Cornwall is known romantically as the Land of Saints; it’s been said that there are more saints in Cornwall than there is in heaven - let’s hope, at least, that there are more saints than sinners to be found in this part of the peninsular. Does this description mean that our ancestors were very devout or that, among the confraternity of saints, they were considered to be in especial need of divine revelation and redemption? The Celts in this part of the country were, in fact, Christian before the Saxons, and those who initiated the Cornish Celtic Revival in the nineteenth century were, in part, interested in the lives of the Celtic saints. Hawker loudly sang of the saints in his remote benefice of Morwenstow, and the deliciously named hagiographer Sabine Baring-Gould told - and sometimes invented - engaging legends about the Celtic saints in his sixteen-volume The Lives of the Saints.
St Piran, whose day we celebrate on the fifth of March (the day on which he died), is the county’s most popular patron saint, though it is argued by some scholars that St Michael and St Petroc have equal claim to the title. St Piran was first the patron saint of tin-miners, and it was this popularity that Piran enjoyed among the miners that led to his adoption as Cornwall’s patron. It is said that Piran first discovered tin in Cornwall when he used a large black rock as a hearthstone. (In fact, the Romans had smelted tin in Cornwall but the method of extracting the metal from its ore had been lost following the withdrawal of the legions during the collapse of the Roman Empire.) As the flames grew hotter, Piran was amazed to see that a trickle of white metal oozed from the stone. He shared this knowledge with the local people who were so delighted that they held a feast in Piran’s honour, where the wine freely flowed. Piran is still remembered to this day in the phrase “as drunk as a Perraner”.
Piran’s family origins are obscure, but there is a strong tradition that he came from Ireland. Piran spent his younger days in South Wales, where he established a church in Cardiff. He returned to Ireland spending time with Saints Finnian, Enda and Senan before founding his own community at Clonmacnoise.
In old age, divine providence intervened once again in Piran’s life. Cornish legend recounts how Piran was captured by the local Irish pagans who were jealous and afraid of his miraculous healing powers. They tied a millstone around his neck and threw him off a cliff into a boiling sea during a horrendous storm. But as Piran entered the water, the storm abated, the sea calmed and, most incongruously of all, the millstone floated to the surface. Piran, perhaps realizing that he no longer had a future in the Emerald Isle, set sail on his make-shift raft to Cornwall, making landfall on Perran Beach, where he built an oratory on Penhale Sands at Perranporth; here he performed many miracles for the edification and improvement of the local people
Even in old age, Piran’s evangelical zeal had not diminished and he founded churches at Perranuthno and Perranarworthal, and a chapel at Tintagel. Arthurian tradition, as developed by Geoffrey of Monmouth, says that Piran became chaplain to King Arthur and was appointed to the Archbishopric of York.
Piran, so tradition has it, died at his modest hermitage on the 5th of March. Piran’s relics proved to be a great draw to pilgrims, but the encroaching sands, which eventually engulfed the oratory, meant that the relics were removed inland where they were deposited in the parish church of Perranzabuloe, which was built to house them.
Many things have been asserted about the life of Piran but, as there exists little about him in literature, much of it is speculation. What is certain, however, is that St Piran holds a special place in the hearts and minds of the Cornish people, wherever they may find themselves in the world.