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Case Study in Archaeology.
St Brigid’s Cathedral… before the Normans.
In this essay I aim to show the development and architecture of St Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare, from its foundation and modest beginnings to the arrival of the Normans.
Since the fifth century a Christian settlement has existed in the town of Kildare. The church, and later cathedral, of Kildare has been associated with St Brigid since its foundation around 480 AD.1 Kildare derives its name from the Irish Chille Dara, or the ‘wood of oaks’, according to Thomas James Rawson’s Statistical Survey of the County Kildare. He contends, it was anciently called Caelan or Galen ‘the woody country’, being formerly almost one continuous wood, ‘the decay of which produced the great extent of bogs, which cover so much of the country at this day, and by the quantity of timber, with which they abound, bear incontestable marks of their origin’.2 The town of Kildare has its origins as a centre of pagan religious worship on an oak covered ridge, the ancient name of which is Druim Criaig, or Drumcree. St Brigid founded a church, monastery and convent at Kildare on an important pagan site, which suggests a deliberate policy of locating the new Christian churches beside old pre-Christian power centres.3 Brigid was the daughter of a local chieftain, Dubhtach, of the Leinster Ui Dunlainge dynasty. She was thought to be a pagan priestess who converted to Christianity.4
The Round Tower at Kildare and the adjoining ruins probably represent the exact site of St. Brigid’s early conventual establishment and of the church connected with it.5 The earliest church built by St Brigid was constructed with wattles and owing to it being near, or under, a large oak tree received its name Kildare or ‘Church of the oak.’ As time went by and the church became more important a permanent wooden structure replaced the original building. In 835 it was partially burned down by the Danes who carried off the shrines of St Brigid and St Conleth, although the relics of St Brigid were preserved. The cathedral had been plundered sixteen times before the Anglo-Norman conquest.6 With the Reformation of the Church and the dissolution of religious houses the cathedral of Kildare became a place of worship for the established church and has remained Church of Ireland to the present.
St Brigid and the Church of the Oak
The first Christian missionaries to Ireland may have come from Gaul in the 4th and 5th centuries, while the first exact date is 431, the year in which Palladius was appointed by the Pope as bishop to ‘the Irish who believe in Christ’. Gaulish missionaries were soon superseded by British, the most famous of whom is St Patrick. The Continental missionaries St Auxilius and St Iserninus were active in the area, which is now County Kildare, around the mid-5th century.7 By the seventh century St Brigid’s foundation had grown to great importance, and was said by her biographer (Cogitosus) to surpass in eminence all other monastic communities in Ireland, attracting countless people from all over the country. When the Irish church began to organise itself territorially at the Synod of Rathbresail in 1111, Kildare achieved recognition as one of the country’s twenty-three dioceses. It was still among the most famous of these when visited by the Welsh-Norman historian Giraldus Cambrensis, who recounts a number of legends confirming the association with St Brigid. Admittedly the site did not figure in the small map of Europe that accompanied Giraldus’s Topographia Hibernica, but a hundred years later it was one of only four places in Ireland to be named on the famous mappamundi now kept in Hereford Cathedral.8 
Hilltop sites were a common feature of Irish monastic topography and St Brigid founded her church on a north-westerly summit of a ridge on the plains of Kildare.9 According to Monasticon Hibernicum:
St Brigid, the illegitimate daughter of an Irish chieftain, was born in the year 453, and in the 14th year of her age she received the veil from the hands of St. Patrick himself, or from one of his immediate disciples… She founded a nunnery here before the year 484; and about the same time an abbey was also founded under the same roof for monks, but separated by walls from the nunnery; it afterwards came into possession of the regular canons of St. Augustin. The nuns and monks had but one church, in common, which they entered at different doors.
St Brigid presided as well over the monks, as the nuns, and, strange to tell! the abbot of this house was subject to the abbess for several years after the death of the celebrated founder, which happened in the year 523, on the fifth of February, when her feast is celebrated. She was interred there, but her remains were afterwards removed to the cathedral church of Down.10
The elevated site was chosen by St. Brigid for her projected conventual establishment in much the same way as a defensive post was also located on an elevated site. Near the convent grew a large oak tree, which had been blessed by Saint Brigid. It remained for centuries after her death, and small bits of it were taken away as mementoes of the saint, who spent so many days beneath its shade.11 The local proprietor of this soil and people living in the neighbourhood soon helped to provide a habitation for their future patroness and for her religious sisters. It has been asserted, the first church built there was constructed with wattles.12 The original church would probably have gone from wattle to wood during the life of St Brigid and St Conleth.
St Conleth was a friend and co-worker of St Brigid and together they governed the church at Kildare, according to Cogitosus, ‘by means of a mutually happy alliance’. Conleth became the first bishop of Kildare in 490.13 ‘The little conventual building in Kildare was soon surrounded by a great city. We have said little, for such it was in its beginnings, but soon it became a vast building, and contained many hundred inmates. It was then a matter of necessity that a bishop should be at hand to perform the functions belonging to his office which could not be fulfilled by a priest. The Saint was allowed to choose her own bishop; and she selected a holy man named Conleath, who was especially suited for the post…’14 
Numbers of infirm and poor flocked to Kildare, seeking relief from their various necessities; and many anecdotes are related, regarding the charities of St. Brigid, especially towards this forlorn class of persons. With the course of time, several houses began to appear around her religious establishment as it became necessary to provide for the necessities of those, who came from a distance, or, who were brought from more immediate districts, to assist at the pious exercises and public celebrations of her conventual institute. By degrees from being merely a village, Kildare became a very considerable town; and at length, its habitations extended in number and size, so that it ranked as a city, at a period somewhat later. St. Brigid traced out a line of demarcation, likewise, around the city, within which boundary refuge was to be obtained by any fugitive… It is also remarked, that Kildare was the metropolitan see of Leinster, at two different periods. In the first instance, while St. Brigid lived, in that city; yet afterwards during the time of Brandubh, King of Leinster…15
Because of its association with St Patrick Armagh claimed primacy over the Irish Church, but the seventh century (some say ninth century) monk and writer Cogitosus claimed that the bishop of Kildare is ‘anointed head and primate of all bishops’ and that Kildare ‘is the head of almost all the Irish churches with supremacy over all the monasteries of the Irish and its paruchia extends over the whole land of Ireland, reaching from sea to sea’.16 In describing a miracle which took place in the cathedral Cogitosus begins with a description of the extraordinary monastic church as follows:
Nor is the miracle, that occurred in repairing the church, to be passed over in silence, in which repose the bodies of both, that is, Bishop Conlaeth, and the holy virgin St Brigid, on the right and left of the decorated altar, deposited in monuments decorated with various embellishments of gold and silver and gems and precious stones, with crowns of gold and silver depending from above. For the number of the faithful of both sexes increasing, the Church, occupying a spacious area, and elevated to a menacing height, and adorned with painted pictures, having within three oratories large and separated by plank partitions, under one roof of the greater house, wherein one partition decorated and painted with figures and covered with linen hangings, extended along the breadth of the eastern part of the Church, from the one to the other party wall of the Church, which [partition] has at its extremities two doors and through the one door, placed in the right side, the chief prelate enters the sanctuary accompanied by his regular school, and those who are deputed to the sacred ministry of offering sacred and dominical sacrifices: through the other door, placed in the left part of the partition above-mentioned, and lying transversely, none enter but the abbess with her virgins and widows among the faithful, when going to participate in the banquet of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. But another partition dividing the pavement of the house into two equal parts, extends from the eastern side to the transverse partition lying across the breadth. Moreover this church has in it many windows, and one adorned doorway on the right side, through which the congregation of virgins and women among the faithful are used to enter. And thus in one very great temple a multitude of people, in different order and ranks, and sex, and situation, separated by partitions, in different order, and [but] with one mind worship the Omnipotent Lord. And when the ancient door of the left passage, through which St Bridget used to enter the church, was placed on its own hinges by the workmen, it could not fill up the passage when altered and new; for the fourth part of the passage appeared open and exposed without anything to fill it up. And if a fourth more were added and joined to the height of the gate, then it could fill up the entire height of the passage now lofty and altered. And when the workmen were deliberating about making another new and larger door to fill up the passage, or to prepare a board to be added to the old door, so as to render it sufficiently large, the before-mentioned principal and leading artisan of all those in Ireland spake a prudent counsel: ‘We ought this night to implore the Lord faithfully beside St Bridget, that she may provide for us against morning what measures we ought to pursue in this business.’ And praying thus he passed the whole night beside the monument of St Bridget. And rising early and prayers being said, on pushing and settling the ancient door on its hinge he filled the whole aperture; nor was there any thing wanting to fill it, nor any superfluous portion in its height. And thus St Bridget extended the door in height, so the whole passage was filled up, nor does any part appear open, except when the door is pushed back in entering the church. And this miracle of the divine excellence is quite plain to the eyes of all beholders who look upon the passage and door.17
George Petrie in his Inquiry into the Origin and Uses of the Round Towers of Ireland maintains that Cogitosus’ description is from the early part of the ninth century rather than the sixth or seventh century:
… the plan and general form of this church, which consisted of a nave and chancel, was exactly that commonly adopted in the abbey and cathedral churches in Ireland and that the deviation from the usual custom of having two lateral doorways, instead of a single western one, is pointed out as a peculiarity necessary from the circumstance of the church having been designed for the use of two religious communities of different sexes, who had distinct and separate places assigned them, according to the almost universal practice of ancient times. The necessity for this separation of the sexes also led to the division of the nave by a wooden partition, into two equal portions, which were entered by the lateral doorways already mentioned; and it led again to the piercing of the wall, or partition, which separated the nave from the chancel, with a doorway on each side of the chancel arch, in order to admit the entrance, into the chancel, of the bishop with his chapter on the right or south side, and of the abbess with her nuns on the left or north side. Another peculiar feature, noticed in the description of this church, is its having a number of windows, wheras, as I have already shown, the Irish churches were remarkable for the fewness of such apertures; but in the notice of such a peculiarity, there is as little to excite a suspicion of the truth of the general description, as in the others I have already commented upon, inasmuch as the very arrangement of the church into a double have necessarily required a double number of windows to light it.18 
            Petrie maintains that if Cogitosus had claimed the windows were glazed it would have afforded an argument to whether he lived in the sixth or seventh century. But as Cogitosus makes no mention of glass in the windows of Kildare, it is to him that the description is true, ‘but also of antiquity, though …that antiquity is not as great as many have imagined. It is evident, at all events, that if he had been… fabricating a fanciful description of this church, while glazed windows were still of rare occurrence, he would not have neglected so important a feature of splendour’.19
            Many other notable scholars have also used Cogitosus’ description of the church for understanding the layout of the early cathedral. According to Professor McAlister in Archaeology of Ireland:
The passage then goes on to tell how an ill-fitting door was miraculously made to accord with the openings prepared for its reception. This part of the story does not concern us. The interest for us lies in the fact that we have here a description of a large church such as the author could scarcely have conceived in his mind unless he had accurate knowledge of such a structure. The passage is a testimony to the existence in 8th century Ireland of large churches, doubtless of wood, and with other applied ornament to an extent for which the bare walls and roofless oratories would hardly have prepared us.’20 
Archdeacon Sherlock in Some account of St Brigid makes the following comment:
From this description it would appear that the early church was not cruciform in shape but a simple oblong, divided into eastern and western parts, and the western portion again divided by a partition running east to west. There was no door in the west end. The doors of the present Cathedral correspond in the main with the arrangement, except that there is now only one door on the north side. It is probable that the dwellings of the Bishop and Monks were on the south side of the church, and those of the Abbess and her Nuns were on the North and West.21 
The Church described by Cogitosus was probably of wood, the earliest reference to a stone church oratorium lapideum being at Armagh in 789.22 In 762 the church is referred to as a dairthech (wooden church) without further comment.23 Timber buildings would have required periodic maintenance and reconstruction and the church of 762 could be a completely new structure.24 The dairthech is mentioned again in 836 on an occasion when it was blockaded and entry was refused to the abbot of Armagh. By 868, however, the church was evidently in need of repair because it was rebuilt under the patronage of Flanna, the wife of the high-king Aed Findliath. Flanna’s patronage probably occurred because the church was still in use by the nuns founded by St Brigid.25
The dairthech is referred to again in 964, where its large size is mentioned, and then in 1020 when the church was destroyed by fire. John Bradley suggests in The Cathedral and town of medieval Kildare that the fact that the dairthech is mentioned in the singular form between 762 and 1020 indicates that the structural layout, if not the actual building, described by Cogitosus continued to survive.26 The rebuilding of the church must have included the use of stone because The Annals of the Four Masters recorded that in 1050 Kildare with its daimlaig (stone church) was burnt.27 A teampall (a large stone church) was mentioned in 1067, so the reconstructed church was again of stone.28 
Towards the end of the seventh century Viking raiders arrived in Ireland and soon reached the monasteries and churches of Kildare. The Vikings attacked the monastic cities because of their wealth. The first of fifteen attacks on Kildare by the Vikings occurred in 835 (836 in some sources) when they plundered the town and destroyed half of the church. They also carried away the valuable shrines of St Brigid and St Conleth, but they were later saved and those of St Brigid, conveyed to Saul, Co. Down.29 Attacks on Kildare also occurred from the native Irish who also attack the monastic communities.30 Town and church were burned again in 1067. Kildare was plundered again in 1136, 1138 and 1150. In the early 1170s the Norman lord Richard de Clare, or Strongbow, used Kildare as a base on several occasions and by 1176 it was the principal manor of his north Leinster lordship. Kildare prospered under the Normans and the clearest indication of its wealth is in its building framework.31 In 1223 Ralph de Bristol, became the first Anglo-Norman bishop of Kildare. He found his cathedral in ruins and set about rebuilding it and restoring the Cathedral to its former glory.32
In 1223 the Anglo-Norman Ralph de Bristol succeeded Finn O’Gorman as bishop of Kildare. (Fionn O’Gorman was author of The Book of Leinster, a collection of historical tracts, tales, poems and genealogies, for Dermot MacMurrough, king of Leinster.) The cathedral had been plundered sixteen times before the Anglo-Norman conquest. The newly appointed Bishop de Bristol repaired the ruined cathedral and built a new stone building, giving the cathedral its present shape in the years 1223-30.33 This new Gothic style cathedral was built for both military and ecclesiastical reasons. The cathedral was cruciform in shape with a noble square tower, buttressed walls with a narrow footway behind the battlements, and only three small doors for access to the building.34
Both thirteenth century abbeys (the Franciscan Grey Abbey and the Carmelite White Abbey), together with what remained of St Brigid’s foundation, were dissolved by Henry VIII, after which the whole town went into decline. The cathedral remained, albeit in a state of some dilapidation, but after the Reformation only a tiny fraction continued to worship in it, and all its post-medieval bishops chose to live elsewhere, their palace on the north side of the town falling into decay and eventually disappearing.35 By 1600 both the town and the cathedral were ruinous again. In the rebellion of 1641 the steeple was reportedly beaten down by cannon, but could easily have fallen due to neglect. During the rebellion, the ornaments, books, and other goods of the cathedral were taken away by Rosse McGeoghegan, Catholic Bishop of Kildare, who in 1643 re-consecrated the ancient cathedral for Catholic use. In 1686 the choir portion was fitted for Anglican service, the rest of the building remaining in ruins until restoration work began in 1871.36 Dr Samuel Chaplain of Leinster Lodge, formed a Cathedral Restoration Committee and set about raising the £16,000 required to rebuild the cathedral. Work began under the supervision of the eminent architect George Edmund Street in 1875 and was finally finished in 1896. On 22 September 1896 the church was re-dedicated by the Archbishop of Kildare and Dublin Lord Plunket, and finally restored to the glory it had enjoyed in the thirteenth century.37 Further restoration was completed in 1996.38 While much has changed in Kildare the most distinctive features of the town have remained the same and it is St Brigid’s cathedral and its immediate surroundings that tourists come to see.
A description of the cathedral and grounds from Irish Historic Towns Atlas No. 1 Kildare
Monastery of monks and nuns. Site unknown. Original location believed to adjoin Fire House in cathedral churchyard. Founded by St Brigid, late 5th or early 6thcentury; abbots recorded to AD 885, abbesses to 1171. At dissolution, 1540, precincts said to contain ‘a small castle or fortilage with a chapel, suitable for a farmer’s use’, perhaps at a different location from the above. Granted to Redmond Fitzgerald in 1574 and to Anthony Deering in 1585.
Site of Fire House, cathedral churchyard. Alleged chapel of St Brigid, 6th century, containing perpetual fire. One wall remaining in 1784. Masonry foundations in rectangular depression 1986.
Round tower, cathedral churchyard, 33 m high; upper part mainly sandstone, probably 12th century, including doorway with Romanesque ornament; lower 3 m granite, date unknown. Six bracteate coins c. 1155 found under base. Tower restored and battlements added in early 18th century.
Undecorated granite cross, cathedral churchyard. Shaft and cross found separated from their supposed original base, re-erected in c. 1862.
St Brigid’s Cathedral and parish church of Kildare (C. of I.). Believed to be on site of church built by St Brigid, and described by Cogitosus in AD c. 630. repaired or rebuilt by Ralph of Bristol, bishop of Kildare in 1223, with further alterations, perhaps including present stepped battlements, in c. 1395. ‘Altogether in ruins’ at visitation of 1615, with further destruction in 1641; rectangular ‘pro-cahedral’ built in c. 1686 on site of present choir; chapter house built in 1738, E. angle of S. transept. On earliest map, 1757, nave, tower, S. transept and chapter house all in ruins, N. transept omitted, rectangular, unroofed enclosures shown N. of pro-cathedral (omitted on later maps) and W. of s. transept; no further alterations on later maps to 1850, except addition of porch S. of pro-cathedral 1938, 1872 (OS). Bell tower erected in 1856 due E. of present N. transept shown in map of 1872 (OS) and two undated photographs, demolished in total restoration of cathedral under architects G. E. Street (1875-810 and J. F. Fuller (1890-96); re-opened in 1896.
Churchyard. In occasional use as a burial ground 1986. Wall: masonry of varied composition, unknown date; modern entrance near S. E. corner; former narrow arched entrance on S. side, now blocked by masonry.39
End Notes
  1. Grey Abbey Conservation Project. Church of the Oak. A contribution to the history of Kildare town, (Kildare 2006) p. 1.
  2. John J. Gaffney. Life of St Brigid, (1931) p. 98.
  3. Sean Duffy (Editor). Atlas of Irish History, (Dublin 2000) p. 16.
  4. GACP, Church of the Oak, p.1.
  5. Gaffney, Life of St Brigid, p. 98.
  6. John McEvoy. (Editor). The Churches of Kildare and Leighlin 2000 AD, (Newbridge 2007) p. 99.
  7. Duffy, Atlas of Irish History, pp 16-7.
  8. J. H. Andrews. Kildare Irish Historic Towns Atlas No. 1 (Dublin 1986) . Supplement History Ireland (2004), pp 2-3.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Rev. John Ryan. Irish Monasticism. Origins and Early Development (Dublin 1940), pp 223-4.
  11. An Irish Priest. The Life of St Brigid. The Mary of Erin and the Special Patroness of the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin(Dublin 1859), pp 69-70.
  12. Gaffney, Life of St Brigid, p. 98.
  13. CatholicIreland.net, St Conleth: first bishop of Kildare 450-519, : , sourced 3/1/2008.
  14. M. E. Cusack. The Triad Thaumaturga (London 1880), p. 531.
  15. Gaffney, Life of St Brigid, pp 100-1.
  16. Michael O’Neill, ‘The Medieval Parish Churches of County Kildare’ in Kildare. History and Society (Dublin 2006), p. 153.
  17. George Petrie. The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland, Anterior to the Anglo-Norman Invasion; comprising an essay on the origin and uses of the Round Towers of Ireland (Dublin 1845), pp 197-8. There are several translations of Cogitosus’ description of the church and here I have used Petrie’s from the above work.
  18. Ibid, pp 198-200
  19. Ibid, p. 200.
  20. Dean H. N Craig. Some Notes on the Cathedral of St Brigid, Kildare (Dublin 1931), p. 16.
  21. Ibid, p. 18.
  22. O’Neill, ‘The Medieval Parish Churches of County Kildare’ in Kildare. History and Society, p. 154.
  23. Ibid, p. 155.
  24. John Bradley, ‘Archaeology, Topography and Building Fabric: the Cathedral and Town of Medieval Kildare’ in St Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare. A History, p. 29.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid, pp 29-30.
  27. Craig, Some Notes on the Cathedral of St Brigid, Kildare, p. 18.
  28. Bradley, ‘Archaeology, Topography and Building Fabric: the Cathedral and Town of Medieval Kildare’ in, St Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare. A History, p. 31.
  29. GACP, Church of the Oak, p. 2; Tostal, Cill Dara Britoe. St Brigid’s Kildare. The story of a historic parish, pp 11-12.
  30. GACP, Church of the Oak, p. 2.
  31. Bradley, ‘Archaeology, Topography and Building Fabric: the Cathedral and Town of Medieval Kildare’ in St Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare. A History, p. 36.
  32. Tostal Festival. Cill Dara Britoe. St Brigid’s Kildare. The story of a historic parish (Kildare 1953), pp 11-12.
  33. McEvoy, The Churches of Kildare and Leighlin 2000 AD, pp 98-9.
  34. GACP, Church of the Oak, p. 4.
  35. Andrews, Kildare Irish Historic Towns Atlas No. 1. Supplement History Ireland, p. 5.
  36. McEvoy, The Churches of Kildare and Leighlin 2000 AD, p. 99.
  37. GACP, Church of the Oak, p. 4.
  38. McEvoy, The Churches of Kildare and Leighlin 2000 AD, p. 99.
  39. Andrews, Kildare Irish Historic Towns Atlas No. 1, p. 9.



An Irish Priest. The Life of St Brigid. The Mary of Erin and the Special Patroness of the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin. Dublin 1859.

 Andrews, J. H. Kildare Irish Historic Towns Atlas No. 1. Dublin 1986 & 2004 Supplement History .


 Craig, Dean H. N. Some Notes on the Cathedral of St Brigid, Kildare. Dublin 1931.

 Cusack, M. E. The Triad Thaumaturga. London 1880.


 Duffy, Sean (Editor). Atlas of Irish History. Dublin 2000.

 Gaffney, John J. Life of St Brigid. 1931.

 Gillespie, Raymond (Editor). St Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare. A History. Maynooth 2000-2001.

Grey Abbey Conservation Project. Church of the Oak. A contribution to the history of Kildare town. Kildare 2006.

 McEvoy, John. Editor. The Churches of Kildare and Leighlin 2000 AD. Newbridge 2007.

 Nolan, William & McGrath, Thomas (Editors). Kildare. History and Society. Dublin 2006.

 Petrie, George. The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland, Anterior to the Anglo-Norman Invasion; comprising an essay on the origin and uses of the Round Towers of . Dublin 1845.

Ryan, Rev. John. Irish Monasticism. Origins and Early Development. Dublin 1940.

 Tostal Festival. Cill Dara Britoe. St Brigid’s Kildare. The story of a historic parish. Kildare 1953.


James Durney's essay on the architectural history of St. Brigid's Cathedral, Kildare Town before the arrival of the Normans.

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