Most of us know about Saint Patrick, the former Irish slave who escaped, then returned to Ireland to preach and teach about a new religion -- one that did not demand human sacrifice. Meet another Celtic Saint, Piran, who is said to have brought miracles to Cornwall, England.
By Richard Hoskin
He was terrified. Never had he hurt this badly. He felt as if his bones had been broken where they had beaten him with clubs. He was bruised and cold. The wind and rain from the north tore at his naked, scratched skin. No heat reached him from the huge fire that lit the darkness. The only warmth came from his blood where it oozed onto the abrasive surface of the millstone on which his twisted body lay spread-eagled. He tried to move to ease the pain where the stone dug into his hip. But the thongs with which they had bound him were too tight. If he could have moved he would only have hurt worse.
He was terrified. Helpless, above the scream of the wind and the crashing of the waves in the Celtic Sea below, he heard the bearded Druid order four strong men to tilt the great round millstone up onto its edge. He heard them threaten that they would roll it down the slope of the cliff top to crash on to the jagged rocks far below. He was unrepentant. He would inevitably crash with it. He did not want to be a martyr, but there was no escape.
In the seconds after the stone was righted and started rolling he promised the Christian God that he would serve him faithfully and perform heroic deeds if his life were spared. He had no time to reflect that it was prayers like this that had got him into trouble in the first place. Even a hundred years after the death of St. Patrick, many of the Irish had not accepted his teaching. The youthful Piran had tried to be a worthy successor as a missionary, but he had alienated more people than he had converted.
He gasped in a desperate breath as the wheel gathered speed. It bounced jarringly once or twice, and once again, in the moments before it lurched onto the rocks at the base of the cliff and threw up a cascade of spray as it plunged deep into the icy, foaming sea. The impact knocked his breath from his lungs; he shut his eyes tight. He was terrified.
Somehow, Piran was able to gasp for breath again. The millstone had surged upwards and broken through the waves to the surface far away from the rocks. Miraculously Piran had not died, but the storm had. The rain and wind had stopped and the sea became calm. Piran glimpsed in the light of the flames at the top of the cliff behind him the faces of his tormentors, pointing and shouting in amazement at the escape of their prey. Piran exulted with relief, and breathed thanks to the God in whom his faith would be unbounded for the rest of his life.
He set to the task of enduring his escape and staying aboard his unlikely craft as the currents carried it southward. Had a miracle saved his life? Or was the millstone made of something like pumice, light enough to float? At least his bindings kept him from falling off. He strove to stay awake but exhaustion overcame him, and he slept until the rising sun stirred him. As he peered around he saw nothing but sea. The currents carried the millstone along for another night and another day. Thirsty, hungry and tired, he slept again, until the motion eventually slowed to a stop. The only sounds were the lapping of little waves as they rolled into a sheltered cove and the cries of seagulls soaring above in a clear sky. His millstone had come ashore on a broad sandy beach. Piran looked around. Close by was a limpet shell. Stretching his numb fingers along the sand, he was able to grasp the shell and slowly, patiently, he sawed through the thongs around his wrist and freed himself.
After a while he crawled up the beach, and drank fresh water from a stream at the base of the cliff beyond. Gaining strength, he sought out a cave for shelter and shellfish for food. He no longer feared. His soul grew calm as his body healed and circulation returned. He gathered driftwood, twigs, dry moss, then made a fire on a black hearthstone at the back of his cave. The fire grew hotter and hotter until a stream of hot white metal trickled out of the hearthstone. What Piran had discovered were deposits of tin in the rocks around what became known as Perranporth, west of Newquay on the north coast of Cornwall.
With health and confidence restored he ventured out amongst the local residents, made friends, spread his message and grew in leadership. The Cornish were Celts like the Irish, his Gaelic enough like their Kernewek to understand each other a little, while Piran learned their language. True to his promise to God Piran brought Christianity to Cornwall. With it came the many conflicts with the old religion that he thought he had left behind in Ireland. He forged ahead and remained steadfast and eventually founded the Abbey of Lanpiran and became its abbot. He also brought about the prosperity that derived from mining and smelting tin, copper, zinc, silver and wolfram and the development of the deep mines thereabouts (Wheal Betsy, Bodannon, Cuddrabridge, Dizzard, Castle-an-Dinas, Poldice, Geevor) that over the centuries played a pivotal role in the life and history of Cornwall.
Piran was venerated as the Patron Saint of Tin Miners and became with time the Patron Saint of all of Cornwall. His banner is a white rectangular cross on a black ground, representing the tin flowing on the hearthstone of his hermit’s cave. And on March 5th every year good Cornishmen and true celebrate St. Piran’s Day and his part in their proud heritage.
Kernow bys vykken! Long live Cornwall!
This is the Prologue to the forthcoming historical novel, “The Miner and the Viscount,” by Richard Hoskin, a rollicking story that tells how small Cornwall played a very large part in changing the face of the world in the 18th century.