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School of Kildare

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Kildare (Irish: Cill-Dara ), originally known as Druim Criaidh , or the Ridge of Clay, situated in Magh Liffe , or the Plain of the Liffey, came to be known as Cill-Dara , or the Church of the Oak, from the stately oak-tree so much loved by St. Brigid, who under its branches laid the foundations of what in process of time became a monastic city. Through the influence and talent for rule and organization possessed by the holy foundress the little oratory she built soon expanded into a large double establishment, one portion being for women, the other for men, and crowds of devotees flocked thither from far and near to make pilgrimages or hear words of heavenly wisdom from the lips of the "Mary of the Gael". "Seeing, however," says her biographer, "that this state of things could not exist without a pontiff to consecrate her churches and ordain the sacred ministers, she chose an illustrious anchorite, celebrated for his virtues and his miracles, that as bishop he might aid her in the government of the Church, and that nothing should be wanting for the proper discharge of all ecclesiastical functions." In these words of the biographer, "ut ecclesiam in episcopali dignitate cum eâ gubernaret", there is surely nothing to justify the absurd statement sometimes made that Brigid claimed to have authority over, or give canonical jurisdiction to, this illustrious anchorite. She simply selected him to govern the establishment under her advice and guidance, and he got his jurisdiction in the ordinary way. In those days of violence and turmoil a needed sense of security would be afforded a convent of nuns by having hard by a house of monks with a prudent bishop at their head. And not only did Brigid procure the renowned St. Conlaeth to rule and ordain, but she had another bishop, St. Nadfraoich, to preach and teach the Gospel, and thus she hoped to make Kildare a great and independent home of sanctity and learning. And such in truth it became.

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Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare in the eighth century, and the author of what is known as the "Second Life of St. Brigid", calls Kildare "the head-city of all the bishops ", and Conlaeth and his successors "arch-bishops of the bishops of Ireland ", and goes on to refer to the primacy of honour and domestic jurisdiction acknowledged in the abbess of this city by all the abbesses of Ireland. To this primacy, maintained all along, is due the unique distinction enjoyed by Kildare of having recorded by the annalists, till comparatively recent times, the succession of its abbesses in parallel columns with that of its abbots. Cogitosus also makes mention of the enormous crowds that, in his time, used to come to Kildare from "all the provinces of Erin", especially on St. Brigid's feast-day, 1 February, to pray and to have cures effected at her venerated shrine. From the interesting description he gives of the church we learn that it was very spacious and beautiful, that it had divisions rigidly distinct for the men and the women, and was lavishly adorned with pictures and embroidered hangings, which set off its highly ornamental windows and doorways. Unhappily, no portion of this church now remains, nor indeed of any of the ancient buildings, with the exception of the Round Tower. This tower, the loftiest in Ireland - being 136 feet 7 inches high - has an elaborately worked doorway of a graceful finish rarely met with in those hoary sentinels of the past. Bishop Conlaeth, himself a man of remarkable artistic genius, founded at Kildare a school in metal work which grew and prospered as the years went on. And from Gerald Barry we learn to what a high pitch of perfection the art of illumination had been brought in that city. Nothing, he says, that he saw at Kildare impressed him so much as the "Evangelistarium", or manuscript of the Four Gospels, according to the version of St. Jerome, which, by reason of the extraordinary grace and ingenuity displayed in the letters and figures, looked rather like the work of angels than of men. The famous "Book of Leinster" was probably copied from originals preserved in the Kildare, by Finn MacGorman, who became Bishop of Kildare in 1148.

Even during the most stormy periods of the school's history we find recorded interesting facts and dates concerning its professors. We read of Cobthac, who died in 1069, and was celebrated for "his universal knowledge of ecclesiastical discipline "; and of Ferdomhnach, the Blind, who was deeply versed in knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures. In 1135 Diarmaid MacMurrogh, of contemptible memory, "forcibly carried away the Abbess of Kildare from her cloister, and compelled her to marry one of his own people"; and in the following year Diarmaid O'Brien and his brothers sacked and set fire to the town. But the School of Brigid continued in spite of the ravages of native and foreign despoiler. The holy fire called the "inextinguishable", which had probably been kept alight since the days of Brigid, was put out by order of Henry de Londres, Archbishop of Dublin, who perhaps thought the practice savoured of superstition. Our opinion is that it simply arose from a desire on the part of the spiritual daughters of St. Brigid to secure a means by which lamps might be kept perpetually burning before the shrines of their sainted foundress. Be that as it may, the fire was kindled again by the Bishop of Kildare, and with a steady flame it burned till the fierce storm of persecution in the reign of Elizabeth extinguished it and every other monastic light in Ireland.

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