Brigid's Cross, courtesy fisheaters.com

Naomh Bhríde, St. Brigid (c. 453-523), also known as “The Patroness of Ireland” and “The Mary of the Gael”, has been credited with being a pioneer of early monastic life in Ireland. A contemporary of St. Patrick, St. Brigid, the daughter of an Irish Chieftain and his Pict slave, began her first convent with seven nuns, went on to set up and become the abbess of a double monastery, which housed both men and women, and eventually was even ordained Bishop. St. Brigid is surrounded by myth and mist, which is beautifully mixed with the folklore and rituals of the Celtic goddess, Brigid, her pagan predecessor. About where Brigid ends and St. Brigid begins, there has been much debate.

This scant bit of information was all I needed to be drawn to St. Brigid’s Cathedral in Kildare, County Kildare, Ireland. The fact that I had lived in Newbridge, County Kildare for several months before finally making it to the cathedral a few miles away, just goes to show how a person can get bogged down with day-to-day living, even while living abroad for one year with a long list of things to see! When we finally made it to Kildare and the cathedral, it was late on a cold, damp winter’s day. Though the gates were open with a bit more than an hour until closing, the cathedral was closed due to limited winter hours, so we had to satisfy ourselves with just touring the grounds. To tour the grounds of this particular cathedral is to wander, not only the place where St. Brigid’s original church and monastery once stood, but also to reach back into Ireland’s pagan past to the sacred site of the goddess Brigid, upon which St. Brigid is thought to have built her monastery.  Although a Norman Bishop in 1233 built the cathedral, which now stands on the site, the grounds contain the second tallest round tower in Ireland and the remains of the ancient oratory, “St. Brigid’s Fire House”. A sacred fire burned on this spot for centuries, probably going back to pre-Christian times when priestesses lit and tended fires for the goddess Brigid. When her monastery and church were built upon this site, St. Brigid, perhaps in keeping with the wise tactics of St. Patrick, adapted the local pagan practices into Christian ritual and continued the custom of a perpetual fire. This fire was kept burning throughout her life and through several centuries by the nuns who came after, up until the suppression of Ireland’s monasteries in the sixteenth century.

Due to the season, the cold, wet weather and the time of day, we had all these treasures of antiquity to ourselves as Declan, Kate and I walked around reading plaques, touching ancient, weathered stone and in general, attempted to sense a bit of the energy and vibes of this historically significant and sacred place. By the time we made our way around the cathedral there were about 15 minutes left until closing, and with dusk upon us and darkness approaching, that invisible energy we had looked for was beginning to feel a little too close for comfort and we were ready to leave and find a nice, warm tea shop. However, upon our return to the entry gate it was, not only closed –  but locked! The bars were wrapped in a thick, metal chain and secured tightly with a heavy lock, and there was not another person in site. At first, Kate, Declan and I walked calmly around the grounds, looking for another exit, which we were sure was available. When that proved fruitless, a little less calm, we began looking for a spot where one of us would be able to scale the wall and go for help. But we found that the Normans built their walls very well and with the height of the walls, followed by hedges and furze and a sharp decline beyond, none of the three of us felt up to the task of escaping this fortress. Back at the gate, we did what any person stuck in an abbey against their will would do, we called for help! The street leading to the gate was empty but as we were yelling a man happened to leave a nearby pub, and we were able to get his attention. Sure enough, he held up one finger telling us to wait, and went back into the pub where he retrieved the guard who was supposed to be on duty at the cathedral. The man came running with one of those big, old skeleton keys on a ring, and full of apologies. Apparently he had not seen us enter the gate and, considering the weather, had decided his time was better spent having a pint, than sitting in a damp old church awaiting visitors, so he closed up early and headed for the pub! Thank goodness the pub was close by, but then, aren’t they always close by?

A few months later we made it back to St. Brigid’s Cathedral when the tourist season was beginning to open things up a bit and we were able to get inside to tour the cathedral and walked the grounds again, pamphlet’s in hand and a bit more informed. We were even allowed to ring the church bell with its huge dangling rope, something 13-year-old Kate had a lot of fun doing! During this visit we learned that a strange hole passing through the stone at one outside corner of the cathedral, had its own piseog, or superstition, attached to it. The tradition is that a person places their arm through the hole far enough so that they can bend their elbow in order to touch their shoulder, and then they may make a wish! Here is a photo of me, on that windy day at St. Brigid’s Cathedral, making my wish. The bump in the photo is Eóin a few weeks before he was born. As any mother would guess, my wish was for an easy delivery of a healthy baby. Though we may never know the true origin of that hole in the stone wall, thankfully my wish came true!

Me, with Eóin aboard, making a wish!

Advertisements