Founding by Saint Brigid
Rich in heritage and history, Kildare Town dates from the 5th century, when it was the site of the original ‘Church of the Oak’ and monastery founded by Saint Brigid. This became one of the three most important Christian foundations in Celtic Ireland.
It was said that Brigid’s mother was a Christian and that Brigid was reared in her father’s family, that is with the children of his lawful wife. From her mother, Brigid learned dairying and the care of the cattle, and these were her occupations after she made a vow to live a life of holy chastity. Both Saint Mel of Ardagh and Bishop Mac Caille have been credited with the consecration of Brigid and some companions, after which the woman established a community beneath an oak tree, on a hill on the edge of the Curragh. Hence the name Cill Dara, the church of the oak.
Not too far away, on Dún Ailinne, lived the King of Leinster who had donated the site to the holy woman. A story told was that the King had offered Brigid as much land as her cloak would cover. When she spread her garment it miraculously stretched out to embrace the entire Curragh. True to his promise, the King gave her the fertile plain, and there the new community grazed their sheep and cows.
Carmelite Friary (White Abbey) Church, Kildare
The Carmelite Friars accepted the invitation of Lord William de Vesci and came to Kildare in 1290. This same de Vesci also established the Franciscans in the Grey Abbey and built the original castle of Kildare. With the suppression of the monasteries under Henry VIII, White Abbey was surrendered on the 3rd of April, 1539. The Friars, however, continued to minister clandestinely to the people of the area during the next two centuries. When the Penal Laws were relaxed in the 1750s the Carmelites returned to Kildare and erected a church and a school close to or on the original 1290 foundation. This eighteenth century church served the Carmelites and the people in the district for more than one hundred years. The foundation stone of the present church was laid on the 8th of December, 1884. The architect was William Hague who designed churches in the Pugin style. The church is therefore gothic in design and the builder was John Harris of Monasterevan, who used Wicklow granite and local stone from Boston, Rathangan. The church is cruciform in plan with the nave being set off with alternating window and arched roof-truss. The transepts are defined by polished granite pillars with moulded bases and carved caps which support arches in line with the walls of the nave. The side chapels are seen from the transepts and chancel through arches springing from moulded piers which also support the large chancel arch with its polished granite corbel shafts, moulded bases and carved caps. The principal entrance doorway faces east with pillared jambs, carved tympanum and moulded arches set in a projecting porch. The tower, with its lantern belfry, extends above the level of the nave roof. It has deeply recessed windows on each face and is finished with a moulded cornice. From this point the tapering spire rises to a height of 40 metres and is surmounted by a cross. On the north transept wall of the church are inserted – for safe keeping – some interesting fifteenth/sixteenth century stone sculptures which came from the ruins of the Franciscan Grey Abbey. They are similar to the carvings from Great Connell and Dunfierth, also in Co Kildare, and probably came from the same workshop. The stained glass in the church includes scenes from the lives of Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the Scapular Vision, as well as Saints Patrick and Brigid, and the four Evangelists. The rose window over the main entrance is of special interest with its centre piece being the Prophet Elijah, the spiritual founder of the Order. The surrounding panels show St Telesphorus, St Dionysius, St Albert (Patriarch of Jerusalem), St Andrew Corsini, St Cyril of Alexandria, St Louis IX, St Angelus, and St Albert of Sicily.
In February 2016, the Carmelite Church and Friary were entrusted to the Indian Carmelites.
Milestone in early motorsport
On Thursday, 2 July 1903 the Gordon Bennett Cup ran through Kildare. It was the first international motor race to be held in the United Kingdom as it then existed, an honorific to Selwyn Edge who had won the 1902 event in Paris driving a Napier. The Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland wanted the race to be hosted in the islands, and their secretary, Claude Johnson, suggested Ireland as the venue because racing was illegal on British public roads. The editor of the Dublin Motor News, Richard Mecredy, suggested an area in County Kildare, and letters were sent to 102 Irish MPs, 90 Irish peers, 300 newspapers, 34 chairmen of county and local councils, 34 County secretaries, 26 mayors, 41 railway companies, 460 hoteliers, 13 PPs, plus the Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, Patrick Foley, who pronounced himself in favour. Local laws had to be adjusted, ergo the ‘Light Locomotives (Ireland) Bill’ was passed on 27 March 1903. Kildare and other local councils drew attention to their areas, whilst Queen’s County declared “that every facility will be given and the roads placed at the disposal of motorists during the proposed race”. Eventually Kildare was chosen, partly on the grounds that the straightness of the roads would be a safety benefit. As a compliment to Ireland the British team chose to race in Shamrock green[b] which thus became known as British racing green, although the winning Napier of 1902 had been painted Olive green.
The route consisted of two loops that comprised a figure of eight, the first was a 84km loop that included Kilcullen, The Curragh, Kildare, Monasterevin, Stradbally, Athy, followed by a 64km loop through Castledermot, Carlow, and Athy again. The race started at the Ballyshannon cross-roads (53.0853°N 6.82°W) near Calverstown on the contemporary N78 heading north, then followed the N9 north; the N7 west; the N80 south; the N78 north again; the N9 south; the N80 north; the N78 north again. Competitors were started at seven-minute intervals and had to follow bicycles through the ‘control zones’ in each town. The 528km race was won by the famous Belgian Camille Jenatzy, driving a Mercedes in German colours.