I have known Kristin Gleeson ever since I tried to find a publisher for my first book, although I’ve never met her in the flesh. The Authonomy peer review website brought many of us close, and we’ve maintained contact through the years. If you want to experience a very real sense of place, I fully recommend her books, which have made a great impression on me. My review happens to top the Amazon site of In Praise of the Bees!
Enjoy the experience….
‘A sense of place’. It’s an idea that is very important to me. Whether it’s a setting of a book or a particular location, ’a sense of place’ conveys a deep, resonating connection to the reader/observer. A ‘sense of place’ features in many of my books, but in the case of my novel, In Praise of the Bees, the story actually began as a ‘sense of place.’
Even before I moved to the area in Ireland in which I now live, West Cork, I’d visited it several times, staying with family. The first time I visited I was taken to St Gobnait’s well, shrine and the old church with its graveyard. The site itself, along with its well dates back to pre-Christian times, but during the early Christian period, about the 6th century, it housed a community of community of women headed by St Gobnait. There she tended her bees and healed the sick and performed miracles. That’s what I learned on my first visit.
I saw a statue erected in the 1950s, dedicated to her, a well with cups lined beside it for use of those who still visited the well; ruins of a roundhouse dating to that time period; the site of her grave with many offerings beside it; a stone ball lodged in a space of the old church wall; and stone carving up along the church’s gable end depicting a man, the gadai dubh, or the black thief. The stone ball and the stone carving were part of the legend surrounding St Gobnait.
Walking around I felt a real sense of calm, a special stillness that held a numinous quality that marked this as a unique site, along with the ancient well nearby. It stayed with me and drew me back time and time again. The ancient well in particular stood draped with clouties and offerings of all kinds, showing that others marked it the same way. In some ways it felt like being transported to another time.
There are many legends and traditions surrounding St Gobnait who came to Ballyvourney, probably around the late 6th or early 7th century and established a community of women. One legend says that she was descended from Conaire, High King of Ireland. In Kerry it is said that her father was a pirate and that she came ashore in Fionntráigh. An angel came to her and told her to travel until she saw ‘nine white deer grazing together,’ and that would be the place of her resurrection. Her travels took her many places in Munster and eventually she made her way to Borneach (Ballyvourney) and saw nine white deer grazing at Gort na Tiobratan (the field of the well). There she built her community and installed her bee hives. The bishop, St Abán, was her contemporary and some legends have it that he set aside the land for her to begin her community.
During the course of her life in Gort na Tiobratan St Gobnait became known for her healing, using the honey the bees produced. She also performed many miracles, including sending a swarm of bees after cattle rustlers, throwing a bulla or heavy ball to raze a stone structure built by intruders, and the catching the gadaí dubh, the dark robber who tried to steal her horse and the stone mason’s tools (his image is inscribed on a stone in the church ruins at St Gobnait’s shrine).
Many of the religious communities of women in Ireland disappeared after the death of the primary woman who established it because the founder usually established it on her own land which would revert to her kin at her death. St Gobnait’s community was established independently of any kinship ties and the community continued after her death, but it is uncertain how long, another reason that I admired Gobnait and saw her as fairly unique in the Irish landscape of the time period.
St Gobnait’s shrine is still a place many come to say prayers for healing and complete the ‘pattern’ or ‘rounds’, a series of prayers said at specific places. The rounds are also said on her feast day and on Whitsunday. The area includes the church, the well, and her burial site. There is also a twenty-seven inch 13th century wooden statue kept in the Sacristy of the Ballyvourney Parish Church which is brought out on her feast day and on Whitsunday.
From the first I wanted to capture something of the place and St Gobnait in writing. The more I came to know about that remarkable woman, the more I felt I wanted to write a novel, but I waited years so that I could fully immerse myself in the place, the people and her story. The novel is centred around a woman who suffers appalling injuries and arrives at Gobnait’s community of women to be healed and discover who she is, though doing so may place her in danger.
I enjoyed writing the book so much I knew I would return to the location again. And lately I was asked to write a short story for a forthcoming anthology on the Black Death and it provided the perfect opportunity to do so. The story took hold of my imagination to such a degree a novel is now in the works.
She holds a Masters in Library Science and a Ph.D. in history, and for a time was an administrator of a large archives, library and museum in America. She has also worked as a public librarian in America.