In September I will be presenting a paper to the Castledermot Historical Society concerning the historical and archaeological evidence for pilgrimage in Co. Kildare during the medieval period. I started working on the paper earlier in the week and I was reminded of the description of pilgrims arriving at monastery of St Brigit at Kildare. This account was recorded in the seventh century Life of St Brigit.
And who can count the different crowds and numberless peoples flocking from all the provinces- some for the abundant feasting, others for the healing of their afflictions, others to watch the pageant of the crowds, others with great gifts and offerings – to join in the solemn celebration of the feast of the saint Brigit who, free from care, cast off the burden of the flesh and followed the lamb of God into the heavenly mansions, having fallen asleep on the first day of the month of February (Connolly & Picard, 1987, 27).
As Peter Harbison notes in his book Pilgrimage in Ireland the surviving literary evidence for early medieval pilgrimage in Ireland is
‘sparse and sporadic….. So meagre is our information in most cases that we know little more than the names of places known to have been the goal of a pilgrim’ (1991, 51).
With this in mind the above text, although brief, provides a unique glimpse of pilgrimage at an important shrine in early medieval Ireland.
The pilgrimage described above was taking place on the feast day of St Brigit the first of February. Medieval sources from Britain and the Continent suggest that while pilgrims were free to perform pilgrimage at any time during the year (and many did), the main bursts of pilgrim activity, was focused on the eve and day of the saint’s feast. The feast day became the primary focus of devotion due to the belief that the saint’s powers and presence at the shrine was at its most potent on his or her feast day (Davies 1988, 5-6; Hopper 2006, 108; Sumption 1975, 23-24). On a practical note as all public holidays in the medieval world were church feast days, it was probably easier for ordinary people to organise travel and pilgrimages on such days.
The Life also provides a valuable insight into the motives of pilgrims. The text suggests that some came to Kildare for healing, others to offer thanks in the form of gifts and some merely to enjoy the festivities and celebration of the feast day. The text also gives a sense that the pilgrimage experience at Kildare was a mixture of pious devotion and secular celebration. The combing to devotion and celebration is recorded at many European shrines during the early and later medieval period. The co-existence of devotion and celebrate or the sacred and profane can also be seen in the mass pilgrimages early modern period to holy wells on the Patron day or Saints Feast day.
In the coming weeks I hope to expand on this brief discussion of pilgrimage at Kildare and other Irish sites during the early medieval period.
Connolly, S. & Picard, J. M. 1987. ‘Cogitosus: Life of Saint Brigit’, JRSAI, Vol. 117, 11-27.
Davies, J. 1988. Pilgrimage Yesterday and Today. Why? Where? How? London: SCM Press Ltd.
Harbison, P. 1991. Pilgrimage in Ireland. The monuments and the people. London: Syracuse University Press.
Hopper, S. 2006. Mothers, Mystics and Merrymakers. Medieval Women Pilgrims. Gloustershire: Sutton Publishing.
Sumption, J. 1975. Pilgrimage an Image of Medieval Religion. London: H.M.S.O.