Brighid is very present in Ireland. She is present in the landscape, in the many churches dedicated to her, in her crosses hung in homes, shops and inns; and in her sacred wells. In his book, “The Holy Wells of Ireland” Dr Patrick Logan lists fifteen in eleven counties though there are probably many more.
Kildare is clearly sacred to Brighid. There is evidence that here women tended a perpetual fire sacred to the goddess Brighid. A well established tradition tell us that St. Brigid built an abbey on the site, c470 ce, which became famed for its scholarship, art and hospitality.
A strong tradition tells us that St. Brigid was born, c451 ce, at Faughart in County Louth some 150 kilometres to the north of Kildare. Though one local tradition in Kildare claims that she was born in Umeras about 8 kilometres northwest of the town and yet another suggests Monasterevin to the west.
Tradition tells us that around the year 470 St. Brigid founded an oratory, “Cill Dara” (Cell of the Oak) which developed into one of the most important Christian foundations in Ireland. Today Kildare is a small cathedral town with a population of around 4,300 people. It is the centre of the Irish horse breeding industry and is famous for the Curragh Racecourse.
In the market square the 18th century market house has been restored as a heritage centre with an exhibition that tells the story of Kildare through the ages. A fire house has been built in the square which carries Brighid's perpetual flame. Off the square is the entrance to St. Brigid's cathedral, built by Ralph of Bristol around 1223, on the site of St. Brigid's oratory. The cathedral was badly damaged by fire in 1641 but by 1896 it had been fully restored. Windows at the west of the nave depict Brigid helping the poor and making her religious profession.
(photo courtesy Sheila Rose Bright)
The Round Tower was built in the 12th century and stands 33 metres tall. It provides a belfry, a watchtower and safe store. To the north of the Cathedral can be found the restored foundations of an ancient Fire Temple. In pre-Christian times priestesses tended a perpetual fire sacred to the goddess Brighid. St. Brigid's nuns carried on the tradition though at least two bishops tried to have it extinguished. The flame was eventually put out at the Reformation. It was relit in the Market Square in 1993 and has since been kept alight by the Brigidine Sisters at Solas Bhride. It will soon burn in the new fire house outside the Market House. Giraldus Cambensis (born c1145) saw the fire burning and wrote, “At Kildare many miracles are recorded, amongst which St. Brigid's fire comes first. They call it inextinguishable because the nuns feed it with so much fuel and so carefully that it has never gone out since the time of Brigid. After her death nineteen always remained and when each had tended the fire on their own night, on the twentieth night the last nun put faggots on the fire saying, “Brigid, keep your own fire, for the night has fallen to you.” The fire being so left is always found still burning in the morning.”
Walking down Bride Street from the Market House you find St. Brigid's Parish Church which was built in 1833. The main church doors, by Imogen Stuart, have six bronze panels each bearing a Brigid Cross. This theme is continued at the altar which is supported by eight stones cut to form a Brigid's Cross. There are windows depicting St. Brigid in the church and Lady Chapel. One shows her pushing two nuns out of a refectory because they had put the church's rules of Lenten fasting before the humane rules of hospitality.
The spacious interior contains a Shrine to St. Brigid which bears an icon painted by Sr. Aloysius McVeigh. In the icon Brigid carries a picture of her cell by the oak and a crosier, symbol of her leadership as abbess of a dual monastery of women and men. At her feet is her father's sword that she gave to a passing beggar. About her are her sacred animals. Her cloak spreads over the Curragh of Kildare as a reminder of the way she gained land from the King of Leinster and the protection she affords her people.
Walking out of town from the parish church you pass the ruins of the Black Abbey, the National Stud and the Japanese Gardens. At the entrance to the Japanese Gardens you find St. Brigid's Wayside Well. This is fed from a clear water spring which is lovingly held in a semi-circular stone surround. In the stones is set a plaque which reads, “A Naoimh Bhrid, Muire na Gael, gui orainn ” St. Brigid, Mary of the Gael, pray for us.
“The hidden mystery of the universe is seen also in a well by the wayside, where the cold water bubbles up from the rock in burning weather, and the basin of the rock that contains it is decked with magic, delicate greenery, glittering from the drippings of the rock. And note the word 'magic.' It is not a vague flourish. It is used deliberately to signify that in such a wayside well there is much more than meets the eye.” Arthur Machen, from his Introduction to The Dragon of the Alchemists, by Frederick Carter, London, 1926.
St. Brigid's Well is approached down a narrow lane close to the Wayside Well. A wooden footbridge crosses a stream that leads into the sacred enclosure. This beautiful, liminal place encloses the stream and five stations or prayer stones that lead to the round well and cloutie tree.
The Curragh is a large stretch of common land. These grasslands dotted with gorse are known as Brigid's Pastures. This is the land that Brigid's Mantle covered in her confrontation with the King of Leinster. To walk here is to feel her presence in the land. At the Rathbridge Cross Roads there is a stone that collects water reputed to cure warts.
St. Brigid's Churchyard, Suncroft, has a sculpture of St. Brigid and the Children.
Kildare Imbolc 2008 Album