Emerald Isle

The Box of Goban Saor

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle

You can't please everyone

Very often here in Ireland we walk past the most astonishing buildings, carven stone high crosses, ancient temples and many similar things, but rarely do we wonder who built them. Well as it turns out, legend has it that a surprising number of them were built by a man called Gobán Saor, whose name means “Gobán the Builder,” the greatest builder of churches in all Ireland!

He was also known as Saint Gobán, and he is connected to the old Irish spirit of smithing, Goibniú, which reminds us that people named their children after patrons even back then. The name echoes through many lands, in Welsh gofein, and in Gallic gobedbi.

He was a builder to the Saints, and constructed more round towers, chapels, churches and other buildings than anyone had before or since. His father, they say, was Tuirbe Tragmar, whose name means thrower of axes. So good was Tuirbe at this feat that his magical axe would even hold back the sea after it was thrown on the strand!

But even the greatest artist and craftsman has critics, as Gobán discovered after he built himself a house and settled down in Ardmore in County Waterford. No matter how much he slaved and sweated over a piece, there were always objections from some passerby.

Well that wouldn't do, so he thought to himself that the more voices he listened to, the better he could make his work! He was not only a sublime master of the shaping of stone and forming it into tall places, but also in carving wood. So Gobán decided to create one final masterpiece that nobody could object to and set about making the most beautiful box imaginable.

It was truly exquisite, a work worthy of his decades of knowledge, skill and craft, beautifully ornamented and painted with rich hues that can no longer be found in the world. The box was big enough for him to climb into, and when the paint had dried, he carried the box to the middle of a crossroads and did exactly that, closing the lid after himself!

Making himself comfortable, he sat and waited to hear what comments would be made by those passing by.

It didn't take long for a crowd to gather to marvel at the incredible box, and everyone was amazed at its beauty – except for a few who held that the legs were a little too long. Gobán was delighted and, waiting until they had all moved on, quickly climbed out of the box and sawed a little bit off the feet.

“Now,” he said, “they will be pleased!”

Before too long another crowd assembled, and they were almost united in their admiration for the beautiful box. Only... some thought the legs were too short, while others said they should be removed entirely!

Shaking his head, Gobán decided to make an end of it, cutting the legs away and letting the box lie on the ground as it was.

That problem solved, the next crowd of people who were coming from a nearby fair came to stand in awe of his box, but he heard murmuring at the back that you know, it was very nice, I suppose, but it seems a bit long for the width of it?

When they had moved on Gobán took hold of his patience and got out of the box, shortening it so it was almost a cube in shape, then in he climbed again.

Later in the afternoon another crowd gathered and smiled in approval to see this beautiful box, only for the way it was a bit too tall, and might topple over if packed wrongly!They looked around them at the strange grinding noise that seemed to emanate from nearby, but no source could be found, so on their way they went.

Climbing out of the box and still grinding his teeth, Gobán took the box home with him and spent the next week cutting the top off and reattaching the lid, until when he brrought it out to the crossroads again, he could hardly fit into it himself!

Two farmers were the first to arrive, driving cattle between them, and when they saw the box they tutted and shook their heads.

“That box was never perfect,” they said “but with the state of it now, sawed and hacked and the paint scraped off in places, it would be as well never to have made it in the first place! It does Gobán Saor no credit, and is labour lost.”

Others coming along disagreed but found their own faults, until Gobán decided he'd had enough, and got out, smashing the box to splinters and swearing that from this day forth, he'd listen to no opinion but his own!

Ardmore is marked on the map below.

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