The present restored Norman cathedral most likely occupies the site of the original pagan shrine to the goddess Brigid and the later early Christian foundation and church of St. Brigid.
The cathedral was built by the Norman Bishop Ralph of Bristol in 1223. It is built in the early gothic style with a square central tower. Note that the cathedral has been built for defence as well as worship, a legacy of troubled times in the early Norman period. The cathedral continued to serve the people of Kildare down the centuries, though after the Reformation it gradually fell into disrepair and by 1641 it was totally ruined following the Confederate Wars. It was restored to its present glory in the 19th. century and has in recent years undergone further restoration.
Stone Carving Collection
The interior has a very interesting collection of carvings ranging from early Christian to Norman and later. The finest piece in the collection is the finely carved tomb of Bishop Walter Wellesley who died in 1539. Here are some representative samples of the extensive collection of stone carvings exhibited in the cathedral and ranging from early Christian to the 17th. century.
The grounds of the cathedral contain a number of fascinating links to the early history of the site including a Round Tower, Celtic Cross and St. Brigid’s Firehouse.
The Round Tower
The Round Tower is one of the finest surviving examples and, at 33 metres, the second highest in Ireland. It was built in the 12th. century, which is comparatively late for an Irish Round Tower, though the present tower may have replaced an earlier one. The bottom 3 metres are built of dressed granite blocks while the rest is constructed of limestone rubble. The tower is accessible to visitors during the summer and is well worth the necessary climb on internal ladders to the roof for the view.
The tower has a four-ordered Romanesque decorated doorway, though it is badly damaged. The bell floor has, unusually, 5 windows. The open roof is flat with a high parapet of stepped Irish battlements, a later addition to the tower which would originally have had a conical roof.
The High Cross
The granite High Cross, because of its lack of decoration, is difficult to date. The base is massive for such a slender shaft and head and may not be the original.
St. Brigid’s Fire House
The remains of an ancient oratory where, according to local
lore, St. Brigid’s Fire was kept alight. The shape of the oratory and the thickness of the remains of the walls/foundations would testify to its antiquity.