The History of Brighid’s Sacred Site in Kildare, Ireland: The Origins of Brighid
Brighid is the Celtic Goddess of inspiration, healing, and smithcraft. Her holiday is February 2 and the Pagan Goddess and St. Brigit are both honored on this day. She is one of the best examples of the survival of a Pagan Goddess into Christian times. She was canonized as St. Brigit by the Roman Catholic Church and various stories are given of Her origins and Her life. She was a Druid’s daughter, described in the Carmina Gadelica as the “daughter of Dugall the brown.” She is reported to have predicted the coming of Christianity and to have been baptized by St. Patrick. Popular folk tales describe Her as the midwife to the Virgin Mary, and She is thus always called upon by women in labor. The Christian St. Brigit was a nun, and later an Abbess, who founded an Abbey at Kildare in Ireland. She was said to have had the power to appoint the bishops of Her area, an unlikely role for an Abbess, made stranger by Her unusual requirement that these bishops also be practicing goldsmiths.
In ancient times, the Goddess Brighid had a shrine at Kildare, with a perpetual flame tended by nineteen virgin priestesses called Daughters of the Flame. No man was permitted to come near Brighid’s shrine and neither did Her priestesses consort with men. Even food and supplies were brought to the priestesses by women from the nearby village. When Catholicism overtook Ireland, Brighid’s Fire Temple became a convent and the priestesses became nuns, but the same traditions were upheld and the eternal flame kept burning. Each day a different priestess/nun was in charge of the sacred fire and on the 20th day of each cycle, the fire was miraculously tended by the Goddess/Saint Herself.
For more than a thousand years thereafter, the sacred flame was tended by nuns. In 1220 CE, though, the Bishop became angered by the no-males policy of the Abbey of St. Brigid of Kildare. He insisted that nuns were subordinate to priests and must open their abbey and submit to inspection by a priest. When the Brigidine nuns refused and asked for another Abbess or other female official to perform the inspections, the Bishop was furious. He decreed that the keeping of the eternal flame was a Pagan custom, and ordered the sacred flame to be extinguished. Despite this persecution, St. Brigit remains to this day the most popular saint in Ireland, along with St. Patrick. In the1960s, though, Vatican II declared there was insufficient proof of St. Brigit’s sanctity, or even of Her historical existence, and She was decanonized, so that the Roman Church’s campaign against Her became successful. Recently, however, despite the initial protests of the Roman Catholic church, two nuns, by the name of Sister Mary and Sister Phil, have reestablished the worship of St. Brigit at Kildare and have relit Her sacred flame, which burns once more. The first modern Candlemas/Imbolc celebration at the ancient site of Brighid’s sacred well in 1997 drew hundreds of people and grows every year in popularity. The flame of Brighid’s love burns brightly once more.