Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Saint Bridgid’s Well, Kildare

The welcoming hands at the parish of Saint Brigid

“Amid the galaxy of the saints, how lustrous, how divinely fair, shines the star of Brigid, the shepherd maiden of Faughard, the disciple of Patrick the Apostle, the guardian of the holy light that burned beneath the oak-trees of Kildare! Over all Ireland and through the Hebridean Isles, she is renowned above any other. We think of her, moreover, not alone, but as the centre of a great company of cloistered maidens, the refuge and helper of the sinful and sorrowful, who found in the gospel that Patrick preached a message of consolation and deliverance. Let it be remembered that the shroud of Patrick is deemed to have been woven by Brigid's hand; that when she died, in 525, Columcille, the future apostle of Scotland, was a child of four. So she stands midmost of that trilogy of saints whose dust is said to rest in Down.”
Alice Milligan (from ‘Irish Heroines’)

Interior of Saint Brigid's Cathedral

When Saint Brigid was given leave to pursue her religious vocation she is said to have gone to Kildare to establish an Abbey where she reigned as its first Abbess. During the medieval period this abbey became hugely significant throughout Ireland and its Abbess wielded considerable political power. This power was retained right through to the time of the Flight of the Earls, when it is rumoured that the nuns of the abbey were raped as a potent symbol of the final breaking of the religious and political power of the Abbess. From this time on the famous flame of Brigid fell into cold ashes until more recent times.

The ancient High Cross in the cathedral grounds

I’ve already written a little of Saint Brigid in other places and I don’t want to repeat what I have already said.  Here, I would like to say more of her role in the establishment of the abbey in Kildare. Saint Brigid first enters Irish history as a disciple of Saint Patrick, acclaimed by Saint Fiech, also a disciple of Patrick. Fiech flourished around 520AD and is said to have written a life of Saint Brigid. This is now lost bar a few cursory fragments, but his somewhat astonishing hymn of praise to Saint Brigid – ‘Audite Virginis Laudes’ – still survives. The hymn is a list of miracles attributed to Saint Brigid listed in alphabetical order with each line composed of sixteen syllables. There is a longer and fuller version in the manuscript of Saint Magnus, but to my knowledge this has never been reprinted or translated. In any case even shortly after her death, Brigid was already being honoured as a Saint and was to prove an incredible inspiration for many Irish saints of the period, most notably Saint Brendan, Saint Ultan, Saint Erc, Saint Fiech and Saint Ninnicíus (her chaplain while she was alive). By the Middle Ages, Saint Brigid was one of the best known and greatest loved of all saints throughout all of Europe. She appears regularly in the Breviaries of the Middle Ages and continues to be mentioned (although with lessened materials and hymns attributed to her honour) up until the printing of the 1522 Venice Breviary and the 1622 Paris Breviary. Some of the Breviaries of the Middle Ages even contained an Office of Saint Brigid which was reproduced in the Kilmoon Breviary here in Ireland (only some very badly damaged fragments of this manuscript now survive, but a better copy is preserved in the Antiphonary of Clondalkin).  Brigid became so greatly honoured in Ireland that she became known as ‘Mary of the Gael’ and many of the stories of her life by the early medieval period begin to draw strong parallels between her and the Mother of God.

Chapel of the Reserved Sacrament on the parish of Saint Brigid

There has been a persistent rumour that Brigid took up her religious vocation at the very tender age of fourteen. To this day the people of Dundalk insist that the church at the top of Faughart Hill is part of the original foundation of Saint Brigid. It may be possible they are right, but records point to it being the dwelling place of a holy woman, who in all likelihood had a deep influence on Brigid. This woman is not considered to be a saint and there is some confusion as to her real name. She does appear to have been honoured in some way though, because a church was built on the site of what was supposed to be her home - possibly out of interest in her possible link to Saint Brigid. Kildare, however, remains the main site associated with Saint Brigid and her order of nuns. While abbess there she is described as being fearless, strong willed and politically astute. She held a deep concern for the poor and was particularly keen to care for the sick and ill – hence why so many of her wells are considered to be healing wells.

 The site of the well and the statue of Saint Brigid

It is now generally believed that in the period of early Christianity in Ireland, that the native Irish did not hold a common pagan pantheon of gods and goddesses, but rather that each area held its own beliefs and practices (this is also attested to in quite a number of the records of the early Irish saints); some having a complex order of gods and goddesses, while other areas practiced something akin to animism or elemental worship. It is in the area of Kildare and Athlone that Saint Brigid is said to have found a substantial area where two main systems of belief held great sway over the people. In Athlone, worship of the moon prevailed as the dominant form of belief (‘Ath’ meaning ford and ‘Luan’ meaning moon. Kildare means ‘place of the oak’). In Kildare, the properties of light and heat were honoured in the form of fire and a fire temple was said to have been kept alive by many worshippers. It was at the fire temple that Brigid is said to have established her community, using the site as a new focus for a better light to the people. This is an incident that demonstrates her political astuteness. Rather than condemn the people in their fire worship, she quietly turns it to her advantage and sustains a place of ancient reverence as a new Christian community and overlays it with a new symbolism to suit her mission. Saint Brigid is said to have kept this flame alive as a potent symbol of the light of Christ, but sadly the flame was to go out. The flame was snuffed out by a Norman Bishop and then again by Henry VIII - who was likely the last person to snuff it out. In 1993 the Brigidine Sisters (a new order of nuns that associates itself with the charism of Saint Brigid) symbolically re-lit the flame of Saint Brigid and plans were set in place to create an eternal flame in the heart of Kildare town. On 1st February in 2006 a well made bronze monument to house Saint Brigid’s flame was unveiled by President Mary McAleese, but the flame has since been replaced by a rather horrible plastic flame effect!

Saint Brigid's Holy Well

There are two significant churches in Kildare. The oldest church is Saint Brigid’s Cathedral and round tower, with the remains of a high cross and the fire temple in the grounds. The original foundation would have been a wooden structure, but the cathedral was built in stone between 1223 and 1230 and even by this stage it had been repeatedly ravaged. By 1500 it was in a semi ruinous state and left completely derelict in 1649. An attempt was made to partially rebuild it in 1686, but it wasn’t until 1875 that work began in earnest to make it a functioning and safe church to worship in once again. It’s an interesting building with many well preserved fine stone carvings. Tour guides will tell you that a Sheelagh-na-gig can be found on the Wellesley tomb in the cathedral – it’s a lie! Unfortunately it is a rather dull cherubic acrobat, unusual, but no Sheelagh-na-gig (if such things exist at all!)

Saint Brigid's Cathedral

The Roman Catholic parish of Saint Brigid has a modern interior, which works well in some aspects, but not in others. It does have some rather beautiful bronze doors with welcoming open hands as handles! However, even here it is somewhat disheartening to see a modern myth retold as if it were fact. Not so very long ago a ‘learned academic’ from TCD decided to make a pronouncement that Patrick likely never existed, that Brigid was really the pagan goddess Brigit and that neither had been properly canonized as Saints by the Roman Catholic church. As you can imagine it made a little flurry in the press.  There has been some confusion over Brigid’s name and its spelling, but this is not uncommon among Irish saints. She is referred to at times as Saint Bride by Saint Ninnicíus, as Saint Brigit by Cogitosus and Saint Ultan and mainly as Saint Brigid by all others. All names refer to the same person. The idea that there was ever a pagan goddess with the same name is highly unlikely and hugely speculative. There is a brief reference to a goddess with the name of Brí in Cath Maige Tuireadh, a twelfth century document and some try to cite references to her in ‘The Book of Invasions’ (Lebor Gabála Érenn), an eleventh century work. Both of these texts have been repeatedly cited as evidence for the existence of a pagan goddess by the name of Brigid, Bride or Bridgit. Maybe I’m too skeptical, but I’m really not convinced by this at all. None of Brigid’s contemporaries relate that her name bears a strange closeness to a pagan god, neither do any of her subsequent biographers – a fact that it would be very hard to believe would have escaped their notice.

The remains of the fire temple in the grounds of the cathedral

Saint Brigid’s well is actually a little way out of the town of Kildare towards the National Stud. Legend has it that Saint Brigid was in fact Abbess over the women’s abbey in Kildare and also had control and governance of the men’s monastery which was very close to the site of this well. Whatever the truth of the matter, by the ninth century the monastery has its own male Abbot and the well would have been important for both practical matters and religious ones to the adjoining monastery. Saint Brigid is said to have used the well to baptize converts.

The arch marking the point where the underground river surfaces

The well is in a somewhat unusual setting. It’s down a narrow road towards a modern house near the National Stud. Horses peer curiously at passing pilgrims. As you enter the area it is fenced off from the surrounding countryside with trees planted - some dedicated to the work of cross community groups and planted in hope, and others in memory of loved ones and planted in faith. The well is up at the far end of the enclosure; a circular and deep well, surmounted by a stone cross. Pilgrims traditionally say prayers at each of the tiny stone ‘stations’ leading up to the well (the stones are said to mark the course of the underground river).

 A collection of items left at the shrine during the pattern

The site is maintained by the Brigidine Sisters and they have done a terrific job. The statue of Saint Brigid by sculptor Annette McCormack dominates the site a little more than it should, but otherwise this is a fine area, peaceful and reflective. The stillness of the water in the well and the sound of the bubbling water below as it passes under the arch erected over two ancient stones makes for a rather beautiful place. A pattern is observed here every 1st February and many events take place in the churches and in the town of Kildare around this date. Events are usually posted on the towns website.

 A tree planted in hope

This well is supposed to have a little fish. Lady Gregory, co-founder with W. B. Yeats of the Abbey Theatre and renowned folklorist, records a story of a mother whose daughter began to loose weight just before she reached puberty. The child very quickly became seriously ill and her mother fretted greatly and prayed most fervently. She decided in desperation, that she would find somewhere a place that would bring healing to her daughter. She endeavoured to bring her ailing child to Saint Brigid’s well and as she prayed over the face of the wells waters she saw a little fish and knew in that instant that her prayers had been answered. The child took some of the waters and was healed.

 Rags tied to the tree above the well

The idea of a fish in a well as a sign of God’s presence or as a visitation of God is rather peculiar to Irish Christianity of that early period. Of course, the fish was the principle Christian symbol in the early period of Christianity - a much more dominant symbol than the cross, so it is hardly surprising that in early Irish Christian tales of the presence of God or of visitations from God that the visions are of fish and not of a cross. Later – although not much later it must be said – the cross becomes the dominant symbol of Christianity throughout Ireland and when saints have visitations of God it is sometimes accompanied by visions of a cross. Today at the well you will certainly see many crosses; perhaps if you are lucky you will see a little fish and enjoy the healing peace of this place.

The well waters

Brigit Bé Bithmaith

Bright, eternally good lady,
Golden sparkling flame,
May she lead us to the eternal kingdom,
The dazzling shining sun!

May Brigit deliver us
Past throngs of devils;
may she rout before us
the temptations of each attack.

The dear true virgin
Of immense honour,
I shall always be safe
With my saint from Leinster.

A portion of Saint Ultan’s ‘Hymn to Saint Brigit’, translated by Stokes & Strachan in 1901.

How to find it:
From the town head out past the Roman Catholic parish towards the National Stud, traversing the motorway. After passing the gates to the National Stud on your left, take the first turn to the right and the well is signposted to the left, down the lane.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Dublin’s Little Secret

The street sign that reveals the well's presence

Dublin has a well that has not been seen by many people for many decades. Nassau Street in Dublin city centre used to have a different name - the Street of Saint Patrick’s Well (Sráid Thobar Phádraig). Its Irish name still exists beneath the modern Nassau Street sign. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral claims that the well at which Saint Patrick baptized his new converts was in the grounds of the park beside the cathedral. This is opiate for the tourists. The well was, is and ever shall be on Nassau Street. It is a protected structure, hidden from view and locked up tight!

At the side entrance to Trinity College, the pillar on the left hand side as you face the entrance is situated over the present well house. The outer part of the well house has a modern concrete structure, probably dating to the 1950’s, but into the well house only a few steps and the red brick Georgian structure begins to reveal itself. The air becomes damp and the brick work looks crumbly. In the dark, at the bottom of a few steps is a long oval basin which is the well, and today it is full of water!

Saint Patrick's Holy Well

Saint Patrick’s Well at Trinity College dried up when Jonathon Swift was Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. He wrote a satirical poem about how the students, who were known for their drunkenness and revelry, had even drunk the well dry. For many years the well remained dry and soon it was forgotten, neglected, locked up and built on top of. It’s been locked up and hidden for quite some time now and very few people have seen it. A survey was carried out on the well in 2009 which revealed some structural concerns, but I don’t think there are any plans to conserve it and there are no plans to reopen it. So the primary baptismal site of Patrick’s first converts for the city of Dublin maintains its still and silent vigil, hidden from all view, its waters only moved by the vibration of traffic.

Today the well has water in it again, it is no longer dry, but Dublin’s most famous well - indeed, one of Ireland’s most famous holy wells remains closed to the public, hidden from view and its crumbling gate firmly locked. How long will they keep this a secret?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Our Lady’s Island, County Wexford

The statue at the Shrine of Our Lady looking out over the lake

This is a place that draws one again and again. It is beautiful, but not stunningly so. It is quiet, but not absolute solitude. It is peaceful; peaceful almost beyond compare at times but you never feel totally away from everything or everyone. I must begin by stating that I have never been to this place during the large and important pattern that takes place here at almost every Marian feast throughout the year. I have seen the preparations for it and watched as they practiced for concerts and shows as part of the festivities, but for some reason I felt it would spoil the magic of this place for me and so I haven’t ventured near it at these times.

 A boat rests on the shore

Our Lady’s Island is in County Wexford. It has been a place of pilgrimage for a very long time.  It was one of the pilgrimage sites that was permitted to flourish under the time of Pope Benedict from 1740 to 1753. Apart from Lough Derg, all other pilgrimage sites were suppressed, patterns were discouraged and many Irish saints began to become neglected and forgotten. Lough Derg was always the more popular site though and there was never actually a tradition of people staying on Our Lady’s Island in the way that they do at Lough Derg, so numbers naturally began to drop. In recent times though, this place has experienced something of a revival. In 1978 during the pilgrimage in August, over twenty thousand people turned up. Since then the pattern days and festival outdoor Eucharist’s have attracted thousands and many thousands visit the island year after year.

The sign at the start of the island walk

Our Lady’s island is a small island of around thirty or so acres attached to land by a man-made causeway.  The lake that the island sits in is just over two miles in length and one mile across. The area has associations with Saint Ibar, Saint Abban and Saint Vaugh. Saint Ibar established his monastery at Beg Erin island on the northern side of Wexford harbour, shortly before the arrival of Saint Patrick. The monastery had a somewhat hard time, eventually being attacked and destroyed by the Vikings in the ninth century. The ruins of a nearby church carries his name as its dedication, but nothing of the original foundation now survives.

The ruined church of Saint Abban

Quite a lot is known of Saint Abban because three accounts of his life survive; two latin versions are to be found in the Codex Dublinensis and the Codex Salmanticensis and an Irish version in a manuscript copied by a Micheál Ó Cléirigh (one of the scribes of the Annals of the Four Masters). Saint Ibar was said to be the maternal uncle of Saint Abban, who was of an illustrious Irish family line. His education consisted in being taught by other famous saints, but as to exactly who they were is up for debate, as those listed in the accounts of his lives differ on the detail and bring a question to the dates of the Saints birth and death. The saintly quality of Saint Abban was said to have been obvious even from the early time of his travels to Rome with his uncle and the tales of his life compare him to Christ in his command over the sea and over rivers. It’s possible that Saint Abban travelled a lot throughout his life as he is associated with quite a number of places throughout Ireland and Saint Gobnait is said to have been his sister and his remains are said to have been buried at her foundation. Saint Abban has two feast days, 16th March and 27th October , but he is thought to have been responsible for the foundation of the monastery on Our Lady’s Island.

 Swans on the lake

Saint Vaugh also has an association with the area, but all memory of the saint is now lost. Modern tales tell of a stone that managed to float and bring the body of the dead Saint Vaugh back to the church founded in their name in 585AD.  There is a slight problem though: the church at Carnsore Point is also associated with a Saint Vogue (aka Saint Veoc). The reality is that nobody is terribly sure if Saint Vogue is the same person as Saint Vaugh and to be honest it seems somewhat unlikely that a saint from Brittany would have a link to a remote part of Carnsore Point in County Wexford.  Saint Vogue or Saint Veoc on the other hand is listed in sanctorales and he is known for his great compassion, although tales appear to have been lost. The church at Carnsore Point is of very old foundation with a medieval structure built on top. It is very small and likely to be a shrine church for the burial of the body of the saint.  At this church there is supposed to be a holy well and also a peculiar carved cross in a Chinese style sitting on a lotus. I haven’t seen it myself, but it has made me curious enough to search for it twice with no success!

The roadside sign to the well

Many people think that the pilgrimage route begins at the car park at the top end of the island where the causeway is; but they are wrong! The pilgrimage begins a little way from the island itself. If you are travelling by car, the best thing to do is to park at the car park at the head of the island. From here, walk up the slight hill (with the lake to your right and the church to your left) until you come to a T-junction and at this point, turn right.Very close to this point is an old mass rock, now decorated with a shrine. When the mass was outlawed in Ireland, faithful Roman Catholics met in secret at this rock for the celebration of the Eucharist from 1660 to 1760. A silver chalice is kept in the Church of the Assumption that has the inscription ‘Not to be taken from the island.1731’ and was likely used at the mass rock. It is down this road that you will see a sign to the well that requires you to clamber over two walls and two fields.

The well enclosure

The holy well is now on a golf course and it overlooks the parish of the Assumption and the island. It is a small and shallow well with an unassuming statue of Our Lady watching over the waters. The well is surrounded by white washed walls on three sides and has a small gate at its entrance. Some people have left prayer requests tucked in behind the Virgin.  A small ditch carries the well water away towards an ancient standing stone. If you arrive at the right time you can say the angelus here at the start of your journey (the start of Mary’s journey too in a sense) while the bells play in the distance.

The holy well

Eternal Spirit of God breath on us that we may know quiet and contented minds and lay all our burdens on Christ; take from us all anxiety and disquiet and draw our hearts to the Father by the power of your love; lead us to the peace that passes all understanding, to the silence and the stillness that reveals you among us.

From the well (which is said to heal all manner of ailments), head back to the church and car park passing the farmland as you go. In this farmland a papal bulla was found by the Druhan family in 1941, while they were ploughing their fields. It was once attached to a document given by Pope Martin V (1417-1431) which granted an indulgence to anyone who frequented Our Lady’s Island. In 1607 Pope Paul V also granted indulgences for those who would visit the island during the feast of the Birth of Our Lady or the Assumption. A further grant of indulgences for visitors to the island was given in 1904 by Pope Pius X and the Papal Letter is preserved in the Parochial House.


As you approach the island there is a large sign inviting you to pause, be still and pray. It might seem like a curious suggestion to rest when you will be doing a lot of walking, but the island has a habit of drawing you into its atmosphere of going slowly, reflecting and pausing for silent prayer. The remains of a large tower lean rather precariously to one side, once erected to protect the island and possibly related to the protection of land under the care of Strongbow. A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary overlooks the scene as you move past the tower towards an area with black covered trays where you can light a candle and say a prayer before you begin to walk the island.

 An invitation to prayer

In behind this area is the remains of the foundation of Saint Abban. After Saint Abban’s foundation ceased the mantle was taken on by the Augustinians who had a long association with pilgrimage sites, but particularly with Our Lady’s Island and with Lough Derg. They remained on the site until Cromwell’s forces landed at Wexford in 1649. They burned the castle, pulled down the church, stole the communion vessels and murdered the monks. The same happened at Saint Ibar’s church. Legend tells of a young boy who was praying in Saint Ibar’s church at the time, realized what was happening and snatched the crucifix from above the tabernacle. Running from Cromwell’s men, he made a dash for the island but realized that the men had followed him and he was trapped. In desperation, still holding the crucifix, he started to enter the lake, but was shot and killed. This was thought to be a tall tale until in 1887 a boy by the name of Cogley who was fishing for eels off the end of Our Lady’s Island thought he saw an eel in the muddy shallows. Groping in the mud he felt something hard, and pulling it up from the water realized it was a crucifix. He brought it to Fr Thomas Roche, the then parish priest who had it repaired and restored in Dublin. The crucifix can still be seen today in the Church of the Assumption.

The start of the island walk

From here the pilgrim goes in between two large stones to begin the walk around the island. Traditionally pilgrims were expected to walk around the perimeter of the island in bare feet and in the water. Not only is it cold, but the stones are sharp in places and the mud, thick and deep in others. Today, most people walk on the grassy pathways. As an island pilgrimage it preserves the ancient Irish Christian tradition of doing penance. Sir Robert Southwell, secretary of the State for Ireland in the eighteenth century, recorded some observations at the time regarding the practice of the barefoot and wet-footed penitential pilgrim;
‘If any Lady, through indisposition, be loath to wett her feete, there are omen allowed to doe it for them, they being present and paying half-a-crown for a fee. And this penance is effectual enuffe.’

The Shrine of Our Lady

Along the path there are various spots to stop for a little while and pray, or to contemplate or simply enjoy the peace. On the lake the swans tend to gather in this area and on the far hills a group of wind turbines quietly gather their energy.

A place to pause and pray

As you approach the bottom end of the island you come to the most important area after the holy well. This is the Shrine of Lady’s Island, built in 1900. Originally it was surrounded by a low wall and enclosed with a small gate. The statue of Our Lady sat on top of an altar type structure, but today it has been restructured, and I don’t think its for the better. Now it looks merely like a whitewashed garden ornament. It has a place to sit, but it doesn’t really feel like a shrine anymore. Originally it was used as a point of procession, and at this point prayers and services were held before the procession back to the church.

The well on the island

From the shrine pilgrims would make their way back to the church. On the way there you can stop and light another candle and pause for prayer and also pay a visit to a more modern ‘holy well’. This ‘holy well’ is very modern and was most certainly not around in the early 1900’s. It is most likely formed from the run-off from the farmers fields on the flat top above. Signs around the well warn people not to risk drinking from it. It’s a curious well, with no connection to any of the saints associated with the area and so, unlike Our Lady’s Well, is unlikely to have been a baptismal site or a pilgrims starting point for pilgrimage or entry into the church or community. Oddly enough the 2010 state conservation plan identifies this as being the holy well and totally ignores Our Lady’s well as if it wasn’t there! Ultimately though, this well - like some others – is made ‘holy’ by tradition and through the many prayers of the faithful in this place.

The small wooded area

Not far on up from this point is a small wooded area with a seat and a large wooden cross. Even in winter this place is sheltered and amazingly peaceful. It marks a suitable end to a brisk, exposed walk where one can reflect and pray with ease.

Interior of the Church of the Assumption

From here it’s a short walk to the church of the Assumption. Originally the church carried a more simple dedication as the church of Saint Mary. I’m not sure when its dedication changed, but it may have taken place around the time of the addition of a statue of Christ the King to the front of the church, which I am told was around the 1930’s. Inside the church is a little gem. It’s a Gothic revival building designed by Pugin and Ashlin. Some of the original features have been preserved very well and the lighting globes down the church are the best preserved I think I have ever seen.

May our Blessed Lady pray for us. May Saint Ibar and Saint Abban pray for us. May all the saints of God pray for us. May the holy angels befriend us and watch around us to protect us, and may the Lord bless us this day and always.

The paths on the island's edge

If you wish to join others for a pilgrimage to Our Lady’s Island you can check out all the details on their website: www.ourladysisland.ie ,which has lots of information and even some suggested prayers for personal use when visiting the area and it will tell you how to find it.

Fields of gold

How to find it:
From Wexford follow the signs out the N25 for Rosslare until you reach Tagoat. Almost immediately after leaving Tagoat follow the signs for Our Lady’s Island on the right.