Legend tells us that St Brigid was born near Kildare to a slave mother who was a Christian and very sickly. As a child, Brigid persuaded the Druid master to free her mother which in turn freed Brigid to enter religious life.
Kildare is one of the stops on the Thin Places Mystical Tour of Ireland – Castles, Saints & Druids in September 2014.
Since there were no convents in Ireland, Brigid began one in Kildare. The sisters of St. Brigid prayed simply and deeply and served the poor. We know that Brigid was a contemporary of St. Patrick and a strong legend states that she was ordained a bishop because of her superior knowledge and closeness to God.
Another legend is associated with the goddess or holy woman, called Brigid dating back to pre-Christian times in this region. Stories of the two women have been woven and spun into legends and tales that all point to a holy woman, who drew followers to this site and performed rituals that were associated with healing, protection, comfort and help for the poor. The town of Kildare grew up around the community that this woman – Brigid – founded.
Kildare translated means “cell” or church of the oak. Oaks were known to be sacred trees in pre-Christian Ireland which gives weight to the pagan or goddess tradition of Brigid. But it is believed that a Christian woman named Brigid founded a community here around 480 AD, that she was a contemporary of St. Patrick and was recognized for great spiritual wisdom. There are legends that she was ordained a bishop in the church due to her wisdom.
Brigid is now one of Ireland’s patron saints, and is often linked in patronage to farmers and poor pastoral workers – the common citizen, the oppressed Irish tenant farmer of past centuries. It is possible – some say likely – that St. Brigid located her religious community on the spot where the Kildare Cathedral is now situated. 13th century buildings now occupy the spot along with the second tallest round tower in Ireland and an oratory and fire pit which likely date back to pagan times. Legend states that St. Brigid kept an flame burning in the fire pit continually as a devotion to the Holy Spirit. The perpetual flame is still cared for today by the Brigidine sisters who live nearby. For centuries this cathedral site has been a draw for pilgrims – a holy place, a place of spiritual strength.
Nearby is St. Brigid’s Holy Well, and the thinness of this place is palpable. This is actually a secondary well, springing from a known ancient holy well a short distance away. Volunteers and benefactors have created a beautiful setting around St. Brigid’s Holy Well also known as Tobar Bride. A bronze statue of St. Brigid lifting the eternal flame has been added in recent years. Stone prayer stations lead from the well to a running spring.
Wells were considered holy by the pre-Christian Irish being that they sprung from the “underworld” or the womb of the earth. That tradition of holiness exists today. Water from holy wells is believed to have special power for healing and spiritual protection.
“A holy well is very special. To watch water springing from the earth is to witness creation in the act of pure, unconditional generosity. At a holy well, my own interior holy well has an opportunity to make itself known to me.” – Gay Barbizon, Brigid’s Kildare; The Fire, the Well and the Oak.
Upon entering Tobar Bride, the pilgrim can see a small devotional shrine where donations are publicly accepted and welcomed. The old pagan tradition encourages the pilgrim to leave an offering when taking water from the well.
Pilgrims are encouraged to say prayers at each of the seven stations at Tobar Bride. Just past the small devotional shrine is the spring marked by a stone arch. This is the first station. Water flows through two oval shaped stones. Some say these stones symbolize the breasts of the earth – our mother. The bronze statue of St. Brigid is near to the arch.
Past the arch are five standing stones or “stations” that represent a part of Brigid’s nature. Pilgrims pause and recognize these qualities and perhaps pray for the same graces to develop in their own lives.
First stone – Brigid the woman of Ireland, the patroness, the protector of a beloved country.
Second stone – Brigid the peacemaker, healing division, bringing forward unity.
Third stone – Brigid the friend of the poor, advocate of the marginalized, speaker for they that have no voice.
Fourth stone – Brigid the hearthwoman, keeping the home flame burning, welcoming all, woman of hospitality.
Fifth stone – Brigid the woman of contemplation, which leads to wisdom and closeness with the Creator.
The holy well behind the five standing stones marks the 7th station. It is here that one can pause and reflect, pray for a loved one, and draw water – perhaps to take to a loved one who is ill or to bless a home.
It is traditional belief that a person taking something from (holy water) from a devotional site should leave something behind. Notice the tree behind the well. Dangling from its branches are stips of cloth and other tokens – also known as “clooties” – that have been left behind by pilgrims. The cloth may have been touched to the person for whom the pilgrim is praying. Sometimes pilgrims leave photos or personal belongings behind – things that have touched the person they are praying for. This tree had a baby’s shoe dangling from a branch.
The pastoral setting of this park-like devotional space is near the Curragh – or places where the thoroughbred race horses – famous in Kildare – run and are kept. It is almost impossible not to be moved when entering this space.
This is a very Thin Place.