On the trail of a Celtic goddess: the Irish town celebrating St Brigid | Ireland holidays

“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.

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“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.

Judith Boyle serves Brigid Ale. Photograph: Phoebe Smith

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.

The well on Brigid’s Trail. Photograph: Phoebe Smith

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 mass on Sundays and special events – where a huge stone building rises above every other structure in the town. According to tradition, Brigid came here in AD480 and made her monastery co-ed – teaching both men and women.

Among the Christian iconography, there also sits an old, weathered Celtic cross, and a rectangular stone enclosure said to mark the spot where the Celtic goddess lit her flame, which nuns tended for centuries.

Ribbons and gifts hang from the ‘clootie tree’. Photograph: Stephen Barnes/Religion/Alamy

The flame no longer burns here – it is thought to have been extinguished in the 16th century during the Reformation – but on the southern edge of town, at the spiritual centre known as Solas Bhride, the last two Brigidine sisters guard a reignited version. Despite the overt Christian link with the nuns, the dichotomy continues here. Their schedule features both ecclesiastical and secular events – from meditation sessions to historical lectures. And the nuns tell me they follow both the liturgical and natural calendar.

“We mark the rhythm of the year,” says Sister Phil O’Shea as we sit in front of the flickering light. “Both the equinoxes and the solstices, as well as Advent, Easter and Christian feasts.”

I take part in a cross-weaving workshop with Phil, where I learn that though a cross is said to represent the crucifix, its four arms are also believed to symbolise the seasons and the elements. “Some people see Brigid only as a goddess. Some see Brigid the saint as an embodiment of the goddess. Each generation will reinvent the legend in their own way,” says Phil.

The centre offers three self-contained, circular-shaped hermitages for people (of all and no faiths) to stay in – with no TV or wifi – for quiet reflection. I love the idea of shutting myself away hermit-like here, but it appears I’m not alone, as all of them are booked. So I head back to Kildare to my more salubrious hermit cell in the form of Rooms at Firecastle (doubles from €130 B&B). Mine has a king-size bed, rainforest shower and a large picture window that overlooks the cathedral.

The next day I visit the final two sites on Brigid’s Trail, including her holy well, where woven Brigid crosses and rosary beads hang from church-like lancet arcs, alongside a pagan “clootie tree” covered in ribbons, honouring the goddess. I also call in to her namesake parish church, where worshippers chant a prayer in Irish while a gospel choir rehearses for the Brigid celebration on 1 February (also the date of Imbolc in the pre-Christian calendar, marking the start of spring).

Part of the Herstory Light Show on St Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Between the sites I chat to locals in Hartes gastropub (which serves sustainable, traceable and seasonal meat and produce) and learn about the legend of how Kildare came to be. Apparently, the king of Leinster – a miserly fellow – when asked by Brigid if she could site her monastery on the hilltop, said she could only claim the land she could fit under her cloak. She agreed, and threw out her mantle to cover the entire town and surrounding rolling grassland, known as The Curragh or, locally, Brigid’s Pastures.

On my final morning I visit the 2,000 hectares she managed to acquire. There are no walking trails, though Sister Phil said they are working on creating one that connects “all corners of Brigid’s cloak”. I wander regardless, making my own way across the undulating ground. After half an hour I find myself inside a rectangle of deciduous trees, an old fox’s covert, and come face to face with an oak peace pole placed here by the Friends of St Brigid, Cairde Bhride.

After a long weekend in Kildare, I’m more fascinated than ever by Brigid. A goddess, saint and woman who stood for helping others, empowering women, caring for the environment and – very importantly – making enough beer for everyone.

The trip was provided by Fáilte Ireland. Kildare is a 45-minute drive or 30-minute train ride from Dublin, which can be reached by train and Irish Ferries from Holyhead and Pembroke, from £43.20 each way

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