Brighid, Goddess and Saint
Places in Ireland
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 Ireland1 Patrick Logan lists fifteen in eleven counties. Kildare is clearly sacred to Brighid. There is evidence that women tended a perpetual fire sacred to the goddess Brigid there. A well established tradition tells us that St. Brigid built an abbey on the site around 470ce which became famed for its scholarship, art and hospitality. A strong tradition tells us that St. Brigid was born around 451ce at Fochard Muirtheimne (Faughart), a few miles north of Dundalk some 150 kilometres to the north of Kildare. Another local tradition in Kildare claims she was born in Umeras about 8 kilometres northwest of the town and yet another suggests Monasterevin to the west.
St. Brigid founded a monastery, Cill Dara (Cell of the Oak) which developed into one of the most important Christian foundations in Ireland. Today Kildare2 is a town with a population of some 8,500 people. It is the centre of the Irish horse breeding industry and famous for the Curragh Racecourse.
Market Square and Cathedral
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 Brigid'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 monastery. The cathedral was badly damaged by fire in 1641 but by 1896 it had been fully restored. The west windows of the nave depict St. Brigid helping the poor and making her religious profession.
Round Tower and Fire Temple
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 it is thought that priestesses tended a perpetual fire sacred to the goddess Brigid. 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 Bhrīde. It now also burns in the new fire house near the Market House. Giraldus Cambensis (born c1145ce) 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 rules of hospitality. The spacious interior has 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 monastery3. 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 Bhrīd, 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 Alchemists4.
St. Brigid's Well
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, thought to be the base of a high cross, that collects water reputed to cure warts. Nearby is Fox Covert enclosed by trees. Rushes are collected here to weave Brigid's crosses. To the right of Fox Covert stands a Peace Pole5.
St. Brigid's Suncroft, has a sculpture of St. Brigid and the Children in the grounds.
The hill of Faughart stands to the north of Dundalk in county Louth. It was here, according to The Tain Bo Cuailgne6, that Cu Chuchulainn (The Hound of Culann) single handed defended Ulster against the forces of Queen Meabh of Connacht. Strong tradition tells us that St. Brigid was born in this beautiful historic place, the illegitimate daughter of a Pagan chief, Dubthach (the Dark One) and a Christian bondswoman, Broicsech. She spent her early years there helping out in the dairy and giving away her father's property to the poor.
The penitential stations have been performed by St. Brigid's Stream for generations. The present shrine follows the flow of the stream and dates from the 1930's. It now boasts a modern chapel. Ancient practices such as the veneration of stones, trees, the drinking of water and the leaving of votive offerings are very evident. The shrine has stones that are said to heal ailments of the back, head and knees and another stone which is always wet with water that is used to bless the eyes. At the foot of the stream is a fence and gorse bush festooned with clouties, prayers, rosaries, children's toys... There is a magic about the place and even on a cold weekday in April people were coming to collect the water and leave offerings.
Walking up the hill beyond the shrine and turning right one comes to Faughart Cemetery with stunning views of Dundalk Bay. The cemetery is ancient and contains the grave of Edward Bruce (the brother of Robert Bruce, King of Scotland) who proclaimed himself King of Ireland but died in battle at Faughart in 1318ce. The cemetery encloses the ruins of St. Brigid's Chapel and at the foot of the hill lies St. Brigid's Well. It is said that Brigid, herself, drew water here. The well house is well maintained and there are steps down to the well itself and a scoop to draw water.
- The Holy Wells of Ireland, Patrick Logan, Colin Smythe 1981 ISBN 0861400461
- Kildare Tourist Office and Heritage Centre website
- Dual monasteries combine communities of monks and nuns into one institution. They were forbidden by the 2nd Council of Nicea in 787ce. In the 14th century St. Bridget of Sweden founded the Bridgettine Order for nuns with a small community of monks to acts as chaplains under the governence of the abbess.
- The Dragon of the Alchemists, Frederick Carter, Kessinger Publishing Legacy Reprint 2010 ISBN 1162595639
- The Peace Pole Project, Planting the universal message of peace. website
- The Tain: Translated from the Irish Epic Tain Bo Cuailnge, Translated by Thomas Kinsella, OUP 2002 ISBN 0192803735