ST. BRIGID

by mariocorrigan on March 8, 2008

 
St. Brigid – Kildare’s very own Saint
shared with a national audience
by
LIAM KENNY
 
 
St. Brigid, whose feast day is 1st February,  is regarded as Kildare’s very own saint but one that Lilywhites share with a much wider range of devotees, Indeed Brigid ranks with Patrick as national patron of Ireland and in virtually every corner of the land there are churches, shrines and holy wells dedicated in her honour.
 
 Brigid has a remarkable span not just in terms of geography but also in terms of time spanned. The story that has come down through the generations is personified in the form of a woman who, in early Christian times, was the founder of a monastic foundation in Cill Dara, the church of the oak tree. Her powers and spirituality are the stuff of legend – the brát Bride, for example, her expanding cloak which covered the distinctive plain now known as the Curragh is but one example. But even the story of the Christian Brid is a mesmerising blend of folk-tales which may have their roots in the depths of pre-Christian, Celtic and pagan Ireland.
 
The one constant in all the stories relates to the geography of the story which certainly puts both pre Christian and early Christian elements of the Brigid story in the area we now know as modern mid County Kildare. For example a chronicler of Ireland in the 12th century, Gerard of Wales wrote ‘ At Kildare, in Leinster, celebrated for the glorious Brigid, many miracles have been wrought … the first that occurs is the fire of St. Brigid which is reported never to go out but the nuns and holy women tend and feed it.’ On the face of it this recalls the tradition of the eternal fire being carried out in Kildare to perpetuate the life and work of a Christian era Brigid. However to show that nothing in ancient Irish folk life is that simple there are deeper and older explanations for this ritual of perpetual fire. One of the recent works on the rituals of St. Brigid suggests that even the Gerald of Wales account could be influenced by practices from the ancient Latin classics which describe rituals where virgins took care of a perpetual fire in Rome. A recent discussion by Seán Ó’Duinn OSB quotes another scholar of the era, Professor Kim McCone as writing ‘the twelfth century visiting cleric, Gerald of Wales, describes a fire cult at her main church of Kildare that can hardly be other than a pre-Christian survival’.
 
On the question of Brigidine geography many places in Ireland claim a share in the Brigid story not least her reputed birthplace of Faughart in north Co. Louth. However Seán Ó’Duinn makes a strong case for the position of Kildare in the Brigid tradition. He points out that a line could be drawn between Cill Dara itself across to Dun Ailinne (near Kilcullen), the great Iron age fort, then north to Nás na Ríogh (home of the Leinster chieftains), and then west to Dun Almhaine (the Hill of Allen). Within this terrain the ancient fair of Carman may have taken place on Cuirreach Life or the Curragh as it is now known. Thus Cill Dara lent itself to a myriad of influences with connections to places which have archaeological and annalistic pedigrees going far back into time.
 
Whatever about the necessarily conjectural blending of folklore and history in the story of Brigid there can be no doubting the persistence of the folklore and craft associated with devotion to Brigid. The best known tradition is of course the St. Brigid’s Cross, the four-armed design which is most familiar to us being one of just numerous styles woven from straw and twigs in country areas ranging from Kerry to Donegal. The St. Brigid’s Cross has made its way on to prominent graphic representations in the modern era. It forms one of the designs emblazoned on the Kildare County Council coat-of-arms. It featured too until recent years as the logo of the broadcaster RTE, showing that even the symbolism of an early Christian saint, who in turn inherited ancient pagan devotion, could be adapted to the technology of modern times.
 
  • The beginning of Spring is now marked in Kildare town with a week long recollection of Brigidine traditions and theems under the banner of Féile Bríd. Missing from the programme this year will be the late priest and philosopher John O’Donoghue who died suddenly in early January. This writer recalls a dawn mass which he celebrated at St. Brigid’s well at Tully. It was a morning of hard frost, the thoroughbreds on the adjacent paddock silhouetted against a luminous February sunrise, their breath crystallising in the frozen air, as Fr O’Donoghue evoked in words of poetry and philosophy the spirit of the ancient Brigid devotion bringing light and discovery to a world waking from its winter darkness. May he rest in peace.
 
Series no: no 52


An article by Liam Kenny from his regular feature ‘Nothing New Under the Sun,’ in the Leinster Leader of 31 January 2008 on the Patroness of the Gaels – St. Brigid. Our thanks as always to Liam. 

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