Wednesday 8 February 2023

In the Footsteps of St. Brigid

We bring the series of posts in honour of Saint Brigid to a close with an interesting travelogue from an Australian Franciscan priest, who recorded his impressions of a visit to Kildare in a 1908 newspaper article. Father Fitzgerald is writing in the heyday of the Irish national revival and we will see a number of the features and tensions of this era expressed in the article. First, we see the romanticism in his lovely portrait of Saint Brigid as the mother of holy virgins. I noted that in his description of her home he attributes the presence of men in the double monastery at Kildare to a need, not to have priests on hand, but to have fighting men able to repel attackers. In his account of the wayside homes of the west, we see the idealization of the Irish peasant, who Father Fitzgerald sees as 'the real Irish people'. We also see how the Irish language is viewed as preserving the cultus of the Irish saints and as a protection against outside, foreign influences. There is a particular fear, one which I have seen expressed in other sources of this era, that people are giving secular 'lately-invented' names to their children. At my main site I have gathered a number of these sources together on a page dedicated to Irish saints' names for children here. When he finally arrives at Kildare, Father Fitzgerald leaves us in no doubt that his was a pre-ecumenical era. He is clearly upset by the fact that this historic site is no longer in Catholic hands, but is at pains to assure his home readership that the Australian Protestant is not like the usurping Irish invader and despoiler. He ends with a romantic, if unrealistic, vision of the day when the Catholic bishops will reconsecrate the cathedral at Kildare and once again lead the praise of Saint Brigid in the language of their forefathers:

In the Footsteps of St. Brigid

By Father Fitzgerald, O.F.M.

The traveller looking eastward from the carriage window on a Dublin-bound train from the South of Ireland cannot fail to see a magnificent round-tower which will attract his attention by its beauty and its  height. It is 136ft. high. Near by is a sacred edifice. Should the traveller be acquainted even slightly with Irish history, his eyes will linger lovingly on the spot when he calls to mind that those piles of ancient buildings mark the place where abode St. Brigid, the greatest saint of Ireland after St. Patrick, who has been accorded the glorious title, of 'the Mary of the Gael.'

The Mother of Holy Virgins.

As one looks back through the wreck and ruin, prosperity and triumph, of 1500 years to the very dawn of Christianity in Ireland we see St. Brigid coming forth from the forests of benighted paganism as the handmaid of the great St. Patrick, rich in the endowment of natural talents, richer still in the possession  of spiritual treasures with which she has been blessed by the Giver of all good gifts. She is to be the mother of those millions of holy virgins, who in all ages since, have risen up like fair lilies from Irish soil, and who now in their home above follow the Lamb withersoever He goeth.' Irish people and their posterity call that day blessed when Patrick's feet touched the shores of Erin, when he came as the messenger of God to shatter the chains of the captive daughter of Sion and lead the warlike clans of Eire into the admirable light of truth. No less blessed was the day when Brigid, nurtured like Patrick in bondage, taught like him in the school of persecution and austerity, knelt before the saintly Bishop and took the white veil of virginity, and thenceforward her sanctity and learning and administrative gifts, became a staff to the weak and an eye to the blind, and in a most wonderful way spread the blessings of Christian truth over the land. Tradition and history combine in the statement that the day of her reception— back in the fifth century — she placed her hand upon the wooden altar, and forthwith the verdant beauty of springtime appeared thereupon.

Her Home.

In her zeal for the propagation of the Gospel she journeyed through many parts of Ireland, and the names by which these places are known to-day bear witness of her memory. But Kildare— cill-dara, the church 'of the oak,' became her home where she founded her monastery, and, close by, a monastery for men, as in those troublous times when barbarian incursions were not infrequent it was necessary for the protection of the nuns that men skilled in the use of arms should be at hand to drive off the foe. She inhabited there a little room beside a gigantic oak, or, as some say, she lived in an apartment cut out of a tree. Thither from all parts pilgrims and visitors came for counsel and consolation, and in the pioneer conditions of the infant Church in Ireland, her noble womanly qualities and graces found ample scope in calming the internecine strife of princes and chieftains, and by her sweet persuasive advice in subduing the vindictive bands still now to the doctrine of Our Saviour's forgiving spirit. What a heritage of virtue, of exemplary penance, of penitential austerities, has she left after her, and what countless monasteries sprung up in which her spirit still lived as an inspiring influence for centuries after her death, and still lives, even to the present day.

In a Wayside House.

If one goes among the people, especially of an Irish-speaking district one will find in almost every house a Maura and a Breege. Those real Irish people, tenacious of their cherished traditions, are, thanks to God, still strangers to those notions of fashion instituted by a so-called superior civilisation. The beautiful principles which are the guardian spirits of every true Catholic home are treasured by them still, as if it were but yesterday that the Irish Saints walked among them, as if the echoes of prayer and praise resounded still in the aisles and sanctuaries of their abbeys and churches. I am often reminded of this when calling into a wayside house or humble cabin here in the West. As you stand on the earthen floor and look up to the ceiling where the rafters and beams cross each other you will often see several little wooden crosses. Many more are there, but they have become indistinguishable through smoke and age. Each succeeding feast-day of St. Brigid a little cross is placed there in honour of the saint. The latest one is the whitest, and the family can thus trace back many years of their lifetime's history.

As Father Dineen pointed out in a masterly panegyric on the Irish Saints at the Maynooth Union, a few days ago, the Gaelic League is doing a great good for religion,  for by propagating the Irish tongue literature, and customs, it is bringing back to us the cultus of the Irish Saints, who, he says, are forgotten by so many. "The greatest Ireland," says Father Dineen, "is beyond the skies." And surely it will be a grand work to popularise their names, and to banish from the people that contemptible custom of giving lately-invented names to the children, rather than choose a name from that vast array of saintly men and women, whose virtues, as history testifies, have made Ireland one of the 'brightest gems in the diadem of the Church. On the same occasion Dr. Healy remarked that 'he often found at Confirmation-time that children took the name of the nun that taught them — sometimes Sister Angelina, &c. He expresses the hope that for the future they will make the sacrifice of suggesting an Irish Saint's name.

What I Saw in Kildare.

I went down to Kildare the other day. But, lo, strangers are in the holy place. The sacred precincts, including the round tower and spot where the oak stood and the fire of St. Brigid burned undimmed for 12 centuries, and the cathedral and tower, are all in the hands of Protestants. I recompensed the sexton with a shilling for showing me over the august shrines of 'our' Catholic forefathers, where everything speaks of them, where the tombs and their inscriptions, give the lie to the invaders, whose broken tablets cry out in protest against the usurpers, and within the cathedral itself, now used for Protestant worship, there is still a mouldy smell of dust and bones, which all the spices of Araby, cannot sweeten, and which seems to stop the breath of the worshippers, for that dust and those bones belonged to our Catholic ancestors, who lived and died in the One True Church. And then, forsooth, the likes of Tyrell, of Trinity College, who are paid out of pilfered Catholic funds, write poems and ask: 'Why do Catholics build new churches?' Well, they will cease to build them when they see a prospect of getting back their own.

The Usurpers of Our Altars and Our Homes.

The chief cause of antagonism between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland is this: That the latter know they are in wrongful possession, and it is one of the bad traits of human nature to hate those one has injured. The many honest-minded Protestants of Australia are quite a different class from the invaders and usurpers of our altars and our homes in Ireland, and the riflers of our holy shrines.

The Sacred Fire of St. Brigid.

History says that the sacred fire of St. Brigid burned for about 12 centuries — to the days of Elizabeth, and the spot is pointed out to-day beside the round tower. Please God, like the prophets of fire of old, though long concealed, it will again burn forth and gleam in the same old consecrated spot, whereon knelt those myriads who are gone before us, when the Mass bell will ring again within the ancient Cathedral of St. Brigid; where the urn-shaped vases that stand on the bare altar to-day, like crematory receptacles on a pagan mausoleum, shall be replaced by these lights which are emblematic of Him Who is the Light of the World, and when after centuries of forlorn isolation from the religion of St. Patrick, the ''Gloria in Excelsis" shall be heard there once more, and the tabernacle lamp relighted. Does not a vision rise, before our eyes of a gathering of Irish Bishops, from all parts of Ireland, and from the greater Ireland beyond the seas, assembled together at some future day for the solemn function of re-consecrating the ancient Cathedral of Kildare, when an immense concourse of fervent Catholics will join in the solemn function, and thank God that the longed-wished-for hour has come at last, when in the old spot, so dear to her, they can salute St. Brigid in the language of their forefathers, as the fairest of Erin's virgins, the chief patroness of their country — the Mary of the Gael.

'In the Footsteps of of St. Brigid of Kildare', The Catholic Press, September 3, 1908, p. 11. Retrieved December 19, 2017, from

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