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.