It’s been a long, long time since I explored the wealth of culture and ruins on display in Kildare town. So to start of a number of articles allow me to take you to the busy market square in the middle of Kildare town where despite the heavy traffic and busy streets there stands a rather solemn statue of St Brigid. In many of the early posts on this blog you would have read about this early Christian saint whom shares much in common with her namesake, the Gaelic deity Brigid. Sometimes it’s quite hard to tell where one story ends and the other continues when dealing with Brigid. As we all know the early Christian church in Ireland was quite unusual in the fact that it had to assimilate much of the ancient Gaelic beliefs into its own teachings in order to convert the population to the new religion.
Although the statue commemorates the Christian Brigid, I would like to share with you a little history of both the Gaelic and Christian Brigid’s as they both have a Matriarchal role in Irish history. According to Lebor Gabála Érenn, Brigid was said to have been the daughter of the Dagda and one of the Tuatha Dé Danann. She was the wife of Bres one of the Fomorians, with whom she had a son, Ruadán. As with many ancient Irish deities she was known to have had a triple aspect, three sides to the one coin, so to speak. These three aspects or skills which see possessed were healing, poetry and smith craft. It was said that she possessed two oxen, Fe & Men, their grazing pastures where named after them, Femen. Being a daughter of Dagda she was the half-sister of some other Dé Danann’s. Notably, Cermait, Aengus, Midir and Bodb Derg. In the second Cath Maige Tuireadh or battle of Maige Tuireadh (Plain of the Pillars), the De Danann defeated the Fomorian’s. Brigid was said to have invented keening, a combination of weeping and singing, while mourning for her son Ruadán, after he is slain while fighting for the Fomorians. This story is very interesting in that although Brigid was of the De Danann, her husband Bres, was essentially a half breed, His parents were Elatha of the Fomorians and Eriu of the De Danann. After the first battle of Maige Tuireadh in which the De Danann defeated the nasty Fir Bolg and took possession of Ireland, their King, Nuada lost his right hand in battle. Being incomplete he was no longer suitable to be king under De Danann law and so Brigid’s husband Bres became King for a while. Bres favoured his Fomorian kin and subdued the De Danann. He made the Tuatha Dé Danann pay tribute to the Fomorians and work as slaves. Eventually Nuada had a hand made of silver which was transformed into flesh and blood by the De Danann druids. And so the second battle of Maige Tuireadh became an uprising by the De Danann against the oppressive Fomorians and Nuada was restored as the rightful king. In the early Christian period, nineteen nuns at Kildare tended a perpetual flame for the Saint, which is widely believed to be a continuation of a pre-Christian practice of women tending a flame for the De Danann Brigit. She is also connected to the ancient feast of Imbolc.
Saint Brigit of Kildare was born in the year 451 AD, in Faughart, near present day Dundalk, County Louth. She was an early Christian Nun whom became one of Irelands best known saints. The majority of Sacred wells, be they pre Christian or Christian are named after her, with two of these both in Kildare and within easy walking distance of each other. She went on to become abbess, and founder of several monasteries of nuns, including that of Cill Dara, (Church of the Oak) which is modern day Kildare. Her feast day is 1 February, which was formerly celebrated as a pagan festival (Imbolc) marking the beginning of spring and the lambing season. Her mother was said to have been Brocca, a Christian Pict slave whom had been baptised by Saint Patrick. Her father was believed to have been Dubhthach, a chieftain of Leinster. As the story goes Dubthach’s wife forced him to sell Brocca to a druid when she became pregnant. Brigid herself was born into slavery. Said to have been ordained by St. Mac Caill or St. Mél of Ardagh. I could go on for an eternity retelling the many tales associated with Brigid, but one of the more popular stories concerns how she came into possession of the lands in Kildare on which she established her convent. The story goes that initially Brigid was refused land by the then king of Leinster. After praying she once returned and asked the king for lands but this time she asked for whatever land her cloak would cover. The king agreed to her terms and when Brigid laid down her cloak it covered much of Kildare. How true this may be is open to debate, but it sure is a damn good story. To this day Brigid in whatever guise you tend to follow, is still strongly associated with Kildare and I have come across numerous Holy Wells named after her, some are older than others and may well have been associated with the older deity. The St. Brigid’s Flame monument which is only a few feet away from the statue of St. Brigid was unveiled by President Mary McAleese on St. Brigid’s Day, 1st February, 2006 at the Market Square Kildare.