north view ruins

St Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare through the Centuries

About this time Saint Brigid and her nuns settled in Kildare near the oak tree and built her first church. Of it nothing whatsoever is known. We may surmise that it was small, like her first community, and may well have been built of timber or of mud and wattle. Being of such perishable materials it was probably pulled down, rebuilt and enlarged from time to time as the double monastery for men and women grew in numbers.
During this seventh century a scriptorium for the production of written books seems to have become active in Kildare. This would suggest that the monastery had grown considerably and had also become involved in secular affairs. Cogitosus, believed to have been one of the Kildare monks at this time, in his hagiographical Life of Saint Brigid, gives us a description of the abbey which, even making full allowance for local pride and exaggeration, yet describes a remarkable building: The church contains the glorious bodies of Conleth and Brigid, resting in monuments which are placed on the right and left of the decorated altar and which are adorned with various ornaments of silver and gold, of gems and precious stones, with crosses of gold and silver hanging over them. The church occupied a wide area and was raised to a menacing height, and was decorated with paintings. It had within it three spacious oratories, separated from one another by boarded partitions under the one roof. One partition, decorated and painted with figures and covered with linen hangings, extended across the the whole breadth of the eastern part of the church from one wall to the other. This partition had at its extremities two doorways. Through the door on the righthand side the chief bishop entered the sanctuary, accompanied by his regular school, and by those who are appointed to the holy ministry of offering sacred and dominical sacrifices. Through the other door, on the left of the aforesaid cross wall, enters the abbess with her nuns and faithful widows, to enjoy the banquet of the body and blood of Christ. Another partition, dividing the pavement of the house into two equal parts, extends to the transverse partition lying across the breadth. The church has many windows, and one ornamented doorway on the right side, through which the priests and the faithful of the male sex enter the church, and another doorway on the left through which the congregation of virgins and faithful women are wont to enter. Thus in one very great temple a multitude of people, in different orders and ranks, and sex and situation, separated by partitions, but of one mind, worship almighty God. A later production of the scriptorium must have been the now lost Book of Kildare. It was described by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) during his Irish visit of 1185 as a wonderful book which "contains the harmony of the four evangelists...for almost every page there are different designs, distinguished by various colours ... fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it". Some think that in fact he describes the Book of Kells, but others say that a Book of Kildare could well have been produced in such an extraordinary religious community.
A Danish fleet of thirty vessels sailed up the Liffey to present day Newbridge. In this first of many raids, Kildare was destroyed by fire and sword and the richly jewelled shrines of Saint Brigid and Saint Conleth were stolen.
Queen Fianna, wife of Aedh Finliath, King of Ireland, rebuilt the cathedral. And so was to continue this pattern of plundering and of rebuilding for more than two centuries. The abbey was devastated no less than sixteen times by the Danes between 835 and 998, as well as many times destroyed by fire. And even after the final defeat of the Danes by Brian Boru in 1014 Kildare still knew no peace: fire engulfed the church in 1038, 1040, 1071, 1089, 1099, and 1103, while in 1155 it was totally reduced to ashes.
A year of crisis in the abbey. ‘"The abbess of Kildare was forced and taken out of her cloister by Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, and compelled to marrie one of Dermot's people" and one hundred and seventy local people perished in the process. The MacMurrough mentioned was the same Dermot who, driven out of his kingdom in 1166, fled to England and invoked the aid of Strongbow and the Normans - an invitation which has had (and is still having) incalculable effects on the history of Ireland. Yet all was not gloom. In 1132 a boy destined for greatness was baptised in the cathedral (perhaps in the present font) Laurence O'Toole, later archbishop of Dublin. And in 1160 Finn McGorman, a former tutor of Dermot MacMurrough, was appointed bishop of Kildare. He had assisted at the Synod of Kells in 1152 when the diocesan system was introduced into Ireland and he had also been the compiler of the Book of Leinster.
With the Anglo-Norman conquest a new era and a new regime began in Kildare. The female community, presided over by the abbess, seems to have remained in the hands of the native Irish, and continued so until the time of the reformation. The old Celtic monastery for men, however, was placed under the control of the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine and the abbey church became also the diocesan cathedral with a dean and chapter appointed. Henceforth the bishops of Kildare were ordered to be either English or at least of English descent and education.
Kildare was fortunate in the first of these English bishops. Ralph of Bristol had been Treasurer of Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, before his ''elevation'' to Kildare. He might well have questioned the value of his promotion. In Dublin he shared the life and worship of a great collegiate church; in Kildare he took possession of a ruin. It is to his credit that he set to work to build a cathedral worthy of the traditions of Saint Brigid and possibly worthy of his own pretensions too! Certainly his completed church by the Irish standards of the time was not only elaborate but must also have been one of the largest churches outside a town in the island. Traces of the European grand scale are to be seen (as in the massive central tower) but Ralph was not blinded by the fact that his cathedral had to be defensive as well as elegant. His building, ''in the early gothic style of architecture, cruciform in shape, surmounted by a noble square tower, and having lancet shaped windows placed singly, or arranged in pairs or triplets'', seems to have been designed with military as well as ecclesiastical considerations in mind. (The cathedral, of course, predated the now ruined castle of Kildare.) Thus the outer walls are supported by strong buttresses between which bold arches are formed, separated from the face of the wall by a narrow space. Behind the battlements there is a narrow footway which is continued by steps over the gables, so as to permit a complete circuit of the roof to be made. Thus defenders of the building from above were able to meet without delay an attack made at any point below. When one considers that then, as now, only three doors of relatively small dimension gave access to the cathedral, we can see how it was in fact a fortified fort, capable of receiving and sheltering all the inhabitants and of being defended by a very small garrison. The new regime had begun with flair and style in the elevation of a man of the calibre of Bishop Ralph. His successors in the see were often to fail miserably in the following of his example.
The excellence of the thirteenth century rebuilding seems to have enabled it to survive without much alteration despite the almost continuous wars of the succeeding centuries.
Bishop Edmund Lane carried out essential repairs to the cathedral and also founded a college in which the dean and chapter might live as residentiary canons. From a record of one hundred years later we have a description of this college ‘'at Kildare there are thatched houses for all the dignitaries and prebendaries, and 12 acres of land for each of the dignitaries and canons''. This may well provoke a smile from any familiar with the deaneries and beautiful cathedral closes of England; but a house in Kildare town, even thatched, and twelve acres of land, is a better provision than the dignitaries and canons of Kildare enjoy today! Less wise of Bishop Lane was his allowing himself to be induced by the earl of Kildare to assist at the 'coronation' of Lambert Simnel as king of England in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in 1488. He was lucky enough to receive a pardon for his part in the affair. His episcopal seal is still extant and is on display in the cathedral.
St Brigid’s Cathedral and the diocese of Kildare had never ranked among the more wealthy of the Irish dioceses but even what small revenues it did possess were squandered by Bishop Alexander Craik who died in 1564. Not content with the revenues of the deanery of Saint Patrick's, Dublin, and those of his bishopric, he exchanged the manors and lands of the diocese for some tithes in ready cash but of little value. 'By this exchange the very ancient See of Kildare was reduced to a most shameful poverty ... and ... he did more mischief to the See than his successors have ever been able to repair.''
William Pilsworth, on becoming bishop, and finding the condition of the cathedral ruinous, laudably tried to recover the lands and revenues alienated by Bishop Craik. We are told, however, that he had no success ''and therefore determined to have a share in the spoil by leaving his bishopric poorer than he found it''! It is pleasant to remember that not all the bishops have been like Craik and Pilsworth.
In the ''Liber Regalis'' visitation it is stated that, ''The church of the diocese of Kildare is situated in the town of Kildare and is now altogether in ruins''.
During the Irish rising of this year the cathedral was finally reduced to ruins. ''Only the walls of the nave and the south side of the tower were standing. The north side of the tower and the north transept had been beaten down by a battery planted against it in 1641. The south transept was also in ruins.'' The valuables of the cathedral, with all the chapter books and documents, were removed by ''Rosse McGeoghegan, titular (i.e. Roman Catholic) bishop of Kildare, and the church, and tithes and rents belonging to the said chapter were seized by the said bishop to the yearly loss of more than £130’' - a sizeable sum for those days. According to this contemporary deposition of Archdeacon Golborne the seizure deprived the cathedral of its ancient rescripts and evidences so that today the oldest extant documents are a lease bearing the date 1617 and a deed appointing one, George Medlicott, as Registrar to the dean and chapter on 1 October 1672. A memorial in the nave of the cathedral commemorates the Medlicott connection with the parish up to the middle years of this century.
This year saw the end of the Cromwellian Commonwealth period and the return of the monarchy. Cromwell's barbaric treatment of the native Irish Roman Catholic population is so well known that it is often forgotten that he had no love for the Church of Ireland. In his time the services of the Payer Book were banned, the bishops were either exiled or had to lie low, and church life was made as difficult as possible. Things were still difficult when, in 1660 Thomas Price was appointed bishop. For whatever reason he took absolutely no interest in the suggested restoration of his cathedral. Indeed despite the offer of others to finance the work he refused to expend a single penny.
William Moreton, dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, had been appointed bishop in 1681. Because of the great poverty of the see he was allowed to retain his deanery - a link between Christ Church and Kildare which was to continue until the see of Kildare was united with Dublin in 1846. In 1686, on Saint Peter's Day, 29 June, the chancel of the cathedral was consecrated as a pro-cathedral, the bishop himself being a generous contributor. In no way, however did the structure resemble the original building: its architectural style was of the poorest description. It was fitted with stalls for the chapter, with seats for the parishioners in the centre, and served as the diocesan cathedral until it was demolished in 1877. More worthy of record than the building that day was the ordination to the diaconate of a man who was later to be bishop of the Isle of Man thus again linking that island with Saint Brigid, possibly for the first time since Saint Mac Caille had given our patroness the veil. Thomas Wilson, the deacon that day, was destined to become one of the greatest Anglican devotional writers of his age so that he is often called "the saintly bishop of Sodor and Man". In 1738 a chapter house was built in the angle between the new pro-cathedral and the ruins of the old south transept. In 1856 a bell tower was added in the corresponding angle with the ruined north transept. Neither in any way could even remotely have been considered as enhancing the beauty of the cathedral.
A year when darkness and gloom appeared as if it would consume the very identity of the Church of Ireland. Disestablishment as the state church coupled with disendowment filled most of its members with despair. In Kildare even those few endowments that had not been squandered in years past were confiscated and the maintenance of the pro-cathedral became the sole responsibility of the parishioners. Its fabric was in such a state of disrepair that demolition seemed the only possible remedy. But what was to take its place?
Disestablishment not only threw the maintenance of buildings on to the parishioners; from henceforth the clergy would also have to be supported by their voluntary offerings as well. Yet at this blackest hour the laity rose in support throughout Ireland and Kildare was no exception. For nearly two and a half centuries the restoration of the medieval cathedral to its former size and splendour had been considered a hopeless task. Now, in 1870, and faced with all the other burdens of the day, the parishioners of Kildare found the immense task actually less daunting than had their predecessors.
Spurred on by the enthusiasm of Dr. Samuel Chaplin, surgeon of the then county hospital in Kildare, and a former President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, a restoration committee was formed, representative of the whole diocese and county. The story is told that when Dr. Chaplin mentioned the plan to his family and spoke of raising subscriptions for the purpose, his seven year old son, Samuel Richard, spontaneously offered to begin the fund with a bullock he owned, valued at £5, and it was this gift that encouraged the great generosity of many others. In all some £12,000 had to be raised a massive sum for those days. Samuel Richard Chaplin was to have the joy and privilege of being ordained in the then partially restored building in 1892. A window in the south transept commemorates his ministry and his death in 1914. One of the most eminent architects of the day, George Edmund Street, RA, who was at the time restoring Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, was consulted. His report, given in October 1871, raised the hopes of the committee that restoration, although difficult, would not be impossible. The collecting of initial finance and the preparing of plans was to take nearly four years more.
On Saint Bartholomew's day, 24 August, work began on the restoration. The first stone, appropriately, was laid by Master Chaplain.
The main body of the cathedral nave, transepts and tower was by now complete in its fabric, though not furnished, except for one transept which was walled off to serve the parishioners until 1896. A contemporary photograph shows the rest of the building with its windows walled up to keep out vandals. Work on the chancel and sanctuary needed to be done to finish the project. But Irish politics once again were to present problems. At this time the Land War was at its height and many landlords were in serious financial difficulties. The flow of money to the restoration ceased and, with it, the work on the building also ceased.
Work on the chancel recommenced aided by large public meetings held in Dublin. With G. E. Street now dead, the building was completed by the diocesan architect, J. F. Fuller, FSA. Six years were required for this final work which included the furnishing of the building and the glazing of the windows. Opinions differ as to the quality of design of the very Victorian arcading and reredos installed by Fuller in the sanctuary.

From all over Ireland, leaders of Church and State arrived in Kildare by special trains on that 22 September. The cathedral consecrated by Archbishop Plunket of Dublin (who was, of course, also bishop of Kildare) and the sermon was preached by Archbishop Edward Benson of Canterbury. Benson died less than three weeks later, on his way back to England, and is commemorated in Kildare by the three light window depicting scenes from the life of Saints Patrick, Brigid and Columcille. The east window, behind the high altar, full of eucharistic symbolism, is a memorial to the worthy Dr. Chaplin, who died in 1891.

Notes on the history complied by The Very Reverend John Paterson, Dean of Kildare (1978-89)

A huge refurbishment of the building took place between 1989 and 1998. Massive fundraising organised by the interchurch Restoration Committee was launched with a first donation of five thousand pounds from the Roman Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin. Funds flowed generously through many channels: trusts, sponsorships, donations, auctions, golf classics, flower festival, garden open days and cookery and flower arranging demonstrations. The architect for the refurbishment was Mr. Desmond Featherstone, and much skill and labour was exercised by FÁS, the Government sponsored youth employment scheme. As in the case of the historic boundary wall, the project was carried out under the auspices of the community based Round Tower Restoration Committee. Two years before the end of its refurbishment, services were held to commemorate the reopening of the Cathedral, one hundred years before. Preachers included the Archbishops of Dublin and Armagh, and Bishop Empey of Meath and Kildare who spoke at a televised service when the community was thanked for its support. The centenary carol service was attended by President Mary Robinson. As a result of the restoration, a gift shop was opened, the boundary wall improved, the Friends of the Cathedral reformed, an amplification system and exterior floodlighting installed and the heating system upgraded. Nine years hard work culminated in a great service of thanksgiving on 20th September 1998. The preacher was the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Reverend Walton Empey and present were the three deans whose ministries spanned the refurbishment: John Paterson, Matthew Byrne and Robert Townley. Look around the Cathedral today and you will see rich and colourful stained glass set within superbly restored stonework, ancient monuments re-erected and fine new oak chairs complementing the Victorian choir stalls. You will also see the Celtic heritage display in the south transept, a witness to a fascinating past. However, St. Brigid's Cathedral is not a museum. Rather it is a house of prayer, where all who seek the face of God in Jesus Christ might find a home.
On Sunday 17th September 2023, St Brigid’s Cathedral celebrated a Service of Harvest Thanksgiving on the 800th Anniversary of its construction. The preacher was the Bishop of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory, Rt Rev Adrian Wilkinson.