On the trail of a Celtic goddess: the Irish town celebrating St Brigid
09.02.2024 - 11:14
“She really believed that if she brewed a lake of beer, it would solve the problems of the world …”
When publican and brewer Judith Boyle, whose family has been in pubs and beer for five generations, utters these words in her namesake bar in the commuter town of Kildare (a 30-minute train ride from Dublin), you’d be forgiven for thinking that she was talking about an ale-making relative. But in fact she’s referring to St Brigid, a woman who – I was learning – is the patron saint of (among many things) beer.
“They say she made dirty water into beer and managed to share a single pot of ale with her entire parish of 18 churches,” says Judith, as I sup on her new batch of Brigid Ale – a malty braggot made sweet with the honey from her beekeeper dad’s hives. “Every year in January we make Brigid’s crosses, and on the first of February children in the town get the day off school.”
This year it’s not just Kildare schoolchildren who get a day off. In 2023 the Irish government decided to add a new public holiday to the national calendar and, after much campaigning, Brigid’s feast day was chosen.
The legend of Brigid begins in AD451, but here in Kildare it starts at the Heritage Centre with a virtual reality adventure – stop one of five on the St Brigid’s Trail. I head there the next morning and pull on a VR headset to meet Brigid, the pagan goddess of fire, and am soon being flown through 1,500 years of history on the wing of a peregrine falcon.
“Brigid is a very ancient name,” says my real life guide and centre manager Tom McCutcheon. “It links back to the Celtic mother goddess, Danu. Prior to Christianity, people worshipped deities and goddesses, and here Brigid was one of them.”
It’s late January, and despite the cooler weather and dark nights, there’s a real buzz in Kildare. That’s because this 1 February marks 1,500 years since St Brigid’s death – which will be honoured with two weeks’ worth of celebrations in the town, from fire and light shows to guided meditative walks, craft workshops, music concerts and storytelling for kids.
After meeting the goddess, I am introduced (via VR technology) to Brigid the farmer – daughter of a slave and a free man of good standing – who is busy milking cows and giving away her father’s sword to a homeless family so that they can sell it to buy food. Then she morphs, seamlessly, into the saint whose name adorns the nearby cathedral and church a few minutes’ walk away.
“The Irish name for Kildare is Cill Dara – church of the oak,” says Tom. “The cathedral stands where St Brigid built her first monastery.”
I wander over to the cathedral grounds – currently only opened for a service on Sundays and special events – where a huge stone building rises above every other