Piran, Hermit of Padstow, Cornwall

5 March is the Feast of Piran, Hermit of Padstow.
“Piran was a hermit near Padstow in Cornwall and sometimes called Perran. He is the patron saint of tin mines there and is often erroneously identified with St. Kyran (Kieran) of Saighir. His feast day is March 5th.

In Cornwall and Brittany March 5th is observed as the feast of St. Piran or Perran and many scholars have identified him with St. Ciaran. Of these John of Tynmouth, who wrote his medieval biography, ascribes similar stories to the two saints, if indeed they are two! What is certain is that Piran was one of the missionaries which came to Cornwall from Ireland and Wales and it seems sensible for us to merely record what we know of this saint, who is the most popular of Cornish saints and the patron, if not of the Duchy at least of the stannaries, as the miners are called.

Perranporth is the traditional place of Piran’s arrival, in true Celtic style on a mill stone according to legend. Inland among the sand dunes lies buried one of the oldest churches in these islands, his chapel at Perranzabuloc. In the Middle Ages relics of the saint who lay entombed beneath the altar were shown to pilgrims and it was, with St Michaels’s Mount, the most frequented of holy places. In the twelfth century however the sands were engulfing the ancient edifice and the relics had to be removed to another church although the old standing cross remained among the dunes. In 1834 the walls were discovered and excavated and in 1910 they were encased in a concrete shell to protect them but they are now again hidden beneath the sand.

The preaching of this holy man and the miracles granted through him brought so many people to God that there are numerous dedications to him in Cornwall and in Brittany and South Wales. As you might expect, in Cornwall, the places associated with him are in the region of the Fal estuary, which was the usual embarkation place for Brittany. Perrarworthal has a Perranwell and then there are Perrannthnoe and Perran Downs. In Brittany Saint Perran is a small place south of Saint Brienc.

St. Piran is believed to have been interested in stones and collected various mineral bearing rocks, one particularly large black one he used as the hearth for his fire and was amazed when it got very hot a flow of metal came out white in colour and in the shape of a cross. This appearance of tin not only made him the patron of tinners but also suggested his flag, a silver cross on a black ground which is often used as the standard of Cornwall and symbolizes the Christian Gospel, light out of darkness, good from evil.
piran flag
Piran’s family origins are obscure; tradition says he came from Ireland. Spent his youth in South Wales where he founded a church in Cardiff. Received religious schooling at the monastery of Saint Cadog at Llancarfon, where he would have met Saint Finnian. The two returned together to Ireland where Finnian founded six monasteries, including his most famous one at Clonard. Piran lived there before Saint Enda on Aran Island, and then Saint Senan on Scattery Island. Founded his own community at Clonmacnoise, “Ireland’s University”.

Cornish legend says Piran was captured in his old age by pagan Irish, jealous of his miraculous powers, especially his ability to heal. They tied a millstone around his neck, and threw him off a cliff into the sea during a storm. As Piran hit the water the storm abated and the millstone bobbed to the surface like a cork. On his stone raft, Piran sailed for Cornwall, landed at Perran Beach, built a small chapel on Penhale Sands, and made his first converts – a badger, a fox, and a bear. He lived there for years as a hermit, working miracles for the locals.
piran 2
Piran founded churches at Perran-Uthno and Perran-Arworthal, a chapel at Tintagel, and a holy-well called the “Venton-Barren” at Probus. Made trips to Brittany where he worked with Saint Cai. Arthurian tradition from Geoffrey of Monmouth says he was chaplain to King Arthur, and Archbishop of York after Saint Samson was exiled by Saxon invasions, though it’s doubtful he ever took up his See.
piran 4
Piran’s patronage of Cornwall derives from his popularity with the Cornish tin-miners. Legend says that Piran discovered tin in Cornwall when he used a large black rock to build a fireplace, and found that the heat made a trickle of pure white metal ooze from the stone. He shared this discovery with the locals, providing Cornish with a lucrative living. The people were so delighted that they held a sumptuous feast where the wine flowed like water. Piran was fond of the odd tipple, and resulting in the Cornish phrase As drunk as a Perraner. The trickled of white metal upon a black background remains as the White Cross of Saint Piran on the Cornish National flag.

Piran died at his little hermitage near the beach. His relics were a great draw to pilgrims but, due to inundation by the sands, they were moved inland to the Parish Church of Perran-Zabulo, built to house them.”
piran 3
“Archaeological excavations on the site of one of the most ancient surviving Christian shrines of Britain will soon begin. This is St. Piran’s Oratory (Chapel) near Perranporth, Cornwall, in the south-west of England.
The building, constructed in the 5th or 6th century, was covered with sand and surrounded by a concrete silo in 1980 to protect it from foul weather. Now the specialists have given the “green light” to carry out excavation work, which is to begin in February or March of 2014.
The Oratory of St. Piran is considered to be the oldest stone Christian church in Britain. Its remains were discovered late in the 18th century. In 1835 and 1843 the first excavation work was carried out here, during which several human skeletons were found, one of them headless.
According to the tradition, the oratory was built by Holy Abbot Piran (+ C. 480, commemorated March 5/18), who is venerated as patron-saint of Cornwall, along with St. Petroc and the Holy Archangel Michael. The flag of Cornwall, depicting a white cross on a black background, is called “St. Piran’s flag”.
St. Piran came to these lands from Ireland. According to tradition, Irish pagans tied a millstone around his neck and threw him off the cliff into the stormy sea. The sea calmed immediately and St. Piran reached the sandy beaches of Cornwall, which are called Perranzabuloe today. St. Piran had lived as a hermit near Padstow until the local Christians come to know about him. They came to him and asked him to found the monastery that came to be known as Lanpiran. St. Piran became its abbot.
St. Piran is considered the patron-saint of tin mining. Cornwall was known for its tin production even before its occupation by the Romans. The historical tin mining district is known as the “stannaries”, from the Latin word for tin. According to the tradition, the saint was buried in Perranzabuloe. Afterwards his relics were discovered and distributed to different churches.”
pirans oratory
St. Piran’s Oratory. Photo taken between 1892 and 1909
piran legend


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