The word "Kildare" is derived from the pagan name Cill-Dara, meaning the "Church of the Oak." Kildare was a famous pagan sanctuary where a sacred fire burned for centuries into the Christian era. In a clear act of assimilation, the tradition of 19 virgins keeping the fire alive carried on until 1220, when the archbishop of Dublin finally had it ordered extinguished. In 1993, the flame was re-lit and has been burning ever since. Brigid's Fire House is located in the churchyard of Saint Brigid's Cathedral in the center of Kildare. Inside the cathedral there is a Sheela-na-Gig sculpture (a female figure displaying her vagina) on the 16th century tomb of Bishop Wellesley. The pagan-influenced "sheela" has her legs parted and her pubic hair showing.

Brigid's Well, also called Tobar Bride, is about a mile away from the fire sanctuary. Many feel the site represents both the Catholic saint and the pagan goddess. The holy site contains a statue of Saint Brigid (sometimes spelled Brigitte) in her nun's regalia alongside a natural well of remedial waters. Since Neolithic times, the water of certain wells was known for their ability to heal. Other examples are Clonegal in Ireland and Chartres in France. These wells, now devoted to the Virgin Mary, continue to have a miraculous reputation. Certain sacred wells are believed to help women become fertile or cure the sick.

Kildare was a renowned pagan site before being associated with Saint Brigid.

Christianity was slow to be accepted in Druidic Ireland, taking several centuries before the transition was complete. Even with the wane of paganism in Ireland, many practices were eagerly assimilated. Christianity effectively superimposed itself on Celtic tradition as celebrations of pagan importance became associated with Christian worship. A good example is Imbolg on February 1st, a date very sacred to the Druids. This springtime pagan festival eventually became replaced by Saint Brigid's feast day.

Examining the life of Saint Brigid is not so easy, since many questions arise of exactly who she was and what time period she came from. Brigid (meaning the "exalted one") was the name of a pagan goddess long before Christianity arrived. The Celts regarded her as a powerful female deity, who imparted upon followers her enhanced learning abilities, along with artistic and poetic skills. She could be called upon for assistance in childbirth or healing. The pagan Brigid had power

▲ Saint Brigid has at least eight sacred wells devoted to her throughout Ireland, but none are more popular than her shrine at Kildare.

over the animal kingdom as well. Thus, the name Brigid was popular among girls at the time of Christianity's arrival. To further complicate matters there are said to be no less than 15 saints in Ireland with the name of Brigid!

The Brigid who became the Abbess of a nunnery at Kildare is the popular saint commonly worshipped today. However, it should be noted that others with the same name likely preceded her at Kildare. The commonly told story of her life speaks of a girl who was born to a pagan Irish king named Dubhtach. She was baptized and began living with other Christian nuns. Around 480 she founded a Christian double monastery (nuns and monks) at Kildare by either converting the Druidic sanctuary or by building a new site on top of the old, depending on which story is consulted. The attributes of the pagan Brigid were readily perceived in the saint, who established a convent at Kildare. The monastery she founded featured a school of art, where the Book of Kildare, a famous illuminated manuscript, was created. By the time of Saint Brigid's death, claimed to be on February 1st 525 ce, Kildare had become an important center of learning. She is buried at Downpatrick with Saint Patrick, whom she co-shares the title of Ireland's patron saint.

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