C: Gript

OTD: 25 September: Gougane Sunday, Feast of Saint Finbarr of Cork, builder of Gougane Barra 

The 25th September, also known as Goujane Sunday, marks the feast day of Irish Saint Finbarr of Cork. Saint Finbarr was born in Connaught in about 550, and he is the patron saint of the city and diocese of Cork. The name Gougane Barra derives from the Saint, who according to tradition, built his monastery on the island there in the sixth century, where students and monks gathered to learn. 

Although he is so closely associated with Gougane Barra, he is also associated with the site that is now occupied by the Anglican Cathedral that bears his name in Cork City. This is believed to be the site where he set up his monastic settlement at Corcach Mór na Mumhan (The Great Marsh of Munster).

His monastery became a prominent place of learning in Ireland, and the island where the hermit’s monastic cell is located remains one of the main pilgrimage destinations in county Cork to this day. It is located at the source of the River Lee, complete with an oratory and a scenic forest park. A mass is still held there every year followed by a visit to the two wells on the site. Gript visited the stunning scenic valley and heritage site situated in the Shehy Mountains last month, and captured these breathtaking photos:

Gougane Barra was, at a time, part of the territories of the O’Leary’s who lost possession of the land during the plantation that took place after the Cromwellian wars. It was subsequently passed to the Townsend family, and ultimately the farming tenants under the Land Acts. Although the ruins on the island are not part of St. Finbarr’s original settlement, they were erected there around 1700 by Rev. Denis O’Mahony who, following in St. Finbarr’s footsteps, retired to a life of asceticism there. In the days of the Penal Laws in the 1600s, when it became illegal to hold Catholic masses and gatherings, people would travel to the isolated valley to celebrate the mass. 

While there are no contemporary accounts of Finbarr in Cork, with the first ‘life’ of the Irish saint being penned in the 13th century, there is no shortage of folklore surrounding the saint.

The son of a metal-worker, Amergin, and a lady of the Irish Royal Court, Saint Finbarr was educated at Kilmachahil in Kilkenny, where the monks named him Fionbarr, meaning white head, because of his light-coloured hair. Several accounts of the saint’s life have been written, which tell us that his original name was Lóchán, but when he went to be tonsured as a monk for the first time as a young man, the man shaving his head said to him:  “The hair of this servant of God is beautiful.” 

While another said: “You have spoken well, because his name will be changed and he shall be called Finn-barr, that is ‘beautiful hair’, from the beautiful head he offered in sacrifice to God.” This meant he was called Finbarr by some, while others called him Barra. Barra was generally used by those who spoke the Irish language.

He trained in monastic school and was later ordained a monk, before going on to set up a number of schools, one at loch Icre, a beautiful place at the source of the River Lee, now known as Gougane Barra, (Guagán in Irish meaning “little fissure”).  St. Finbarr, known for his holiness, did not hesitate to join in the manual work of constructing the buildings for his community, and spent his life building small churches in different places, eventually settling in Cork city for the last 17 years of his life. He had a significant gathering of monks and students around him at this time. 

He went on to evangelise Gowran, Coolcashin, and Aghaboe, and it is said that he preached the Gospel in Scotland before arriving in Ireland where he would eventually become the first Bishop of Cork. When his disciplines joined him, the hermit moved on to make a foundation where the River enters to sea, around which the town of Cork later developed, and the Vikings made it their port. 

He eventually went on a pilgrimage to Rome with some of his monks, and tradition says he visited St. David in Wales upon returning to Ireland.   

His hermitage became famous across Ireland, attracting numerous disciples, and the saint has had many ‘extravagant’ miracles attributed to him. He is often depicted with a bright shining hand, said to be touched by God himself. This was said to be so bright that he had to wear a glove to hide it.

The fact he is still loved and revered as Cork’s patron saint is still evident with the name Finbarr still featuring as a very popular name for boys. His legacy today also exists in the great number of churches, roads, sports clubs, estates, and the cathedral as well as people named after him. He is also the patron saint of University College Cork whose motto is “When Finbarr Taught, Let Munster Learn”, and the pilgrimage to his shrine still attracts large numbers. 

His legacy also extends to Scotland, where many places have the name Barra, but this is more likely due to journeys made by Finbarr’s disciples than to journeys by himself. It is said that the sun did not set for two weeks after he died from natural causes not in Cork but in Colyne in the year 633.

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