Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Oak of Kildare

A third piece of evidence some cite for pagan survivals at Kildare is its great oak tree, first encountered in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century when it was added to Brigit’s Vita I by the redactor identified by Richard Sharpe as ‘D’ as he wrote out what was to become the Vita IV. The tree is not mentioned in any earlier source, but appears to have really existed in D’s day, for he saw it as explaining the origin of the name of Kildare, ‘Cell Dara’:

Vita IV, book 2, ch. 3: ‘For there was a very tall oak tree there which Brigit loved very much, and blessed, of which the trunk still remains. No one dares cut it with a weapon, but whoever can break off a part of it with his hands deems it a great advantage, hoping for the help of God by its means; because through St Brigit’s blessing many miracles have been performed by that wood.’

For nineteenth century scholars.. the implication of the oak tree, the druidic cult, and the Kildare legend was obvious. Kildare was built in a druidic oak grove and the great tree was venerated even in Christian times. This assertion, resting on this same constellation of evidence, is found in the late twentieth century, too, though not in academic writing. [in the work by Irish feminist Mary Condren, The Serpent and the Goddess]. The true origins of the name of Kildare are almost certainly the building material of the church, i.e. ‘oaken church’, suggested by both annal entries and archaeology.

The community at Kildare was clearly neither semi-pagan in its Christianity, nor even sympathetic to native druidic religion. It was, in fact, anti-pagan. Its hostility in the seventh and eighth centuries is epitomized by the verses left by one Kildare clerical poet who saw in the comparative fortunes of his monastery and its neighbouring pagan religious fortress a cause for gloating. Brigit’s church went from strength to strength, he crowed, but druidic Dun Ailline (‘Alenn’) was now an abandoned, empty ruin:

It is not worth listening to the worship of auguries, or of spells or prophecy that predict death for, when tried, they are all falsehood, since Alenn is a deserted fort. Bright is the smile that shines on you from the plain north of Corc’s land; Liffey of Lorc has made ashes of every generation it has reared. . . . Brigit, in the land I behold, where each king has lived in turn, your fame has proved greater than that of the king, you are superior to them. You have an eternal domain with the King, as well as the land where your sanctuary lies. Granddaughter of Bresal mac Dian, sit safely, Brigit, in triumph.

Brigit may have started out as a pagan goddess, and may live in the twenty-first century as one again, but in the early middle ages she was a very Christian, very determined crusader for Christ. She sat safely, indeed, in a very Christian and very orthodox, triumph.'
[emphasis mine]

Christina Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church - Ireland 450-1150 (Oxford University Press, 2002), 66-7.

To which conclusion I can only add Amen!

It was refreshing to see a scholar subject the thesis that Brigid the saint is really only Brigid the goddess with a thin veneer of Christianity to scrutiny. This seems to be a case of 'if you state something often enough it is accepted as true'. The evidence, however, is surprisingly weak. Harrington remarks that she is able only to give a summary of the evidence as the subject deserves a monograph. Let's hope she will write one!

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