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Celtic History Newsletter “Gobban the Builder”

Gobán Saor or Gobban the Builder, is a legendary figure in Irish folklore who is believed to be based on an actual historical person. The traditions vary as to the time when he lived, ranging from sometime before Christ to the seventh century. But the Catholic Encyclopedia sites him as being born about 560 at Turvey, on the Donabate peninsula in North County Dublin. He was “popularly canonized” without official solemnization by the Church as St. Gobban. (The first documented Papal canonization seems to have been that of St. Udalricus in 973) He is said to have been employed as a master architect and builder by various Irish saints to build churches, oratories, and bell towers and was a folk hero to Irish stonemasons. In fact his family is credited with inventing the method of using a string or rope to lay a wall in a straight line:

To her, (his daughter) tradition ascribes the invention of the use of a line to build a wall straight. Before, they were laid by the eye. Her father was one day teaching a son how to do this, and correcting him. She was knitting, and, passing him a long strand of yarn, said, ” Give him the line, father.

In the “Life of St. Abban” it said that “the fame of Gobban as a builder in wood as well as stone would exist in Ireland to the end of time.” The father of Goban Saor was himself a famous mason and architect. As a “poet-mason” Goban surpassed his father in skill and renown, and was also a famous bard. He is said to have traveled extensively in Ireland, England, and on the Continent, designing splendid edifices, and at times working as a common mason:

“The Goban Saor once, in a foreign land, applied to the master- builder of a cathedral for work. ” What can you do ? ” asked the master. “Try me and see,” was the laconic reply. Then the builder placed him in a work-shed alone by himself, and, pointing to a block of stone, said facetiously, “Carve from that a cat with two tails.” The shed was fastened at night, and the next morning Goban had disappeared. When the master unfastened the shed and looked in, he found that the block of stone had been most beautifully carved into a cat with two tails. With an exclamation of surprise, he ejaculated, “It was the Goban Saor himself! No other human being could do such superb work, or so quickly.
From The Journal of American Folklore Oct-Dec 1909.

A number of the tales are how he outsmarted people who would cheat him, or do him wrong.

“An Goban Saor was employed by the chief of Turlough to build a tower there. The chief did not intend to pay Goban. When Goban had the tower almost built, the chief took the ladder and left Goban on top of the tower. Goban could not get down.
A man was passing the road near by and he asked Goban why did he not come down. Goban said he could not get down. The man said: ‘is it not easier to throw down two stones than to take up one stone.’ Goban said that was so.
He started to throw down the stones and he himself was coming down by degrees. When the chief heard that Goban was breaking the tower, he brought back the ladder and ordered Goban to finish the tower. The chief then paid Goban.”
From the National Folklore Collection Digitization Project.

For one Irish king he erected a palace so beautiful that the king determined to murder him, so that he never again could build anything to equal or surpass it. Goban Saor suspected this design, and delayed completing entirely the edi- fice. Upon the king’s complaining, he said he required a special tool to finish certain work, and would go home and procure it. The king offered to send a messenger for the tool ; but Goban Saor objected that his wife would not deliver it to a mere messenger. Finally the king decided to, and did, send his only son, who went and told his errand to the wife. Her husband had sent him for “the crook and twist tool.” She was an exceedingly bright woman, and, knowing there was no such tool, at once suspected that her husband was in trouble. But she quickly said to the son, ” The tool is in a large chest in the cellar; come down and help me get it.” They went down ; but the chest was so high, she asked him to jump into it and take a tool she pointed out to him. Just the moment he was in, she shut down and fastened the top of the chest. Then she said, “You will stay there until your father sends my husband home,” which the king did immediately when apprised of the predicament of his son.
From The Journal of American Folklore Oct-Dec 1909.

We can see from that tale his wife was as clever as he was and there was good reason:

His mother had learned that there was a girl in a certain town who was remarkable not only for her beauty, but also for her accomplishments, household skill, good sense, and quick wit. She determined to secure her as a wife for her son Goban. She did not know the girl’s name, or the exact locality, so she sent Goban to the town with a very large fine sheepskin, and directed him to sell it and to bring back the price, and the skin with it. The son again and again visited the town, and tried shop after shop; but everybody laughed at him, and said he was a foolish youth to expect the price and the skin also. Finally one day, after poor Goban was completely discouraged, he called at a house where he found a lovely maiden pulling the wool from sheepskins with her servants. Goban was a handsome young man; and she smiled on him, and said, ” Come back here at six o’clock, when we are done work, and I will accept your terms and give you your price and also the skin to take home with you.” He gladly appeared at the appointed hour, and the maiden took the skin and gave it to her servants. While she for twenty minutes delighted him with her smiles, wit, and entertaining conversation, the servants had pulled all the wool from the skin. Then she turned to him, and said, “Here is your price, and here is your skin. Take them both home with you.” His mother at once realized that the girl she wished was discovered. The happy pair were soon after married, and on many occasions her quick wit and sound sense were most valuable to her husband, as in the case of the wicked king.”
From The Journal of American Folklore Oct-Dec 1909.

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Blogger for The Celtic Croft and owner of MacGregor Historic Games http://historicgames.com

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