Saint Piran – of Seir Kieran, Offaly? By John Dolan

It was a casual comment at the recent excellent Heritage Day event at Seir Kieran, Discovering Seir Kieran Monastic Site, a local mentioned that there had been a visit in recent months from a group from Cornwall, visiting the birth place of St. Piran/St. Ciarán.  Cornwall had been mentioned as a place associated with St. Ciarán by one of the speakers on the day.  It was time again to have a look at this St. Piran. Piran is by far the most famous of all the saints to have gone to Cornwall from Ireland.

St. Ciarán was one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland along with Brendan of Birr. Charles Plummer’s translation of the Life of Ciarán has him arriving to Ireland before St. Patrick. He also had the title of the ‘first born of the Saints of Ireland’. He is supposed to have been born at Cape Clear in Cork where there is a church, a beach and a standing stone as memorials to him.

St Piran of Cornwall

Both saints celebrate their feast days on the same day, the 5th March, which is also St Piran’s Day, the national day of Cornwall.  John Koch in his The Celts – History, Life and Culturementions that Piran is the ‘patron saint of Cornwall’ along with St. Michael and St. Petroc.  In Butlers Lives of the Saintswe read ‘there is more information about his (Piran) medieval cultus than that of any other Cornish saint’.

St Piran’s Day is popular in Cornwall and the term ‘Perrantide’ has been coined to describe the week prior to this day.  St Piran’s Day translates as Gool Peran in the Cornish language.  St. Piran’s Day is also a miners holiday as he is the miners patron saint.  It is celebrated by parades, music, dancing, fairground rides and rugby matches.   The first St. Piran’s Day goes back to 1764 when the tin miners of the villages of Breage and Germoe observed St. Piran’s feast day as their patron saint. St Piran’s Day was observed until the late 1700s, but then fell out of favour for a while. Happily, it became popular again back in the 1950s.

Surprisingly, St. Piran is mentioned in the calendar of saints for the Eastern Orthodox Church in England along with our St. Ciarán on 5th March.

Like Ciarán there are many ways that the name Piran has been spelt over the centuries – Pyran, Piran, Perran, Pieran, Peryn, Piron, Peran, or Piranus.  However, all the locations associated with him are spelt Perran such as Perran Downs, Perran Wharf, Perranworthal, Perrancoombe, Perranporth, Perranuthnoe, Perranwell, Perranwell Station and Perranzabuloe.

How did the name Ciarán become Piran?

During the Early Christian period there were six Celtic languages still in fulltime use in western Europe – Gaelic (both Irish and Scotch Gaelic), Manx, Cornish, Welsh and Breton; it’s older relatives Cumbric,  Gaulish, Lepontic and Celtiberian may well have dropped in use at that stage.  Irish Gaelic was also going through transitions during this period as well – Primitive Irish (before c 550AD), Old Irish (550 – 900AD) and Middle Irish (900 – 1200AD).  At this time there were no standards for spelling or pronunciation, the first Irish-English dictionary in Gaelic arrived when Edward LLwyd published his Archaeologia Britannica: texts and translations in 1707.

Regional Celtic languages evolved locally. Continental Celtic split from Insular Celtic although Caesar said that the language of the Gauls was similar to that of the Britons. In addition, a further split occurred between Irish and Scots Gaelic on one side with the languages spoken from Cumbria to Cornwall – the P-Celtic and K-Celtic split.  There are no agreed dates when these language changes may have occurred.  InAn Ecclesiastical History of Ireland by John Lanigan, 1829 he says that Colgan claims ’the Britons changed the Irish C or K into P’. Brittonic and Gaelic languages alternated between P and K sounds.  So the sounds of the word Ciarán in Irish became Piran in Cornish.

Life of …

Historically, there is little about the life of Piran that is verifiable. Piran has been identified with the Irish saint Ciaran of Saighir and there is a corpus of folklore, legend and mythology surrounding him, there is also considerable discussion on Ciarán in various Lives of British Saints.

Piran’s written Life follows the usual pattern for a Life of a Saint – establishing the family political connections, the early life of the saint, his mission, lists of miracles performed by the saint, the success of his monastic settlement and finally the death of the saint.  But Piran does seem to fit into the tradition of wandering Celtic and Irish monks, along with the procession of saints who are said to have migrated from Ireland and Wales into Devon and Cornwall, many leaving only their names behind: Selus, Germoe, Gwithian, Levan, and Sennen, to name but a few.

The 14th century Life of Saint Piran, probably written at Exeter Cathedral, is a copy of an earlier Middle Irish life of Saint Ciaran of Saighir, but adapted to cover Piran’s work in Cornwall and with obvious differences to parentage and the death of the saint.

InThe Lives of the British Saints by the Anglican priest Sabina Baring-Gould, 1908 he quotes John of Tynemouth who wrote in 1290 that the tradition was that Piran of Cornwall was the same as Ciarán of Saighir in Ireland. John of Tynemouth’s Sanctilogium contains a Life of St. Piran of Cornwall which is substantially a copy of the Life of St. Ciarán. Baring-Gould says that when Ciaran reached Cornwall he commenced converting the local inhabitants. Quoting a local legend, he says ‘Piran, who is also Pieran and Kyeran in Ireland, was born in the province of Ossory… he came to England and died, and was buried in Britain’. 

More recently, in Butler’s Lives of the Saints by H J Thurston SJ, 1990 confirms that the connection between St. Ciarán and St. Piran goes back to the middle ages. In the Saints of Munster (c450 – c700AD) paper by Elva Johnston she says that ‘Ciaran has been mistakenly identified with the Cornish saint Piran’.

The Oxford academic Charles Plummer suggested that he was probably the Ciaran of Clonmacnoise and not of Seir Kieran but he is not supported in this suggestion elsewhere.


Baring-Gould says of Piran’s death that ‘at length, failing through infirmity of body, having convoked the brethren, he gave them instructions concerning the Kingdom of God. Then he ordered his grave to be prepared, and into it he descended, and there expired on the third of the Nones of March’. 

Trelawny records the death as ‘Piran calmly command his grave to be dug, and with a resolute step descended into it, he kneeled down there, with clasped hands and uplifted eyes, he meekly surrendered his soul into the hands of his Creator’.

Barnham in his Legend Land, 1922, says of Piran’s death that he ‘lived a useful and pious life for many years, loved by his people, until at last, at the great age of two hundred and six, he died. Then his sorrowing flock buried him and built over his grave St. Piran’s Chapel, the remains of which you can see to-day hidden away in the sandhills of the Penhale Sands’.

Like Ciarán in Ireland who is supposed to have lived for 300 years according to Lanigan, legend has it that St. Piran lived for 200 years, meeting his death when he fell down a well drunk (Folk-lore Journal Vol 4, 1886). They say in Cornwall that he was ‘fond of the drink’ and met his end by falling into a well when walking home from a party.

Imirce Chiaráin.

So, how did this legend come about.

In The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee translated by Whitley Stokes in 1905, an entry for 5th March on Ciaran of Saighir states that ‘now Cairnech Moel (the Bald) was the scribe of Ciaran of Saiger’; and in the The History and Antiquities of the Diocese of Ossory by William Carrigan recounts that Cairnech Moel wrote the ‘wonderous’ book Imirche Chiarain, ‘tis he that wrote the wonderful manuscript, namely Ciaran’s Journey, with its many various illuminations, and this book still remains in Saiger’. Where did they go? On a pilgrimage? A Litany says that fifteen men went with Ciarán on his journey. 

A different legend from Perranzabuloe, the Lost Church Found by Rev CTC Trelawny in 1846suggests that the reason for moving was that Ciaran felt visitors from all parts of Ireland ‘whose numbers and officiousness became at last so intolerable to the saint’, so ‘he passed over into Cornwall’ accompanied by his mother and many of his followers. 

From this point onwards, Cornish folklore and legends take over the narrative of Ciaran’s arrival in Cornwall.  Some accounts suggest that Ciarán was expelled from Seir Kieran.

Sabina Baring-Gould, suggests that ‘the King of Munster and the King of Ossory perceived that Saighir was a threat to them. This, we can hardly doubt, was the primary cause of Ciarán abandoning his foundation and quitting Ireland’.

From the Popular Romances of the West of England we have the most detailed account from folklore on the arrival of Ciarán to Cornwall: ‘on a boisterous day, a crowd of the lawless Irish assembled on the brow of a beetling cliff, with Piran in chains.  By great labour they had rolled a huge millstone to the top of the hill, and Piran was chained to it.  At a signal from one of the kings, the stone and the saint were rolled to the edge of, and suddenly over, the cliff into the Atlantic … No sooner was Piran and the millstone launched into space, than the sun shone out brightly, casting the full lustre of its beams on the holy man, who sat tranquilly on the descending stone.  The moment the millstone touched the water, hundreds were converted to Christianity’.        

St. Piran’s millstone bore him safely across the Atlantic waves until at length–on the fifth day of March–it grounded gently upon the Cornish coast, between Newquay and Perranporth, on that glorious stretch of sand known to-day as Perran Beach. Here the Saint landed, and, taking his millstone with him, proceeded a little distance inland and set himself to work to convert the heathen Cornish to Christianity.

Where did he go?

Again, there are different views on Ciaran’s time in Wales and Cornwall.

Sabina Baring-Gould recalls a story from Giraldus Cambrensis that King Henry II on his way back from Ireland heard Mass at ‘Capella Sancti Pirani’ in Cardiff – there are no other sources this account.  In Saint Ciarán of Saighir by Rev. Dr Moran, Bishop of Ossory in his address to the Ossory Archaeological Society in 1874 he claimed that Ciaran went to the monastery of Saint Iltud, at Bangor in Wealhas (Wales) in the year 500AD.

Churches dedicated to Piran.

In the Lives of the Irish Saints by John O’Hanlon, 1875 he writes ‘Thence he went to Cornwall, which retains many memories of St. Ciaran’s or St. Piran’s Apostolate, and several churches there have such a name. In our own days the church of Perranzabuloe, or ‘St. Piran in the Sands’ and has been brought to light, having been embedded in the strand, for about 800 years’.

    St. Piran’s church, Perranzabulor – Wikipedia Commons

Sabina Baring-Gould names three Cornish churches dedicated to St. Piran at Perranzabuloe, St. Piran and St. Michael, Perranuthnoe;  and Perranarworthal (in Cornish Peran ar Wodhel, or the village by the creek).

There is also Saint Piran’s Chapel in the parish of Tintagel, Cornwall.  In addition we have the former Methodist chapel at Laity Moor which is now the Orthodox Church of Archangel Michael and Holy Piran. He is honoured in the Anglican church as well. Finally, there is also the church of Eglise Saint-Péran, Finistere near Roscoff.

  Orthodox Church of Archangel Michael and Holy Piran, Google Street

Église Saint-Péran, Trézilidé, Finistere,  Wikipedia Commons


Holy Wells.

There are two Holy Wells dedicated to Piran at Perranwell and Probus.

  St. Piran’s Cross. Google Commons

The Cross.

St Piran’s Cross stands just over 8 feet high (2.4m) and is the only three-holed cross in Cornwall. The cross is carved from granite and stands 17m south of the church chancel. The are no carvings on the cross.  Similarly, a small number of early high crosses of similar style can be found in Ireland, such as that at St. Patricks Cross, Carndonagh, Kilfenora,


Ever since the Irish Bronze Age commenced around 2,500BC, Cornish traders have brought their Cornish tin to be mixed with copper extracted from either Ross Island, Killarney or Mount Gabriel in Cork to make bronze. Folklore suggests that the fall of the Roman Empire crashed the tin trade in Cornwall along with the expertise to extract and process it.

Piran is credited with the ‘discovery’ of tin-smelting (though tinning had been carried out in Cornwall for centuries beforehand). A black stone on Piran’s fireplace accidentally overheated, giving out a white liquid – tin.  This is described by Barham in 1922, ‘the saint making use of some strange black stones that he found, to make a foundation for his fire. The heat being more intense than usual one day, these stones melted and a stream of white metal flowed from them’.

Bartham’s Legend continues that ‘Piran taught them to dig and smelt the ore, thus bringing much prosperity to the country, the story of which eventually reached the far-away Phoenicians and brought them in their ships to trade with the Cornish for their valuable metal’.

The image of the Cornish Flag represents a cross of white-hot tin on a black background.

  Cornish flag


A number of excavations have been carried out on the site of St. Piran in the Sands; the oratory had been buried by shifting sands over the centuries. The remains of his church were discovered by chance buried at Perranzabuloe.

We have an account by the Anglican priest Sabina Baring-Gould, that ‘the original church was found and dug out, in 1835, by Mr William Mitchell of Comprigney near Truru, but unhappily nothing was done to preserve it. The walls were extremely rude, no mortar having been used. It is not, however, more ancient than the eighth and ninth century. Several skeletons were found about 2 feet below the floor. Three were discovered with their feet lying underneath the altar, one of them of gigantic dimensions, measuring about 7’6”. Of late years railings has been erected around the ruin’. 

In 1910 the church was covered with concrete to preserved it against the encroaching sands and vandalism. The concrete cover was removed in 1980 and reburied in sand by the Department of the Environment.

Photographs of the 1910 excavation are available on the web at

St Piran’s Trust, set up in 2000 by Eileen Carter and other locals, raises funds to excavate and interpret the church and the earlier Oratory of St Piran.  This led to the latest excavation of St. Piran’s during 2013/2014.  Reports and photos of the excavation are contained in this report.

Perrantide has been mentioned earlier as the national day of Cornwall. Held on 5th of March every year it also celebrates Miners Day. The link below describes the events of Perrantide on 5th March 2018, pre-Covid. Scroll down to the video clips, in particular and get a flavour of the social and sporting activities of the festivals.

In today’s world Piran would have been accused of Identity Theft.


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