Wednesday 22 February 2012

An Analysis of the Perpetual Fire at Kildare

Now we can turn to Harrington's analysis of the famous fire at Kildare:
The popular belief in Kildare having been a pagan centre depends upon saint Brigit being either a Christianized version of that goddess or an eponymous high-priestess of her cult, and that, as discussed above, is far from established. It also depends, less directly, upon the existence in pagan times of female druidic enclaves —a point treated in the previous chapter and shown to be equally tenuous. The reports of Kildare’s vestal flame and the question of its allegedly pagan antecents have a bearing on how one approaches the Christianity practised there in its first centuries. If one believes that it was a transmogrified druidic centre it is reasonable to ask, were the devotions practised semi-druidical? Were the nuns more like priestesses than orthodox Christian devotae? For this reason the key piece of evidence for this model must be addressed, i.e. the supposed perpetual flame at Kildare, the alleged sign of surviving fire worship or vestal devotion. There is no mention of it in any of the three early Lives of Brigit, namely the Vita I, Cogitosus, or the ninth-century Bethu Brigte. It is hard to imagine that it could be overlooked in all three Lives. It is, in fact, absent from all other Lives, from annals, from the martyrologies and their glosses—all sources, in fact, until Gerald of Wales, a visitor in the twelfth century, almost 700 years after the alleged pagan-Christian transition took place.There is no doubt that Gerald was referring to a genuine, existent perpetual flame, for it is confirmed in other sources, in particular in a twelfth- or thirteenth-century gloss on a Middle Irish tale, and in Anglo-Norman documents for the year 1220. Today at Kildare there are the ruins of a smallish stone building called the ‘fire-house’, in which the fire was known to be kept through the fourteenth century at least, for a ‘fyre house’ is mentioned in a 1397 close roll. The fire-house itself may not be very ancient, certainly not dating to the pre-Christian era; it may have been built as late as the tenth century, or, if it was built in earlier centuries, it may have previously had a different use. That the fire was a ‘vestal’ one also needs considering. Gerald did say that only nuns were allowed to tend the fire, and this may have been the case, but Kildare did have monks and clerics on its premises in his day as in earlier centuries. Nor was the presence of a perpetual fire unique to Kildare: in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries seven others are mentioned in the hagiography, all of them at male monasteries. The inescapable conclusion is that such flames in Ireland were not especially associated with women and appear rather late in the historical record. The reasons for their existence were probably Christotheological: the luminary imagery of Christian deity was as ubiquitous in Ireland as it was elsewhere in the West. Why they appeared suddenly in the twelfth century is a question not ventured here.
[Emphasis mine]

Christina Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church- Ireland 450-1150 (Oxford University Press, 2002), 64-5.

I think Harrington has raised a very important question here - if this perpetual fire was such an important part of Brigid's cult, why is it totally absent from any of the earlier Irish sources? Effectively we seem to have taken the unsubstantiated claims of Gerald that these rituals went back to the time of the Virgin i.e. Saint Brigid, as fact. But where is the evidence?

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