Saturday, 28 June 2014

   St Brigid (Brigit, Bridget, Bride, Briege and other variants; Irish: Naomh Bríd) of Kildare, c. 451–525, also known as St Brigid of Ireland, is believed to have been a contemporary and co-Apostle of the Irish, so to speak, with St Patrick. According to the Book of Armagh;

“Between St. Patrick and St. Brigid, the pillars of the Irish people, there was so great a friendship of charity that they had but one heart and one mind. Through him and through her Christ performed many great works.”

Historical, legendary and mythical details of her life are difficult to untangle, but tradition holds that she was a nun and Abbess, and founder of several monasteries for both men and women, of which Kildare, south west of Dublin, was the most famous and important. She may have been born at Faughart, to Dubhthach, of the local pagan nobility, and Brocca, a Pictish slave, baptised by St Patrick. Sometimes known as Mary of the Gael, she is associated with the distinctive Crosóg Bhríde, a cross made of reeds, sewn together by her, so the story goes, for the edification of a dying chieftain, to whom she administered the rite of baptism. She is especially invoked as a protector of chastity for nuns, and among the many hundreds of churches around the world of which she is patron, in virtue of the existence of St Bride’s CofE Church on Fleet Street in the City of London, she has a special place in the life of British newspaper journalism. The Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates her in the following troparion:

“O holy Brigid, thou didst become sublime through thy humility, and didst fly on the wings of thy longing for God. When thou didst arrive in the Eternal City and appear before thy Divine Spouse, wearing the crown of virginity, thou didst keep thy promise to remember those who have recourse to thee. Thou dost shower grace upon the world, and dost multiply miracles. Intercede with Christ our God that He may save our souls.” [quoted in Wikipedia]

   At her shrine in Faughart one is encouraged to follow prayer ‘stations’, on either side of a pretty stream running through the site. The spirituality strongly reminded me of Station Island; St Patrick’s Purgatory, on Lough Derg, Donegal. Slightly misunderstanding the directions however, I completed only the first part of the prayer formulas before it was time to be picked up, and taken for an excursion up the Hill of Faughart, on top of which is an ancient-looking mound, apparently the final resting place of Edward Bruce, younger brother of Robert the Bruce. Invited to Ireland in 1315 by the powerful O’Neill clan, Edward and a Scottish army secured most of Ulster, but after three years of bloody campaigning elsewhere with varying degrees of success, in the shadow of a horrendous famine ravaging the whole of Europe at the time, in October 1318 he was killed and his army defeated at the Battle of Faughart.[1] So his Irish campaign could be seen as a failure, except that ever after, the English were deprived of their ability to use Ulster as a base from which to invade Scotland, as they were wont to do before. As the light failed, my guide also indicated a gently undulating expanse in the middle distance. The Moiry Pass or Gap of the North is a narrow point allowing access to Ulster, unencumbered by forest or mountains, and therefore the scene of numerous ambushes, battles and skirmishes over the centuries.
The Moiry Pass or Gap of the North
   It was then time to get back into his all-terrain vehicle for the short drive to Dundalk. On the way, I ventured that Ireland might be called ‘The Island of Saints’, at which he informed me that traditionally it was known as The Island of Saints and Scholars. Arriving in the city centre I was given 20 euros for something to eat; in return, I was glad at least to give this gentleman my penultimate Child 31 DVD, and a Mary’s Meals prayer card with my contact details.

   A homeless shelter to which I was directed in Dundalk turned out not to be able to take in pilgrims, so I headed back to the centre in search of a place to improvise, which materialised when I came via a broken gate to a back yard, where there was a suitably concealed area underneath some steps. After contending with brambles for a while, eventually I was able to settle down for quite a good sleep, warmer than South Armagh because Dundalk is significantly lower down.

   Next morning, Pentecost Sunday 19th May, as I left my improvised lodging I came across a 50 euro note, but seeing immediately that it must have fallen from outside the door at the top of the steps where I’d been sleeping, reluctantly I posted it through the letterbox. Having taken note of Mass times at the cathedral (another one dedicated to St Patrick), on the way to a posh hotel where I could get a cup of coffee I passed a sign on a building said to occupy the site of Mortimer’s Castle, where, 

Reputedly Edward Bruce crowned himself King of Ireland in 1316 here.” 

   The priest at Mass focussed on the sanctity of human life in his homily, so I made a point of giving him some leaflets about Our Lady of Guadalupe and prayers for Ireland afterwards, as well as a Mary’s Meals leaflet. At another posh hotel where I stopped for another coffee on the outskirts of Dundalk, I found myself at a table next to a large harp[2]. Much of the walk from there was along very long straight stretches of road, in sunny weather. Just past Castle Bellingham I was spotted by a guy in a crowd of spectators, watching a game indicated by a nearby sign; O’Connell’s Gaelic Football Club. He gestured to me to go over and watch, so I did – and what a tremendous spectacle! I saw half an hour or so of skilful, fast and fluent action, fusing the best elements of football, rugby and basketball. The weather continued fine as I made my way from there to a pub in Dunleer, where the barman apprised me of typically galling tidings on the North London football front. With all three big London clubs winning 1:0 – quelle surprise – Arsenal had elbowed their way into the last Champions’ League place once again, at Tottenham’s expense; deflating especially, because it left us without any hope of keeping hold of Bale. Narked and weary I trudged on, and gave serious consideration to trying to spend the night under a dolmen at a recreated ‘Stone Henge’-type place, in a village called Monasterboice.[3] Electing however to try to reach Drogheda, a couple of kilometres past there ‘Anne’, a school teacher, pulled over and offered me a lift, in spite of the fact that she wouldn’t normally consider doing such a thing; it was only because I looked tired. Not needing a second invitation, I mentioned how much I’d enjoyed the Gaelic football match, but I couldn’t quite assent to her view that the ‘Home Rules’ version is actually better than its Association cousin. Another of the things that came up in our discussion was the matter of relics, so I set out to explain how Christian pilgrimage really depends, to a great extent, on acknowledgement of their importance.

[1] After my return home I learnt that English King Edward II’s troops were commanded by one John de Bermingham, a detail which almost made me rub my eyes in disbelief, because later in the pilgrimage I met and had long conversations with an Irishman called John Bermingham!
[2] The Celtic harp (cláirseach in Irish, clàrsach in Scottish Gaelic) has been closely associated with both native Irish and Scots Gaelic aristocracy since around the turn of the last millennium or earlier. In the Republic of Ireland it appears on coins and the national coat of arms.
[3] Famous for a 5th century monastic settlement and two great 10th century high crosses, which I missed.

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