Rhine relics — Frank McNally on Irish cults in Strasbourg, an oddly named river, and the joys of a night in Frankfurt Airport

Saints and veneration

It was a surprise to fly out of Ireland on the St Brigid’s bank holiday this week and, arriving in Strasbourg on a European Parliament press trip, to learn that we were in a city where the same woman is greatly venerated.

But as I now know thanks to her fellow Kildare person, Liam Kenny, Brigid is big in Alsace. In Strasbourg’s Église Saint-Pierre le Vieux (“Church of St Peter the Old”), they even claim to have relics of her.

Details of the relics are vague, which is in keeping with the debate about whether she ever existed. But some sources suggest they involve “bone”. And in any case, they are contained in a golden reliquary, which is displayed every year on her feast day.

Saint-Pierre le Vieux is unusual too in being both a Catholic and Protestant church. In a compromise worthy of the aforementioned parliament, the side of the building facing Grand’Rue street celebrates Lutheran services while the one facing Rue du 22 Novembre is reserved for Catholics.


The canons of Old St Peter’s used also to distribute something called “St Brigid’s Bread” in her honour and to make a “St Brigid’s Wine”, according to one historian, who added:

“Alsatian farmers had such devotion to her that they placed their fields and field work under her special protection, and “Buren-bridel” was a generic title for Alsatian farmers’ daughters, many of whom bore the name of Brigid, a name still not uncommon in Southern Germany.”


Strasbourg also has a church called Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune (“St Peter the Young”), just for balance. That one is fully Protestant now, but it too has Irish links. Unfortunately, they passed me by, or I passed them, this week. So I have to take the word of a 1991 essay, “Alsace and Ireland: Medieval Links”, by Bríd O Doherty for details:

“Figuring on the wall is a fresco of St Columbanus holding pride of place between one of St Peter and one of St John . . . On another wall a fresco shows the flag of Hibernia proudly held aloft by a horseman.”

Rubbing it in slightly about a church I didn’t visit, the essay continues: “One could spend a day [in] this historic and beautiful place, once the locus of the Irish monks, and then of the Augustinians whose delightful cloister still remains.”


Both churches are in Strasbourg’s historic centre, an island formed by the unfortunately named (for English speakers) River Ill.

That’s Ill as in “sick”, I should add, because to increase the misfortune of the name, in many typefaces the two different letters involved are identical and make the river look like the Roman numerals for the number 3, as in King Charles III (who by another unhappy chance was in the news this week for being unwell).

Old St Peter’s is also just across the water and a few metres down the quay from a restaurant some of us ate in on Monday night, the name of which might make sensitive vegetarians as unwell as the river. It was called the Abattoir Café.


Another thing I learned in Strasbourg this week is that, despite what you might think, La Marseillaise was written there and not in the city it’s named after.

Marseille is where it was first sung on the streets, in June 1792. But it had been composed two months earlier in Strasbourg, when revolutionary France was under attack from the Austrians and Prussians.

Hence the original name, War Song of the Army of the Rhine, and the ferocity of the lyrics about irrigating French soil with the blood of invaders.

The journalists on our press trip suffered a mild outbreak of Marseillaise spirit in Strasbourg when, no sooner had we arrived, a strike by a German trade union caused our return flight from Frankfurt to be cancelled.

But before we could form a battalion and say “Aux armes, citoyens!”, we were wrestling with painfully revised options, involving an undignified retreat back across the Rhine by bus and (for most of us) an enforced extra night in Frankfurt followed by a 4.15am alarm call for the red-eye flight.

You haven’t lived until you’ve been at a gate in Frankfurt Airport at 5am, waiting for the only café to open (at 6!) while listening to Christmas songs (in February!) on the PA, interrupted by announcements to say the plane still hasn’t turned up and will take off even later than previously declared.

It somehow didn’t add to the dignity of the situation that our emergency hotel was called the “Moxy” and that, although there was only a dozen of us, we had somehow overwhelmed the bar staff there, who ran out of pint glasses and were heard to ask each other at one stage: “Does anyone know how to make a gin and tonic?”

But at least I was reminded in passing that “moxy” or “moxie”) is also a Dublin slang term, describing an unspecified but large number – somewhere between a “clatter” and “a pile”. The Hiberno-English dictionary gives the example: “There was a moxie-load of them.” And as we traipsed out of our hotel at 4.30am, that was one possible description of us.