Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sr. Mary Minehan: 1999 Interview by Melissa Thompson


Mary

The more I read about powerful women in Irish history, the more I kept bumping into Brigid. At the suggestion of Katie Donovan, I contacted Mary Minehan, a Brigidine sister in Kildare. I made my first trek to visit Sister Mary in December, 1998, with Marie Bashford-Synett, a writer I’d met in the UCD women’s studies program, who was also very interested in Brigid. After spending several hours with Sister Mary and learning about Brigid and the work of Cairde Bhríde, I decided the annual Feile Bride was something I could not miss. I attended the festival and also returned once more to do a proper interview with Sister Mary, a powerful woman in her own right.


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Interview with Sr. Mary Minehan 2/19/99

MM: OK, Melissa. I’m Mary Minehan. I’m a Brigidine sister living here in Kildare. I was born in a small country village, Puckane, Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. My parents decided to send me to boarding school when I finished primary school as we had a family-run business and they thought I would study better in a quiet atmosphere. I went to a Brigidine secondary school in Mountrath, about forty miles from home.

MT: Why did you decide to become a Brigidine?

MM: I really didn’t think about becoming a Brigidine until I was in my last year in secondary school. During a retreat, the retreat guide asked me if I ever thought of becoming a sister. I was considering being a physical education teacher or an air-hostess. This question sowed the seeds of my vocation to be a Brigidine. It’s strange. I didn’t really want to be a sister as I thought I’d have to give up too much such as as dances, boyfriends, having children of my own and so forth. I stayed at home for a short time after secondary school and lived life to the full. However, the idea of giving my life to God as a Brigidine kept niggling at me. I felt I would have to try and see if I had a vocation to Religious life. I wasn’t sure whether I’d stay or not. I remember friends having a party for me shortly before I left home, and they told me they’d have another one for me three weeks from that day when they expected to see me back home again!

MT: How did your family feel about you going into the convent?

MM: Initially, they were shocked. As I was the eldest in the family, my parents thought I would run the family business. They were anxious, wondering if I would be happy. Each time they came to visit me in the Novitiate, my dad would say, “Are you coming home?” And I’d say, “Not yet, Dad.” When they saw that I was happy and that it was what I wanted to do with my life, they accepted the fact that I wouldn’t be returning home. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t lonely for home and for the friends I’d left behind. Life wasn’t easy in the Novitiate. There were times when I questioned whether it was the life for me, but my faith was strong and carried me through the difficult and lonely times. I took “the road less travelled by.” I don’t regret my life decision. I’m a very happy Brigidine. I live life to the full.

MT: And how did you get from Mountrath to Kildare then?

MM: I did my Novitiate programme in Tullow, Co. Carlow. After that I trained as a primary school teacher and worked in different Brigidine schools around the country. In the 1980s we Brigidines, in the Irish-UK province began a discernment process about our future. A decision was taken to send a few Brigidine sisters to Kildare. I’m going to tell you a little of our history. The Brigidines are a restoration of the ancient order of Brigid of Kildare. Brigid founded her monastery in Kildare in the fifth century, and there were Brigidine monasteries in Ireland up to the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Daniel Delany, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, refounded the Sisterhood of St. Brigid in Tullow, Co. Carlow in 1807. Our annals tell us that he brought an corn from Kildare and planted it in the Convent grounds in Tullow, on St. Brigid’s Day, 1807. A mighty oak tree now stands in the grounds in Tullow. Brigidines today work in Ireland, Wales, the UK, the US, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Kenya, and Papua New Guinea.

Now to get back to your question about my being here in Kildare. In 1992, Phil O’Shea and myself were asked to come to Kildare and to explore our Celtic Heritage -- to reclaim Brigid of Kildare in a new way for a new millennium. There is a huge resurgence of interest in Brigid. Some come here to find out more about St. Brigid. Some come to find out more about the Goddess Brigid. Brigid the saint inherits much of the folklore associated with the Goddess Brigid, a dimension which contributes to her popularity. Our great Celtic scholar here in Ireland, An t-Athair Sean O Quinn, a Benedictine monk, would say it’s an exercise in futility to try and separate the historical Christian Brigid from the Goddess since clearly the two are so interwoven. People come here from all over the world. Recently we had a group from Germany. Their church of St. Brigid was founded by a Brigidine monk from Kildare. Brigid had a double monastery for men and women. We also had a group of twenty-five women from Tonsberg, Norway. There are over a thousand women across Scandinavia who model their lives on the values of Brigid of Kildare. They are married and single women who belong to the Lutheran tradition.

MT: How did you first hear of St. Brigid? Was it when you went to boarding school or was it before that?

MM: My granny used make Brigid’s crosses with rushes. If she hadn’t rushes she would cross matches and put them over the door on the eve of St. Brigid’s Day, the 1st of February. This was to bring a blessing on the house. I also remember my mother having an ulcer on her leg. A customer told her to leave out a piece of cloth on the eve of Brigid’s feast. There was a belief that St. Brigid left her curative powers on the cloth on the eve of the feast day. I can’t remember if it cured mam’s sore leg but I remember the faith and belief she had in Brigid. I have learnt since that the cloth is called the Brat Bríde. The custom is being revived in Kildare, so my earliest memories are of Brigid the protector, Brigid the healer. It is great to be living in Kildare. We have an outreach community of about fifty people, men and women, who call themselves Cairde Bríde, “friends of Brigid.” They walk the journey with us. We do a ritual at the well, which brings out the different qualities of Brigid, you see. We tell different legends of Brigid and we do circle dancing. Inspired by the values of Brigid, we work together to promote peace, justice and reconciliation.

MT: What kind of things do Cairde Bhríde do during the year?

MM: We meet with Cairde Bhríde on the last Wednesday of each month. They greet pilgrims with us and participate in the rituals at St. Brigid’s well. Two members of Cairde Bhríde are keepers of the well. They are very involved in caring for the earth and some members have formed the Kildare Environmental Circle. Every year they’re involved with us in organizing Feile Bride, “Brigid’s festival.” They celebrate the Celtic feasts in this room which is called Brigid’s room. I’ll tell you briefly the story about the history of the light you se burning in this room. “Brigid’s fire,” a perpetual flame, burned in Kildare in pre-Christian Ireland times and was kept alight by Brigid and her nuns, possibly up to the sixteenth century. It was relit in 1993 by Mary Teresa Cullen, the then leader of the Brigidine sisters, in the Market Square, Kildare, at the opening of a justice and peace conference. The conference, entitled “Brigid: Prophetess, Earthwoman, Peacemaker,” was organized by AFRI (Action from Ireland), a justice, peace and human rights group, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its St. Brigid’s Peace Cross Project. The relighting of the Brigid flame/fire seems to have caught the imagination of people all over the world. Since then, Phil and I are honored to be the keepers of the flame here in Solas Bhríde -- which means the light of Brigid. Tog et back to Cairde Bhríde, they’re a very creative group of women and men. They get involved in the justice and peace issues which are dealt with during the Feile Bride conference each year.

MT: I loved how the conference brought all these different elements and issues together really seamlessly.

MM: It is always a holistic conference, something for mind, body, and spirit. We have a pilgrimage each year before the opening of the conference. This year you were with us on the Curragh at the Oak Peace Pole, which was carved by Cairde Bhríde and on which were inscribed the words, “May peace prevail on earth.” You also saw the labyrinth which was built by Cairde Bhríde. The conferences deal with issues such as militarism, poverty, the environment, third world debt, and so forth.

Before I got the chance to ask Sister Mary more about Brigid’s fire, we had our own fire to contend with! At this point in the interview, which we were shooting in the house where Mary lives, the lights we were using began to smoke. First one blew and then a few minutes later the second one went as well. So at Mary’s suggestion we took the interview on the road -- to Brigid’s well.

MM: Melissa, this is St. Brigid’s well, Tobair Bríde, and when pilgrims come they gather here. We all wait here to get in touch with the well inside ourselves. Wells are sacred places where down through the years people gathered to pray and to reflect. They take a few moments just to get in touch with the sounds around before entering this sacred place. Tourists come sometimes but they don’t let the place speak to them.

This is a great man here, a great Kildare man, Mr. Dunne, who welcomed the Brigidines when they came back to Kildare.

MD: Hello, Mary.

MM: You live up here, don’t you? Isn’t the well beautiful?

MD: Lovely well. I’m not able to walk.

MM: You’re not able to walk?

MD: Got arthritis.

MM: Arthritis. Are you asking Brigid to help you?

MD: I am.

MM: Good, well she will. They say that you should take cod liver oil, that it’s very good.

MD: I’ve taken everything. Everything.

MM: You have been gardening in the Japanese gardens for how long?

MD: Fifty years. Over fifty years.

MM: Tell them a little a bit about St. Brigid.

MD: She used to get the water here.

MM: That’s right, from the well.

MD: She used to mind the sheep.

MM: She minded the sheep out on the Curragh, Brigid’s pastures, that’s right. Two of the Cairde Bhríde now keep the well. Isn’t it lovely?

MD: Yes. Lovely.

MM: Every Monday two of the women spend time at the well. We won’t keep you standing. It was good to see you. Bye.

MD: Bye now.

MM: As we cross over this bridge sometimes we ask ourselves what bridges we need to cross in our lives. We’ve many bridges to build here in Ireland today. Usually people would say, “Welcome to the well.” Since it’s springtime and February is called Mí na Feile Bríde you’ve all the beautiful spring flowers here, the snowdrops, crocuses, the daffodils, polyanthus. We have a red oak that was planted by Thomas Berry, one of the ecologists today. He was here in ‘95. He’s written a lovely book, The Dream of the Earth. So here at the water’s edge we just get in touch with our inner lives. Here we listen to the sound of the water. Blessing ourselves with the water, sending out water to the different places where healing is needed. And I would like now just to send some water up to a place, Drumcree, Portadown, Co. Armagh, in Northern Ireland, where there is not peace at the moment. In scripture there are so many references to wells. Jesus said, “I will give you living water and you will never be thirsty again.” There is a lovely little chant that we sing: “Come to the water you who are thirsty, though you have nothing, I bid you come and be filled with the goodness I have to offer. Come. Listen. Live.” Pilgrims spend a lot of time thinking about what they are thirsting for today. People come and spend quiet time here. There are five prayer stones standing in line, and the practice is to stop at each stone in turn and dwell on an aspect or quality of Brigid.

We move onto the first stone. Between each stone we say a little prayer. A Naomh Bríd Gui Orainn which is, “St. Brigid pray for us.” A Naomh Bríd Gui Orainn. And here at the first stone we look on Brigid as the earth woman. Brigid the woman of the land was so much in touch with the seasons. Her feast day is the first day of February, the first of Spring, when the days are getting longer. There’s a lovely Irish poem -- “Anois teacht an Earraidh, beidh an la ag dul chun sineadh, is tar eis na Feile Bríde, ardoidh mé mo sheoil.” “Now it’s springtime, the days are getting longer and after St. Brigid’s Day I can hoist my sails again.” They say after St. Brigid’s Day every day stretches and gets longer. So Brigid was one who cared for the earth, a Celtic Woman who loved nature, and very often we come to this stone we invite people just to feel the earth. “The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth.” With the rivers are being polluted and the ozone layer being destroyed, we need to really care for our earth. There’s a lovely line, “Touch the earth with gentleness, touch the earth with love, touch her with future, by the way we live today, God has given us the power to create the world anew, if we touch the earth together, me and you.”

A Naomh Bríd Gui Orainn

We move on to the second stone. And here we reflect on Brigid as peacemaker, Brigid who crossed all divides. Her father was a wealthy pagan chieftain and her mother a poor Christian bondswoman. Here in Kildare as you notice we have St. Brigid’s Catholic Church, St. Brigid’s Church of Ireland, and we had a group last year from St. Brigid’s Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland. One of Brigid’s legends tells that one day this poor man came to Brigid looking for food for his family, but there was no food in the house, so she gave away her father’s precious sword. And she said, “Go and exchange it for food for your family.” Just think today -- 1.3 million spent every day on weapons for war and people dying of hunger and hunger related diseases. 75% of the world’s resources are consumed and owned by 25% of the people. This legend has much to teach us. She changed an instrument of death into an instrument for life. If only we could exchange bombs for food today. Brigid, very much a peacemaker, she gave away the sword, so that people could have something to eat.

A Naomh Bríd Gui Orainn.

We move to the third stone. We look on Brigid as the hearth-woman and the heart woman. She kept the fire lighting. She was famous for her hospitality. I think Brigid too was a woman who celebrated. I love the poem to Brigid with words adapted by Brendan Kennelly. “I’d like to give a lake of beer to God and I’d love the heavenly hosts to be tippling there for all eternity. I’d love the men to be there to dance and sing. If they wanted I’d put at their disposal vats of suffering. I’d like the men to be happy and I’d like Jesus to be there too. I’d like the people of heaven to gather from all the parishes around. I’d give a special welcome to the women, the three Marys of great renown. And we’d sit by the lake of beer, with the men, the women and God, and we’d be drinking good health forever and every drop would be a prayer.”

A Naomh Bríd Gui Orainn.

We move to the fourth stone. We remember Brigid the healer. On the Eve of Brigid’s Day we leave a piece of cloth out here and believe that Brigid’s curative powers are left on this cloth. All of us are in need of healing, all of us are wounded in some way or another, so we just take a minute here to get in touch with ourselves, with our inner selves, and maybe the need for healing in our lives, healing in our family, healing in our country, healing in our world. Very often we sing a little verse of a hymn. “Lay your hands gently upon us, let their touch render your peace, let them bring your forgiveness and healing, lay your hands gently, lay your hands.”

A Naomh Bríd Gui Orainn.

At this last stone we reflect on Brigid as the champion of the poor. The first book we have on Brigid was written about a hundred years after her death by a monk in the Brigidine abbey, Cogitosis. There are thirty-two chapters in this book, and twenty-three of them deal with her love for the poor, the sick, the lonely. Another legend tells us that one day a friend of hers came with a beautiful basket of choice apples and Brigid began to give the apples to the sick and the poor that were around and her friend said, “But Brigid, those apples are for you.” And she said, “Well what’s mine is theirs.” So think of the implications of that today where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. So we have to ask ourselves: am I sharing the “choice apples” in my life, so that my brothers and sisters who are living in poverty can live with basic dignity?

A Naomh Bríd Gui Orainn.

Now we circle the well. Circles are Celtic, there’s no beginning or an end to a circle, we are all on the same level. And we say a little prayer: “Circle us O Lord. Keep protection near and danger afar. Circle us, keep love within our hearts and hatred out. Circle us keeping hope within and doubt out. Circle us O Lord keep peace within and evil out.” It is customary to leave something at the well, and I often ask pilgrims to leave a worry or an anxiety or a fear they have, just here. And we circle the well in a clockwise direction symbolizing unity within ourselves, within one another, and the whole of creation.

So, Melissa, this is what happens here at Brigid’s Well. Many, many pilgrims come here from all over the world. They love it, they spend quiet time here.

MT: One thing I wanted to ask about was: What is the history as you understand it of the wells in Ireland?

MM: In pre-Christian times, wells were associated with the presence of a Goddess and were seen as the entrance to the womb of Mother Earth, the source of life. With the coming of Christianity, wells were used for Christian worship

MT: And would a different well have a different cure?

MM: Yes, St. Brigid’s well is reputed to have a cure for sore eyes.

MT: I’ve asked all the other women I’ve interviewed about women role models and heroines. In addition to Brigid, would there be any other strong women in Irish history that you have looked to?

MM: Countess Markiewicz was a very strong woman. I loved Mary Robinson. I thought she was a great president. I think Mary McAleese is too. I think she’s not getting as much media coverage as Mary Robinson, although she’s a very strong woman too. Mary Robinson was a role model for Irish women. She came I think at the right time. She had the courage to speak out and brought a whole feminine dimension into public life. I also consider my own mother and grandmother as powerful women who had a great influence on my life.

MT: What was that nice quote you had from Mary Robinson about the St. Brigid’s cross?

MM: As you are aware we have four provinces in Ireland. In ancient Irish literature Ireland had five provinces -- an invisible one in the centre of Ireland. Mary Robinson referred to this quite often. For me it resembled in a sense the Brigid’s cross. You have North, South, East, West, but you also have the center which I liken to the fifth province, the province of healing and reconciliation which is neither North, South, East or West. When you’re making a Brigid’s cross, unless you keep the center together, the whole thing falls apart.

MT: The Catholic Church has been under so much criticism for not allowing women to go further within the Church. Do you have any feelings about that?

MM: Yes. I would like to see women more involved, having power into the decision making within the Church. If women are not involved, the Church is less feminine -- I think the Church is less human. Women have great power of creativity and imagination. We are very lucky here in Kildare. We have priests who appreciate the gifts and women and men. That is what Brigid would want today.

MT: Wasn’t there some story about her being ordained a bishop?

MM: Yes, yes, the story goes that St. Mel, on the day of Brigid’s profession, said the prayer of consecration of a bishop. When asked, “Mel, why did you do this?” he said, “This was out of my control, those words just came. I had no power over them.” Brigid was looked on as a bishop in fifth-sixth century Ireland. She was a leader, a strong woman, and yet she knew she couldn’t do it all by herself. She and St. Conleth had a dual monastery for men and women in Kildare.

MT: There are so many stories about Brigid -- what are some of your favorite ones?

MM: You might have noticed the harp in our house. There is a legend about her going to the king of Leinster, and there were harps hanging up around the walls. Brigid said, “Who can play the harp?’” And the servants said, “Nobody can play the harp.” Legend has it that she blessed the hands of some of the people there and they got down the harps and they played beautiful music. When the king came back he was really enthralled and he said to Brigid, “Anything you want I’ll give you.” She replied, “Release these prisoners.” I think this is a really powerful legend -- there is so much potential in all of us, if only we could release the potential that’s there. Release whatever is binding us. We might not be prisoners in jail but we might be prisoners to our own darkness.

MT: One of my favorite stories about Brigid is the one about the cloak.

MM: Yes, the story goes that Brigid was looking for land for her monastery. After much persistence on Brigid’s part, the King of Leinster agreed to give her as much land as her cloak would cover. Miraculously, it spread over the Curragh plain.

MT: I’m asking all the women that I’m interviewing if they were named for anyone in particular.

MM: Yes, my grandmother’s name was Mary, actually my two grandmother’s names were Mary. My mum would have had great devotion to Mary the mother of God. I was born in May, and May is known the month of Mary. Mary was a strong, yet gentle woman, like Brigid. Of course Brigid is called Muire na Gael -- the Mary of Ireland.

MT: I wanted to ask you because I’ve interviewed so many women named Mary and I think the name of the project is going to be “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.” It seems like the role of Mary in Ireland is really special, and I was wondering if you could comment on that.

MM: Yes, there is great devotion to Mary in Ireland. In the past most girls were called Mary -- not so today. Mary was seen as a woman of great faith, who put all her trust in God. There are many stories about Mary. I love the one when she was pregnant and she went to Elizabeth, her cousin, who was very advanced in years and was pregnant also. She needed to talk to an older woman, a wiser woman, to listen and to seek advice. Mary was a woman who let God’s glory shine through her. The older people in Ireland had tremendous devotion to the Rosary -- Mary’s prayer. Every night the rosary was said in my Granny’s home. The family knelt down and said five decades of the rosary.

MT: Not having grown up Catholic, I have such a stereotyped idea of nuns... from movies and stuff... It’s been such an education for me to be in Ireland and spent time with you and other religious women that I’ve met. Did I tell you I got to meet Margaret MacCurtain? She knows a lot about Brigid.

MM: She loves Brigid. When we first came to Kildare, I remember her saying, “When an idea is right, nothing can stop it happening.” You know, the idea for us to come back to Kildare in 1992 was so right. Brigid’s time has come again.

MT: Was Brigid actually from Kildare? Some of the stories I’ve read said she was from here and others talk about her being from Faughart.

MM: There are no historical facts about Brigid at all but an amalgamation of folklore, myth and legend -- which is in our collective memory and which we must not dismiss. Where Brigid was born, nobody really knows. But what we do know is that her spirit lives on very strong -- in Faughart and in Kildare -- today. Somebody said there are two different Brigids -- in Kildare Brigid is a woman for today whereas Faughart, in a sense, has more traditional devotion to St. Brigid.

At this point, Mary offered to drive us to Suncroft to see a statue of Brigid crafted under auspicious conditions....

MM: This is Bríd and the children. We’re in St. Brigid’s parish in Suncroft in Co. Kildare. The parish priest, Father Flanagan, was asked if he would do Brigid -- he was a very famous sculptor. He got in all the limestone and he was about to do this when he got a massive heart attack and died. So they wondered who would do it. So there is this lady, Annette McCormac, who is in Cairde Bhríde which is our outreach community. And she’d never done anything before but with great encouragement we got her to do this, and this is the result here. Brigid and the children. And if you look -- she wanted her to be different from Mary so she gave her a cross and what appeared in the center of the cross but a fossil in the shape of a crescent moon! And I think that is speaking loudly to us today -- the symbol of feminine energy. And I think Brigid is saying, “Come on, you women, appreciate yourselves, love yourselves and take your role today in the church and in society.”

I love this sculpture of Bríd and the children -- and of course am very proud that it was done by a member of Cairde Bhríde. Only a woman could do Brigid.

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for more info about Brigid, also see interviews with Katie Donovan, Margaret MacCurtain, and Mary Condren

for more info about Solas Bhride and Brigid websites, see the religious organizations section of the links page

for info about Feile Bride, write to afri@iol.ie.