Wander Woman: A Travel Podcast

Wander Woman Extra: Would the real Brigid please stand up?

January 28, 2024 Phoebe Smith Season 2
Wander Woman: A Travel Podcast
Wander Woman Extra: Would the real Brigid please stand up?
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Celtic goddess? Catholic Saint? Or master beer brewer? February 1st marks St Brigid's Day – as well as the pagan festival of Imbolc, which elebrates the coming of spring, which the Irish Government have declared to be a public holiday.
But who was the Brigid behind Ireland's female patron saint? The stories are many - from the igniter of an eternal flame, protector of the earth, the environment and animals; to the girl who gave away her father's sword to the poor so that they could sell it for food; and the saint who manage to claim The Curragh lands under her mythical cloak . And did we mention the woman who brewed enough beer to satiate her entire parish of 18 churches in a single pot?
Fascinated by this indisputable Wander Woman, adventurer Phoebe Smith heads to Kildare in Ireland (just a 30 minute train ride from Dublin), in association with Tourism Ireland, to go on the St Brigid Trail in a mission to find out who she really was. There's reed weaving, well visiting, storytelling and - of course - ale tasting. Come wander with her...

www.Phoebe-Smith.com; @PhoebeRSmith

Speaker 1:

On this special episode of the Wander Woman podcast.

Speaker 2:

She really believed that if she brewed a lake of beer it would solve the problems of the world.

Speaker 1:

I go to Kildare in association with Tourism Ireland in search of the real woman behind the legend of St Brigid.

Speaker 3:

Some people see Bridget only as a goddess. Some people see the Bridget the saint as just an embodiment of the goddess. So, as one of the historians said, she's malleable.

Speaker 1:

I try reed weaving with a history lesson, on the side with one of the last Brigidene sisters of Kildare, and I hear the many facets of the woman believed to have inspired the legend of Ireland's only female patron saint.

Speaker 4:

he's linked to Smithcraft, blacksmiths, poetry, sustainability, is obviously a charismatic female leader, kindness, peace.

Speaker 1:

You're listening to an extra bonus episode of the Wander Woman podcast, an audio travel magazine. With me, adventurer Phoebe Smith exploring off-the-beaten track destinations, responsible travel, wildlife encounters and the unsung heroes behind conservation efforts. Come wonder with me. I'm stood at St Brigid's well. It's windy, it's rainy, there's water running under a bridge. There's a statue that's quite recent of St Brigid next to the water. She's holding her eternal flame, next to a series of arches that someone's hung a St Brigid's cross in. What do you know about St Brigid? I'll confess not being religious. I knew very little. Growing up in Wales, I recall there was a nearby school that bore her name. On my travels I've occasionally spotted a church or a street that her name appears on, but I've paid no real attention. Until last year when the Irish government declared a new bank holiday in Ireland to coincide with St Brigid's Day on February the 1st. As a lover of stories of strong women, I was intrigued what had given this particular one her own special day, and so, on my recent adventure to the Emerald Isle, I decided to try and decipher the real Brigid behind the Saint and find out if she even existed at all.

Speaker 4:

My name is Tom McCutcheon and I'm the manager of Kildare Town Heritage Centre and Tourist Office.

Speaker 1:

Kildare, for those who don't know, sits just a 30 minute train ride or 45 minute drive from Dublin, easily reached by rail or road. It's an unassuming commuter town, famed among horse racing fans, with a modest population of just over 10,000 souls. It may be small in size, but it's a place that gave its name to the entire county within which it sits and also was the home of a woman called Brigid, who lived here back in the 5th century, as Tom explains.

Speaker 4:

Well, we know that basically her mum was a slave. Her father was a chief in . They think that her mum may have come from Portugal originally, but she grew up basically half-slave and half-free person and she was supposedly very beautiful and her father wanted her to marry, and obviously into some sort of alliance, and she basically didn't and she saw her life very differently. But even from early age people could see how kind she was. Like when her parents were there. Often the food was gone because someone poor would come to the house looking for something to eat and she would give everything. She's linked to Smithcraft, blacksmiths, poetry, sustainability, obviously charismatic female leader, kindness, peace.

Speaker 1:

And was she from Kildare or did she come to Kildare? What's the theory there?

Speaker 4:

We say that she was born in a place called Umeras, which is probably five or six kilometers away from here, like four or five miles near between here and , and she was looking for a site for her church. She went to the king of Lentster because there was already a sacred grove here of oak trees and linked to the fire temple.

Speaker 1:

I'm going to cut in here and tell you a little bit about the legend of Brigid the Goddess, which I learned in this centre courtesy of the impressive VR presentation that whisks visitors back 1500 years into the past. It starts by transporting us to the circle of oak trees that Tom refers to, where the cathedral today now stands, hence the Irish name for the town Kill Dara the Church of the Oak. We're watching a group of pagan women surrounding a fire which they swear to keep burning forever. The Briga, for she has many . She's a figure who predated Christianity, celebrated by Celts across Europe, linked to Mother Earth and the region around the Danube. In Germany, she became known as the Goddess of Fire, and some theorists and historians believe that the Celtic Bridget was adopted by Christianity in order to convert pagans. Now back to Tom.

Speaker 4:

She went to the King of Lenster who was notoriously mean and he, she kept at him and he said no, no, no. And eventually he said lay down your cloak and you can have as much land as your cloak and cover. And obviously it's spread out, they say, to cover all of the Curragh plains. So in local terms the Curragh is often referred to as Brigid's Pastures.

Speaker 1:

The Curragh is a huge expanse of common land, around 2000 hectares in size. It's home to the largest fenn or wetland in Ireland and consists of rolling grassland with no hedges, making it quite a spectacle to behold. Traditionally it was a gathering place and a place to graze animals. Now it's used to train horses for the nearby racetrack. After speaking to Tom, I drove out to these Brigid Pastures to see just how big an area it was that a single woman could claim with just one cloak. This is the Curragh. It's just endless stretches of sort of crumpled green marshland, for want of a better word. It's just incredible to think that she stood on these same lands, or a woman called Brigid did, and helped claim them for the people, for agriculture, really, and for somewhere to live and for drinking water and healthy places to drink and eat. It really is beautiful. After visiting the Curragh and getting a sense of the size of the landscape that Brigid managed to claim from the Miserly King, I asked Tom how it could possibly be based on any truth.

Speaker 4:

There is a practical way to look at that. Brigid was a person of high standing and she could have had a silk cloak. Yeah, she took a thread of four of her followers, took a thread from each corner of the cloak and walked in opposite directions. She could have spanned out and covered the whole Curragh.

Speaker 1:

So I asked Tom does he believe that Saint Brigid was actually a real person?

Speaker 4:

There was a writer a couple of years ago. He was the education officer for the National Museum. Yeah, he spent 15 years collecting and collating everything you can imagine about Brigid poetry, songs, everything and putting it together and his conclusion he went in with a very objective view was if Brigid didn't exist, it was the greatest con ever.

Speaker 1:

I left the Heritage Centre and walked to the Cathedral, formally the Circle of Oak Trees and the site where it's believed Saint Brigid ran her co-ed monastery. That's one that teaches both men and women together - very forward thinking for the time. The grand stone building that stands there today was closed for repairs on my visit, but in the grounds there is a monument said to mark the spot where the eternal flame burned until the Reformation of the Church saw it extinguished in the 16th century. Though that light went out, a little down the road I met a woman responsible for bringing it back.

Speaker 3:

My name is Phil O'Shea. We're in Solas Bhride Centre in Kildare Town to give its full title. Solas Bhride Centre and Hermitage and it's a not-for-profit organisation, a Christian Spirituality Centre, which focus on unfolding the legacy of Saint Brigid and how that can speak to us today.

Speaker 1:

Sister Phil is one of only two Brigidene sisters left in Kildare, who 30 years ago came to the town and nearly 10 years ago opened the centre Solas Bhride, or the light of Brigid, where Brigid's eternal flame now lives and never goes out. You heard her mention hermitages. These are self-contained apartments that they rent out to people of any or no religion for time for reflection. I met Phil to discuss who she thought Brigid was and her relevance today.

Speaker 3:

Brigid because she's pre-recorded history is malleable. Some people see Brigid only as a goddess. Some people see Brigid as the saint, as just an embodiment of the goddess. So, as one of the historians said, she's malleable and each generation can reinvented her in thier own way. So I suppose it depends on which Brigid you come to.

Speaker 1:

We talked about Brigid as being a sustainable saint, one who was a tune to the earth, who wasn't wasteful, who valued nature, which also links to her history as a pagan goddess too. Her feast day in Christianity is the 1st of February, which marks the first day of spring, or in pre-Christian times Imbolc, and it seems that the sisters of Brigidene share this duality of the ecclesiastical beliefs with the pagan ones.

Speaker 3:

We marked the rhythm of the year, the natural season and the liturgical season. So we would have things for, for example, we would mark the equinoxes and the solstice, through the lens, I suppose, of caring for the earth and that whole Celtic sense of the divine presence being in and through everything and also our call to care for the earth today. So we think it's lovely to mark the rhythm of the seasons and then our Advent and Easter and Lent, you know our Christian feasts as well, incorporated into it.

Speaker 1:

Before I left, Sister Phil brought out some rushes which they used to weave what's known as Brigid's cross. Always made of natural material. It's said that Brigid herself made it to explain her Christian beliefs to a pagan chieftain, but there are others who say its four arms represent the four seasons or the four elements earth, water, air and, of course, fire. I watched as she took a cluster of green grasses and transformed them into a work of art and then asked me to do the same. It's funny because it feels so strong and at the same time, it's so vulnerable. That is a very.

Speaker 3:

You know, when we're reflecting, sometimes we do anything, meditation on it, you know. There's a lovely Irish phrase which says . We're only strong when we're together.

Speaker 1:

I left with my Brigid cross in hand and visited her holy well, where other crosses hung and prayers and Christian candles sat by her statue, alongside a tree which was tied with ribbons or clooties an old spiritual offering that's dipped in the well or spring, and said to help with healing something that predates the church by thousands of years. Whilst I sat under the statue of Brigid - always placed on the ground rather than raised on a plinth to show her connection to the land, to people - I considered how, whether she was real or not, her legacy does live on in the local people. Back in the town, I was staying in a place called Fire Castle, a Deli-B akery and Hotel next to the cathedral, and I see ask the owner Paul, a native Kildarian: "Has she been something of an inspiration for you as a businessman?

Speaker 5:

Well, you know, I suppose, probably through you know, I suppose, when you look at it, maybe that's what's built into us. You know what I mean? We've kind of grown up with it and she is everything. Look, we're always trying to make things more sustainable. So I suppose, yeah, it's, we've kind of morphed. It's probably morphed its way through me and it's probably it embodies everything we do. But certainly, you know, we try to do it to be as sustainable as possible.

Speaker 1:

From inspiring sustainable business practices to caring for nature, promoting education for all and helping those less fortunate. Brigid certainly seemed like the kind of woman I could get on board with, but if I was still sat on the fence, there was one last person I was about to meet who would convince me.

Speaker 2:

So Brigid is the patron saint of brewing.

Speaker 1:

That's right. Among all her many talents, brigid was also the brewer of beer, much like Judith Boyle, a fourth generation publican here in Kildare.

Speaker 2:

She really believed that if she brewed like a beer it would solve the problems of the world, and so she believed that if she could brew and people got around kind of a cauldron or a pot of beer and shared it out, that people would solve each other's problems. So basically, you know, she was obviously really good at socialising and then there was a lot of writings about the fact that she used to brew for a lot of the other monasteries around as well, and historically, in relation to beer, lots of beer in the UK and Ireland were brewed by monasteries first and then doled out, basically either to cure an element or if people couldn't drink the water. It was a light and safer way of drinking at the time.

Speaker 1:

There's even a story that, a lot like in the Bible where Jesus turns water into wine, Brigid is said to make one barrel of beer quench the thirst of an entire parish of 18 churches. Whether or not you think that's a true story, it certainly inspired Judith and her sister Susan to attempt to do the same. They formed two sisters brewing and created us Brigid's Ale in her honour.

Speaker 2:

So the idea with Brigid's Ale was that it was supposed to kind of, I suppose, celebrate everything that was Brigid. So we wanted to use homegrown malt and barley, or homegrown barley that was malted here, and then we also put honey in our ale, so it kind of signified the whole kind of Brigid side of things. So there was an ancient style of beer called a braggot, which was either mead and beer mixed together to make a kind of a honey ale, or else honey was added to the ale. So we add - our dad's a beekeeper- so we added his honey to the beer and then put in some hops that were kind of earthy hops to kind of symbolise the kind of again nod, to kind of that agriculturalness to it. And then, yeah, and we brewed this beer and it was a small batch of beer and we had it at the tasting and everyone said it was amazing. And then we were like, yeah, that's lovely, that's done. Tick. And then a couple of weeks later people came in and were like, oh, do you have any more of that beer? And we're like no, no, no, no, we weren't doing it. No, no, it was a one-off. It was just a thing, we might have it next year. And then people kept asking for it. So we were like, okay, let's do this commercially. So we don't have a brewery or anything we gypsy brewish who will ever take us? And then we have a recipe and we brew it and then we sell it in the pub downstairs.

Speaker 1:

After a long weekend in Kildare on Brigid's Trail, I wasn't sure I was any closer to discovering if she truly was real, but the qualities that Brigid the Goddess, the saint and the woman stood for, helping others, empowering women, caring for the earth and making enough beer for everyone, means that one thing's for sure - her legend has certainly spanned further than a magic cloak ever did, and we can all drink to that. This has been a special Wander Woman Extra episode brought to you in association with podcast partners Tourism Island. For more inspiring stories from the road, travel hacks, gear chat and inspirational Wander Women around the world. Do subscribe so that you never miss an episode and please do leave a review. It means so much. You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram @PhoebeR Smith, and go to my website, phoebe-smith. com, to get in touch. This Wonder Woman Extra episode was written and edited by me, Phoebe Smith. The producer is Daniel Nielsen. The logo was designed by John Summerton. Thanks to all the people I met on my journey and were willing to talk to me. It's because of you that this podcast is able to happen at all.

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Brigid's Ale and Sustainable Business
Credits for Wander Woman Extra Episode