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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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 .
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.
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 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 .
Close by is station 6, which is known as the hoof stone. Again pilgrims recites one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Gloria.
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 .
Others simply recite their prayers standing beside the stone.
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 .
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.
I saw some pilgrims sit/lie on the stone they then blessed themselves with water from a little hollow on top of the stone.
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.
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.
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) .
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.
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.
The second station is a horse-shoe shaped mound with two upright stones at the entrance, it is known as 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
I am going to write more about Faughart in the coming months so watch the space
© Louise Nugent 2013
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.