Yeah, you read that right!! St. Brigid has a shoe shrine, that is on displayed National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology (Kildare Street in Dublin for those able to get there). Now, I’ve not made it up to Dublin yet to see this shrine, cos I only found out about the shrine this morning, but there a great page on it here (it’s on the website of the National Museum of Ireland, so it’s a pretty legitimate source!)
There’s a video on there as well, going over what is known and/ or believed about the saint. The video also goes over the 7 known lives of St. Brigid (although honestly, Cogitosus and Bethu Brigte are the two I hit on most often!) and how accurate/ inaccurate they might be, as well as the customs and traditions associated with St. Brigid and her feast day.
The most exciting bit of the video, in my opinion, is the bit about the shoe shrine. I mean, I’d never heard of a shoe shrine before… But anyway, a shrine is something that would be created to hold a relic of the saint, in this case a shoe was the relic, so it’s a shoe shrine. A relic can be any object associated with the saint – you often see bones or blood for example in Catholic tradition anyway, but it can also be something that belonged to the saint as well. As another example, in the Middle Ages, there were apparently so many fragments of the “True Cross” wandering around Europe, you could have built a good sized town out of them all if you got them all together. And of course there are loads of relics and shrines still around today.
In honour of the fact these items held sacred objects, these shrines were often heavily decorated and were prayed to/over (the preposition used here depends on your point of view) and could be used to swear oaths. They were usually held in churches or monasteries and in later years found their way into private antiquaries (it’s colonialism, Chad….)
Now this shrine is thought to have held a shoe, hence the shape (either one of Brigid’s own or a relic she herself held), although said shoe is not longer in existence. It’s made of metal – copper or bronze, I think the video said, and the metal is carved with various inscriptions in Latin and pictures of St John the Baptist and Christ on the cross. Now the shoe depicts a later period than Brigid herself would have worn, which is described in the video. (I mean, really, by this point, I’m assuming you’ve already gone to the video in question, cos it’s amazing and only 10mins long!)
Now, the shrine suggests a link between Brigid and St Mary’s Church in Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo – not the part of the country we usually associate with herself to be fair, and I find myself itching to head over to duchas.ie to see what it has to say around Ballinrobe and Brigid. That may be a later post… I may even take a trip up there over the summer to see the stained glass window mentioned in the video. It sounds great.
Anyway, why am I so excited? Well aside from the fact it’s a shrine I didn’t know about – cos that’s exciting in and of itself. And it shoes me that Brigid’s relics were being used and treasured, in this case in a Carmelite monastery dedicated to her in the Lough Rea area of Galway (that might have to be investigated in the same trip as Ballinrobe. It could be Lough Ree as well, but that’s not in Galway, but covers bits of Longford, Westmeath and Roscommon, so I’m hoping it’s Lough Rea – my Dad is from near there and it’s a much smaller lake as well! There is a Carmelite abbey and monastery in Loughrea town itself, but the convent is empty now as the nuns left in 2020. I’m not sure how much of a presence the monastery has in the town, masses are still being held there… This would be the same Abbey that my grandmother regularly went to Mass at before she died. This is also the same Nana that refused to go to Mass when they changed the time of the Mass so it no longer suited her. As far as she was concerned for those few months in Loughrea, there was no Mass held. (It’s not off the side of the road I got my stubbornness!)
Interestingly, that Carmelite convent started off in 1680, when Eleanor Bourke (a “young lady of noble birth” according to Declan Kelly’s Loughrea: A Parish History where I got some more info!) decided she wanted to live a life of piety and the first Carmelite house in Ireland was supplied to her near St. Brigid’s Well in Loughrea (which is now thought to be St. Bride’s on Bride Street). This could be why the video on the National Museum website says the convent was dedicated to St. Brigid?
At this point, I find myself intrigued by the history of St Brigid in the west and I can see a few road trips in my future as I explore this more fully. Including a more careful reading of Declan Kelly’s book. And seeing if the Carmelites have any histories of their own…
And yes, this did all come from a random mention of St. Brigid’s Shoe Shrine in a paper on academia.edu by Niamh Whitfield called Dress and Accessories in the Early Irish Tale “The Wooing Of Becfhola”. I got to page 6 of a 34 page document and just had to pop off and do all this other looking up about the shoe shrine and then I was so excited I had to write to all ye about it. And it doesn’t include the list of other writings, books, papers etc already referenced that I have noted to look up later. As to why I started reading it? I wanted to know how accurate my mental images are of the clothes our ancestors would have worn, whether Iron Age type clothing or Middle Age type clothing. I have the brat and the léine in my head of course, but I’m not sure how accurate that is, so hence the reading to find out.
I know I keep going on about it, but really, reading up on this stuff is fascinating and this morning’s activities are yet another example of how a simple article reading exercise progresses to a rabbit hole of research… a labyrinthine mind is a wondrous thing!