Thursday 8 February 2024

Saint Brigid: Greatest of Irishwomen

We conclude the series of posts in honour of the feast of Saint Brigid with an account from the Catholic Press in Sydney of the translation of her skull relic from Lumiar in Portugal to Killester in County Dublin. Canon O'Hanlon's full account of the history of this relic can be read at the blog here. In the 1929 newspaper account below, which seems to be based on the sermon preached on the occasion by the Very Rev. E. Cullen, C.M., D.D., President of St. Patrick's Training College, Drumcondra, we have a sketch of the history of the Killester area and its elusive former nunnery. We see the saint placed in the context of her patronage of Leinster but also as one of the three national patrons, indeed as 'the central figure in Ireland's wonder-working triad'. There were some very lofty hopes expressed on the occasion of this translation in 1929, looking back almost one hundred years later I am not sure we can say that they were ever realized.




All the roads of Leinster led to Howth road, Clontarf, on Sunday, January 27, when his Grace Most Rev. Dr. Byrne, Archbishop of Dublin, performed the ceremony of enshrining a relic of St. Brigid in, the beautiful new church at Killester, dedicated to the Patroness of Ireland. There was High Mass at noon, at which the Archbishop presided, and the Very Rev. E. Cullen, C.M., D.D., President of St. Patrick's Training College, Drumcondra, preached. 

A Golden Link.

This in an epoch-marking event, and one that is likely to stand out in our ecclesiastical history through the ages to come. It is, indeed, an event to stir the hearts of Irish Catholics the world over — a landmark in the annals of the Faith in Ireland, said Dr. Cullen. The sacred relic — a bone of St. Brigid 's head from her famous shrine at Lumiar, in Portugal — spans the wide gulf of fourteen hundred years to form a precious link between our age and the Golden Age of our country's history, when Christianity in Ireland was nearing its full meridian splendour. 

A Proud Distinction. 

And what Cill-dara of St. Brigid was to our forefathers for nearly half a thousand years after Brigid's death, while it still held her holy relics — a place of national pilgrimage — St. Brigid's Church, Killester, should in time become. Of all the churches in Ireland to-day it alone possesses an actual fragment of the sacred body of our beloved Patroness, our own Brigid, the Mary of the Gael. What a singular privilege, not alone for Killester and the parish of Coolock, but for the Archdiocese of Dublin. 

Killester's Tradition. 

This new church of St. Brigid is but carrying on a particular veneration of the national Patroness, for which the neighbourhood of Killester was noted in earlier times. Far back in the ages of the Faith there was a church of St. Brigid adjoining the narrow by-road, known now as Killester Lane, the fragmentary ruins of which may still be seen in the old graveyard lying between the Malahide and Howth roads. 

Beyond the facts that it was an appendage to Christ Church Cathedral in the days of St. Laurence O'Toole, and passed at length into Protestant hands — like the ancient St. Bride's in Dublin city — little is known of its story. 

Brigidine Nunnery. 

That there was also a convent here in the distant past, probably a pre-Reformation nunnery under the rule and patronage of St. Brigid (as there was in the neighbouring parish of Swords), may be inferred from a name, 'The Nuns' Walk,' by which a secluded path near the old church Is still known. Though D"Alton who wrote his history of County Dublin ninety years ago, says nothing on the subject of a convent at Killester, the Ordnance maps mark a building 'Convent in ruins' in the immediate neighbourhood. 

Claimed by Leinster. 

Although born within the ancient division of Ulster, and regarded as a national figure even while she lived, Brigid has always been claimed by the people of Leinster as peculiarly their own. Thus in a very ancient Gaelic poem she is addressed as the 'princess of the men of Leinster,' while the hymn composed in her honour by St. Columcille alludes to her as the 'dear saint of Lagenia.' St. Ultan of Ardbrechan, who also sang her praises in elegant verse, leaves no doubt as to his own belief that there were special grounds for the claim when he exclaims: 'I shall be saved in all things by my Leinster saint.' Later writers have found a cause for this claim in the theory that Brigid's father was a chieftain of Leinster, whose principal fort was in Kildare, and that the birth of the saint took place at Faughart, north of Dundalk, during a visit of the family to that district. 

The Three Patrons. 

Be this as it may, the fact remains that Brigid is primarily a national saint, the central figure in Ireland's wonder-working triad — Patrick, Brigid, and Columcille. Patrick, the Apostle had planted the standard of the Faith in every part of the island when Brigid entered on her career, and to her as Abbess of Kildare he entrusted the duty of consolidating the marvellous victory over pagan error he himself had lived to achieve. When Brigid, in turn, was called to heaven, the entire land (which up to the coming of Patrick had been the 'Insula Sacra' of Druid worship) had been won for the Risen Christ; and Columcille was already a stripling of fair promise. 

Beloved by All.

Unlike the two others, Brigid lived her entire life in the island of the Gael. Her missionary labours brought her into every province and into close association with the mightiest as well as the lowliest in the land. In her cell of the Oak, the Kildare of our days, she was consulted by bishops and visited by kings, and yet was so. sympathetic and accessible that hunted slaves threw themselves into her arms for protection, while the simple poor ran to her for counsel and comfort in their everyday troubles Little wonder she was so personally beloved in her own time, or that the generations have crowned her spiritual queen of the Irish race, the Mary of Ireland. 

Her Name Cherished. 

Not alone did the fraternity of the olden poet-saints of Ireland — Fiaac, Nathfriach, and Ultan; Columcille, Brendan, and Brogen Cloen; Ninnidh and Kilian of Inisceltra — write each a metrical life of the Patroness, or compose a hymn in her honour, but local rulers assumed her name. Under the pious title of O'Maoilbrighde the 'majestic chiefs of Bredagh' in the West figure in song and story. This name, .according to Dr. O 'Donovan, was in later times shortened to O'Mulbride, and finally anglicised MacBride. 

Others linked her name to their own, and had their children christened Giollabrighde, signifying the Servant of Brigid; while priests and monks took the name in religion of Brigidianus or Calvus Brigitae, the Shaveling or Tonsured of Brigid. Thus, and in a hundred other ways, has the memory of the great St. Brigid survived as an intimate and tender part of the lives of her people down to our own times.

The shrine in which the relic of St. Brigid will repose in Killester Church is modelled on the exquisite shrine for St. Patrick's Bell, was designed by Mr. Robinson, the architect of St. Brigid's, and made by Messrs. Gunning.

Catholic Press, Thursday 21 March 1929, page 10.


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