Monday, March 18, 2019

St. Brigid's Well County Clare, Ireland

In the Provence of Munster are the counties, Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford (known for the beautiful Irish crystal made there.) In County Clare is the lunar Burren and Cliffs of Moor. Both are magnificent landmarks to see and explore but there is another place near the Cliffs also worth visiting and in fact is very moving - St. Brigid's Well.

There are several holy wells in Ireland and many of them are attributed to St. Brigid, born in AD 450 in Faughart, near Dundalk in Co. Louth.  a christian who lived during the same time as St. Patrick. This St. Brigid’s well differs from the others in a number of ways. It is one of the oldest wells rumored to have healing powers and the running sound of the water is audible.
It is housed in an open stone house or grotto that serves as a gateway to the ancient cemetery on the hill above it, accessible through steep paths and old stairs.
The graveyard is the final resting place of several mythical kings and clan leaders of Ireland. Some still celebrate Brigid’s roots by spending the pagan holiday of Lughnasadh in the circular sanctuary of this well. The natural beauty and the mysterious pull of this site make it special in a land known for its roadside shrines and mysticism.

Her father, Dubhthach, was a pagan chieftain of Leinster and her mother, Broicsech, was a Christian. It was thought that Brigid’s mother was born in Portugal but was kidnapped by Irish pirates and brought to Ireland to work as a slave, just like St. Patrick was. Brigid’s father named her after one of the most powerful goddesses of the pagan religion - the goddess of fire, whose manifestations were song, craftsmanship, and poetry, which the Irish considered the flame of knowledge. He kept Brigid and her mother as slaves even though he was a wealthy man. Brigid spent her earlier life cooking, cleaning, washing and feeding the animals on her father’s farm.

She lived during the time of St.Patrick and was so inspired by his preaching that she became a Christian. When Brigid turned eighteen, she stopped working for her father. Brigid’s father wanted her to find a husband, but Brigid had decided that she would spend her life working for God by looking after poor, sick and elderly people. Legend says that she prayed that her beauty would be taken away from her so no one would seek her hand in marriage; her prayer was granted. Brigid’s charity angered her father because he thought she was being too generous to the poor. When she finally gave away his jewel-encrusted sword to a leper, her father realized that she would be best suited to the religious life. Brigid finally got her wish and entered the convent. She received her veil from St. Macaille and made her vows to dedicate her life to God. Legend also says that Brigid regained her beauty after making her vows and that God made her more beautiful than ever. News of Brigid’s good works spread and soon many young girls from all over the country joined her in the convent. Brigid founded many convents all over Ireland; the most famous one was in Co. Kildare. It is said that this convent was built beside an oak tree where the town of Kildare now stands. Around 470 she also founded a double monastery, for nuns and monks, in Kildare. As Abbess of this foundation she wielded considerable power, but was a very wise and prudent superior. The Abbey of Kildare became one of the most prestigious monasteries in Ireland, and was famous throughout Christian Europe.

St. Brigid also founded a school of art, including metal work and illumination, over which St. Conleth presided. In the scriptorium of the monastery, the famous illuminated manuscript the Book of Kildare was created.

St. Brigid's Cross:
Making a St. Brigid’s cross is one of the traditional rituals in Ireland to celebrate the beginning of early spring, 1st February. The crosses are made of rushes that are pulled rather than cut. They are hung by the door and in the rafters to protect the house from fire and evil. According to tradition a new cross is made each St Brigid's Day, and the old one is burned to keep fire from the house. Many homes have several crosses preserved in the ceiling the oldest blackened by many years of hearth fires. Some believe that keeping a cross in the ceiling or roof is a good way to preserve the home from fire which was always a major threat in houses with thatch and wood roofs. St. Brigid and her cross are linked together by the story that she wove this form of cross at the death bed of either her father or a pagan lord, who upon hearing what the cross meant, asked to be baptized.
One version goes as follows: “A pagan chieftain from the neighborhood of Kildare was dying. Christians in his household sent for Brigid to talk to him about Christ. When she arrived the chieftain was raving. As it was impossible to instruct this delirious man, hopes for his conversion seemed doubtful. Brigid sat down at his bedside and began consoling him. As was customary, the dirt floor was strewn with rushes both for warmth and cleanliness. Brigid stooped down and started to weave them into a cross, fastening the points together. The sick man asked what she was doing. She began to explain the cross, and as she talked his delirium quieted and he questioned her with growing interest. Through her weaving, he converted and was baptized at the point of death. Since then the cross of rushes has been venerated in Ireland.”

St. Brigid died in AD 525 at the age of 75 and was buried in a tomb before the High Altar of her Abbey church. After some time, her remains were exhumed and transferred to Downpatrick to rest with the two other patron saints of Ireland, St. Patrick and St. Columcille. Her skull was extracted and brought to Lisbon, Portugal by two Irish noblemen, and it remains there to this day St. Brigid is the female patron saint of Ireland. She is also known as Muire na nGael or Mary of the Gael which means Our Lady of the Irish. Her feast day is the 1st of February which is the first day of Spring in Ireland.

***When I was in Ireland, our bus driver told was this story about St. Brigid's Cloak***
  "Le Chéile Faoi Bhrat Bhríde" (Together under St. Brigid's Cloak)
 St. Brigid went to the King of Leinster to ask for land to build a convent. She told the king that the place where she stood was the perfect place for a convent. It was beside a forest where they could collect firewood. There was also a lake nearby that would provide water and the land was fertile. The king laughed at her and refused to give her any land. Brigid prayed to God and asked him to soften the king’s heart. Then she smiled at the king and said “will you give me as much land as my cloak will cover?” The king thought that she was joking and because Brigid’s cloak was so small he knew that it would only cover a very small piece of land. The king agreed and Brigid spread her cloak on the ground. She asked her four friends to hold a corner of the cloak and walk in opposite directions. The four friends walked north, south, east and west. The cloak grew immediately and began to cover many acres of land. The king was astonished and he realized that she had been blessed by God. The king fell to the ground and knelt before Brigid and promised her and her friends money, food and supplies. Soon afterwards, the king became a Christian and also started to help the poor. Brigid’s miracle of the cloak was the first of many miracles that she worked for the people of Ireland.
Standing inside St. Brigid's Well amid the chill of the stone and the gurgle of the water was an incredibly emotional experience because of all the pictures, funeral cards, rosaries, crosses, and people's personal effects that loved ones have placed there, many with handwritten notes about someone who has died, is ill, or has disappeared.


Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Wilds of Ireland's West Coast

My favorite part of Ireland is the "wild" western shore where the Cliffs of Moher stand 702 feet high.  

On a clear day, views from the cliff tops include the Aran Islands, Galway Bay and the Twelve Bens mountain range. Located in west County Clare, the Cliffs are part of an archaeological hotspot, including the Burren that is home to 70 wedge tombs – some older than the pyramids – including the famous Poulnabrone dolmen, a portal tomb - one of approximately 172 in Ireland. This tomb was in use during the Neolithic and radiocarbon dates place its use between 3,800 - 3,600 BC.

The first excavation of Poulnabrone Dolmen was in 1986 and then again in 1988 by Ann Lynch. During this excavation, one portal stone was replaced, and the team excavated the chamber, portico, and cairn. The remains of up to 22 individuals from the Neolithic were found. Sixteen adults, six children, and one newborn (from the Bronze Age) were among the remains.

There are other treasures in western Ireland. Bunatty Castle, among them. A large 15th-century tower house, the castle in in the midst of Bunratty Village that displays thatched cottages where the people lived for centuries.

The present castle is the fourth structure, and it was built by the MacNamara family around 1425.

As much as I love the Cliffs of Moher, the Burren, and Bunratty Castle, my favorite place in County Clare is the coastal village of Doolin. Fisher Street has one of my favorite pubs in Ireland - O'Connors.
Know for its nightly traditional Irish music,  Gus O'Connor's pub offers old-style Irish dishes such as Shepherd's pie and Guinness stew. 

Coming up is the story of St. Brigid's Well, also in west County Clare.

Friday, November 23, 2018

There but for the Grace of God Go I

I've been blogging about my trip to Scotland, and now, I'm hopping over the Irish Sea to Ireland. About an hour flight or a longer ferry ride.

Today, I was looking at my kitchen, filled with Thanksgiving leftovers, and like so many other people this season, I gave thanks for my family and all the blessings I have received this year. I thought about all the news reports of Thanksgiving dinner being served by churches and community organizations to thousands of people across the country who otherwise would have had none, and I remembered the proverb, "There but for the grace of God go I."

I had repeated that same proverb to myself when I visited the Great Famine Memorial in County Clare, Ireland. Like many people in central Appalachia, I am of Irish heritage, and many times I have wondered if I had ancestors who died during the Great Potato Famine. During the period 1845-51 the country lost over one million of her inhabitants to starvation and starvation-related diseases and another million to emigration. In the decade after the Famine, another million souls fled the island.

County Clare was one of the places hardest hit when the potato crop failed. THE first identified victim of starvation during The Great Famine was a widow near Dysart[1845] and the last recorded starvation death, in April 1851, was a man in Ennis. It’s just one of the chilling facts outlined in a book by Clare historian, Dr Ciarán Ó Murchadha. A reporter in West Clare in 1846 wrote how locals “died as the birds do when the frost comes”, while coffin-less burials were widespread and dead children were brought to burial in panniers slung on donkeys.

The day I stood before the Great Famine Memorial, Thanksgiving dinner was the farthest thing from my mind, but today with the house still smelling of roast turkey, I remember standing before the monument, the cold wind stinging my face.

The memorial is comprised of two doors. (The doors represent the door to the workhouse. A place built to house paupers.) On the left, a child stands against a door. On the right is another door with an emaciated face and outstretched hands. (On the hands, someone had placed coins.)

 The message on the door reads:
There is a little boy named Michael 
Rice of Lahinch aged about 4 years
he is an orphan, his father having died 
last year and his mother has expired
on last Wednesday night, who is now
about being buried without a coffin!!
unless ye make some provision for
such. The child in question is now at
the workhouse gate expecting to be
admitted if not he will starve.
                  Robs S. Constable 

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh Castle dominates the skyline of Edinburgh, Scotland, perched above the town on the aptly named, Castle Rock. A fortress since the Iron Age (2nd century AD), this castle has existed in different forms and structures but exist it has, populated by Scots. It was a royal residence from the time of King David (12th century) until 1633.

I visited this wondrous place and found it filled with history and real treasures, among them the Scottish Crown Jewels (not allowed to be photographed), but take my word, they were glorious.
I will take you through the castle and revisit my time there with pictures. I'll start in the oldest part of the castle, St. Margaret's Chapel that has existed since the 12th century. Somehow it escaped the artillery bombardment that destroyed most of the castle in the 16th century.

The chapel is very small but quietly beautiful. According to history, in March 1314 the castle was captured by Robert the Bruce. He destroyed all the buildings in the castle, except for the little chapel.

The Great Hall was added in the early 16th century and is filled with swords, dirks, pikes, armor, and other priceless artifacts. The Great Hall was built as a place of royal ceremony for King James IV. It has a wooden roof made from wood that was shipped from Norway.

One of the places I most wanted to see was the room where Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to her son who became James VI and I. He was King of Scotland as James VI from 24 July 1567 and King of England and Ireland as James I from the union of the Scottish and English crowns on 24 March 1603 until his death in 1625. The tiny room looked barely big enough to hold a bed.

Queen Mary's rooms were a good bit bigger and more regal, befitting a queen. However, Mary's life was rife with unpopular marriages and tragedy. In 1567, she was forced to abdicate in favor of her one-year-old son. She turned to the one person for help, her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, that was instead her enemy. Elizabeth imprisoned Mary because she had once claimed Elizabeth's throne. For 18 and a half years, she moved Mary around from castles to manor houses before beheading her for treason.

There were many other things to see in the castle. Here are some pictures:

Outside the castle there are more places to explore. One of the most interesting to me was the dog cemetery, with headstones.

And this wee Scot who seemed to need a bit of help with that cannon ball.

Perhaps the grandest part of the castle is the view. The entire city of Edinburgh lies at feet of Castle Rock.