“Follow the ancient pilgrim routes to discover Saints and Scholars at every turn. Take a spiritual trail across this Early Christian bastion – Persuasive saints, productive monks and pillaging Norsemen – tread the trail of the medieval movers and shakers who left their mark on Ireland’s lush green hills and vales. Vanished kingdoms come to life, abandoned villages reappear and the many talents of Ireland’s early missionaries are revealed on this journey through the scenic sights and striking works of Ireland’s sacred past.”
County Kildare has been a bastion of Christianity for nearly sixteen centuries, its legacy surviving in a wealth of churches, both ruined and extant, as well as high crosses, round towers, holy wells, graveyards and mausoleums scattered amid the fields, towns and riversides. The powerful religious tradition is encapsulated in the very word ‘Kildare’, or “Cill Dara” in Gaelic; Cill means ‘church’, ‘Dara’ means oak and together they mean ‘church of the oak tree’.
The name derives from a fifth century A.D. abbey that is said to have been founded by Saint Bridget, the patron saint of Kildare, who was herself named for Brigh, a Celtic goddess of fire and light. Today Kildare town is dominated by the thirteenth century cathedral that bears her name. Bridget is one of Ireland’s three most venerated saints but Patrick and Columba, the other two, also left their mark in the county, at Old Kilcullen, Naas and Moone, while at least a dozen more of Ireland’s celebrated saints are credited with founding other communities across Kildare.
St Patrick was singularly unimpressed by his reception at Moone where the local community laid a series of traps for him, the intricacies of which sadly do not survive. When he got wind of this skulduggery, Ireland’s patron saint placed a curse on the heathens of Moone decreeing that no man born in the vicinity would ever become a king or a bishop, a jinx that still holds firm fifteen hundred years later. Every year, there is a re-enactment of the stoning of St. Patrick at the Moone High Cross Inn.
The monastic settlements founded in this early Christian period invariably came under the protection and patronage of the kings of Leinster and the miscellaneous sub-chieftains. Nine of Leinster’s Christian kings were reputedly buried at Cill Corban, beside Kill, while Cormac, the saintly king of Munster, is said to have been interred in the Iron Age passage tomb of Killeen Cormac near Colbinstown. Áed Dub mac Colmáin, King of Leinster, abdicated his throne in 592 AD to begin a 48-year run at St. Bridget’s Abbey, Kildare, serving as Bishop of Kildare for the last decade of his life.
Other communities such as that at Old Connell (now Newbridge) were acclaimed for the skill of its monks in the illumination and ornamentation of missals, gospels, and psalters. The native Irish expertise in stonemasonry and artistic endeavour also found expression in the construction of at least five Round Towers and four High Crosses in County Kildare during the centuries immediately prior to the Anglo-NoRman conquest.
Round Towers still stand, in varying condition, at Kildare, Old Kilcullen, Castledermot, Taghadoe and Oughterard, as do the magnificent High Crosses of Moone, Old Kilcullen and Castledermot. Most of the county’s holy wells – of which at least twelve survive – also date to this period or earlier. As seats of wealth and learning, the monasteries of Kildare inevitably attracted the unwelcome attention of marauding Vikings during the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries A.D. From their strongholds in Dublin and Leixlip, these terrifying Norse and Danish warriors raided the Christian communities in places such as Killashee and Old Kilcullen. Their favourite target was the wooden church in the town of Kildare, whose wealth had been greatly increased by the generous gifts of pilgrims praying at the richly bejewelled shrine to St. Bridget; her purported relics were subsequently removed for safe-keeping and later reinterred in Down Cathedral.
Old Kilcullen was destroyed by Vikings in 1114AD and the Round Tower at Oughterard lost its top during a raid, but interestingly, while Castledermot was raided twice in the 9th century, a hogs-back grave in St James’s Churchyard – the only known example in Ireland – suggests that at least one person of mixed Hiberno-Norse parentage was buried here.
Having survived the Vikings, the Christian church found a new champion in the late 12th century when Anglo-Norman knights, backed by Pope Adrian IV (the only Englishman to have held the office) seized control of the ancient kingdom of Leinster. Over the next two hundred years, these knights and their descendants constructed a raft of new churches and abbeys throughout County Kildare. Coinciding with the Age of the Crusades, this building bonanza was inspired by major shifts in the teaching and understanding of Christianity across Europe. As such, the new institutions were occupied by such new orders as the Cistercians, the Augustinians and the Franciscans, as well as by more mysterious groups like the Knights Templar and their successors, the Knights Hospitaller.
Most of these new buildings appeared on the same site as, or adjacent to, the earlier Irish monasteries. Naas, for instance, was settled by Welsh families and given a new church named for St David, the patron saint of Wales. Likewise, a new abbey was built at Great Connell, near Newbridge, as a dependent of the powerful Augustinian priory of Llanthony in Wales, while the Cistercian abbey at Monasterevin was a daughter house of the mighty Cistercian abbey of Baltinglass.
Nuns too found their home in places such as the Arroasian convents at Timolin and Graney. Many of the knights who sponsored these buildings are buried in the county, including Meilyr fitz Henry, a grandson of Henry II, and the Fitzmaurices, ancestors of the earls of Kildare. The Protestant church in Timolin holds the effigy of the Norman knight Robert FitzRichard, Lord of Narragh, while the Franciscan friary in Castledermot holds the only example of a cadaver effigy in Kildare, being the double tomb of Joan Skelton and her husband James Tallon. The glory days of such institutions continued into the 1520s when, for instance, the original St Patrick’s College was established in Maynooth.
However, Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the ensuing Protestant Reformation marked the death knell for the old church. In the wake of Silken Thomas FitzGerald’s failed attempt to oust the English from Kildare, almost all of the existing Catholic communities in the county were closed down and their premises were either destroyed or taken over by the new Protestant elite. The Augustinian priory of St. Wolstan’s outside Celbridge was converted into a family home for Sir John Alen, the man who oversaw the Dissolution of the Monasteries in Ireland. An era of ungodliness came upon the county. Things were certainly looking ominous by 1655 when James Carey, a former Catholic priest, complained that the people in Athy ‘preferred to spend the hours appointed for Church service in frequenting ale houses or indulging in unwarranted exercises.’
In 1691, James II, the last Catholic king of Britain and Ireland, was soundly defeated in battle by William III. For much of the next two hundred years, Ireland was governed by the Protestant Ascendancy; the chiefly Anglican churches where these land-owning families were christened, married and buried are to be found all over the county today.
Many are still frequently open for worship by Kildare’s Protestant population while more and more members of the Irish diaspora are flocking to the church archives to try and unearth more clues about the lives of their ancestors.
The graveyards alongside these churches are frequently fascinating and include such disparate characters as the brewer Arthur Guinness and the patriot Wolfe Tone; the mausoleums wherein the principal landowning families were interred are also remarkably fine works.
While Catholicism was all but outlawed during the eighteenth century, the relaxation of the Penal Laws in the 1790s found perhaps its fullest impact in County Kildare when St. Patrick’s College reopened in Maynooth in 1795. It evolved into one of the world’s most prestigious Catholic seminaries while the wider campus is now home to Maynooth University, with over 10,000 students. The college’s treasures include a mausoleum built for the Gaelic League co-founder Father Eugene O’Growney, which was modelled on the primitive early Christian church of St. Kevin in Glendalough. County Kildare also attracted the Jesuits after a ban on the ‘Soldiers of God’ was lifted in 1814; they immediately converted an old Ascendancy mansion near Clane into Clongowes Wood College, Ireland’s oldest Catholic school, whose past alumni include the author James Joyce, the businessman Michael Smurfit and many of Ireland’s foremost rugby players.
Kildare featured prominently in Daniel O’Connell’s successful campaigns, through monster meetings held at Mullaghmast and the Curragh, and through his friend James Warren Doyle, the forceful Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, who wrote under the name “JKL”. There are at least 49 Catholic churches still operational today in County Kildare.
Anglican and Catholic aside, County Kildare also has various Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches. Seventeen Presbyterian families from Perthshire in Scotland arrived in Athy in 1851 to settle on local farms provided by the Duke of Leinster. The La Touche family of Harristown founded the Baptist church at Brannockstown; another at Colbinstown became the present-day Priory Restaurant. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, visited the county in 1789; churches were duly established in Athy, Castledermot, Celbridge, Newbridge and elsewhere. The short-lived Kellyites, a breakaway group from the Church of England was founded by the Reverend Thomas Kelly, a prolific hymn writer, and had one of its principal meeting houses in Duke Street, Athy.
However, perhaps the county’s most striking religious minority are the Quakers, or Society of Friends, who established a major stronghold around the village of Ballitore where the school counted the philosopher Edmund Burke and the rebel Napper Tandy among its past pupils. The explorer Ernest Shackleton was closely connected to the Ballitore school. Other Quaker communities sprang up at Rathangan and Timahoe in north Kildare; the latter was home to the forebears of US President Richard Nixon.
 The Roman Catholic Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin presently embraces 56 parishes, 117 operational churches and a Catholic population of nearly 250,000, but a great part of County Kildare is located in the Dublin diocese, including Celbridge, Leixlip and Maynooth. Fr James McEvoy suggested the figure of 49 based on 16 in the Dublin Archdiocese and 33 in Kildare and Leighlin but he adds “The number may be slightly out as I don’t claim absolute familiarity with the parishes which are part of Dublin Archdiocese.”
Sacred Kildare is by Historian and Author Turtle Bunbury.