January 29, 2006


Tadhg Hayden's article on St. Brigid for the 1993 Derby Festival Programme examines the enduring myth of Brigid and her role in pre-christian and christian Kildare. It also examines the strength of Brigid, the woman. It is reprinted here for St. Brigid's Day and to honour the work done by Tadhg to promote the history and heritage of Kildare Town and his renowned scholarship.
HANDWRITTEN AT TOP – Written in June 1993
1993 Derby Festival Programme
St. Brigid of Kildare
Tadhg Hayden
By any standards that Kildare girl of one thousand five hundred years ago whom we call St. Brigid was a remarkable woman.
She founded a church, a convent and a monastery on the Hill of Kildare where the cathedral now stands. Such was her organising ability and the enduring impact of her personality that after her death her foundation became of major local, national and international fame.
At one stage the Kildare church was a rival of Armagh for the status of primacy. Apart from the Patrician basis of Armagh’s claim, the powerful political pull of the dominant Ulster O’Neill dynasty allied as it was with the Kings of Connaught and the High Kings at Tara weighed against Kildare. But the ecclesiastical lawyers at Armagh recognised the Kildare church as the chief church in Leinster and the Kildare Abbess as the chief Abbess of all the Abbesses in Ireland. The Brehon Laws also recognised her supremacy. She had a say in the appointment of bishops. Her death, up to the ninth century, was recorded with the death of Kings in the Annals.
Cogitosus writing in the seventh century described the church in Kildare as a large magnificent building with shrines laden with jewels, rich panel-work and sumptuous ornamentation. Kildare, he said, was a “city” —an implication not of population but of prestige. It was a wealthy centre. The King’s treasury was in Kildare — a hint of proto-­urbanity. Kildare had European contacts. It was a pilgrimage centre.
The glory that was Kildare in the era of the Celtic church was damaged by Viking attacks. It recovered. But it was destroyed by the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in the twelfth century. Their arrival was the kiss of death for Kildare and country as a whole.
The Kildare church was neither contemplative nor penitential. It was an out­going, practical church concerned with people and their material as well as spiritual needs.
St. Brigid founded this tradition. She would visit a pagan household and while talking to the farmer’s wife — in a friendly way — about christianity would at the same time show her how to make good butter and discuss poultry and bee-keeping.
Abbots and Abbesses of Kildare were usually members of the local ruling family. In its hey-day the Kildare church sent monks to Europe. Their mission does not appear to have been solely concerned with evangelical work. They were university professors invited to Europe by the Merovingian emperors to train native European teachers who were badly needed as Europe slowly recovered from the chaos caused by the collapse of the Roman empire.
In Ireland in the fifth century missionary work by St. Patrick and activists like St. Brigid happily produced no martyrs. Nobody was killed for being a christian or a pagan. The Irish were tolerant. Above all, people like St. Brigid were not confrontational. The attitude was live and let live — and the gradual, peaceful penetration of deeply-rooted pagan customs and cults and their gradual christianisation, bringing the people with them peacefully.
St. Brigid — a prime exponent of this strategy — infiltrated and took over the Cult of the Well, the Cult of the Fire, the Cult of the Oak (the sacred pagan tree) as well as the pagan Sun Symbol.
Before St. Brigid founded her religious complex on the Hill of Kildare (cathedral site), the oak-covered hill was a centre of pagan religious worship. Priestesses met there, lit their ritual fire and, encircling it, petitioned the pagan goddess, Brigid, for good crops and herds. St. Brigid took over the custom of this fire and set up a rota of nuns to maintain it, saying christian prayers. This fire was kept alight in the Fire Temple there, day and night, until the sixteenth century when Henry VIII expelled the nuns and demolished the convent and Fire Temple after a thousand years of existence. The foundations of the Fire Temple survived. They have been restored and an explanatory plaque has been put in place. When the present general restoration work is completed it is proposed to re-build the Fire Temple, re-light the flame and thereby provide a focal point of mind-boggling antiquity for pilgrims.
Wells were focal points for prayer in Celtic pagan theology. Priestesses gathered around them and prayed to Brigid, the goddess. Such wells were widespread in the Celtic world of Ireland, Wales and Scotland. St. Brigid moved in on some wells near her and christianised them. Ultimately all such wells, however distant, became associated with Brigid the saint, and attracted pilgrims. Druids gathered around their sacred oak tree on the Hill of Kildare. This oak has survived in the name of the town: Kildare — Cill Dara — the Church of Oak. A form of the traditional Celtic and Indo-European Sun Symbol has survived in christianised form as St. Brigid’s Cross. The festival of Brigid, the goddess, was Imbolc, the beginning of Spring, in our calendar February 1st. This date became the Feast Day of Brigid, the saint.
All this, and much more, underscore the astonishing ability of this Kildare girl of a millenium [millennium – sic] and a half ago to assimilate aspects of the past, adapt them and project them, alive and vibrant, into the future. As a person, Brigid was active, practical and generous. Her christianity could be described as applied christianity: people should be cared for. If they need help, help should be provided. She was a peace-maker. She was sensible and down-to-earth. Brigid’s father was Dubtoc (Dubhach — Duffy). His residence was at Knocknagalla just outside Kildare. Her mother was Broicseach (little badger), a member of a working class sept located in the Mountrice-Umeras district, a short distance from Kildare. Broicseach worked in Dubtoc’ s household.
There is no evidence that St. Brigid was born at Faughart, Co. Louth. No prime source authoritatively records her birth place. But the balance of probabilities comes down firmly in favour of Kildare. The Faughart claim raises more questions than answers. Brigid was genetically programmed to be a superb organiser of people. From her aristocratic father she inherited an autocratic, domineering attitude that got things done. She was at ease with the upper classes. From her working class mother she had the gift of the ability to communicate understandingly with the rank and file. She understood their problems and knew what practical help was needed.
If one strolls behind Kildare cathedral at twilight in the quiet of a summer’s evening near the remains of her Fire Temple on the actual ground where her convent once stood one can almost feel her presence and a faint echo of her spirituality.
And it is easy in Kildare to visualise her belting across the Curragh in her chariot, the hood of her cloak thrown back, her golden-brown hair streaming in the wind, in a hurry to help someone.
According to a Gaelic invocation in Scotland her hair was golden-brown. “Bríd nan or-chiabh donn”. [.” – sic] And in the Gaelic speaking islands of Scotland she is addressed by her full name “Bríd Ní Dhubhaigh” —— Brigid Dubtoc or Duffy — recalling her chieftain father and his Dun or Fort at Knocknagalla so long ago.
She was quite a person, this Brigid of Kildare. Her town remembers her. Hopefully she will remember her town!
[The townland Knocknagalla is spelled Knocknagalliagh on the 1837 Ordnance 6 inch maps; Dubtoc also Dubhtach or Dubtach – Mario Corrigan]





[Tadhg Hayden's article on St. Brigid for the 1993 Derby Festival Programme examines the enduring myth of Brigid and her role in pre-christian and christian Kildare. It also examines the strength of Brigid, the woman. It is reprinted here to commemorate St. Brigid's Day but also to honour the work done by Tadhg to promote the history and heritage of Kildare Town and his renowned scholarship.]

Posted by mariocorrigan at January 29, 2006 10:11 PM