Monastery of St. Brigid, Celldara

Kildare, County Clare, Ireland
Architecture
5th century CE

 

In 453 CE, St. Brigid was born to Christian parents, converts of St. Patrick. Sixteen years later, according to written documents of the 8th century, she was made a nun by Bishop Maccaile and went on in 490 CE to found the monastery of Celldara. She chose for her monastery a site adjacent to the fields of Liffey, a site well known because although fertile, the fields were left untilled in honor of the goddess Brigid who was said to be their owner. The monastery which housed both men and women and the church were central to a large community including a school rivaling the more famous site of learning at Armagh, founded by St. Patrick. Kildare was also the location of an important metal workshop and a large city.

At this point in Irelandís history, architectural structures were still mainly built from wood. Timber was a building source in abundant supply. The first enclosure at Kildare was most likely constructed of wattles and probably thatched (Rolt-Wheeler, 34). Circular walls would have been a natural extension of the artistic vocabulary of the Celts, where circles and spirals were common designs and held such weighty spiritual significance. In Christian terms, circular enclosing walls would have fallen in well with philosophical descriptions of the cosmos originating in this period (Bitel, 59). Walls of this type as well as a cemetary and oratory of some sort are features that were common to all monasteries. Some scholars believe that the oratory or church of Kildare was rectangular, a shape considered orthodox and thus desirable. Documentation from St. Patrickís Vita Tripartita indicate that the ideal dimensions for a church should be 27 feet, although whether this meant for height, width, or length is unspecified. Rectangular churches of the same period tended to be small and built on a proportion scale, length to width of three to two (Bitel,72). A sacred space between the church and inner set of enclosing walls, called a termonn, was also common to most monastic settlements. At Kildare, a giant millstone, miraculously placed there by the saint, stands guard over the entrance to the termonn. Basically, this area was a buffer between profane spaces and the relics of the saint (Bitel, 73). According to Cogitosus, the church at Kildare contained two tombs, that of St. Brigid and the Bishop Conlaed. He describes them as having crowns suspended over them and as being decorated with gold and precious gems. Yet, the most distinctive feature of the monastic settlement was the eternal fire tended by the nuns in memory of the saint, after her death in 525 CE.

The site chosen for the monastery may be more significant to this study of Brigid and her mysterious history, however, than the actual details of the structure and surrounding metropolis. For whatever reason, for more effectively effacing pagan belief or the more romantic notion that monastery founders "sought out places where heaven met earth, so that they might inhabit them and draw on their spiritual aura", monks would indeed look for sacred markers such as trees, wells, and even man-made tumuli when choosing a location to establish themselves (Bitel, 43). Cell dara means cell, or church of the Oak, legend has it that pilgrims would break off pieces of this holy tree to cure illnesses. In addition, the remains of an Iron Age ring fort called Dun Ailinne are only six miles away from present-day Kildare. After dying of shame after her abduction, an apple tree grew up at the grave of Ailinne. Archaeological evidence of ritual burning and feasting suggests that it was an important religious center. It seems that an eternal flame such as that kept at Celldara was already present at Dun Ailinne prior to the 6th century lighting in honor of Brigid.(Condren, 66). Scholars on the subject offer at least three explanations for the situation. Most people believe either that the traditions of Dun Ailinne were simply transferred to Kildare when its own power began to wane, or that Brigid chose the site purposefully to rival and eventually overpower the pagan settlement. Another possibility is that Kildare itself was a pagan sanctuary. There are actually reports, investigated by Sir John Rhys, that the monastery was built on the site of a former temple to the sun god Angus( Rolt-Wheeler,51-53) At this point in the study of St. Brigid, this should hardly raise eyebrows. Nor should it be surprising to find that in her lives St. Brigid is sometimes called Fiery Dart or Fiery Arrow. In fact, the monastery at Kildare was sometimes called the House of Fire. In her lives there are numerous examples where fire plays an important role. This makes it incredibly difficult to distinguish the virgin saint from the goddess but shows the continuity in Celtic spirituality whether it be pagan or Christian.

The eight virgins or twenty, depending on the source, under the tutelage of St. Brigid , also seem to have pagan origins. This tradition finds its parallel in the Roman temples of Jupiter and Vesta where virgin priestesses (vestal virgins) tended eternal flames. They may also have been involved in fertility and agricultural rites (Pomeroy, 210). Pomeroy also sees fit to emphasize that virginity is not synonymous with sterility. People would often consult nuns and monks to cure barrenness and impotence. Both male and female saints became known as protectors of pregnant women (Bitel, 178).

The synthesis of Christian and Pagan practice is not mere coincidence, it was often encouraged for political reasons. Often the founders of monastic centers such as Cell Dara had strong kinship ties to powerful families in the surrounding regions, despite monastic rules that forbade them to forget their families for the work of God. Brigid, if we are to believe her biographers, took her dowry and established the monastery next to her parents' enclosure to take advantage of their protection.

At this point Benedictine rule had not reached Ireland (9th c.) and it wasnít until the Council of Trent that nuns were formally cloistered. The abbesses of Cell Dara "enjoyed a land of primacy over all the nuns of Ireland and were in some sense independent of Episcopalian jurisdiction"(Rolt-Wheeler, 34). Therefore, to prolong the life of pagan beliefs still practiced to some degree and that held females in high regard would have been especially advantageous.

 

Sources:

Rolt-Wheeler, Ethel. Women of the Cell and Cloister. London: Methuen and Co. Ltd.,1913. 34, 50-53.

Bitel, 59, 72,73, 178

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Saints. New York:Schoken, 1995. 210.

Condren, 66