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.

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