February 1 is St Brigid’s Day in Ireland, the day when we celebrate one of our three national saints. St Brigid was some woman for one woman. So much has been written about her and her life that each time I read something I learn something new. I wanted to go somewhere to celebrate this year. To pay my respects to this woman who has set the standard for Irish women everywhere. Did you know she was a master brewer? She was smart, clever, and feisty. She was helpful, sincere, and considerate. I’d have liked to have spent some time with her.
There are many holy wells around the country. I’m quite partial to Fr Moore’s. But on this day, I wanted to find St Brigid, a saint most associated with Kildare, the county of which she is the patron saint.
The well itself is fed from an underwater stream. Beside it, there’s a prayer tree where people hang ribbons and cloths, physical manifestations of the prayers they’re saying for those who are ill or in trouble. St Brigid is the patron saint of many, including but not limited to babies, blacksmiths, and brewers; cattle, chicken farmers, and children whose parents are not married. She’s also the patron saint of Florida and fugitives; infants and Ireland; mariners and midwives; nuns, poets, and the poor. We can also add printing presses, sailors, scholars, and travellers.
There’s a series of prayer stones, each one marked by a St Brigid’s cross, whether lit always or just on the day that’s in it, I’m not sure. It was muddy though. They’re having problems with the drainage, which is a shame; when they get that sorted, it will be really lovely.
The stones mark the path of the underwater stream which breaks ground at St Brigid’s slippers.
On the right is a grotto, its niches home to the reed crosses made around this time each year, blessed, and displayed in homes to protect the house and drive away evil, fire, and hunger. Given the saint’s penchant for cows, they can be found in cowsheds too, to keep the cows safe and help them produce more milk.
It’s a lovely set-up. The candles, made locally, were lit on the eve of St Brigid and burned through the night. Back when we were social, processions would take place to the well, a pilgrimage of sorts. And with a new light shining on St Brigid these days, perhaps the tradition will be revived.
That Brigid is depicted carrying a crozier shows she was indeed a woman before her time – or before our times. She was bishop of a mixed-sex monastery back in the day. Hard to believe, given the makeup of today’s church. She’s said to have deliberately disfigured herself to get out of a marriage and there’s a whole debate raging as to whether her constant companion, a nun, was more than just that. A companion. Around 1500 years after her, the woman is still the subject of heated conversation.
If you’re in Kildare and visiting the National Stud and the Japanese Gardens, it’s worth swinging by to catch this ancient part of Irish spirituality. The modern facelift aside, it still has that sense of timeless holiness and sanctity.