March 5th is Saint Piran’s Day. Who is Saint Piran, you ask? Well, this relatively little-known saint happens to be the patron saint of tin miners and Cornwall. In fact, the Cornish flag—that black flag with the white cross you see flapping in the wind around Mineral Point—is actually more properly known as Saint Piran’s Flag. A popular story reports that the black background on the flag symbolizes the ore while the white represents Cornwall’s famous tin.
Legend says that Saint Piran was born in Ireland in the 6th century. After demonstrating miraculous powers, the Irish king ordered Piran to be cast out to sea. A millstone was secured around Piran’s neck, and he was tossed into the waves, where he was supposed to drown. However, Piran did not drown; in fact, he floated on the millstone, eventually landing in Cornwall, where he would go on to evangelize and discover tin.
While I am not one for evangelization, Saint Piran has a special place in my heart. His story, his image, and his flag continue to be rallying points for the unique Cornish identity. It is for this reason that I celebrate Saint Piran. I have a small shrine to the saint in my home as a reminder of the importance of my heritage, and I pray that he protects his people whose livelihoods continue to be threatened by encroaching industry and socioeconomic disenfranchisement.
When I was in Cornwall during May of 2018, I happened upon a Saint Piran celebration in Falmouth. A statue of Saint Piran was being sent from Falmouth to the Valley of the Saints in Brittany, where it would sit alongside statues of other saints which had also been craved in those saints’ native lands. The festival was a joyous occasion with traditional music, Cornish language lessons, and Cornish dancing—I may have danced “with” them; or rather, followed along in a shadowy corner of the street so as to not draw attention to myself.
I have a developed a spiritual connection with Piran. No small part of this is because of his relationship with Ireland and Cornwall, which are both very important to my spiritual life. And yet, there is a deeper, more existential bond that I find with the saint. He came to Cornwall from Ireland in a journey that was supposed to kill him but instead saved him. I have, at times, also felt like I was tossed out to sea, left to drown by the weight of the world that seemed to hang around my neck. I have had to wrestle with this burden and have come to realize that this immense weight can be both a millstone that pulls me down into the depths and a floatation device that keeps me above water. My spiritual journey continues to be one of cultivating self-compassion, of allowing myself to accept my story–my ‘baggage’–as both a curse and a life-preserver. I have gotten to where I am today by learning to survive with what I have. That’s all any of us can do. The story of Saint Piran teaches me about the struggle, the triumph, the exhaustion, and the resilience of being human. For these lessons, for Cornwall, and for my Mineral Point home, I celebrate you, Piran!