St Brigid’s relics returning to Kildare after a millennium

Statue of St Brigid in Market Square, Kildare.
Statue of St Brigid in Market Square, Kildare (© Andreas F. Borchert, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE).

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On 28 January 2024, marking the 1,500th anniversary of her death, a relic of St Brigid will be brought back to Kildare, the place of her original burial and put on permanent display in the parish church.

The long-awaited return of St Brigid’s relics to Kildare is scheduled for this Sunday, 28 January. After arguably more than a millennium, a piece of the early medieval saint – a fragment of her skull – will be returned to the place where she founded her monastic complex and her original resting place. This event coincides with the 1,500th anniversary of St Brigid’s death, and a jam-packed festival has been organized to commemorate this important occasion.

On Sunday, 28 January, at 10:30am, a procession starting from the Solas Bhride Centre on Tully Road, just outside Kildare town, will accompany the saint’s corporeal relic to St Brigid’s parish church in Kildare. The revered relic will then be carried into the church by Bishop Denis Nulty of Kildare and Leighlin, who will preside over a special Mass scheduled for 11am.

Locals and pilgrims alike are looking forward to welcoming the saint “home” for this historic occasion. Organizers are anticipating a substantial turnout, with thousands of people expected. Attendees are encouraged to arrive early at the church.

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St Brigid of Kildare is the chief saint of the province of Leinster, ranking second only to St Patrick in Ireland’s hierarchy of saints. With all the recent talk of Brigid as a so-called “pagan goddess”, the real-life woman and true early medieval historical figure has been pushed aside. Disregarding her existence is to ignore that this powerful Irish female saint was one of the most revered women in Western Christendom. St Brigid left an enduring legacy, earning her the title “Mary of the Irish”, possibly as early as the 7th century.

St Brigid’s relics

In the 7th century, Cogitosus, the author of St Brigid’s Life, stated that Brigid – who died in the early 6th century – was buried beside the altar in Kildare and described her elaborately decorated tomb, which attracted vast numbers of pilgrims from far and wide.

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A (retrospective) entry in the Annals of Ulster for the year 524 AD reads: “Repose of St Brigit in the 70th year of her age.” The Annals of the Four Masters have the saint dying in 525 AD and its (retrospective) entry provides further details:

“Saint Brighit, virgin, Abbess of Cill Dara [Kildare], died. It was to her Cill Dara was first granted, and by her it was founded. Brighit was she who never turned her mind or attention from the Lord for the space of one hour, but was constantly meditating and thinking of him in her heart and mind, as is evident in her own Life, and in the Life of St. Brenainn, Bishop of Cluain Fearta [Clonfert]. She spent her time diligently serving the Lord, performing wonders and miracles, healing every disease and every malady, as her Life relates, until she resigned her spirit to heaven, the first day of the month of February; and her body was interred at Dun [Downpatrick], in the same tomb with Patrick, with honour and veneration.”

This entry reflects the belief that at some point during the early medieval period, St Brigid’s body was exhumed from its resting place in Kildare and then reinterred in Downpatrick in Co. Down, beside St Patrick and St Colum Cille. Typically, it is claimed that this happened in or around the 9th century in an effort to protect the saint’s remains from the threat of Viking raids. Over time, the (presumably unmarked) burial site of Ireland’s three patron saints in Downpatrick was forgotten.

However, the tradition of St Brigid’s reburial in Downpatrick is only traceable in the documentary sources to the late 12th century. For in 1185/86, the location of the saints’ graves in Downpatrick is said to have been rediscovered when a supernatural beam of light fell upon the gravesite in response to Bishop Malachy’s prayers.

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Some of the saintly bones were soon removed and a reliquary, containing bones from all three saints, was sent to Henry III in 1220. Later that century, in 1283, tradition has it that three Irish knights brought the skull of St Brigid to Portugal, now on display in St John’s Church in Lumiar, near Lisbon. Another purported fragment of St Brigid’s skull, initially held in Neustadt in Austria, arrived in Lisbon in 1587 and is now kept at the Jesuit church of São Roque.

Confusingly, a number of late 13th-century entries in the various annals tell a different tale: they state that the relics of Saints Patrick, Colum Cille and Brigid were revealed to Nicholas Mac Maoil Íosa, archbishop of Armagh, in Saul, Co. Down, where Patrick had founded his first church. The archbishop apparently had the remains of the saints exhumed “… and great virtues and miracles were afterwards wrought by means of them, and, after having been honourably covered, they were deposited in a shrine.”

Regardless of these records, there is strong historical evidence since the 7th century that St Patrick’s body is, in fact, buried in Downpatrick. In addition, during restoration work carried out in the late 18th century, three stone coffins, thought to hold the remains of the three saints, were found beneath the high altar in Downpatrick. These were subsequently reinterred outside the church, the site of which is now marked with a large boulder.

Regarding the relics of St Brigid that were sent overseas, several pieces of the Lumiar skull fragment found their way back to Ireland. Fragments were gifted to St Brigid’s Church in Kilcurry, Faughart, Co. Louth, in 1905 and to St Brigid’s Church in Killester, Co. Dublin, in 1929.

>>> READ MORE: St Gobnait: patron saint of ironworkers, beekeepers and Ballyvourney

The original religious congregation of St Brigid in Kildare was dissolved during the Reformation, but in 1807, Dr Daniel Delaney, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, re-established the Order of the Brigidine Sisters in Tullow, Co. Carlow. In the 1930s, these Brigidine Sisters of Tullow also acquired a portion of the Lumiar skull for private veneration, and it is this relic that will be returned to Kildare later this week.

Efforts to return the saint’s relics to Kildare were described as a “long process” by David Mongey, Chairman of Into Kildare:

“This year is the 1500th year of the passing of the saint and what could be more special than to bring St Brigid’s relics home, where she belongs? She built her church in Kildare and her legacy as a peacemaker and a protector of nature is still as relevant today as ever. It has been a long process to finally bring her relics back to the county and together with my colleagues at Into Kildare we would like to thank Kildare County Council and the Brigidine sisters for their great work in bringing Brigid home.”

On 28 January, the relic of St Brigid will go on permanent display in the parish church in Kildare, where it can be visited and venerated. This relic will be housed within a specially commissioned small silver sculpture of an oak tree, which is itself held in a red box and will be placed on a purpose-built display plinth within the church.

The many other events planned for the two-week “Brigid 1500” festival in Kildare can be found here.

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