Who was the Ballyvourney thief, an Gadaidhe Dubh?

An Gadaidhe Dubh, Ballyvourney
The stone carving of An Gadaidhe Dubh (An Gadaí Dubh) projects from the western face of the east gable of the nave of St Gobnait's Church in Ballyvourney, Co. Cork (© Irish Heritage News).

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Discover the intriguing lore surrounding the stone carving known as “An Gadaidhe Dubh” or “The Black Robber” in Ballyvourney medieval church.

An Gadaidhe Dubh,The Black Robber”, is the name applied to a stone carving of a human head in the ruined medieval church of St Gobnait in Ballyvourney, Co. Cork. Local legend has it that the thief depicted in this carving was one of the builders of the church. This builder set out to steal his fellow workers’ tools and also St Gobnait’s grey mare. In the dark of night, he attempted to escape with his plunder.

Even though he rode all night, he was found, in the morning, still circling the church. This was due to a “meascán mearaí” (“state of bewilderment”) placed on him by the saint. As punishment for his misdeeds, his image was cut in stone and placed where all could see it and remember his crime.

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Positioned high above the chancel arch, on the internal face of the eastern gable of the church’s nave, the carving is now heavily worn, but its facial features, hair and long neck are still discernible. This carving was likely a voussoir in an earlier 12th-century Romanesque church, which no longer survives, having been replaced by the present church building in the late medieval period, probably in about the 15th century.

Teampall Ghobnatan Ballyvourney
St Gobnait’s Church (Teampall Ghobnatan) is a late medieval nave-and-chancel building incorporating some features of an earlier Romanesque church (© Irish Heritage News). The modern lean-to holds the Stations of the Cross.

The National Folklore Collection features many stories about the Gadaidhe Dubh, mostly recorded in the Muskerry region but his notoriety spread far beyond Ballyvourney.

In 1937/38, Gurrane Boys’ National School in Clondrohid collected a story, written in Irish, that begins with the familiar legend of how the gadaidhe stole St Gobnait’s horse one night. Determined to escape the saint, he travelled throughout the night, striving to put as much distance as possible between them. However, when morning came, he found himself beside the church, right back where he had begun his journey. The tale includes the powerful message: “Níor bhféidir bob do bhualadh ar an naomh” (“It wasn’t possible to defraud the saint”).

This account also emphasizes the gadaidhe’s fearless nature and stressed that once he set his mind on a particular course of action, stopping him was a challenge. One night, during a robbing spree, he heard a voice saying, “Íocfaidh, Íocfaidh” (“Will pay, Will pay”). “Who will pay?” he asked. “Your family or their family”, the voice answered. “In that case, I will take the respite”, said the gadaidhe and he continued with his misdeeds. However, according to other stories in the National Folklore Collection, this notorious thief eventually came to his senses.

Gadaidhe Dubh recorded by Gurrane National School in Clondrohid
“Gadaidhe Dubh” recorded by Gurrane Boys’ National School in Clondrohid, Co. Cork (source: The Schools’ Collection, vol. 326, p. 225, by Dúchas, © National Folklore Collection, UCD, CC BY-NC 4.0).

In 1933, Donnchadh Ó Loingsigh, a 62-year-old farmer from the townland of Na hUllánaibh (Ullanes), in the parish of Ballyvourney, gave an account of the Gadaidhe Dubh; he had heard this tale 50 years previous from his grandmother, who lived in the same townland.

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As the story goes, one cold frosty night, the gadaidhe, who had stolen some animals, was crossing a river when he spotted a man in the middle of the ford, clutching a stick with both hands. The gadaidhe asked the man what he was doing on such a bad night and the man replied that he was seeking redemption for his sins. He said he would have to remain there until green leaves grew from his stick. When asked how long he had been standing there, “only 100 years” was his response. “Dia lem’ anam” (“Bless my soul”), said the gadaidhe, “Níl aon tseans agamsa” (“I have no chance at all”). The gadaidhe decided to stay with the penitent and on the following morning, green leaves were growing out of the stick. The gadaidhe refrained from stealing ever again.

>>> READ MORE: St Gobnait: patron saint of ironworkers, beekeepers and Ballyvourney

A similar tale of atonement was recorded in 1937/38 in English by 14-year-old Proinséas Ó Murchadha when attending An Chathair Gharbh National School in Castletownbere; he had heard it from his grandmother, Mairghead Ní Murchadha, aged 77, who lived in Eyries at the border of Dreenagh. It concludes with “It is said that that man was put there purposely so as to convert the Gadaidhe Dubh“.

Even today, the infamous figure of the gadaidhe remains etched in local lore in the Ballyvourney region and is memorialized in the name of the “Gadaí Dubh Bookshop” in Ballymakeera (the village adjoining Ballyvourney). If you are familiar with any folkloric tales featuring the Gadaidhe Dubh, we invite you to share them in the comment section below.

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