St. Brigid of Kildare is regarded as Ireland’s second Saint, who is associated with fertility, healing and water. She was said to have performed many miracles including turning water into beer! Her patronage extends to dairy workers, blacksmiths, midwives and travellers. Brigid is said to have been born into a noble family at Faughart, Dundalk in 451 A.D, approximately 20 years after the arrival of St. Patrick to Ireland. Her story in Ireland is legendary and for the purposes of this article I won’t elaborate on these. Brigid, if she really existed, is without doubt equated with the Celtic Goddess Bríg, of which both share the same feast day of 1st February or Imbolc, an important event in the solar cycle which is halfway between the winter and spring equinox, when life and growth begins to emerge from the darkness of the winter months. An event that is has been marked in by our ancestors thousands of years ago with passage tomb alignments on this solar calendar day such as at “The Mound of the Hostages” at Tara and Loughcrew in Co. Meath. Whatever your preference Brigid; Goddess or Godly, the idea or concept of such a person or entity had an enormous impact throughout Ireland, and this can be still observed in the landscape today.
In Co. Laois there are numerous sites attributed to Brigid. Typically, these include areas where Early Medieval Ecclesiastical remains are found, as one might expect for a saint. Holy wells in Laois also bare her name. In the years after the death of Brigid, “cult of saints” became commonplace throughout Ireland and clearly the cult of Brigid was one particularly important movement. Ecclesiastic settlements which adopted this cult may have been politically aligned especially with the Kingdom of Leinster. These sites were also likely places of pilgrimage. In Laois we have townlands such as Kilbride near Portarlington and Kilbreedy, northwest of Rathdowney, both of which are anglicized names associated with a Church (Kill) of Brigid. Both these townlands are at opposite corners of the county representing a wide geographical area in terms of the cult and its location. Kilbreedy, has a ruined church and a now dried up well which are dedicated to the saint. At Rosenallis, we find another Early Medieval church site dedicated to the saint. We also find holy wells at Ballintubbert, Morett and Aharney near Cullahill associated with Brigid. A large Ecclesiastic site which is virtually untouched in its rural setting at Ballybuggy is another place dedicated to the first nun and female saint of Ireland. Interestingly, Ballybuggy, located near Rathdowney was also the site of a large nunnery and a stone there is believed to be a place where Brigid prayed, which bares the indentation of her head and is still believed to have curative properties, especially useful for headaches. A large ballaun stone at Morett also bares an indentation of what is said to be the knees of Brigid whilst she prayed there in the 5th Century. This well at Morett is also the source of Glasha a tributary of the Barrow, highlighting the importance of the Saint perhaps with regards to an earlier water cult stemming back to the days of the Goddess Brigid. At Clonenagh, one of seven reputed burial grounds or church sites at this significant Early Medieval Ecclesiastic complex is recorded as being St. Brigids’ burial ground. Local folklore from the area, records that when St. Fintan was building the church at Clonenagh, St. Brigid helped him acquire sand from the esker ridge at Portlaoise so as he could lay the foundations of the church there. It is also said that St. Fintan had connections to the Faughart tribe or family. Was there also cult of Brigid here at Clonenagh?
From the 1937 folklore collection there are over 30 accounts recorded of Brigid, in terms of cures, sites in the landscape and placenames. Even today despite the recent movement towards a more secular society, St. Brigids day is still a fascinating event with reed crosses still made at homes and hung throughout the year to protect the house and its inhabitants.