I’m a week late finding out about St Gobnait, a saint in the early Irish church whose feast day is February 11. A friend and fellow beekeeper on the Dingle peninsula in Co Kerry just told me about her, and it was lovely to find some more Celtic lore about bees and to add to my store of bee stories and mythology. It was particularly heartening, because a couple of weeks ago we found out that our own bees had died, having survived through so much of a long, hard winter. But in this wild and barren place they are at the very limit of their viable habitat, and there is so little for them to eat in the early months of the year. Nevertheless, the loss of bees is a hard thing for a beekeeper; each hive is like a little universe, complete in itself, and now it no longer exists. We will have bees again when we move to Donegal in late spring – in a much richer environment where they are more likely to thrive. And when we install our new hive, we will think now of St Gobnait …
Gobnait was believed to have born in County Clare in the 5th or 6th century. The story goes that she fled her home because of a family feud, and took refuge on the Aran Islands. An angel appeared to her, and told her to settle and begin what would become her life’s work in a place where she would find nine white deer grazing. After traveling around the south coast, she eventually came upon the nine deer in Ballyvorney, Co Cork.
The angel had also instructed her to find her “resurrection place”: the place where the soul leaves the body. Celtic lore held bees in high esteem; it was sometimes believed that the soul left the body as a bee or a butterfly. So Gobnait added beekeeping to her work, developing a lifelong affinity with bees. She started a religious order and dedicated her days to helping the sick, most probably using honey as a healing aid.
Many stories exist about how Gobnait prevented invaders (said to have been O’Donoghues of the Glens) from carrying off local cattle. On their approach she let loose the bees from her hives and as a swarm they attacked the invaders, forcing them to flee. One slightly more colourful version of the tale has the beehive turning into a bronze helmet and the bees themselves turning into soldiers.
With bees under such threat, it’s lovely to think of a patron saint of bees and beekeepers.