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Pilgrimage to Kildare: Chapter 1, In Dreams do Adventures Lie

May 20, 2022

 A few years back in 2018, I was living in a small town called Glastonbury. Glastonbury, as you may already know is no ordinary town, because this is a land proclaimed by many to uphold great spiritual mysticism, healing and magic. Situated upon significant earth energy ‘ley lines’, Glastonbury is host to a whole array of ancient legends ranging from the arrival of Christ, great goddesses and fairy lore. People from all over the world come to visit Glastonbury, in search of its healing wells, spiritual practices or to take home a crystal or two from it’s thriving commercial high street.
During my time here, I connected to the energy of a particularly well-known goddess called Bridie. It was said that in pagan times, Bridie, ‘the white goddess’, presided over the British Isles. But aside from her goddess origins, there also existed a Saint bearing the same name. It is still a mystery to me quite how the two correlate, but somewhere along the way goddess Bridie had become known as the Christian Saint Brigid from the little Irish town of Kildare.
Non the less, St Brigid (or Bridie) is known as the patron saint of protection, childbirth, black smiths and the bards. Bridie’s energy is said to be very prevalent in Glastonbury, especially in the old industrial quarters over looking the Tor. There you will find an unassuming hill called ‘Brides mound’ where her Christian chapel once stood and it was here at the foot of the hill where I set up my home for four months.


When I moved to London three years ago, I was delighted to find that I was living only a stones throw away from ‘St Brides’ church on Fleet St.
During one visit in May of 2021, I was chatting to the Verger Robin, hoping to find out more about the history of the church and the origins of this goddess and Christian Saint. I was fascinated that St Brides was known as the journalists church, especially since Bridie was the goddess of the Bards who where the wandering storytellers, or ‘journalists’ of those ancient times. The church had been discussing for some time, ways to bring in the cultural traditions of the Irish patronage of St Brigid and one way would be through the introduction the St Brigids Cross (a popular symbol used in Ireland but mostly missing from the Anglican practice in England).


Robin said that an Irish visitor had once promised to send the church a St Brigids cross specifically made with Irish reed but it had never arrived. I agreed with Robin that a ‘St Brides church’, should indeed have a St Brigids cross and promised that if I ever had the chance to ask someone from Ireland to send over a cross I would do so.
A month later I was staying with my dear friend Ali, when one morning I awoke to a very good idea! That I would travel to Kildare, harvest the reed, assemble the cross and bring it back to St Brides church. Three weeks later I packed a rucksack and headed off for the Emerald Isle.   

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Pilgrimage to Kildare: Chapter II, Adventures need Adventure Shoes

May 20, 2022

 I took the ferry to Belfast and in a mixture of walking and getting the bus I covered 120 miles in five days, reaching Kildare on the morning of day six. In my itinerary I carried a bivvy bag, light weight sleeping bag, change of clothes, flask and snacks. I didn’t think much about my shoes, as far as I was concerned I was just going on a long walk, not a challenging mountain trek so I literally just wandered off in my every day fashion boot. After all, in those times of old - no one splashed out on trek shoes; they didn’t even exist! Unfortunately however it didn’t take long for me to regret this oversight and just a few hours into day 1 painful blisters had developed.  I took a lunch break in Lisburn and hobbled off to a shoe shop to find a cheap pair of trainers. But these were just another pair of silly shoes, which I later found out had zero rain resilience. Oh the misery of wet shoes + blisters.

I had quite a nice walk that day, despite walking mostly alongside the very busy A1. Towards the end of the day someone stopped to give me a lift into Hillsborough, a town which I had spied on the map to camp out the night. This proved to be an excellent choice and I ended up hiding behind a bush in the grounds of a walled castle garden. After an uncomfortably cold night I made it my priority to buy a better sleeping bag the next day and by the mid-afternoon I arrived in the boarder town called Newry. It was pretty wet and miserable at this point so I headed for a Cathedral to warm up, have a sit down and pray to Mary for protection. And it was here that I had my first sighting of St Brigid on the stain glass.

After pottering around some more, I went into the Cathedral shop and purchased a St Brigids prayer card and medal for my travels

Brigid, you were a voice for the wounded and the weary.
Strengthen what is weak within us.
Calm us into a quietness that heals and listens.
May we grow each day into a greater wholeness in body, mind and spirit.
Amen.

Wondering where to camp that night, in the late afternoon I hit the road again armed with snack pots from M&S. My idea was to keep heading towards the boarder on foot, whilst keeping on the lookout for a nice bit of secluded green. As the evening wore on and the sun started to set, I still hadn’t found anywhere. I even knocked on a few doors of houses with gardens but no one had answered. I finally opted for a shabby sheep field where I kicked off my shoes and was halfway unpacked when I suddenly thought that this was not the right place. I packed up again despite the exhaustion and pain from angry blisters and continued on. I hadn’t got much further when I heard the voices of some ladies behind me. They belonged to two local women, Sandra and Anne, who where out on their nightly power walk. They asked about the camping gear that I was carrying, so I explained about the pilgrimage and if they knew of a good place to stop the night. They were half way to directing me to a nearby forest when Anne asked if I wanted a bed for the night! So off I went for a steaming bowl of porridge, to dry my shoes and spend the night in a warm fluffy bed.  Soon after I met Anne the heavens opened in the most spectacular down pour. Had I stayed in that field all my belongings would have been drenched. Surely Mary was with me.



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Pilgrimage to Kildare: Chapter III, Betty Besides the Well

May 20, 2022

 The next morning I was very excited, for today was the day I would cross the boarder into Ireland. Anne and her husband Shaun checked my walking route and suggested that I go via the ‘hill of Faughart’, a holy place known as the birthplace of St Brigid. Now my route wasn’t the tourist la-dee-da type which allowed for checking the sights. I was on a covert mission of the greatest speed and efficiency, using only a basic google maps route finder. I decided however to take this advice and detoured slightly for the hill of Faughart as recommended. Around late morning I arrived at the hill and found a small graveyard and remains of an ancient chapel and healing well. I stopped a while to refuel on an energy bar, when two friendly ladies came by praying the rosary. They were extremely devoted to St Brigid and were very taken by the quest to Kildare.  They really wanted to help in some way so they took me off to a beautiful barn cafĂ© for a large cup of earl grey tea. After setting me off in Dundalk I was sent on my way with a large selection of prayer cards, talismans, some money and a generous bag of fruit. Betty was particularly worried about me so we exchanged number declaring that I should ring her immediately if I ever ran into tough times and she would come to my rescue wherever I would be.  

  
I decided to take a bus to the next town to save my sore feet as they were now starting to blister in other places from the change of shoes. At the ticket office, my bus was due and I hadn’t yet changed any money into euros, but the kind driver let me on for free (buses can be quite infrequent in places). I hung about in the next town ‘Ardee’, which seemed like another nice pace but I was in too much pain to explore. Feeling the urge to move on and set camp for the night, I caught an onwards connection to a place called Slane. I hadn’t gone far when I happened across a private housing estate with a huge lawn and dense bushes on either side, ‘Perfecto’ to hide out the night. I was a bit anxious about the weather as it was forecast heavy rain the next morning, but my plan was to wake early and jettison out of there before the rain hit. I stashed my bags and limped back over to the town centre. In a local shop I found some instant noodles, hot water and a can of baked beans to pour over the top… yum-o. I limped about some more and found a nice grassy lawn at St Patrick’s church to tuck in to my feast and enjoy the last of the warm sun.


It was around 8.00pm and at some point I was aware that a girl had walked straight past me and into the church; that I had assumed was locked and I started to wonder whether the church might be open all night. In the hope of finding a better place for refuge, I limped to the roadside notice board to look for a churchwarden’s number. There was non-, but a dog walker advised that the priest lived in the house opposite, so of course I went to knock on his door.
After the initial shock of finding an English vagabond on his doorstep, Father Stephens quickly warmed to me once I explained the pilgrimage and he immediately agreed to me spending the night in the church. Behind the altar was a door leading to the office space where I was made up a comfy bed on a sofa with pillow and duvet. There was a little kitchenette, a toilet, wifi and he even made me up a packed lunch for the morning.
Before I went to sleep I prayed to Mary and wept at the altar in sheer gratitude before collapsing into a deep sleep. In the morning heavy rain started early at 5.30am and I again felt so much gratitude for this church. Now each day that I approaching Kildare, I was anxious to harvest the Irish reed with which to make the St Brigids cross from. Father Stephens had advised of a nearby river to try my luck so I donned my waterproofs and headed down to the river.
I walked barefoot. My shoes had immediately water-logged and the material was rubbing my blisters raw. Now I didn’t really know what Irish reeds were, but I thought I had a fair idea from what I’d been told and seen so far. There I spied not far away, a clump of large reeds ripe for the picking. Not knowing these reeds were the extremely extra large variety I was overjoyed and waded into the water to fetch them. When I headed back to the church to collect my things, mass was starting and I joined in with the service. The priest introduced me to the congregation and explained about the pilgrimage. Afterwards a lovely lady came over and gave me a blessed rosary from the holy town of Medjugory... My collection of trinkets was growing nicely.


 


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Pilgrimage to Kildare: Chapter IV, Blessings in Disguise

May 20, 2022

 When I left the church, the rain was still heavy and the pain of blisters unbearable, so finally I bought some blister plasters from the chemist. I had to wait for my feet to dry so in the next town Navan, I headed for the nearest Cathedral to patch myself up. To my dismay the Cathedral was closed for a funeral so I enquired at the Cathedral shop. Inside was a great guy called Michael who said I was welcome to use the back room to rest up, he even brought over a hot cup of tea. He also loved the pilgrimage idea and found it inspiring which was making the hardship all the more bearable. After parting company, I started to walk the final leg of the day to a town called Trim down the side of a busy road (it was the fastest route). The grass verge was wide so I honestly felt quite safe but a commuter lady certainly didn’t. About 3 hours in to my journey I was walking bare foot again as the plasters had slipped off in the wet and the pain was again unbearable. The rain was getting heavier and was forecast all night. My plan for the evening was again to look for a sheltered hidey, although I didn’t seem to be having much luck in finding sheltered hidey holes….
 ‘Oi, what do you think your doing walking bare foot on this busy road, come over here!’. It was a very angry lady. To be honest her shouting was pretty rude and I did just want to ignore her, but I felt to cross over and ‘do what I was told’. The lady as it happened was the headmistress of a school in the town I was travelling towards and thought I was some silly lunatic kid putting myself in grave danger. Once I started explaining my pilgrimage to Kildare in search of the eternal flame of St Brigid, she softened and offered me a lift into the town. She also gave me 50 Euros making me promise to get a hot meal and BnB for the night.



I found the most lovely hotel and settled in with a large microwave meal and hot shower. The room was gorgeous in a Victorian style and the heating was on full blast so everything dried out nicely. It continued to rain throughout the night and the next morning and you can’t imagine how thankful I was for that beautiful room.
Today was the last day and night on the road and I had the furthest ground to cover. I decided to email the Dean of Kildare Cathedral to arrange a blessing for the cross that I was yet to make but sadly, his response was that he’d rather that I stayed away from the service due to Covid times. I had however heard that St Brigids ancient fire pit was still in the cathedral grounds, so my intention was to perform some sort of ceremony there anyhow to mark the visit.  Anyway, time was getting away and I realised that I had missed the only morning bus out of town so the kind landlady took me by car to the next town Enfield. I think I was the most cheerful on the road today despite the rain, as it was my last day. I did have a fair distance to cover on foot and I was walking so slowly because my feet were in such poor shape. The roads were nice country lanes and the nicest scenery but this was farming land and there were no shops what so ever for miles around. In the early afternoon I stopped to check the map and a car pulled up next to me. It was an elderly man who had stopped to see if I was okay. He was off somewhere but insisted that I should wait for his return because he really wanted to make me a cup of tea, so how could I refuse. 



While I was waiting, across the road a young woman came out of her driveway to ask if I was okay. I mentioned that I was waiting for an elderly gentleman and she said, ‘Well that’ll be me dad’.  So the three of us went into the farmhouse for tea and baked beans on toast. The farmhouse looked like it was well over 100 years old with no renovations - it was so cool. He did offer a bed for the night but it was my last day so I decided to crack on. Several hours later I started to think about my final sleep. As I walked, I kept checking out churchyards with shrubs where I could hide but nothing appealed (I had grown fussy). I was getting desperate come 8.30pm so I decided to start knocking on a few doors to see if I might be allowed to camp in a garden.  I tried a few placed that didn’t answer but then one did and it was lovely lady Gronya, whose husband agreed it would be okay to camp. 


I laid my sleeping bag out onto the lawn and enjoyed some tea and a snack they had brought over. A little while later I knocked on the door again to use the bathroom before bedtime when Gronya declared that she has been sat inside so worried all this time, she offered me a bed inside. I was genuinely looking forward to sleeping outside but I accepted the offer of kindness all the same and had a deep and refreshing sleep, excited for the next day.

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Pilgrimage to Kildare, Chapter V, Wounded and Weary in Kildare

May 20, 2022

 That morning I bid farewell to Gronya and Dave and walked the remaining 7 miles to Kildare. By then I had learnt St Brigids prayer by heart and as I recited it over I noticed how fitting was my condition. ‘Brigid, you were a voice for the wounded and weary’, both wounded and weary I certainly was…  
As a congratulatory reward to myself, I booked a self-contained Airbnb for my two nights in Kildare. After putting down my bags, I raced out to the town to have a look around. First I found the high walled Anglican Cathedral which was all locked up. I was told that it would be open the next day so I didn’t mind waiting. Next I found a Carmalites church that was open and here I went inside to thank Mary for getting me to Kildare safely (little did I know this extraordinary adventure wasn’t over yet). By now I had come to know that the reeds I had been carrying where the extra large type, so I decided to go in search of the smaller variety. My landlady had given me some direction of where I might find some and on the way I passed St Brigids Parish Catholic Church where mass was just finishing.
I popped inside to chat to the priest and met Father Andy who was a great guy. He even knew Father Stephens from the St Patricks Church that I had taken refuge in Slane. Amazingly he felt to gift the pilgrimage a newly made and already blessed St Brigids cross that he had received earlier that day.  I continued to the field that my landlady had advised but alas I could not find the reed. I started to worry slightly as the sun had started to set (and it wasn’t even the season for reeds anyway). But soon I stopped to ask a lady if she knew where some reeds might grow and she very kindly drove me down to a bog behind St Brigids well. After getting my feet soaked again and getting paniky lost, I finally found enough reeds to make the journey back home. It was close to 9.00pm and I stayed up until 11.00pm making crosses – what fun I had.


After a cup of tea in bed and a cooked breakfast to get me started, my first mission was in St Brigids Parish Church. I intended to give the crosses some sort of ceremonial light blessing, since She (Brigid) was the keeper of the ‘eternal flame’. My idea was to light a candle to symbolically bring the spirit of St Brigid from Kildare back to London. After Mass I took the little blessed cross Father Andy had gifted and lit a candle and prayed the St Brigids prayer over it.        
I had been told that the Anglican Cathedral would be open by 11.00am and with the Bishop in attendance the service was going to be a ‘long one’. By mid-day it was raining again so I delayed in good faith that I would have plenty of time to do what I needed at the fire pit. I wouldn’t be attending the service, so my plan was to first visit the grounds, complete the fire ceremony and perhaps pop in to visit the Cathedral once the congregation had left. By 1.00pm the rain had finally stopped. I gathered up the second cross, glass jar, candle and matches and headed out. As I reached the cathedral, to my surprise I saw that the service had finished and folk were already leaving. I even passed the vicar on his way out! I decided to go and quickly find the ancient fire pit and perform the light ceremony for the other cross.

I must have stayed only 20 minutes but upon my departure, I found that the Cathedral was now locked and so too were the tall gates; leaving me locked inside! Now, I am not a stranger to the business of climbing over walls, so I desperately ran about looking for a way over. But alas it was just all too high. After some poking about near a shed in the shrub area, I saw some familiar Haris fencing and a convenient slant of wood allowing me to scale it safely and drop to freedom into a kids playground phew.

Feeling elated at my new found freedom and having successfully completed my ceremonies, I decided to try my luck and pay a visit to Solas Bhride, a multi-faith centre set up by three Christian sisters but had been closed for many months due to Covid. The centre was a special place as it was home to a symbolic ‘eternal flame of Kildare’. The original flame that burned for centuries at the cathedral fire pit was extinguished during the reformation. But in 1993 the flame was symbolically re-lit in the town centre as a tourist attraction. Defiant that it should never go out again, the sisters re-lit a candle from this flame and have tended to it since.
On my way there I bumped into my landlady. She was doubtful the centre would be open but was happy to accompany me all the same. As we were taking a walk around the gardens, one of the sisters saw us and came out to welcome us in. Here we spent a peaceful time in silence and meditated around the ‘eternal’ flame.
After visiting the centre, I felt the missions in Kildare were now complete.

 

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Pilgrimage to Kildare: Chapter VI, Farewells With Friends

May 20, 2022

 The next morning was my last in Kildare and I thought to light a candle in thanks for all those who had helped me on my journey, so off I went to the local parish. Unfortunately mass had started so then I tried the Carmalites but mass had started there too! Alas, I went back to the flat to collect my bags and see about my coach departure to Dublin. On my way I saw a nun who I recognised from the services at the parish church. She stopped to chat and invited me back to the convent for a quick cup of tea and breakfast. When we got there she showed me to an altar room and it was there I got to light my final candle of prayer and thanks.
I met my pall Gerry in Dublin for a few hours before heading onwards to Dundalk to see Betty and her family. We visited another St Brigids shrine and holy place and enjoyed a peaceful evening in the Irish hills. Betty is so overwhelmingly kind and generous and she filled my bag with even more prayer cards, another blessed rosary from Medjugori, a pin badge of St Brigids Cross and so much love.


The next day I booked my ferry back to Birkenhead. I waved goodbye to Betty and boarded the train to Belfast with my St Brigids crosses safely in hand so they wouldn’t get damaged. When I got to Belfast, the Covid restrictions on indoor dining were finally lifted so I celebrated with a vegan roll from Costa. After deliberating whether to walk to the ferry or take a bus, I opted to walk since the evening was so nice. Time wore on and now the once crowded streets of Belfast were becoming more and more desolate and industrial. As I was waiting at a crossing, a lady called Corrina came over to see if I needed a lift anywhere. Since ones backpack seems only to get heavier over time, I greatly accepted and jumped into the jeep. I arrived at the ferry in good time as boarding hadn’t yet started, so I de-bagged, sat down and then disaster struck! I had left my crosses in her car!!!!!
A random stranger who had sped off never to be seen again! As I went into full panic mode many things crossed my mind. Could I board the ferry with this great loss having failed at my mission? No, even if it meant I would have to go straight back to Kildare and make the cross again, I would. I remembered that Corrina had said that she was waiting outside a bakery for her partner to finish some renovations work, so the only thing I could do was to go back to where I was picked up and see if he would still be there. I ran out of the terminal, not fancying my chances on foot I tried to hitch hike back to the main road. Mad panic was setting in and at first I ran off in the wrong direction wasting about 15 minutes of precious time. I righted myself at last, but I soon found out the ferry terminal was not the friendly sort of place I had experienced on my travels. I had 2 choices, continue hitching along the main road and risk no one stopping or to try running back to the bakery through the deserted docklands. I started to run.      
As I was running, I was trying to work out on my phone the spot where I got picked up. But I couldn’t think straight and ended up running right past it, getting even more lost, stressed and confused. After recognising a church (of course), I realised I had overshot and was able to finally put myself right and there I saw the bakery…  and inside was Julian the baker.
He sped me home to a rather surprised looking Corrina, and in her car I was reunited with the precious crosses. Julian also drove me back to the ferry terminal where I found out his grandfather was very devoted to St Brigid and Julian had gone to a St Brigids Primary school. A perfect ending to my time in Ireland.
I boarded the ferry, got to sit in my favourite seat and had a nice cup of tea before falling asleep.
I delivered the crosses to Robin at St Brides church, Fleet Street the next day. Just before I handed them over, I lit a candle in the church as a symbolic ‘bringing the light back’ ceremony to complete the journey. The crosses were very greatly received.