.  Wells hold a special place in the Celtic psyche.  Pilgrims continue to visit these places, often walking ‘sunwise’[11] three times around the well before blessing themselves with the water and perhaps taking some water home for later use.  Dating back to pre-Christian times, wells are often situated close by a hawthorn tree (again recognizing that the roots of the tree penetrate deep into Mother Earth and thus touch her wisdom – to this day, no farmer attempts to remove a hawthorn tree situated near a well, not wanting to risk disturbing or dishonouring the deities or tuatha de dannan who live therein.)  At St Gobnait’s sanctuary, just next to the well, is a sturdy tree and hanging from it are hundreds of tokens or clooties that have been placed there by pilgrims hoping to leave behind a part of themselves as part of their veneration in this place.  Whilst my own practice is to simply lick my hand and hold it against the tree, thus leaving part of my DNA to mingle with the saint’s own presence, it is beautiful to look at these ribbons left by previous pilgrims and wonder at the continuity of practice that remains throughout the centuries. 

Such traditions as tying clooties and blessing oneself with water from Gobnait’s sacred well speak of the depth of spiritual wisdom to be found in this site over the past 1,300 years.  It is not just the experiential nature of the twenty-first century pilgrim that draws one to such places as Gobnait’s shrine – the experience is vastly richer because of its connection to the spiritual ancestors who have similarly gathered at this place where heaven and earth meet.  Through the centuries people have tended her shrine, restoring her chapel in the 12th century and again ‘in sixteen-hundreds the wooden roof was removed to protect the structure from burning by Cromwell’s raiders and to save the edifice from being used as a stable.’[12]

Being at St Gobnait’s shrine invites us to enter into ritual.  Ritual is transformative.  Whilst there are such practices as when, on her feast day the parish priest brings out the statue of Gobnait, with the faithful stepping forward to hold up their ribbons and measure them against the length and around the circumference of the figure,[13] ritual need not be fixed in place.  The life-giving aspect of ritual and ceremony is when it can continually be part of the flow of co-creating, part of a constantly evolving story.  Ritual and ceremony are about making connection between self and my community, be it human, earth, spiritual or celestial community.  Good ritual is a place of creation – we are both contributing to and receiving from the experience that emerges as part of its enactment.   ‘So often the church has us just as receiver.  We must be co-creators of this sacred movement.  We can’t just receive because to just receive moves us towards death, not life.  This has made us a traumatised species.’[14]  Ritual at Gobnait’s shrine allows for such transformation to take place.

As a scholar of St Brigid, I am well familiar with the richness that comes from sitting with the ambiguities of knowing her as both saint and goddess.  Whilst Gobnait does not appear to have such a tangible pagan forebear, her site is unmistakably pagan in origin.  We know that when ‘“a committee of the leading men of Ballyvourney” raised the funds in 1950 to commission a statue of St. Gobnait near the traditional site of her sixth-century convent, their work was interrupted after significant archaeological objects were discovered during the site preparation. The small circular early medieval enclosure called St. Gobnait’s House was found to sit upon the remains of some 137 forges, perhaps dating to as early as the first few centuries CE.  Thus long before St. Gobnait’s time at Ballyvourney, the landscape would have been filled with the smoke and the din of an early industrial site where objects of iron and bronze were manufactured.’[15]  For millennia, people have lived and loved on the site which is now known as Gobnait’s place of resurrection. 

Perhaps there lingers a touch of the pagan origins of this place in the presence of the sheela-na-gig carved over into an oval recess in the lintel of one of the church windows.  Considered a protector of the site, and less blatantly sexual than many such sheelas, she is standing upright, with her hands gently resting upon her abdomen and genitals. Touching the sheila-na-gig carving is part of the regular practice of walking the turas around the church.

The possible meaning behind carving sheela-na-gigs into church architecture is varied and controversial.  There are those who see the presence of sheela-na-gigs as flagrantly lewd, as ‘a shockingly crude, naked female with splayed legs and fingers holding open a gaping vulva. Two odd breasts, one with two nipples, a triangular Celtic head and a pipe-stem neck … whose attitude and expression conspire to impress the grossest idea of immorality and licentiousness.’[16]  In contrast, for the scholar Maureen Concannon, the sheela-na-gig is a pagan symbol of the Generative Mother: ‘study reveals that the origins of the Sheela symbol lie… in ancient pre-Celtic Ireland, and have been incorporated into subsequent cultures and religions on this island. The source of these carvings can be traced back to a goddess religion practised before patriarchal religions surfaced. Sheela carvings are symbols of the Divine Hag of the Celts, the source of life, death and regeneration.’[17] Mary Condren tells us that when a sheela-na-gig is carved over the top of the archway leading into a church, such as at Killinaboy, Co. Clare, this is effectively allowing the congregation to enter the church through the ‘womb’ of the Mother Goddess.[18] 

Christian women of the twenty-first century gain so much by allowing ourselves to embrace those aspects of our spirituality that portray characteristics of a woman as independent, strong and powerful.  There is a deep need for a return to the feminine, for reclaiming our stories that speak of transformation and renewal.  This is where St Gobnait arises as an exemplar of the strong, Christian woman.  We celebrate Gobnait as ‘a healer, faith-seeker and pursuer of justice’[19]; so too do we honour her as visionary, as strong woman, as dreamer of visions, leader of women, and most beautifully, do we honour her as a woman of tenderness with her care and handling of bees.  In this age, where bees need all the nurturing they can get, anyone who inspires beekeepers to continue their amazing work has earned sainthood several times over.’[20]  

As Easter approaches, we await the singing of the Exultet, bringing in the Easter message of resurrection.  The earliest form of the Exultet, possibly dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries, entering our liturgical books in the 8th century[21], includes a most beautiful paragraph offered in praise of the bees who make the wax for the Easter candle.  Might St Gobnait have been aware of this text?  Might she have sung these words?  Indeed, might St Gobnait have been the woman who penned them?

Among the living creatures which are submitted to human beings, the bee holds the first place.

In spite of the tininess of its body, it carries in its little heart a great soul.
Its strength might be feeble, but its spirit is strong.

After being reassured that the pleasant season has returned, after the frosts of winter have put aside their white covering
and the gentle warmth of spring wipes away the old age of the icy season,

Then the bee is fired with zeal to recommence its labours.

These insects scatter after having lightly folded their wings and they position themselves by hanging by their legs.

A band of them gathers from the young flowers and returns to the hive, carrying their stock.

There, other bees, with an amazing skill, construct cells using a strong gluten;

Others gather together the liquid honey;

Others change the flowers into wax;

Others fashion their young with their mouth;

And others store up the nectar that they have gathered on the leaves.
O bee, truly happy and worthy of admiration!

The males cause no violence to their sex,

Childbirth does not disturb them,

And their virginity is not destroyed by giving birth,

Just as blessed Mary conceived in her virginity

So that as a virgin she gave birth, and remained a virgin afterwards.


·      Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC. New York: HarperCollins, 1973.

·      Burgoyne, Mindie. St. Gobnait – Patron of Beekeepers – County Cork. March 21st, 2017.

·      Chaomhánach, Eimear. The Bee, its Keeper and Produce, in Irish and other Folk Traditions, Department of Irish Folklore. Date unknown.

·      Concannon, Maureen. The Sacred Whore: Sheela, Goddess of the Celts. Cork: Collins, 2004.

·      Condren, Mary.  The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion and Power in Celtic Ireland. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

·      Goldbaum, Howard. Balleyvourney Monastic Site, date unknown.

·      McCabe, Pat. The Hedge School Podcasts,

·      Meehan, Bridget & Oliver, Mary Regina Madonna. Praying With Celtic Holy Women. Liguori: Liguori/Triumph, 2003.

·      Molloy, Dara. The Globalisation of God: Celtic Christianity’s Nemesis. Inis Mor: Aisling Arann, 2009.

·      O’Riordan, Mary. St Gobnait: Patron Saint of Bees and Beekeeping, February 13th 2016.

·      Pixie, Amber. Saint Gobnait – She of the Bees. February 11th 2015. accessed March 28th 2019.

·      Silf, Margaret. Sacred Spaces: Stations on a Celtic Way. Oxford: Lion, 2001.

·      Willcock, Christopher. Bees in the Exultet. Sermon given at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Fitzroy, Melbourne. May 4th 2017.

[1] Bridget Mary Meehan & Regina Madonna Oliver, Praying With Celtic Holy Women (Liguori: Liguori/Triumph, 2003), 75.
[2] Eimear Chaomhánach, The Bee, its Keeper and Produce, in Irish and other Folk Traditions, Department of Irish Folklore,, 7.
[3] Amber Pixie, Saint Gobnait – She of the Bees, February 11th 2015. accessed March 28th 2019.
[4] Meehan & Oliver, Praying, 75.
[5] Mindie Burgoyne, St. Gobnait – Patron of Beekeepers – County Cork, March 21st, 2017. accessed March 28th 2019.
[6] Dara Molloy, The Globalisation of God: Celtic Christianity’s Nemesis (Inis Mor: Aisling Arann, 2009), 163.
[7] Margaret Silf, Sacred Spaces: Stations on a Celtic Way (Oxford: Lion, 2001), 93.
[8] Frederick Buechner Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC (New York: HarperCollins, 1973), 118, 119.
[10] For example, the River Bann is one of Ireland’s largest rivers and its name in Irish, An Bhanna, means ‘the goddess’.  The River Boyne's name is derived from the Irish queen and goddess Bóann.  The River Erne takes its name from a mythical princess and goddess of a tribe of people called the Érainn.
[11] The tradition of walking ‘sun-wise’ (clockwise) around a well or as part of walking turas arose with the arrival of Christianity in Ireland.  Before this time, the practice was to walk around sacred sites in a counter-clockwise direction.  This was seen as the direction to walk in which to honour the Great Goddess, the woman’s way of walking.  Many Christians now consider it a curse to walk in this opposite direction, pointing to an often-unconscious removal of the feminine within a patriarchal church. 
[12] Meehan & Oliver, Praying, 73.  The example here of destroying the roof to save the building raises interesting questions for our 21st century pilgrim.  What has to be destroyed in our current times to protect it for the future? I would suggest that some of the metanarratives that need to be shaken to their foundations, to have the roof raised, are those paradigms that exist within a ‘power-over’ rather than ‘power-with’ mindset.  These include the institutional church, relationships with earth, women, refugees, other faith traditions.
[14] Pat McCabe, interviewed on Sharon Blackie, The Hedge School Podcasts, Episode 1. Accessed February 1st 2019.
[15]  Howard Goldbaum, Balleyvourney Monastic Site, date unknown. Accessed April 1st 2019.
[16] Goldbaum, Balleyvourney Monastic Site, date unknown.
[17] Maureen Concannon, The Sacred Whore: Sheela, Goddess of the Celts (Cork: Collins, 2004), 17. 
[18] Mary Condren, The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion and Power in Celtic Ireland (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), 65.
[19] Meehan 78.
[20] Mary O’Riordan, St Gobnait: Patron Saint of Bees and Beekeeping, February 13th 2016. Accessed April 2nd 2019
[21] Christopher Willcock, Bees in the Exultet, Sermon given at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Fitzroy, Melbourne. May 4th 2017.

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