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The First of February marks the Feast Day of St Brigid, who like St Moninne and St Bronagh, has connections to the local area. According to tradition St Brigid was born around 450AD at Faughart, close to Dundalk.  There is much debate over her parents, but it is widely believed that her mother was Brocca, a Christian baptized by St Patrick, and her father was Dubthach, a Leinster chieftain. Brocca was a slave, meaning that Brigid was born into slavery. There are many stories of Brigid’s charitable works throughout her childhood including giving away her father’s sword and her mother's entire store of butter.  Her freedom was granted when the King of Leinster, a Christian, saw her charitable nature and convinced her father to free her.

General view of the churches at Killeavy. St. Monnina’s original monastic foundation probably comprised a series of wooden buildings. These were later replaced by stone buildings including, perhaps, the surviving west church (on left). The east church indicates further building, or re-modelling of earlier structures, in the 15th century. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
General view of the churches at Killeavy. St. Monnina’s original monastic foundation probably comprised a series of wooden buildings. These were later replaced by stone buildings including, perhaps, the surviving west church (on left). The east church indicates further building, or re-modelling of earlier structures, in the 15th century. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Many miracles were attached to Brigid. One of the more well-known is when Brigid approached the local king asking for land to be put aside for the building of a convent. When he refused, Brigid instead asked for just enough land that her cloak would cover. Amused, the King agreed, and when Brigid’s friends took the four corners of her cloak it magically spread to cover a great swathe of land. In 480 St. Brigid founded a monastery at Kildare and remained there as abbess until her death which tradition states occurred on 1st February 525.

Cast bronze bell dating from the Early Christian traditionally associated with St. Bronagh’s settlement at Kilbroney. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Cast bronze bell dating from the Early Christian traditionally associated with St. Bronagh’s settlement at Kilbroney. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

For centuries pilgrims have been visiting the Holy Well in the graveyard on Faughart Hill and St Brigid's Stream, where a series of penitential stations are performed.  The stone stations are believed to have the power to cure certain ailments.  In the 1930s a new shrine was erected to Saint Brigid. Using rushes, many people today make St Brigid’s Crosses to commemorate the life of St. Brigid.

Souvenir and service booklet from the opening of St Brigid’s Church in Newry in 1970. Both dcouemts are decorated with a St Brigid’s Cross. The new building replaced a Chapel-of-Ease built in 1958 to serve the new housing estates in Rooney’s Meadow and Derrybeg.  Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Souvenir and service booklet from the opening of St Brigid’s Church in Newry in 1970. Both dcouemts are decorated with a St Brigid’s Cross. The new building replaced a Chapel-of-Ease built in 1958 to serve the new housing estates in Rooney’s Meadow and Derrybeg. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

As Christianity spread throughout Ireland in 5th century, one of the most important early monasteries in Ulster was established by Darerca, popularly known as St. Moninna, at Killeavy on the lower slopes of Slieve Gullion in either the late 5th or early 6th centuries.  The monastery is well documented and secured an important role in political and ecclesiastical affairs. It was raided by the Vikings in 852 and 923 and, in 1050, was the site of the killing of Cailleach of Cell Sléibbe ‘a pious good senior’.  The monastery at Killeavy was converted into an Augustinian convent in the mid-12th century. It continued to flourish during the Middle Ages.

The monastery at Killeavy was dissolved in the 1540s. In 1542, the monastery was surrendered by the last abbess, Alicia Negan McDonnechy O’Hanlon and its buildings and land were granted to Sir Marmaduke Whitechurch. Surviving remains of the monastery include two churches, a number of carved stones and a holy well.

St Bronagh set up a religious settlement in the 6th century at Kilbroney, near Rostrevor. It is thought that the convent was erected to help sailors shipwrecked on the beach. The old graveyard at Kilbroney has the ruins of St Bronagh's church, St Bronagh's Cross, a shrine and a holy well. The shrine was erected in 1938.  A bell from the monastery was discovered between a wall and a tree which was blown down in a storm in the 18th century. It was possibly hidden there during the penal days.  It is now on display in St. Mary’s, Star of the Sea Church, Rostrevor.

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed.

By Noelle Murtagh

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