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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Boniface said...

Hi Marcella! Forgive the comment on such an old post, but I am researching Kildare and thought you'd be the person to ask because of your excellent knowledge of this subject:

It is frequently asserted that the abbesses of Kildare were regarded as "bishops," but I can never find any documentation backing this up, nor explanation of what it means. I am familiar with the story of Bishop Mel accidentally praying the order of consecration over her, and of this the Leabhar Breac says, "Hence, it is that the men of Ireland give the honour of bishop to Brigit's successor." I am fairly certain the abbesses of Kildare were never regarded as "bishops" in the strict sense; but what does the passage from the Leabhar Breac mean, and are you aware of any other texts that reference the abbesses of Kildare having episcopal honor?

If you do not wish to publish this comment, you may email me at Thank you kindly!


Marcella said...

I posted a discussion of the role of abbess in medieval Ireland at my other site here:

Marcella said...

There is no evidence to show that the abbess of Kildare or any other woman exercised actual episopal authority in medieval Ireland. If St Brigid was a bishop why did she need Conleth who was buried with her in the church at Kildare, he on the right and she on the left? Why does the same Life that tells us she was ordained, albeit accidentally, as a bishop contradict this by also telling us that she had to be sure to bring a male priest with her as she was unable to perform sacramental baptism? I am actually working on a post on this subject and will try to bump it further up the draft folder!

Marcella said...

It is also important to remember that hagiography is not history and does not necessarily describe events which actually happened in the saint's lifetime. I read the Brigid was a bishop episode as part of the rivalry between Kildare and Armagh for primacy in the Irish church. Kildare knew their claims could not challenge those of Armagh and St Patrick as their champion was a woman.

Boniface said...

Thank you kindly for your responses. I read your article on abbesses and it was very helpful. I was already fairly certain there was no tradition of female bishops in Ireland; I was more curious what the Leabhar Breac meant by that comment that "the men of Ireland give the honour of bishop to Brigit's successor." In other words, was the myth of abbesses as bishops a modern innovation, or was this actually a tale that medieval people told?

Where is the passage you referenced about needing to bring a male cleric for baptism?

Marcella said...

Sorry for not getting back to you sooner on your follow-up comments but I am dealing with a number of health issues. I am not in a position right now to really do any in-depth research but here are a few thoughts to keep you going:

First - the necessity for a male cleric. This too comes from the 9th c. Bethu Brigte which records her supposed episcopal consecration:


At the end of the day everybody went apart out of the assembly for hospitality. There was a good man living on the bank of the river called Seir. He sent his slave to the assembly to call Brigit, saying to his household: ‘The holy maiden who performed the wonderful miracle in the assembly-place today, I want her to consecrate my house tonight.’ He welcomed her. ‘Let water be put on our hands’, said her maidens



to Brigit, ‘here is our food.’ ‘It is of no use now’, said Brigit. ‘For the Lord has shown me that this is a heathen home, with the one exception only of the slave who summoned us. On that account I shall not eat now.’ The good man finds this out, namely that Brigit was fasting until he should be baptized. ‘I have said indeed’, said he, ‘that Patrick and his household would not baptize me. For your sake, however, I will believe’, [said he] to Brigit. ‘I do not mind provided that you be baptized’, said Brigit. ‘There is not a man in orders with me. Let someone go from us to Patrick, so that a bishop or priest may come to baptize this man.’ Brón came and baptized the man with all his household at sunrise. They eat at midday. They return thanks. They come to holy Patrick. Patrick said: ‘You should not go about without a priest. Your charioteer should always be a priest.’ And that was observed by Brigit's abbesses up to recent times.

Why is this piece of hagiographical evidence from the same source ignored while the Bishop Mel consecration is invested with the authority of holy writ? If Brigid had really been regarded as a bishop wouldn't Cogitosus, her earlier biographer who was himself from the Kildare community, have shouted that from the rooftops? Instead he emphasizes her joint rule with Bishop Conleth.

Second- the ref in the Book of Leinster. I would read this as a simple acknowledgment of Kildare's status. For all that I don't believe Brigid exercised episcopal authority, Kildare was not just any monastery. It at one time presented a serious challenge to the claims of primacy over the Irish church made by Armagh, who claimed Patrick. Neither was Brigid just any abbess, as her LIves make clear, but her supposed episcopal status was entirely symbolic. There is no evidence to show that she or any other woman ever exercised the actual office of a bishop.

If you can access Lisa Bitel's 'Landscape with Two Saints- how Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe' - she has a good discussion of Kildare and all of these matters.

Hope that gives you something to go on, I would normally respond more quickly and thoroughly but this is the best I can do right now.