Saint Brigid's Well, just outside Kildare Town proper, is one of the lesser-known attractions connected to the Irish saints - even visitors to the nearby Irish National Stud seldom spare a second thought, let alone take the short excursion.
Which is highly unfortunate. The well actually is a very spiritual place with ancient connections. And despite the modern make-over of the site (a triumph in landscaping, though maybe a bit too streamlined), one can still sense that the area has been "special" to many people for ages. And maybe to several faiths through the ages ... after all, it is said that Brigid was a goddess before she became a saint.
Brigid is an interesting character, from whichever angle you approach her - supposedly converted by Saint Patrick himself, she threw herself into ecclesiastical life with abandon.
To prevent marriage to a man, she disfigured herself - that is a common legend, none of the numerous images of her reflect this, however. And her continued use of a female "bed-warmer" (also part of lore and legend) may even suggest an ulterior motive.
Whatever the truth here, according to the tradition Brigid than became abbess of a mixed monastery in Kildare, even rising to the rank of bishop. A mixed-sex monastery? A woman as bishop? That would be very, er, let's say "unorthodox". But apparently accepted, as many modern images of Brigid show her with a bishop's staff.
Veneration and sainthood followed, with an eternal fire being lit and nourished by her disciples. Add the fact that there indeed was a pagan goddess named Brigantia, the tales about which are bearing a strong resemblance to all this, one starts to wonder...
A Wonderful Place
This sense of wonder will not cease during a visit to the Holy Well dedicated to Brigid, just a few miles south of Kildare Town.
At the end of a narrow country lane (and not blessed with too many parking spaces), this is a miniature park these days. An enclosed spring (which would be the well proper) feeds a short underground stream, this, in turn, bursting through a gateway of stone and then winding past a bronze statue of Brigid herself. Bearing a crosier, wearing a cross, sporting a perm and holding a flame. Take the crosses away and you might be at a pagan site of worship. Which the well might indeed have been, well before Patrick (or Palladius) ever darkened Irish doorsteps, on a mission from God.
Surviving Folk Religion
Even today, a strange mixture of conventional Christian worship and folk customs mark this place - you are encouraged to say prayers at the stations (actually stones marking the underground stream) by a sign. But this is far less obvious than the offerings or tokens tied to a tree near the well. Offerings to the saint, or the genius loci.
Again these offerings are showing some strange influences, with even some dream-catchers swaying in the breeze ...
Why You Should Visit
First of all, this is undoubtedly an important ancient site, these days dedicated to the "Mary of the Gael", still used for worship in a traditional, often very folkloristic way. Which makes it a very spiritual place, regardless of which path you are following yourself (unless, of course, you are following the path of Richard Dawkins). And finally, the place allows you to take a glimpse into Irish Christianity, without being too intrusive - after all, it is both a place of worship and a tourist attraction.
On the other hand ... ultimately you either feel (or "get") the atmosphere of the place - or you simply don't. True, you might see it as a nice bit of garden design, adorned with a bit of religious imagery, but that would not do Saint Brigid's Well justice.
In a Nutshell
- A spring and "Holy Well" that might have been places of worship long before Christian times.
- Today dedicated to the local Saint Brigid, who might have been a pagan goddess for centuries before.
- The well and surrounding area have been converted into a small park, to facilitate visitors, but are still retaining a definite aura of ancient spirituality.