Here in Ireland Saint Brigid is one of our much loved patron saints, in fact we on February 6th we have a public holiday in her honour. Today I will bring you on a visit to the town of Kildare and visit the cathedral and holy well dedicated to St. Brigid.
Saint Brigid lived between 451 and 525 and founded several monasteries of nuns, including that of Kildare in Ireland. Her feast day is 1 February, which was originally a pagan festival called Imbolc, marking the beginning of spring and there are many legends and folk customs associated with her.
As we walk towards the cathedral, let me tell you a little about its history. It is said that in the year 480 Saint Brigid arrived in Kildare with her nuns. Her original abbey church may have been a simple wooden building. Soon after her death in 523 A.D. a shrine was erected in her honour in a new and larger building. Between the years 835 and 998 the cathedral was devastated approximately 16 times and between then and 1230 it was largely rebuilt and a complete restoration of the building was undertaken during the 19th century.
In the grounds there are the remains of a high cross, the ancient church, many interesting graves, vaults and a round tower. I spotted a St. Brigid’s cross in the ancient church so let me tell you a little about this iconic symbol.
The story goes that St. Brigid designed the cross under interesting circumstances. She was visiting an old pagan chieftain who was enduring his last moments on his deathbed. The servants had called upon Brigid to soothe and calm him. She sat beside him, talking to him while picking up rushes from the floor (a common material of Irish homes back then) and then weaving them by hand into a cross. The chieftain noticed the cross and asked her about the it. As she weaved, she explained what the cross meant and it captivated him so much that he willingly converted to Christianity and got baptized right before he died.
The meaning behind St. Brigid’s Cross is multi-layered. While it’s primarily an Irish Christian symbol, it might have its roots in the pagan sunwheel, which was meant to bless the earth with fertility and life. The centrepiece also recalls the movement of the stars as the year passes. However, the main purpose of St. Brigid’s Cross is to protect a house and drive evil, fire, and hunger away. It can also represent peace and goodwill, and it was even placed in cowsheds to safeguard animals and help cows to produce more milk.
Ideally, the cross should be displayed on a visible place. The traditional placement was on the inside of a thatched roof, above the front door, but in modern times, you can simply hang it on the inside of your front door or over the doorway.
Look around in old houses and cottages and you might find darkened crosses covered with dust and cobwebs. Traditionally it is common to sprinkle the cross with holy water. You can recite this prayer afterwards:
“May the blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost be on this Cross and on the place where it hangs and on everyone who looks on it.”
I think it’s amazing to stand at the very place where this iconic cross was created and all around the town we can see images of this Christian symbol.
Round the corner and down a narrow lane is St Brigid’s holy well. Located in a tidy park the site still has an aura of ancientness and is a very spiritual place. The well is fed by a spring that flows underground before appearing again under a stone archway. The stones below the archway are known as St Brigid’s slippers. we can see there is a carved St Brigid’s cross on the archway .
The stream then flows past a modern bronze statue of Saint Brigid. Can you see the rag tree near the well displayed many clothes and scraps of fabric. Usually the rags are placed there by people who believe that if a piece of clothing from someone who is ill, or has a problem of any kind, is hung from the tree, the problem or illness will disappear as the rag rots away. Tradition has it that pilgrims traditionally say prayers at each of the tiny stone ‘stations’ leading up to the well and of course take a sip of the spring water.
Closer to Saint Brigid’s feast day let’s visit her birthplace and chat some more about one of my favourite Saints. We have taken inspiration from her infamous cross to craft a St Brigid’s cross using our gemstone Connemara Marble and Irish sterling silver. You can take a closer look over on my website at www.connemaramarble.com
Until next time, Sláinte, Stephen.
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