A modern confusion between St Piran, and the “Saint” Pir who died while drunk

March 5th is St Piran’s Day.  St Piran was a celtic saint who probably lived around 500 AD.  In recent years there has been increased media interest in St Piran, as the symbol of Cornwall.  The Cornish flag is called “St Piran’s flag.”  I suspect most of this stuff is from incomers, and that it leaves the native Cornish feeling rather bemused.  But celebrations were reported by the BBC here, but with a curious claim included:

According to the legend St Piran lived for 200 years, meeting his death when he fell down a well drunk.

This remarkable claim can be found in a number of places around the web.  But it is not to be found in the medieval Life of St Piran,[1] which merely tells us that he came from Ireland and founded a monastery in North Cornwall, at Perranzabuloe, where he died.

The story instead relates to a “saint” Pir (or Piro, Pyr, or Byr, or Pyrrus), although I have found no evidence that anybody ever considered him a saint.  Instead he was the abbot of a Celtic monastery.  He lived on Caldey Island in the Bristol Channel at some point during the 5th century.  We learn from Gerald of Wales that he owned the island, which was known as Yns Pir (= “Pir’s Island”), and also a “castle” on the coast in Wales.  From the Itinerary through Wales, book 1, chapter 12 (here):

The castle called Maenor Pyrr, that is, the mansion of Pyrrus, who also possessed the island of Chaldey, which the Welsh call Inys Pyrr, or the island of Pyrrus, is distant about three miles from Penbroch.

What we know of the man comes from the Life of St Samson (here), who had the misfortune to be one of Pir’s monks.

20. … Now there was, not far from this monastery, a certain island I recently inhabited by one, an eminent man and holy priest, Piro by name. In this island I too have been, and it was with him, I say, that St. Samson wished to sojourn, but he greatly feared, as I have already said, lest he should offend his chief.

21. … And there he (Samson) was in such wise received by the same abovementioned priest Piro. an old man already advanced in years, as if he had the appearance of an angel of God sent down from heaven.

23. … However, while they were lamenting and mistrusting the one the other, St. Piro delighted now spoke as follows : “ Behold Samson whom you have sought with so much fatigue of travel ; now , what you have to tell , tell me.”…

36. Indeed not long afterwards an unexpected thing happened. One dark night the same Piro took a solitary stroll into the grounds of the monastery, and what is more serious, so it is said, owing to stupid intoxication. fell headlong into a deep pit. Uttering one piercing cry for help, he was dragged out of the hole by the brothers in a dying condition, and died in the night from his adventure. And it came to pass when the bishop heard of it, he made all the brothers to remain just where they were and spend the night together; and then, having assembled a council, after Mattins, all the men of this monastery, with one accord, chose St. Samson to be abbot. And when he submitted (to be abbot), though not willingly, he trained the brothers gently to the proper rule. And while he held the primacy in this place, which was not more than a year and a half, the brothers regarded him as a hermit rather than as a member of an order of monks. And consequently, amidst feasts of plenty and flowing bowls, he made a point of fasting always from food and drink. Of vigils there is no need to say anything, inasmuch, as I have already stated, he never at any time allowed his body to rest in bed.

The bishop was a certain Dubricius, or Dyfrig in Welsh.  He seems to have been one of those decent, hard-working men who, in the middle of an immense disaster to society, too vast to be prevented, try somehow to keep things going by whatever means possible.  If Pir owned the island, then it is no wonder that he became “abbot” of the Celtic monastery.  No doubt Dubricius felt that the drunkeness of Pir and his monks was secondary to establishing a secure base in bad times.

There is an amusing modern version of this story on a blog here by Jay King which I think deserves wider circulation:

Abbott Pyr of Ynys Byr,
In his cups fell in the well.
By the time they fished him out
He was dead and gone to hell.
His brother monks without complaint
Canonized their peer a saint.
And so to heaven he arose
At least that’s how the story goes.

But in truth there is no evidence of any canonisation.

The medieval Life of St Piran itself is of no value, or so I learn from Gilbert Doble’s account in part 4 of his collected The Saints of Cornwall.  In fact it is an arrant fraud, in that it is identical to the Irish Life of St Ciaran of Saighir, but with the names changed.  Indeed St Ciaran was unlucky enough to be pirated, not once, but twice: the Life of the Breton saint Sezni is also a copy of the Life of St Ciaran which has undergone the same process.  This sort of thing was a natural consequence of the medieval church services, which expected that a portion of the life of a saint should be read out during the commemoration on his saint’s day.  The abbey of Exeter came to own St Piran’s oratory, and therefore must commemorate the saint.  No doubt some canon of Exeter was instructed to produce one.

The Life of St Piran had more adventures to undergo.  It was collected in the late middle ages by a certain John of Tynmouth, who wrote down somewhat abbreviated versions of a good many saints’ lives in the west country.  These in turn were published in Capgrave’s Nova Legenda Angliae.  A 1901 reprint edition of this, edited by Carl Horstman, is online.  But there is a Gotha manuscript of the Life of St Piran, containing a longer ending not found in the Capgrave text.  This ending is the only part of the Life to have historical value, and records that at the time the sands were encroaching upon the oratory at Peranzabuloe.

St Piran’s flag.

I don’t know if the modern interest in St Piran will extend so far as to translate his Life into English.  But let us hope so.  In the meantime, we can reject this legend of his death.

  1. [1]Horstmann, Carl. “De Sancto Pirano Episcopo Et Confessore.” In: Nova Legenda Anglie. Vol. II. Re-edited from the 1516 Edition of Wynkyn de Worde. Oxford: The Clarendon Press (1901), pp. 320-328.  Download here.

G.H.Doble’s “Cornish Saints” series – the original booklets

After the Roman collapse in Britain, our sources for history become very scanty.  In Cornwall in particular we are almost entirely dependent on interpreting scraps in medieval saints’ lives – often written centuries later than the events – or making deductions from place names.

The pioneer in this area was Canon Gilbert H. Doble (1880-1945), who wrote and published a series of very attractive illustrated booklets from the 1920s until the Second World War.  Today these booklets are hard to access.  Indeed the Diocese of Truro in the 1960s felt obliged to produce a book-form edition in six volumes to satisfy demand.  This is still being reprinted today, by Llanerch Press, and I have access to it in various ways.  But I have always wondered whether the editor reproduced the original accurately or not.

Today I was able to visit Cambridge, and after purchasing a reader’s card for the university library, I made my way to the shelves where Doble’s work could be seen.

My first impression was shock.  There were considerably more volumes than I had expected:

The G. H. Doble, “Cornish Saints” series booklets, bound into volumes.

All this material is out of copyright, hard to access, and it ought to be online.  I had naively thought to copy whatever I could, with this in mind.  But that mass of small volumes made it clear that this was not going to be possible.

In fact I was only able to copy the booklet on “Saint Mewan and Saint Austol”, itself more than 40 pages long.  I already had the Truro reprint; and I had a PDF of the first edition of it, which I had found on a French site.  But this was the second edition, published in 1939.  You can find it online here.

I was surprised to find that the original small booklets were far more attractive than the Truro reprint.  Doble seems to have understood that the mass of text required illustrations, and so he included many photographs and drawings.  None of this was included in the Truro reprint.  The original booklets must have flown off the shelves.

Likewise I found that the second edition contained a mass of additional historical information by Charles Henderson, which the Truro editor had omitted.  But this material was useful, and consequently its omission makes the Truro volumes far less useful.

The Truro edition also reorganised the material geographically.  But Doble himself did not do this.  The first booklet was that for Saint Mawes, near Falmouth, and it contains something of an introduction to the whole series.  This I had never seen, as it was buried in the mass of other material:

One of the things that strikes a stranger coming for the first time to Cornwall is the number of places bearing the names of saints. He looks out of the window as the train passes and sees “St. Germans,” “St. Austell,” “St. Erth, for St. Ives”; at Penzance he sees the motor-bus going to St. Just, at Falmouth he finds the steamer waiting to take him to St. Mawes. His first thought is: “This is a land of Saints” : his next thought is: “What strange, unfamiliar Saints!”

The reason is that when he crosses the Tamar he enters a land which is not really English at all. He has come to a country which was once a kingdom to itself, and whose people differed fundamentally from the English in race, in civilization, in language, and in religion. The fact that nearly every parish in Cornwall is called after a saint reminds us of the difference in religion which once distinguished the people of Cornwall from the people of England. It was a Celtic custom — as soon as you enter Wales you find it.

There is still a train from London to Penzance, but these days the traveller will use his motorcar, and travel down the M5 into the West Country, and then, from Exeter, the A30 over the moors.  But he will still have the same experience.  It can be a bit of a shock.

A week ago, I returned from a trip to Cornwall.  When I returned, as I crossed into Devon, I was struck by the immediate change in place-names on the road signs.  The alien Cornish names vanished, and every name was English, of the sort that might be found anywhere in the south of England.  The place names tell you at once that Devon is part of England.  But they scream at you that Cornwall is not.  Another tongue underlies the thinly-anglicised words.


From my diary

Happy new year, everybody, in a few hours.

I’ve acquired some volumes of “The Saints of Cornwall”, by G. Doble.  I think there may be six in all.  Canon Doble was a Cornish antiquarian of the first half of the 20th century.  He issued individual pamphlets on Cornish saints – I think there might have been 48 of these or more.  These were then collected into volumes after his death.

I read through volume one last night, the saints of the Land’s End district.  It’s clear that the good canon was extremely learned.  Unfortunately his book is unreadable.  Each entry is a wodge of verbiage, full of information of various sorts, but the eyes just close.

We all remember the university textbooks with which we had to struggle!  I owned quite a lot of textbooks, some out of print, but I read many fewer.  Doble’s volume brought back memories of these.  I’m not sure quite why they are so bad, but bad they are.

It seems very clear that the history of Cornwall is largely lost.  It is obscure in the Roman period, and altogether vague in the sub-Roman and dark ages period.  All we have to work with is place-names, and largely later saints’ Lives.  These Lives are often late, stuffed with padding – Mr Doble is not hesitant in condemning this – and in many cases entirely fictional.

Some of this must be owing to the small population of Cornwall.  The county is long and thin and must always have been sparsely populated.

An old college friend of mine is a vicar in the west of Cornwall.  On my last visit to him, many years ago, he took me for a drive around the Land’s End district.  Everywhere there were deserted houses and villages.  This is something unthinkable in England.  But there is no work.  The tin mines are closed, and only so many can work in the tourism industry.  So the young people must leave, and the population remains thin even today in some areas.

This must have been far worse in the sub-Roman period.  If nobody lives there, then no history will be written, for history is largely about kings and cities and peoples.

However a couple of factors come to our aid.  It seems that many of the local Cornish saints are also recorded in Brittany.  Indeed often their cults are larger and more important there.  The Lives of these saints, and the presence of their cult, confirm the movement of people from Cornwall into Armorica at the end of the Roman period.  So there is information there, of sorts.

There are also links with Welsh legends, although less important, and even Irish legends.

All the same, it’s a poor record to have to sift through for something resembling real history.

It’s clear that Mr Doble was very well informed on all these sources.  It is a pity that he had no editor, and was obliged to self-publish.  All the same, his volumes are still an important source.

Fortunately Nicholas Orme published in 2000 The Saints of Cornwall through Oxford, which is a modern handbook of great value.  Less fortunately it is out of print and can only be obtained for hundreds of dollars.  Oh well.