Throwing lions at Christians – Frank McNally on St Ronan and the cult of French rugby – The Irish Times

This may not explain the events in Marseilles last weekend, but it seems an interesting coincidence that this week (June 1) marks the feast day of a 6th century holy man widely revered in the north-west of France: St Ronan.

According to tradition, he first made himself known as a bishop in his native Ireland before embarking on a voluntary exile in Brittany, where he lived an ascetic life.

There he was briefly troubled by a woman who claimed he had the ability to transform into a wolf and related that during one of these wolfish adventures he had eaten several sheep and his daughter. Tried by the then-standard method of having wild dogs on him, he proved his innocence by surviving. Then he found the woman guilty of child murder before intervening to prevent her execution. He also brought his daughter back to life.

It is said that the saint’s power over animals survived even his death. When a dispute arose over where he should be buried, the decision was left to a team of wild oxen. Tied to a cart carrying the body, not driven, they brought it to a location near the end of the Brittany peninsula and stopped.

The village that grew up there is now called Locronan (“Ermitage de Ronan”) and has at least one other claim to fame, appearing on the official list of the “Most Beautiful Villages of France”.

It is an association of French villages that meet the criteria of being both beautiful and bucolic, with a minimum of two national heritage sites and a maximum of 2,000 inhabitants. There were 156 at last count, heavily concentrated in the South. Locronan is one of only four in Brittany.

As for the saint’s religious legacy, it continues in the annual Breton “Pardons”, a series of ceremonies that take place throughout the summer months. Similar to Irish “patterns”, these are dominated by processions around sacred sites, with pilgrims hoping to gain indulgences by taking part.

The event linked to St Ronan is known as Troménie and especially associated with the wearing by pilgrims of traditional Breton dress.

Five years out of six, it’s the “Petit Troménie”, covered over a six km course every 2 July. But every six years, the “Grand Troménie” takes place along an old 12 km path, which is cleared for a week of pilgrimages, day and night. The next one is in 2025.


The holy associations of Brittany correspond to a mysterious subdivision of France, much noticed by historians and geographers, called the St Malo-Geneva line. It is an imaginary border crossing the country diagonally from the Cotentin peninsula (where the Cherbourg ferry docks) to the northern French Alps.

Among other things, place names containing the word “Holy” are much more likely to occur west of this line. But as Graham Robb noted in his great 2007 book The Discovery of France, the demarcation is or was also associated with many other differences: “At least until the end of the 19th century it appears with regularity surprising when various sets of data are plotted on a map: south and west of the line, people tended to be shorter and have darker hair and eyes; they were less literate, lived in smaller places, had less taxable income, and were more likely to be employed in agriculture.

You could say that today, the Saint Malo-Geneva line still separates the French mainly beer drinkers from the wine lovers. And that may also explain the distribution of French rugby vis-à-vis football.

With the exception of the Parisian franchises, the Top 14 rugby clubs are all located south and west of the border. Be careful, there is none in Brittany St Ronan (the other Ronan La Rochelle is the furthest north), while French football has several Breton clubs.

Even if the sixth-century Ronan was not involved in launching the Lions of Leinster to Christians last weekend, however, La Rochelle may have received other supernatural help. As much as rugby is a quasi-religion in parts of Leinster, the west of France has a proper church dedicated to the sport.

Located in a village in the Landes, the Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Rugby was created by the priest in 1964 after the death of three local players in a road accident.

Among the prayers of the chapel, there is one which translates as: “Stand by our side to give us strength and desire in our quest for victory. But also stay by our side in the terrible melee of existence…” Among its many rugby-themed stained glass windows, one depicts the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus as he kicks the ball into the lineout.

Charles P. Patton