Sunday, 2 February 2014

Saint Brigid's Birthplace

We being a series of posts marking the octave of the feast of Saint Brigid with an article from the late 1880s presenting a Victorian traveller's view of Faughart (or Faughard as the writer renders the name), the County Louth site traditionally claimed as the birthplace of Saint Brigid.  The writer strikes a somewhat dreamy and wistful note as she muses on some of the historical events the site has witnessed. She also shows a touching concern for the folk religion the site preserves, other Catholic writers of the period can demonstrate a sense of embarrassment or even outright hostility when faced with peasant devotion. Another point of interest is that the author refers to a now forgotten monastery of Augustinian Canons at Faughart. This strikes me as somewhat ironic given that modern scholars believe that it was these 12th-century monastics who were actually responsible for promoting the claims of Faughart as Saint Brigid's birthplace. 

The illustration above is a postcard from my own collection. It was never used so there is no postmark by which to date it. The front caption reads 'Faughart  The Birthplace of Saint Brigid', the reverse merely informs us that 'This is a real photograph'. A statue or picture of Saint Brigid has been superimposed onto the foreground which creates a rather bizarre effect as she appears to hover ethereally just above the ground.


READERS of St. Brigid's life will remember what diversities of opinion exist respecting many circumstances of her birth and parentage. They will recollect, too, that about one of those circumstances most authorities agree — that Faughard was her birthplace. Some say that at the time of Brigid's birth, her father was a dweller in this place, although he may afterwards have removed to another part of the country. Others surmise that he happened to be here with his family, it may be, on a visit, or that by the mere accident of a stoppage on a journey, “Faughard of St. Brigid " gained its name. It is impossible now to settle such minor details, but we may safely conclude that somewhere in the townland of Faughard St. Brigid was born.

To visit those places connected with the traditions of the saint, is in itself a worthy pilgrimage for an Irishwoman, and when to the holy fame of Faughard are added the attractions of lovely scenery and historic associations, perhaps many will like to go, in spirit at least, with one who lately made such a pilgrimage in the body.

You must let me choose the day. It shall be a day late in Spring, with a fresh breeze blowing, for we want our view to be clear and open, and withal varying, not shrouded in soft mistiness, nor steeped in too universal sunshine. Proceeding from Dundalk on such a day, along the old highway leading from that town to Newry, we come, after two or three miles, to a narrow road turning off to our left, winding this side and that, clambering up hill and diving down again, yet in reality always ascending, till it leads us to Faughard Churchyard. Within the enclosure of this cemetery, standing among the graves, are the ruins of a very ancient church. On the opposite side of the road, some distance farther on, rises a high dun, called by the people "Faughard Moat." Tradition says that the spot covered by the ruins of the church is the site of the house where Saint Brigid was born, and tradition is supported by one of the old lives of the Saint. More modern biographers consider the dun the more likely situation.

This fort is a very high one, constructed of earth and stones, and surrounded at the base by the remains of a deep trench. The interior has not been explored of late days, but is said to contain extensive chambers. Whether it is the actual site of St. Brigid's birthplace is another insolvable question, and when we have climbed to the summit and looked at the view before us, unless we are very ardent antiquarians, a question we shall speedily forget. Above us the dome of the sky seems deeper, bluer, more gloriously free and distant than ever, the fleecy clouds more dazzlingly white against that fathomless azure. Out before us stretch the shining waters of Dundalk Bay, and, bounding our view to the north, the Cooley mountains raise their summits in emulation of distant Slieve Gullion, and gaining a victory after many efforts, sink contentedly into the sea. You may watch those fair hills the day long, and never see twice just the same tinge of colouring, or the same disposition of light and shadow. Now splendid depths of purple and blue, where the cloud shadows loiter, then delicate grey-blues, and faint yellows and greens, and pale mauves, when the clouds have passed, and the sunshine again rests on them,, brightening even the sombre masses of Tippings Wood.

These beautiful heights are separated from the lesser heights of Faughard by a valley as beautiful as themselves. The shadows are at work here too, casting a hazy veil of mystery on the fresh green of the fields, chasing the sunshine from the darker verdure of the trees, clouding the dazzling brightness of whitened cottages, then leaving for a moment the whole fair vale to the empire of the sun, and again swooping over it in vain attempts to supplant that triumphant monarch. Looking to the other side, beyond the intervening fields, and the fir-grown ridge that marks the railway line, you see Dun Dealgan, crowned now with a thick belt of trees, guarding the busy town that lies below, between it and the sea.

A typical Irish landscape it all is. With no bold majesty of form, or gorgeous depths of colour challenging our admiration, but with tender grace and delicate loveliness wooing our most passionate love, making us cry out in gratitude to God for the beauty of our land, and vow eternal allegiance to her. A typical Irish landscape in this too, that, side by side with the life and work of the present, it shows us the work, and calls before us the life of the past. Wherever the eye rests, whether on the distant trees of Castletown Mount, or the shimmering silver of the bay, one association after another is recalled, memories, sad and glorious, crowd upon the mind. We think we see again the ships of Dathi riding at anchor in the bay below, waiting the bidding of their regal commander; or a later scene, that battle where Fingall turned the tide of fortune spreads its scenes of fierce fight and terrible bravery before our gaze. If we turn from sea to land, imagination peoples the scene with strange figures of the past. Edward the Bruce, in his plain disguise, hurrying his troops with unwise impetuosity to the charge; the wild figures of his mingled army of Irish and Scotch; the jester in the gay apparel that cost him his life; the English with their steeds and their armour, and all the warlike appliances of the age, and amidst the veteran warriors other forms that sit their horses and bear their weapons with a less practised air.

A sudden rush sounding through the silence carries our thoughts back for a moment to the nineteenth century, but the white clouds of steam floating now above the mountain pass through which the railway runs, look to us, in our mediaeval mood, more like the white plumes of Mountjoy's cavaliers, who tried to force that same Moyra Pass many a time past the warriors of O'Neill. More than once before matters had gone so far, the chieftain himself rode down this only direct entrance then to the Black North, through this country lying at our feet, to meet the English viceroy outside the walls of Dundalk. Past this way, too, William's army must have gone, proceeding from Newry, where it had halted first on its way to the banks of the Boyne.

But if we wish to visit those spots which tradition connects with the name of St. Brigid, we must recall our wandering thoughts, and descend from our lofty standpoint. We shall cross the road, and visit the churchyard first. Examining the ruins, we find in themselves proof of their antiquity. It is said they are the remains of a church erected by St. Monenna, probably in honour of St. Brigid. Somewhere in the vicinity there was a monastery of Augustinian Canons, but all memory of them seems to have disappeared, and they are nowhere mentioned in connection with this church. Indeed there is no further information to be obtained from history or legend regarding it. Perhaps the monks, having their monastery near, served the church; but I think it likely that there was also a convent of St. Brigid's order in this place. There were then, we may be sure, numbers of pilgrims coming, as they do still, to seek the intercession of the wonder-working Saint, and in this secluded situation there would be much need of such charitable hospitality as St. Brigid herself had loved to dispense. Probable truth stimulating our imagination, we can fancy the nuns in their graceful robes of white ministering to the wants of pilgrims from all parts of the land. So one generation of sisters succeeded another, keeping alive the memory of their mother by daily imitation of her deeds, till at last one bitter day the black hulls of the Northmen darkened the bright bay, and the flames and smoke in the lowlands beneath, and the wild tales of fugitives seeking sanctuary that would soon be vain, warned the frightened nuns to leave the holy spot, and seek shelter elsewhere, hoping to return when the trouble was over. But, alas! that wished for time never came, and they died away from their dear home, and never since has a Brigidine watched and prayed within those gray old walls. Still St. Brigid has never been forgotten here.

Passing the ruins, and proceeding to the side opposite the gate, we come to a well, surmounted by a conical stone covering, now much dilapidated. A tree drops over it, and the green mounds swell high around it on three sides. To this well many come to seek, through St. Brigid's intercession, relief from headache, and from that most universal of ills, toothache. But it is not here they make the "Station." To reach this spot, we must leave the churchyard, and go farther along the road, still turning and twining, and plunging down and climbing up again, between its green hedges, with primroses peeping coyly at us, and timorous violets hiding under every knobble of clay. By and by this road leads us past a low wall of loose stones bounding a furze-grown field. Through this field runs " St. Brigid's Stream," and here the last two visits of the Station are made; but we will go on at once to the little plantation where the Station begins. Just a few steps, one more turn, and then we descend some stone steps into a thinly planted piece of ground, with a pretty stream gurgling through it. This is St. Brigid's Stream. We follow it some distance to where a tree has fallen across, and this is the spot where the Station begins. Now there is something more to indicate this than the fallen tree, and if you are an admirer of material loveliness only, and cannot see spiritual beauty in outer ugliness, we will part, for I could not bear to see you laugh with merry contempt at a sight which has for me a pathetic beauty. Here is the ugliness — a bush covered with pieces of rag of many kinds and colours. It is in obedience to that instinct of gratitude, which prompts a return for favours received, that these curious relics have been left by pilgrims. So poor that they could make not the smallest offering, they would at least leave some token whereby all who passed might know the goodness of their patroness, and the power of her intercession. And so they tied to a bush at hand a piece of the bandage that had covered some injured part, a sign that, through the the efficacy of the Saint's prayers, it was needed no longer. Assuredly our people would never merit the leper's reproach.

At this spot, as I have said, the Station is begun by the recital of some prayers. The pilgrims then retrace their steps through the thicket, cross the road, and descending at the other side into the field, proceed by a little track where the furze has given up all attempts at growing, and emerge at an open spot, where the stream reappears. Not flowing smoothly, however, as before, but interrupted by large blocks of stone, curiously marked, perhaps by the action of the water and peculiarities of their own nature. But the poetic instinct of the people has seen in these markings a proof, — nay, they never wanted a proof, — but a memorial of a certain wonderful event of St. Brigid's life. To finish about the Station first. At this place more prayers are recited, and mortification is joined to prayer, for those performing the Station kneel, with bared knees, on one of the largest stones, which is sometimes half covered with water. This stone is indented, just as a plastic substance would be indented by one kneeling upon it ; and they tell that St. Brigid was accustomed to kneel here and pray, as they do now, and that this is the miraculous impression of her knees. When the usual number of prayers, which they count in primitive fashion on pebbles gathered from the bed of the stream, has been said, they proceed to the third and last spot, where they complete the Station with some more prayers. If the person who performs it is himself afflicted with physical ailments, he bathes the injured part in the water. If it has been performed for another, some of the water is carried away for a similar purpose. I believe if one carried out to the full the original form of the Station, one should travel fasting in the morning, and should not eat till the Station was completed. So this custom, now often misunderstood by those who never dream of following it, was originally conceived and carried out in a true spirit of prayer and mortification, and in perfect conformity with the spirit and teaching of the Church.

Now let us examine the stones, and see if we can find sermons, perhaps something more entertaining than sermons, in them. Besides this one with the impression of a knee, there is another, marked with a curious orifice, exactly resembling an eye ; and this is how the mark came to be there, according to local tradition. It was before St. Brigid had received from the hands of St. Maccaille, the white robe and veil which signified her consecration to the Lord, though she had already bound herself by vow to her divine Spouse. Her beauty was famed throughout the provinces, and more than one prince sought her hand. But only one persisted in his suit after her refusal. A rude chief, perhaps still unconverted from paganism, but, at any rate, with none of the chivalrous reverence of a true son of Erin for woman and religion. One day, finding her alone, he pressed his suit so eagerly, that Brigid turned to flee from the hearing of words that seemed like sacrilege addressed to one already espoused to the Lord. But wild with the frenzy of an unrequited and hopeless love, he pursued her, and was gaining quickly on her steps, when the inspiration seized her to destroy the comeliness which roused such passion. She stopped in her flight, and raising her hand, plucked out one of her beautiful eyes. The bleeding, disfigured visage turned towards him — perhaps, yet more, the horror at having caused such a deed — changed the chieftain's heart, and he left her in peace. What became of him afterwards tradition does not say; but of Brigid it tells, that God restored the injured organ to all its use and beauty. Here in this field we stand in, they say, the flight ended, and this mark in the stone they point out as the miraculous print of the eye the Saint cast from her.

That is the story the people about Faughard tell, and never dream of doubting; but we find the legend substantially the same under many other forms. One of these makes no mention of that ungenerous suitor. It is one of her brothers, who will not hear of her consecrating herself in religion. While he was disputing the matter with her other more favorably disposed brothers, Brigid came up, and grieved at the difference, and fearing the result, she turned aside and began to pray. The Lord came to her assistance, and when she turned again to the brothers, they were horrified to see one of her eyes dreadfully distempered, with blood flowing from it, and trickling down her face. In deep distress, they sought to relieve her, and, as a first means of doing this, began to look for water to wash away the blood; but neither stream nor well could they find. So great was their concern and their anxiety to help her, that Brigid's sweet charity moved her to assist them. She directed them to dig at a certain spot, while she prayed: and lo! at the first stroke, a spring gushed forth, in which the holy maiden bathed her face, when, yet more wonderful, the distempered eye was perfectly cured. The obdurate brother,who had been silenced by the misfortune he had brought about, now began his former objections, but was soon punished by himself losing the sight of one eye ; and Brigid was allowed to carry out her design without further opposition.

The universality of this legend, under one form or other, furnishes a fair basis for the opinion that it has its foundation in fact. As to the identity of the place of its occurrence with this spot of Faughard, we have but the traditional belief of the people of the neighbourhood, and the fact that the stream is principally resorted to by people suffering from diseases of the eye.

Again, however, we find the legend differing in some important particulars, but indisputably connected with our stream. This version tells us that St. Brigid, accompanied by her sister, sought to escape from the advances of an importunate suitor. When the night fell he had reached the margin of this stream, and wearied by her day's journeying, she sat down, commending herself to the protection of God. The chieftain tracked her to the stream ; but God cast about her a thicker veil than the darkness of the night, and though he sought, and sought again, till day began to break, he could not find her, and giving up the vain quest, he rode away.

After all, I think this is the true version, and there is still a peculiar fitness in people asking for the restoration of sight through the intercession of her for whose protection God deprived, as it were, the eyes of one of His creatures of their natural power of seeing.

Regretfully we turn away from a spot we feel to be holy, sanctified, if not by the heroic action of one of God's saints, or His miraculous protection of her, yet by the faith which has been manifested here — the faith typified long ago by the "lamp in Kildare's holy fane," kept lighting through the darkness of persecution by the virtue of the women of Erin, the daughters of St. Brigid.

Thinking such thoughts, we walk through the last golden gleams of the setting sun into the dim greyness of twilight, turning now and again to catch a glimpse of the glowing sky behind us as we will turn our thoughts many a time in moments of dim doubt and grey trouble to this bright day spent in St. Brigid's birthplace, praying her, in memory of that pilgrimage, to aid us in our need.

M. McG.

The Irish Monthly, Vol.17 (1889), 372- 379. 

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