The actual St Piran, if there ever was one, proves to be a bit elusive. The cult of Piran was venerated at Perranzabuloe in the eleventh century and spread to other sites at an early date. But the Life of Piran, written in the 1200s, was plagiarised from the Life of the Irish saint Ciaran, who lived for 200 years and retained all his teeth. Teeth or no teeth, Piran clearly had a relatively high status in the saintly pecking order, Nicholas Roscarrock devoting a long entry to him in his Lives of the Saints of the 1610s.
Piran seems to have been an early version of Dr Doolittle, conversing with animals and converting a fox, badger and bear on his arrival in Cornwall. He also discovered tin, which seeped out of some rocks that he’d magically set on fire. However unlikely that was, Piran became the patron saint of tinners. While the Reformation put paid to the annual parading of Piran’s relics around the parish, St Piran’s feast day on March 5th continued as a miners’ holiday in the west. On this day games such as wrestling and hurling would be organised and considerable drinking indulged in. By the 1800s this had produced the phrase ‘as drunk as a Perraner’.
However, with the decline of mining after the 1860s Piran’s feast gradually faded. By the 1950s the day was hardly noticed outside Perranzabuloe. However, in the1980s it began its revival to become the major cultural celebration of Cornishness.
This was largely due to the adoption in the 1950s by Cornish revivalists of the black and white St Piran’s flag as the flag of Cornwall. The folklore collector Robert Hunt had in the 1860s described the simple white cross on a black background as the ‘device of St Piran’ and the ‘standard of Cornwall’. Its advantage lay in its simplicity, lending itself to the explanation that the black represented the black tin ore while the white was the smelted metal.
In the 1960s St Piran’s flag was derided as ‘MK’s flag’. Yet, it began to infiltrate the mainstream in the 1970s as the native Cornish reacted against mass in-migration from east of the Tamar and looked around for resources with which to reassert their Cornishness. St Piran’s flag was perfectly placed and by the 21st century had become the immediately recognisable and taken-for-granted emblem of Cornwall, adopted by businesses and even accepted by government.
In the 1980s and 1990s processions began to be seen on St Piran’s Day, first at Truro and then across the dunes at Perranporth. Here, a play about Piran was performed on a promenade from the holiday camp to the parish church that had been abandoned to the sands in 1804. Alan Kent points out how this was a re-invention with a powerful sense of place, taking place just a mile or two north of Perran Round, a plain an gwarry where an original but lost Life of Piran may well have been performed on his feast.
Since then St Piran’s Day has gone from strength to strength, with events taking place in Cornish towns from Penzance to Lanson and among Cornish communities overseas. The parades and processions echo those of Catholic Europe. At Redruth, in a conscious evocation of earlier traditions, a giant lamb (the lamb and flag being a common symbol used in tin smelting) is paraded around the town. Meanwhile, older festivals such as the Hal an Tow at Helston and Padstow’s Obby Oss incorporate references to Piran and have adopted the ubiquitous St Piran’s flag. All this gives St Piran’s day, in reality a relatively recent reinvention, in Kent’s words, ‘an illusion of timelessness’.