Photo: Steve O’Connor
‘She truly believed that if she brewed one more beer, it would solve the world’s problems…’
When publican and brewer Judith Boyle, whose family has been in pubs and beer for five generations, utters these words in her eponymous bar in the commuter town of Kildare (a 30-minute train ride from Dublin), you’d be forgiven for thinking she was talking about a relative who made beer. But in fact she is referring to St. Brigid, a woman who, I learned, is the patron saint of beer (among other things).
“They say she turned dirty water into beer and managed to share one pot of beer with her entire parish of eighteen churches,” says Judith, as I enjoy her new batch of Brigid Ale – a malty brag made sweet with the honey from her beekeeper father’s beehives. “Every year in January we make Brigid’s cross, and on February 1 the children in the city get a day off.”
This year it’s not just Kildare schoolchildren who will get the day off. In 2023, the Irish government decided to add a new public holiday to the national calendar and after much campaigning, Brigid’s public holiday was chosen.
The legend of Brigid begins in the year 451, but here in Kildare starts at the Heritage Center with a virtual reality adventure – stop at one of five on the St. Brigid’s Trail. I go there the next morning and put on a VR headset to meet Brigid, the pagan goddess of fire, and soon find myself flying through 1,500 years of history on the wing of a peregrine falcon.
“Brigid is a very old name,” says my real-life guide and center manager Tom McCutcheon. “It goes back to the Celtic mother goddess Danu. Before Christianity, people worshiped deities and goddesses, and here Brigid was one of them.”
It’s the end of January and despite the cooler weather and dark nights, Kildare is bustling with activity. That’s because February 1 marks the 1,500th anniversary of St. Brigid’s death. This is celebrated with two weeks of festivities in the city, from fire and light shows to guided meditative walks, craft workshops, music concerts and storytelling for children.
After meeting the goddess, I am introduced (via VR technology) to Brigid the farmer – daughter of a slave and a free man of good standing – who is busy milking cows and giving away her father’s sword to a homeless family so they can sell it. it to buy food. Then she transforms seamlessly into the saint whose name adorns the nearby cathedral and church a few minutes’ walk away.
“The Irish name for Kildare is Cill Dara – church of the oak,” says Tom. “The cathedral stands where St. Brigid built her first monastery.”
It is said that a rectangular stone enclosure marks the spot where the goddess lit her flame
I wander into the grounds of the cathedral – currently open only for Sunday Mass and special events – where a huge stone building towers above all the other structures in the city. Tradition has it that Brigid came here in AD 480 and made her monastery a co-ed, teaching both men and women.
Christian iconography also includes an ancient, weathered Celtic cross, and a rectangular stone enclosure said to mark the spot where the Celtic goddess lit her flame, which nuns tended for centuries.
The flame no longer burns here – it is thought to have been extinguished in the 16th century during the Reformation – but on the southern edge of the city, in the spiritual center known as Solas Bhride, the last two Brigidine sisters guard a reignited version. Despite the overt Christian bond with the nuns, the division remains here. Their program includes both church and secular events – from meditation sessions to historical lectures. And the nuns tell me that they follow both the liturgical and natural calendars.
“We mark the rhythm of the year,” says Sister Phil O’Shea as we sit before the flickering lights. “Both the equinoxes and the solstices, but also the Advent, Easter and Christian festivals.”
I like the idea of locking myself away as a hermit here, but it looks like I’m not alone
I participate in a cross-weaving workshop with Phil, where I learn that while a cross represents the crucifix, the four arms also symbolize the seasons and the elements. ‘Some people only see Brigid as a goddess. Some see Brigid the Saint as an embodiment of the goddess. Each generation will reinvent the legend in its own way,” says Phil.
The center offers three self-contained, circular hermitages where people (of all and no faith) can stay – without TV or WiFi – for quiet reflection. I like the idea of locking myself away as a hermit here, but it seems I’m not the only one as they are all fully booked. So I head back to Kildare, to my saner hermit in the form of Rooms at Firecastle (doubles from €130 B&B). Mine has a king-size bed, a rain shower and a large window with a view of the cathedral.
The next day I visit the last two sites on Brigid’s Trail, including her sacred spring, where woven Brigid crosses and rosary beads hang from church-like lancet arches, next to a pagan ‘clootie tree’ covered in ribbons, in honor of the goddess. I also visit her eponymous parish church, where worshipers sing a prayer in Irish as a gospel choir rehearses for the Brigid celebration on February 1 (also the date of Imbolc in the pre-Christian calendar, marking the start of spring).
In between locations, I chat with locals at the Hartes gastropub (which serves sustainable, traceable and seasonal meat and produce) and learn the legend of how Kildare came to be. Apparently the King of Leinster – a stingy fellow – when asked by Brigid if she could establish her monastery on the hilltop, said she could only claim the land she could fit under her mantle. She agreed and cast her cloak to cover the entire town and surrounding rolling grassland known as The Curragh or, locally, Brigid’s Pastures.
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On my last morning I visit the 2,000 hectares she has managed to acquire. There are no walking trails, although Sister Phil says they are working to create one that connects “all corners of Brigid’s mantle.” Anyway, I wander around, making my own way over the undulating ground. After half an hour I find myself in a rectangle of deciduous trees, a shelter of an old fox, and come face to face with an oak peace post placed here by the Friends of St. Brigid, Cairde Bhride.
After a long weekend in Kildare I am more fascinated by Brigid than ever. A goddess, saint and woman who stood for helping others, empowering women, taking care of the environment and – very importantly – making enough beer for everyone.
The trip was arranged by Fáilte Ireland. Kildare is a 45-minute drive or 30-minute train ride from Dublin, which can be reached by train and Irish Ferries from Holyhead and Pembrokefrom £43.20 each way