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St Gobnait – the patron saint of bees and beekeeping

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February 11 is celebrated St Gobnait’s Feast Day, patron saint of bees, beekeepers, and iron workers.
Unlike other saints, there were no hagiographies written about her life during the medieval period, so much of what we know of her comes from popular folklore.

Tradition and links with St Abbán, associated with Ballyvourney, a village in southwest County Cork, the largest and the southernmost county of Ireland, suggests she lived during the 6th century.

A version of the saint’s life tells us that Gobnait was born in county Clare and due to a family feud, fled to the island of Inisheer where she founded a church which still stands on the north side of the island, near the shore.
One day an angel appeared to her and told her to head inland and to find the place of her resurrection.
She was told she would know this spot as it would be marked by the presence of 9 white deer.
Thus she travelled south in search of this place and her many stops are marked by churches and holy wells dedicated to her, including the medieval church at Kilgobnet, in Waterford county.
At various stages of her journey Gobnait met with white deer of varying numbers but it was only when she reached Ballyvourney that she found the nine deer grazing on a rise overlooking the River Sullane and looking towards the Derrynasaggart hills.
This is where she settled, died and was buried to await her resurrection, and Celtic lore believed that the soul left the body as a bee or a butterfly.
Saint Abbán is said to have worked with her on the foundation of the convent and to have placed Saint Gobnait over it as abbess.
Typical of the ecclesiastical records of the era, lots of miracle-embellished stories survive where Gobnait and her superhero bees save the situation.
For example, one story tells of how she cured one of her sick nuns using her own honey, but many accounts exist of how she prevented invaders from carrying off cattle.

One of the most popular story is that foreign invaders were once stealing cattle from a community near Ballyvourney.
When Gobnait saw this happening she raised her bechaire (beehive), the bees swarmed out of it attacking the invaders as they fled and the cattle were returned to their rightful owners.
The Saint Gobnait stained glass window by Artist Harry Clarke also retells this story and is located in the Honan Chapel, always in Cork county.
The beautiful window shows Gobnait dressed in royal blue robes with elaborate designs in turquoise, wearing a silver cloak and a veil.
Her face is surrounded by bees, at her feet she is shown carrying a honeycomb and bees are depicted chasing away the thieves who threaten to rob her church.
One version of the tale has the beehive turning into a bronze helmet and the bees themselves turning into soldiers while another has the beehive turning into a bell which then became Gobnait’s bell.

Saint Gobnait is also said to have introduced beekeeping in Ireland although the Irish language suggests that we were keeping bees long before then, as locals have native words such as bech (bee), mil (honey) and mid (mead).
In any case, today she has a considerable fanbase with many people taking part in pilgrimages to her shrine in Ballyvourney, particularly on February 11, at Whitsun, and in July, and her spirit lives on in apiary circles where she has become an icon.

Images from web – Google Research

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