Brighid Of Kildare
Mention Brighid and most people are familiar with Brighid of Kildare much more than Brighid, Bride or Brigeod the Goddess. Much is written about her in Kildare and there is an abundance of good information that is easy to find on the internet.
I was reluctant to to write up about Kildare within my series of Brighid and Imbolc due to the quantity of stunning information available.
Anyway, I have decided to include some of my thoughts and experiences which I hope you will enjoy and find interest in ...
from Goddesses to Saints
Around Erin there are endless stories about the Milesians, other tribes, and sometimes folks call them "Celts" that came to Ireland, maybe somewhere around 600 BC to 400 BC and they brought with them a faith of gods and goddesses who interacted with the people.
Their spirituality, myth and hero stories are well told but not well documented. It seems the majority of scholarly research work comes from Roman writers who had the Greek Keltoi word in their language that has since become Celts.
With Ireland that presents a challenge as Romans do not seem to have visited Ireland much except for maybe a few traders on the east coast and a few missionaries that slipped in, like St. Patrick.
Their accounts do not seem to have related directly to Ireland, but irish storytellers have adapted them to be their own here, especially tales of the Druids.
It is thought that the early monastic community founders, with a lot of Saxon influence in them, were keen to merge the practices of the old ways, that some today call Celtic, with the new Christian gospel stories and teachings, along with the Psalms too.
The new "Christian" scribes of the time seem to be keen to preserve the oral tradition of the time through scribing and archiving. However, so that these traditions did not dominate their new Christian faith and its one god, it seems the gods and goddesses of the old ways were reduced to being told of in a fairy realm. Their fairy spirits, though, remained greater in order than than humans. ,
The scribes even included stories of older myth races from around 1200 BC, especially of Tuatha de Danann and their transformation into the Sidhe, a kind of otherworld fairy land. The stories were written down such as The Children of Lir, The Tain, Dearmuid and Grainne and more.
Through these scribed stories, placing old faiths into a kind of fairyland, the deities still lived on. The people of Erin would not let go of them. Eventually the gods and goddesses, who were scribed into fairies, then transformed again within Christian tradition to become local saints. Abbots and Abbesses of monastic cilles took on the names of these deities to attract people to their ways.
Most of these names did not work on influencing the people though, but Brigid was one that did, and became St. Brigid.
Birth and Early Years
There seems to be a fairly standard story that tells of Brighid being born in AD 450 in Faughart, near Dundalk in Co. Louth. Her father, Dubhthach is told of as being a pagan chieftain of Leinster and her mother, Broicsech, some spell Brocessa, a slave.
The first written record of Brigid is found in "The Life Of Brigid" a tract that was written about 650 AD by a monk of Kildare called Cogitosus. He did not write a biography about Brigid but a fragmented series of little stories about her. This was all written over 100 years since her death. What I share here is information shared by Cogitosus along with other stories told.
It is from The Life Of Brigid and the much later Annals of Kildare we have learned that Brigid's father Dubhthach may not have been a chieftain, as told in other stories, but descendant of an Irish High King, Conn CÃ©tchathach, "Conn of the Hundred Battles". Dubhthach was a fairly wealthy tax paying man, though. It is said he came from a townland place now called Umeras, which is west of Clonmoyle West, west of the Monasterevin to Rathangan road in Co. Kildare.
We learn that Brocessa was a slave woman Dubhthach bought and seduced and from this conception she gave birth to Brigid's.
Brocessa was of a family clan that has become the O'Connors today. It is said that her family were from what is now around Lough Gara in Co. Sligo, a place that Brigid is said to have returned to for awhile in her teens, staying with an aunt or grandmother, before taking the veil.
Before Brigid was born, Dubhthach is said to have sold Brocessa to a druid in Faughart, Co. Louth. That is how Brigid was born in Faughart and named Brigid there, possibly inspired by the druid and his stories of Brigid the Goddess.
The date of Brigid's birth is disputed but is commonly thought to be between 451 and 458 with the favourite being 453.
The actual date is more disputed, February 1st, as the Roman Gregorian calendar we use today was not the calendar of that time. It would make sense if Brigid was born very close to Imbolc, though.
Brigid's birth and story is greatly altered in the later 9th century Bethu Brigte that has been through many translations since. In this version Dubhthach remains her father and is with her at birth and through childhood.
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journey to Cill Dara
At around 14 years old one story tells of Brigid, now living beside Louch Techet, now Lough Gara, in Co. Sligo, helping and being taught by St. Attracta at a place called Cille Racht.
There she befriended seven other young girls all atracted to the same new faith and they travelled to a place called Croghan Hill just in Offaly, over the Westmeath border, near Kinnegad. There they learned within the school of St Maccaille.
It is also said that Brigid opened her first convent here at Croghan Hill as facilities were not ideal for women, and attract women, who wished to enter priesthood. This was some years before she founded Cille Dara. The Croghan Hill convent was said to be very popular.
After the success of Croghan Hill, Brigid and her seven companions travelled Ardagh, near Longford, and settled there to form another convent where they stayed fr 12 years. From Ardagh it is said Brigid sent sisters around Erin to start additional convents.
Then came the legend of Brigid taking 19 sisters around Erin to find the ultimate Cille for their centre of light. Brigid became attracted to some land called Druim Criadh, a ridge of clay, and on the ridge was a circle of oaks. It was here that she settled for form Cille Dara, Kildare.
the founding of Cille Dara
When we talk of Brighid, saint, teacher or goddess, we quickly enter into language of trinities. For example, an opening sentence, when people talk about Brighid, usually says something like "Brighid was the patron of smithcraft, healing and poetry". Why, especially how they are linked, I will attempt to explain later, and much more in my other features about Brighid the Goddess.
At around 30 years old, Brigid is said to have arrived at Drum Criadh with 19 devotees, declaring this to be their perfect sacred place. They settled within an oak circle where they first built a hearth with a flame that would never go out. This place became know as the sacred place of the oaks, Cille Dara, Kildare.
Drum Criadh, now Cill Dara, quickly became a sanctuary and school for girls from all over Erin and from overseas who came to study and learn from the teachings of Brigid.
At this place it is said Brigid founded a double monastery, one for nuns and and one for monks. Within these she founded schools for metal work and healing and for some reason the school of scribing and poetry was exclusive for the training and learning of monks under St. Conleth and later St. Ultan too. Brigid and Conleth are said to have worked very well together for many years. Under St. Ultan, in the scriptorium of the monks, the famous legendary illuminated manuscript the Book of Kildare was eventually created.
Old records tell of the original church or abbey as being a 'dairthech', a church built from oak. Whether this is from the circle of oaks that Brigid found on arrival, we do not know. The Annals of Kildare mention this oak church still existing in 836 as there is an entry mentioning the abbot of Armagh being refused entry.
The Annals also mention a major renovation and rebuild, still with oak, in 868 and mentioned again in 964 with extension completion.
During the time of this major extension its seems the stone round tower was also built to the North West of it, and this was made from granite.
This final version of the oak wood Abbey, now Cathedral, was pulled down in 1020 and replaced with a stone 'teampall' that was built by 1067. At the same time the round tower was made tallerto become the second highest round tower in Ireland. For this tower extension limestone was used.
Sadly in 1220 Henry de Londres, then archbishop of Dublin, raided Kildare monastery, seized the Book of Kildare that has never been since. The reason for the raid is said to be due to its competition in status to the Columcille inspired Book Of Kells. Some say this raid on Kildare and seizure of the book marked the full arrival of patriachal led faith in the Christian, and maybe other church doctrines too.
Oaks, Hearths and Midwifery
Why was a circle of oaks important?
The origin of Brighid's name is our main clue. It seems the oldest of her variations of her names is "brideog", pronounced "breej".
A further breakdown of her name translates out as "fiery arrow". There was no ancient word for lightning so flashes of lightning was called "fiery arrows".
Which tree is struck by lightning most often?
For interest, the Holly is the second most likely as it often grows close to the oak and often prevents the oak being damaged from lightning as the thorns of its leaves are good conductors.
Flames in a hearth come from fire A sacred gifted source is fire from a lightning strike so fire may often have come from an oak tree
It may be why Brighid settled in what is now Kildare after the nuns/pilgrims witnessed a lightning strike that fires up and lit an oak.
I cover much, much more about this within my features on my Brighid the Goddess article.
Fire and womb connections in mythology are widespread and a fire will not burn unless a good log is placed on it. Use your imagination to take that myth further:-)
Even saint brighid is associated with all new life, not just human and animal life, but life of all that sprouts from the earth, hence why Brighid is a saint and patron of Spring.
And There's Always Cattle.
Whether we refer to Celtic or Christian legends Brigid is always connected to cattle and milk. When St. Brigid became abbess of Kildare her miracle was the ability to feed the poor with abundance. Stories tell of how Brigid's presence rapidly increased the milk and butter yield of the abbey cows. Some stories take this further and tell of her cows producing a whole lake of milk three times a day and filling hundreds of baskets with butter.
The Celtic stories of Brigid seem to reach back into what some call the "Age of Taurus" where the bull and cattle is symbolic in many ways, from the origins of the farming culture, as currency and as a symbol of goddess blessings.
When the first abbess of Kildare, the one they eventually called Saint Brigid, died it is said that her skull was kept at Kildare. Pre-Christian customs revered the head as sacred, a relic of the Age Of Aries, perhas, that followed the Age Of Taurus. The Aries Age flowed into the Age Of Pisces, a time that Christianity and other major religions were born and the Piscean fish's head was worn by bishops.
When Norman soldiers ransacked Kildare, due to orders from the Bishop of Dublin in 1220, it is said some Norman soldiers stole Brigid's head from the abbey and sold in Portugal where it played a role in a Spring Cattle Ceremony. Even this roundabout trade found her in a place to be symbolic of cattle.
the passing of Brigid
St Brigid's death is said to be somewhere between 521 and 528, indicating she lived well into her 70s.
Her date of passing is also said to be February 1st, which again does not make sense due to that time not using the Gregorian calendar we use today.
Brigid's monastic partner Conleth passed away a few years earlier in 519 AD after being mauled by a wild animal.
As I mentioned above, the first Life of St Brigid was written not much later than 650, well over 100 years after her death.
The Annals of Kildare record that in the year 836 the Danes destroyed the town of Kildare, plundered the abbey and carried off the shrines of St Brigid and St Conleth.
Another story tells of the remains of St. Brigid being moved the year before for safe keeping in Down. With a couple of year the Danes were also attacking Down. Some say Brigid's remains were then taken to a secret location.
In 1185 St. Malachym bishop of Down, was told of this secret location and moved Brigid's remains back to Down Cathedral.
Through orders in the reign of Henry VIII her shrine was ransacked and remains scattered, but somehow Brigid's head reached and still rests in Portugal, in Lumiar, near Lisbon. Farmers around there still regard St Brigid as their special patroness.
During the life of Brigid, there were 20 fire keepers, including herself.
After her passing the fire keepers remained as 19 women.
Each of the nineteen nuns took their turns at night and on the twentieth night the nineteenth nun puts the logs on the fire and the spirit of St Brigid would miraculously tends the fire through the night, so that it would never goes out.
For about the first 700 years of the fire it is said that the ashes had never had to be cleaned out and they never increased. Then Henry of London, the Norman arch-bishop of Dublin, ordered the Kildare fire to be extinguished as he considered the tending of it to be un-Christian. Every time it was extinguished, the local re-lit it.
After a few weeks this order was scrapped and the fire remained alight and until a more permanent extinguishing during the Reformation. around 1560.
Brigidine Sisters arrived back in Kildare in 1993 and re-kindled the Brigid Flame, the Perpetual Flame, in the Market Square, Kildare, firs lit again by by Mary Teresa Cullen, the leader of the Brigidine Sisters then. Since then, the Brigidine Sisters in Kildare have tended the flame in their Centre, Solas Bhride.