Gobban Saer (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 22
Gobban Saer

by Thomas Olden
The ODNB, under Mo Ling, regards him as a legendary figure.

GOBBAN SAER, or the Artificer (fl. 7th century), a prominent figure in Irish tradition, is said by Petrie in his ‘Essay on the Round Towers of Ireland,’ upon the authority of the Dinnsenchus preserved in the books of Lecan and Ballymote, to have been the son of a skilful artisan in wood named Tuirbi, from whom Turvey in the barony of Nethercross, co. Dublin, is named, and to have flourished (according to O'Flaherty's chronology) A.M. 2764. But O'Curry has shown that this is an error due to a mistranslation furnished to Dr. Petrie. O'Curry is probably right in saying ‘there is little doubt that Gobban was a descendant of Tadg, son of Cian, son of Olioll Olum, who settled in Meath in the third century.’

Gobban is first mentioned in an Irish poem attributed to a lunatic protected by St. Molling, preserved in a manuscript belonging to the monastery of St. Paul in Carinthia, and assigned by Herr Mone to the eighth century. It speaks of a fort made by Gobban in Tuaim Inbir (West Meath). In the life of St. Aedh or Maedhog of Ferns (d. 632) Gobban is said to have been employed by the saint in building a church (basilica, said by Petrie to imply a stone building), and Aedh's successor, Mochua of Luachair (d. 652), is said to have employed him upon a wooden church. But the saint whose life contains most information about Gobban is St. Daircell or Molling [q. v.], who lived to the age of eighty-four, and died 690. After the fall of a famous yew tree named the Eo Rossa, celebrated in a poem in the ‘Book of Leinster’ as ‘noblest of trees, the glory of Leinster,’ some of the wood was presented to Gobban by St. Molaisse, and Gobban was engaged to make an oratory out of it. The first chip which Gobban cut struck Daircell in the eye, and a passage in the Brehon laws implies that the injury was intentional. Gobban's wife urged him to demand as payment for the work as much rye as the oratory would contain. Daircell assented; but being unable to get rye enough filled it instead with nuts and apples, which he made to appear like rye, but which changed to worms when Gobban took them home. There is also a mention of his having constructed a building for St. Abban, who died in the seventh century. Gobban is said to have been blind at the time, and to have received a temporary gift of his sight from Abban until the completion of the work. The ecclesiastics who employed Gobban complained that his charges were too high, and it was generally believed that his blindness was a visitation due to their anger. Among the buildings traditionally ascribed to him are the tower of Antrim, the tower and church of Kilmacduagh, and, according to Dr. Petrie, the tower and church of Glendalough. His work was confined chiefly to the north and east of Ireland, and there is no tradition that he ever visited or was employed south-west of Galway or Tipperary. In the north-east of Antrim in the parish of Ramoan is a building described on the ordnance map as ‘Gobbin's Heir's Castle.’ The first two words, as Bishop Reeves observes, are evidently a corruption of Gobban Saer, but the term castle is a complete perversion. The cave near, also connected with him, has a large cross carved on the roof stones over the entrance of the ante-chamber. It is a Latin cross, formed by double incised lines carved on a sandstone slab—very regular, and extremely well executed. There is also a smaller cross with equal arms.

The traditions respecting him all refer to the seventh century, when he must have lived. He employed workmen, and erected duns or fortresses, churches, oratories, and towers, the existing buildings attributed to him giving evidence of his skill. According to the tradition of the neighbourhood he was buried at Derrynavlan, parish of Graystown, barony of Slieveardagh, county of Tipperary.

[Petrie's Round Towers of Ireland, pp. 345, 383, 401, 402; Brehon Laws, iii. 226 n.; Betha Molling, Brussels, 48 a–51 a; Reeves's Eccles. Antiq. p. 285; Codex Salmanticensis, pp. 483, 532; O'Curry's Manners and Customs, iii. 45, 46; Annals of the Four Masters, i. 404 n.; Goidelica, p. 177; Book of Leinster (facsimile), p. 199, b. 51.]

T. O.