St Piran is the patron saint of Cornwall and Cornish tin miners. The legendary saint lived in the 5th century AD and was said to have performed many miraculous deeds. This is why St Piran’s Day is celebrated across Cornwall on 5th March each year – with special events being organised by the whole community.
According to folklore, St Piran was of Irish origin, although the exact place and date of his birth were unknown. It was said that he had many special powers. St Piran was an adviser to the Irish King Aengus of Munster for seven years and listened as the king confessed his sins.
St Piran performed a great miracle after seven harpists from King Aengus’s court drowned while crossing a treacherous bog in a storm. Their bodies were trapped in the bog, but according to ancient folklore, St Piran hung their harps on the trees beside the marsh, while the wind played eerie tunes on them. For three days and nights, he prayed continually and finally brought the harpists back to life.
Over the years, King Aengus grew tired of his wife, Queen Aisnin. He felt an attraction for a courtier, who was very beautiful and younger than the queen. Aengus wished to have Queen Aisnin locked away so he could marry his new love and he confessed this to St Piran, expecting his adviser’s support.
As a holy man, St Piran saw it as his duty to forbid this. The king was determined to have his way, so St Piran spoke against him publicly to the courtiers, which angered Aengus. This resulted in a horrific plot being hatched to kill St Piran.
The king and his cohorts threw St Piran from Munster’s highest cliff into the sea, weighted down by a millstone. As he fell, thunder and lightning raged, but when he reached the sea, the storm suddenly stopped. Rather than sinking to his demise, he miraculously floated on the millstone and the ropes that bound him to the rock slipped off.
After many days at sea, he safely landed on the beach that was named after him – Perranporth. He built a chapel to preach Christianity, although it was said that his congregation at first consisted of only a badger, a bear and a fox! Today, the area where his oratory once stood is a large expanse of sand dunes.
News soon spread across Cornwall of the miraculous arrival of St Piran and the local people flocked from far and wide to Perranporth to listen to his teachings. He preached the Gospel to the Cornish people, who until then had followed the Druids and worshipped the Celtic gods of the sun and rain.
Merry holy man
Despite being a holy man, St Piran wasn’t averse to a tipple – in fact, the Cornwall Heritage Trust described him as the “merriest, hardest living, hardest drinking holy man Cornwall ever knew”.
The fact that he liked a drink led to the expression “as drunk as a Perraner”, which has survived through the centuries. His exact identity remains unknown, although some researchers have suggested that he was linked to the Irish saint Ciarán of Saigir and may have been one of his disciples.
Most saints lived on bread and water, but St Piran enjoyed a good feast and the best wine. He joined in enthusiastically at all his congregation’s celebrations, including weddings, parish holidays and funeral wakes.
Kidnapped nun saved
Legend has it that a local chieftain kidnapped a young nun from the convent that St Piran presided over. The chieftain intended marrying her, but she had vowed to remain at the convent for life and had no desire to wed. St Piran went to get her back and managed it by unusual means.
He negotiated with the chieftain, who said he would give up the nun if he was awoken the next morning by a cuckoo calling. He felt there was no chance of this, as it was November and the weather was freezing cold.
After praying all night, St Piran managed to lure a cuckoo to the chieftain’s home. The next morning, it was sitting on his barn roof, calling loudly. The chieftain had to keep his word and let the nun return to the convent.
Tin mining has a long history in Cornwall, dating back to around 2000 BC. Thanks to the geology of the area, the county had plenty of mineral mines and they had been put to good use before St Piran’s time. Tin was widely used to make primitive weapons.
According to folklore, St Piran discovered tin smelting by accident: a black stone on his fireplace was said to have got so hot that liquid tin leaked out. This process became tin smelting.
Soon, local miners began digging for and smelting tin. They made a good living selling it to merchants from Europe. This led to Piran being named the Patron Saint of Tinners, as tin mining was the backbone of the Cornish industry for centuries.
The historic Cornish flag relates to the legend of how St Piran found out how to smelt tin. The discovery led to the design of the Cornish flag, as the white cross was said to represent the white-hot tin in the pattern it formed when it fell on to the blackness of the stone.
The design of the flag also represents the white light of truth shining out of the darkness, in reference to how St Piran brought Christianity to Cornwall.
St Piran tartan
The white cross on a black background is also used to make Cornish tartan. Originally called the St Piran in his honour, its name was later changed to Cornish Flag. It was first registered as an official tartan in January 1983.
St Piran was said to have lived to the ripe old age of 206. The date of his death is unknown, although some historians estimate it to have been circa 480. Some tales say he fell down a well, but the true story will never be known.
St Piran’s Day
On March 5th, the annual celebrations of his life took place until the late 18th century. They began to wane a little, but the tradition was resurrected in the 1950s and has been going strong ever since.
The week before St Piran’s Day is known as Perrantide and many Cornish-themed events take place across the Duchy. The village of Perranporth hosts the annual Lowender Peran Celtic festival. The traditional food of Perrantide is the Cornish pasty.
By far the largest event is the annual trek across the dunes to the cross of St Piran. Hundreds of people take part, dressed in black, white and gold. They carry the Cornish flag and on arrival watch a play about the life of St Piran. Those who have brought daffodils place them at the cross.
A modern addition to the celebration is the Trelawny Shout, which began in 2015. It’s a massive singalong which takes place in pubs throughout Cornwall, all at the same time. The chosen song is the Cornish national anthem, The Song of The Western Men, also known as Trelawny.
This year’s St Piran’s Day celebrations will take place from 5th to 8th March, when parades and processions will be held across Cornwall. Most towns will host a “furry dance” – this is the name given to a traditional procession dance, performed in rows of four people and often by children.
Proud of our Cornish heritage, The Cornwall SEO Co provides specialist SEO services across the county, for businesses great and small. We would like to wish everyone a “Happy St Piran’s Day!”
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