The modern pilgrimages at Faughart on the feast day of St Brigit

Last week I managed to make it to Faughart, one of Irelands most interesting of pilgrim sites. My visit coincided with  the feast of St Brigit the patron of the area. Faughart  claims to be the birth place of St Brigit and the landscape of the area has a strong cult association with the saint.

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Map showing Faughart in relation to Dundalk (after google maps)

This has been one of the most difficult posts I have written. It was difficult as  there is so much to say regarding the cult of Brigit,  the history and the archaeology of the pilgrimage at Faughart. After a lot of thought,  I decided to focus on my experience at this years St Brigit’s day pilgrimage and at a later date to write another post on  the origins and history of pilgrimage at Faughart and the cult of Brigit.

Location

Before I begin to describe my pilgrimage  just some words on the location of the site. Faughart is situated about 1-1.5 miles outside of Dundalk. The modern pilgrimage landscape stretches between the old graveyard  at Faughart hill with its medieval church and holy well dedicated to St Brigit  and St Brigit’s shrine a series of station,  holy stones and modern oratory  located along the  banks of the a small stream know as St Brigit’s stream.

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Map showing the old graveyard and St Brigits shrine at Faughart

The distance between the two sites is about half a mile.

Faughart is a very popular pilgrim shrine and  pilgrims come here each day throughout the year.  It  is renowned as a place of  healing. The main days of  group/mass devotion  are the 1st of February, the feast day of Brigit and the 1st  sunday in July,  a  day of the national pilgrimage.

My visit coincided with  on the 1st of February. I return also on the 3rd of February when I joined a group of pilgrims walking from Dundalk to Faugart. This second pilgrimage was part of the annual ‘Brigid of Faughart Festival’, a four-day  annual event with lectures, workshops and pilgrimages that  focuses on Brigit . The festival  is a celebration of Brigit, both Goddess and Saint.   For more information  about the event see the link http://www.doloreswhelan.ie/events/brigid-faughart-festival/ .  St Brigit is very important to the people of Louth and  because of her pre-christian origins she bridges the gap between the christian and pagan world. She is a very interesting saint  and I will discuss her cult further at a later date.

St Brigit’s Day at Faughart/pilgrimage part I

Faughart is the other end of the country from where I live, so I travelled up to  Dublin on St Brigit’s eve and headed to Faughart the morning of the 1st of February. I had been to Faughart once before in 2006  but my memory of how to get there was a little rusty.  I decided to stopped first at Dundalk and get directions at the tourist information office .  A big thank you to Sinead who works there for all her help.  I also dropped in to the County Museum where the staff were equally helpful.

I eventually arrived about mid day to St Brigit’s shrine which is the main attraction for modern pilgrims. This site consists of a series of holy stone located on the banks of St Brigit’s stream. The shrine fills  a long rectangular field divide in two by a road. The stream known as St Brigit’s stream runs through its centre.

shrine

Map showing the landscape of the shrine of St Brigit. The shrine is located within the tree covered area and the field showing the stream channel (after google maps).

The  car park was full to capacity  so I packed along the side of the road with the other cars . There was a constant stream of people coming and going . The area of the shrine is quiet large so its easy to underestimate the numbers.  One of the first things I noticed  was   people selling St Brigit’s crosses, candles and  holy mementoes and like any good pilgrim I left with about four St Brigit’s crosses which I have since  distributed among friends and family .

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A vendor selling religious memorabilia and St Brigit’s crosses

Dotted about the shrine  are set instructions for the traditional  stations at the shrine  and   many pilgrims still adhere to them  but others  seem to follow their own  route around the shrine.  As I arrived the day was dry and sunny but it soon turned into  a ‘fine soft day’ Irish code for  a constant light rain.

Instuctions for the traditional stations

Instructions for the traditional stations at the lower end of the shrine

Pilgrimage  begins at the upper shrine.  This is  a lovely place  with lots of  mature trees and a  stream running  through the centre. During the main day of pilgrimage relics of St Brigit (owned by Kilcurry parish) are kept in a simple oratory dedicated to the saint  and many begin their pilgrimage here entering through the main gates and  climb the steps to the oratory past the statues of SS Patrick, Colmcille, Malachy and Oliver Plunkett.

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A pilgrim climbing  the steps to St Brigit’s oratory

Pilgrims then pause in front of the oratory to  pray.   For St Brigit’s day a priest in charge of the relic,  is in the oratory during set times  and the  pilgrims can go to  be  blessed by the relic of St Brigit if they wish. The  relic is a  tiny piece of bone (skull)  kept   in a small box with glass lid. The story of the relic  is an interesting one and I will come back to it in another post.

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Pilgrims praying at oratory

The reliquary ( which  holds relic) is place on forehead  of the pilgrim and prayers recited by the priest who asks  St Brigit  to pray for and bless the pilgrims.

The traditional stations begin at the fountain  a stone structure    that reminded me of the corbelled well  (St Brigit’s well) at the nearby old graveyard.  Water from the stream that flows through the site is pipe into the structure  and flows into a large  stone with a hollow  which like many of the other hollowed stones at the site may be  possible bullaun stones.

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Pilgrims praying at station 1

This structure has been renovated since my last visit and  two concrete paths  placed across the once open stream  just opposite it.  At station  1 the pilgrim is to recite one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria.  I saw many  queue  up here to take the water  home in plastic bottles and to simply bless themselves.

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Station 1 taken in 2006 not the open stream bed in the background which leads to station 2.

Station 2  is located beside station 1 and the pilgrim  must walk a few steps and cross to the  far side of steam. The stream   is railed on either side and the pilgrim must recites one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria .

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Photo of station 2 & 3 & 4 taken in 2006

Station 3  is a stone located at the center  of the stream bed, the pilgrim recites one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria here .

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Station no 3 taken in 2006

The photo above shows station 3 in 2006.  Since this date the stone has been incorporated into the concreted  path (mentioned above) to link the two banks.  I wonder was this done for insurance reasons to make the crossing safer for those who are unsteady on their feet ?  Unfortunately it is not as aesthetically pleasing as before, but I suppose it is safer.  The rest of the site seems unchanged.

Once station 3 is complete the pilgrim crosses over  to the other side of the  stream and begins Station 4 . This station is  at the modern looking celtic cross. Here the pilgrim is to perform 10  circuits  reciting one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria at each circuit . Most of the people I observed just prayed in front of the cross, although I did see some people do the circuits.

The pilgrim continues south along the east bank of the stream, they pray at the  stations of the cross which are dotted along the bank. Some also stop and pray at   a grotto dedicated to the Our Lady.

Pilgrims praying at the stations of the cross

Pilgrims praying at the stations of the cross

This route takes the pilgrims  across the road   into the lower shrine which is much more open and landscaped. One lady I meet told me in the past there was a lot more bushes and trees here which she felt gave more privacy for pilgrims praying.

As one enters the lower part of the shrine  on the left is a small chapel.  According to the noticeboard on the 1st of February mass was said here at 10.30, 12.00 and 13.00.

The stream  continues down slope.  I also notices a modern well type structure built over the stream. Pilgrims  made their way down slope  stopping  to pray at the stations of the cross and some at the well structure  and some people also collected water from here in plastic bottles.

pilgrims saying stations of the cross

Pilgrims at the lower shrine

Pilgrims begin station 5  at the point  just where the stream turns and heads east  along the field boundary wall  of the shrine.  Again the   pilgrim recites one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria .

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View of pilgrims at stations 5-10.

Close by is station 6,  which is  known as the  hoof stone.  Again pilgrims recites one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria.

Hoof stone

Station 6 the hoof stone

Stations 6-10 are all invested with origin legends connected with St Brigit.  If I remember correctly, folk tradition states that St Brigit was living with her sister at Faughart but a young prince wanted to marry her and wouldn’t take no for an answer. One night she decided to run away to escape him  and  as she was making her way out of Faughart following the stream the prince  who had heard about her leaving came  in pursuit.  Brigit knelt down to pray beside the stream leaving her knee prints in the stone. She then plucked out one of her eyes to make herself less attractive and unrecognisable.   The prince caught up with her but didn’t recognise her and the hoof mark of his horse was left behind in the  stone known as the hoof stone.

Station 7  is  the knee stone, which marks the spot where the saint knelt to pray. It is a large rock with two hollow. The pilgrim kneels in the hollows of the  stone  and  then on top of the stone while reciting one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria .

knee stone

Station 7, the knee stone

Others  simply  recite their prayers standing beside the stone.

Pilgrim kneeling in the knee stone

Pilgrim praying in the knee stone on the 3rd February

The pilgrim continues  along the modern path to station 8  which is known as the waist stone . I noticed that some pilgrims sat on the stone but most stood by it . The pilgrim is required to recite one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria .

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Station 8 the waist stone

Station 9  is called the eye stone ( this supposed to be  the eye the saint plucked from her head, a similar stone was said to have existed in Dunleer). The traditional prayers require  here are ten circuits of the stone while reciting one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria at each circuit.

Eye Stone and modern Grotto

Eye Stone and modern grotto

I saw some pilgrims sit/lie on the stone  they then blessed themselves with water from a little hollow on top of the stone.

Pilgrim sitting on eye stone

Pilgrim sitting on eye stone 3rd February

Many pilgrims also pray at the  modern grotto beside this stone. The final station (station 10)  the head stone  is a large stone with a hollow whose outline has been pained in white.  The stone is part of the boundary wall and rags and tokens, the same type of thing you get on rag trees, are tied onto the fence  in the boundary bank. The pilgrim places his/her  head in the stone  and recites  one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria.

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Station 10 the head stone.

This ends the  pilgrimage at St Brigit’s shrine and stream. I noticed that many pilgrims stated  at the headstone and ended their prayers at the eye stone, reminding me that pilgrim rituals are fluid.  I will delve more into the history of the shrine and these stones in my next post on Faughart.

St Brigit’s Holy well on Faughart hill

St Brigit’s well is located in the nearby graveyard,  it is also a focus of pilgrimage in the area, although on a much smaller scale. I  headed up to the old graveyard at Faughart hill around three. There were significantly fewer people here but again there was a constant flow of people coming and going .  Buckets  of water from the well had  been place outside the walls of the graveyard  for those too busy to go to the well.  I saw several people arrive  armed with plastic bottles , some filled them from the buckets and then left .  Others went into the graveyards and followed the path down to the holy well  located below the ruins of a 12th century church.

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Water from St Brigit’s well by the wall at Faughart old graveyard

During the 19th century pilgrimage at  the well was much more popular.  The well  a corbelled structure is entered by walking down steps (added in the 1930’s) .

St brigit's well

St Brigit’s well.

Pilgrims continue to come here and take water away with them and  pray. The  bushes that surround the well are covered with rags and rosary beads showing that pilgrims still come here to ask  Brigit for help.

Local lady carring water from the well

Local lady carrying water from the well

Also at the site  are two  penitential  station  which were visited by 19th century pilgrims, again I will discuss these further in the next post on Faughart. One is a circular mound surrounded by kerbing  is called St Brigit’s pillar. The base of a medieval cross sits on top of the cairn.

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St Brigit’s pillar

The second station is a horse-shoe shaped   mound with two upright stones at the entrance, it is known as  St Brigit’s  bed.

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St Brigit’s Bed

I didn’t see anyone visit these  two stations  during my time here, generally people left after visiting the well and collecting  their water. A local man I meet, told me that no one does prayers at them anymore.

So I headed back for some food and  came back again to Faughart for part II of my pilgrimage  the annual torch-light procession.

Torch Light proscession/pilgrimage part II

The procession  is a night walk  from the old graveyard at Faughart to the shrine of St Brigit. This year it began at  8 o’clock and I roped my friend Nikolah  into coming along. It had been a wet day and but when we arrived at Faughart Hill  the night was cold with a clear sky full of shining stars. The lights from Dundalk and the motorway below were spectacular. The procession is really an event for the local community to connect with Brigit and people of all ages from tiny tots to the elderly were there. Everyone was in good spirits despite the cold and I spotted some very fancy lanterns.  The procession began with the  priest reciting a prayer to St Brigit, then   two men carrying a large processional St Brigit’s cross and flags set off  down the road,  those carrying the reliquary containing the saints relics fell in behind and then everyone else assembled on the hill  fell in behind them  and we headed off on our pilgrimage.

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  Finding our way in the dark wasnt as difficult as I had thought. There was something very relaxing about walking under the stars. You have to be aware of those around you so you didn’t trip or trip someone who was walking at a slower pace. Prayers and songs were sung and the journey  felt like no time at all.  When we  arrived at St Brigit’s shrine there were many people already  there. We all lined up along the banks of the stream at the upper shrine , while the reliquary was brough to the small shrine mentioned earlier. The parish priest  stood at the shrine gave blessing to all present and he also blessed the St Brigit’s crosses , which most people had brought along with them. Prayers were recited in English and Irish. It’s hard to gage how many people were there but there were 100’s  one estimate  I heard was 600 people.  There were also guardaí present to make sure there were no traffic or crowd control problems. The atmosphere was great and I really enjoyed  the experience.

Pilgrims at the end of the Torch light procession

Pilgrims at the end of the torch light procession

Many of those present  proceeded to do the pilgrim stations in the dark before heading home. The procession was one of the nicest pilgrim experiences I have  had. It has been running for the last 37 years . Night pilgrimage and vigils were very important in the medieval world and it is really lovely to see this  tradition being adapted  in the modern world.

Saturday was my day of rest  but Sunday was the last  day of  my pilgrimage.

Sunday Imbolc Festival Pilgrimage walk/Pilgrimage  part III

The final part of my pilgrimage to Faughart took place on Sunday the 3rd.  As I mentioned earlier this pilgrimage walk from Dundalk to Faughart was organised as part of the  St Brigid of Faughart Festival 2013 (link to their site in references). The walk was  followed by a historical tour of Faughart given by local historian Pat O’Rourke.

The walk began at the peace shrine at Linenhall Street in Dundalk.  The group was made up of around 20  women, our local historian Pat O’Rourke and a sheepdog called tara .  I couldn’t have met a more lovely bunch of people. The walk leader Dolores Wheelan, one of the organisers of the Imbolc festival  gave an introduction to the walk and the ethos of the  pilgrimage.  A candle which had been brought from Kildare on St Brigit’s eve  was lit in front of the peace monument  and was then  carried at the front of the group  as we walked along.  Each member of the group  got to carry the torch and lead the group.

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The walk  was about 1-2mile to shrine. This would have been the traditional route chosen by pilgrims from Dundalk to Faughart. The road heads out of Dundalk and  crosses over the motorway by a foot bridge.  Members of the group were free to  engage in the pilgrimage walk as  they wished, some chatted to  each other, others walked in silence , while some chanted a simple  line Oscalite mo Chroí  (Open my heart). We were asked simply to think of Brigit and any prayer that we had  for her while walking along  and to be respectful to other people.

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Once we crossed over the motorway we were walked along quiet county roads.  As we neared the shrine  most people around me  fell silent and were deep in contemplation.

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Pilgrim leading group  while carrying the  light of Brigit

When we reached Faughart  we were treated to hot tea, coffee and soup and  tea  brack.  A very welcome treat for the pilgrims.  After our refreshments Dolores  brought us around the lower shrine  and explained the significance of all of the holy stones and we were all given the opportunity to do our own pilgrimage around the shrine.

The final stage of our  journey was  a historical tour of  old Faughart given  by Pat O’Rourke .  Pat explain about Faughart’s past, from pre-historic to modern times. He  brought us around Old Faughart graveyard  and pointed out many interesting  facts about the well, the church and the penitential stations.

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Historical tour of old Faughart graveyard

I must say I had a very enjoyable day. The group also called my attention to a new pilgrimage walk planned for the summer called Slí Bhride.

During the summer Faughart will  be part of a new exciting pilgrim walk.  A new pilgrimage walk is planned on the 7th July -15th of July  2013  called Slí Bhride. The walk will start at  Faughart in Co. Louth, pass through Louth, Meath and Kildare and end in Kildare Town. I will keep you all posted as I find out more  but  if anyone is interested in finding out more check out  www.brigidsway.ie

or email

eolas@doloreswhelan.ie

I am going to write more about Faughart in the coming months so watch the space

© Louise Nugent 2013

References

http://www.doloreswhelan.ie/events/brigid-faughart-festival/( accessed 2/02/2013).

http://www.createlouth.ie/brigid-festival-dundalk (accessed 2/02/2013).

http://j2.catholicireland.net/mass-times?task=churchbyparish&ParishID=1300 (accessed 25/01/2013).

http://www.faughart.com/local-history-page26988.html (accessed 27/01/2013) excellent source for the history of the site.

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8 comments on “The modern pilgrimages at Faughart on the feast day of St Brigit

  1. […] account of a number of days in Dundalk exploring modern devotion to Bridget is here .  She has promised to post more on the cult of St Brigid and I will be happy to reblog on this […]

  2. Kerry O'Gorman says:

    I find it so interesting to know that these traditions are being kept alive. It’s quite comforting actually. Growing up in a ‘modernized’ version of the Catholic Church in Canada, we never had such traditions. In fact, although having Irish ancestors, I never even heard of St Brigid. Maybe my grandmother from Ireland told us but I was too young to remember. I enjoyed virtually going along and I must say I prefer the more ancient parts of the pilgimage in the old cemeteries and such. When I visited Ireland I always found the more rural and unkept (but cared for) ruins my favorite. Somehow they echoed the past much more clearly.

    • So glad you like the posts. there are many sites and saints that continue to attract pilgrims some are very local but others have a regional and national appeal. I will hopefully post about some more of these sites in the coming months. There is a certain beauty about the ruined churches and forgotten wells. Thanks you for your comments

  3. Muireann OHiggins says:

    Hi Louise, Just looked into your article on St Brigit’s. Really excellent account. Brings me back to a very enjoyable day. Well done.

    Muireann

    On Sat, Feb 9, 2013 at 6:22 PM, Pilgrimage In Medieval Ireland wrote:

    > ** > pilgrimagemedievalireland posted: “Last week I managed to make it to > Faughart, one of Irelands most interesting of pilgrim sites. My visit > coincided with the feast of St Brigit the patron of the area. Faughart > claims to be the birth place of St Brigit and the landscape of the area has > a “

  4. Found you via A Silver Voice from Ireland. Glad you enjoyed your visit to St Brigid’s Shrine and looking forward to your post on Faughart Graveyard as I have ancestors buried there. The people of north Louth have always had great affection for St Brigid which continues to this day.

  5. […] as can be seen from this wonderful blogpost from  Louise of Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland. Click here to read […]

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