In pre-Christian times, a sacred fire burned in a shrine to the Celtic Goddess Brighid (Breeje), a trio of sisters, all named Brighid, who were treated as one person. She was the goddess of fertility, of metal smithing, and of all cultural learning. In her latter persona, she was the inspiration of poetry, song and history. The shrine was called Cil Dara (Church of the Oak) since oak was a sacred wood to the Druids, and priestesses maintained a ritual fire to her there for fire was the manifestation of knowledge. The area around Cil Dara became known as County Kildare.
In the sixth century, a young girl called Brigid, daughter of a chieftain and named for the goddess, grew to become one of the priestesses at the shrine. She became a convert to Christ, converted all the others, turned the shrine into a monastery and church, founded Ireland’s first order of nuns and continued the custom of keeping the fire alight to represent the new light of Christianity.
When Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) a Welsh Chronicler, visited Kildare in the 12th century, he reported that the fire was still burning and being tended by nuns of St. Brigid. It survived up to the sixteenth century when it was extinguished by the forces of the Crown.
Then, in 1993, the town of Kildare hosted the annual conference of an Irish humanitarian group. Their conference was entitled, Brigid: Prophetess, Earthwoman, Peacemaker. To open the conference, Sister Mary Teresa Cullen, the then leader of the Brigidine Sisters, kindled a symbolic flame in the Market Square of Kildare. The flame was hailed as appropriate for the town, the time and the theme. At the close of the conference, the flame was moved into Brigidine Sisters Center, Solas Bhride, where it has been maintained ever since. Each year, the flame was returned to the town square on February first for Feile Bhride (the Feast of Brigid) where it remained during the month of February.
The Kildare County Council commissioned a sculpture to permanently house the flame in the town square. He created a tall twisted column of oak, which flourishes at the top into large oak leaves, nestled into which there is a bronze acorn cup holding the flame. The use of oak symbolizes both the Christian beliefs of St. Brigid and the earlier Druidic worship of the trees. Of course, the oak is also the namesake of Kildare. It is surely an apt and fitting tribute to honor this historic flame.
On St. Brigid’s Day, February 1st, 2006, the special flame was permanently moved to its new location in the town square from the flame tended in Solas Bhríde for the previous fourteen years. Irish President Mary McAleese opened the ceremony in the Market Square saying she was pleased to present to the people of Ireland and the diaspora beyond, a flame that once more shines out from Kildare, with the hope it would be a beacon of light, hope, justice and peace for our world.