St Brigid of Ireland
1st February is the feast day of St Brigid (Lá Fhéile Bríde) Patroness of Ireland. While few facts are known of this early Irish saint, her reputation for kindness, learning and sanctity is widespread.
“….our meagre certainties about Brigid of Ireland, the most venerated of all early Irish saints, a woman whose liturgical and popular cult once reached from Iceland and Scandinavia to Italy”Daphne Pochin Mould, Saint Brigid, 1964
Note that a number of spelling variations of her name are commonly used. These include – Brighid, Bríg, Brigit, Bride of Kildare.
Throughout Ireland there are numerous churches, both Catholic and Protestant, and holy wells named after this saint. The name Kilbride used for towns and villages in Ireland and Scotland are named after St Brigid, as is St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street London.
The Breton form of Brigid, Berhat, is a popular girls name in Alsace. In Brittany there are over 30 churches dedicated to this Irish saint. In Cologne, Germany there are 4 parish churches and 7 chapels named after Brigid and in Bruges ‘St Brigid’s Mantel’ is still venerated.
In Italy and Spain, she is a revered saint. In later times her popularity spread to America, Africa and Australia, probably through the devotion of Irish emigrants. There is a St Brides (named after St Brigid) in Newfoundland and a St Brigid’s Island at Antarctica.
“It flourished particularly in England, Scotland and Wales, Brittany, northern and eastern France, the Low Countries, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and northern Italy, being generally manifested in church dedications, artwork, folklore and mediaeval manuscripts”Noel Kissane, Dictionary of Irish Biography, 2006
St Brigid’s Day
Brigid has often been associated with the Celtic goddess with whom she shares a name. Her feast day, the 1st February, falls on the pagan festival of Imbolc (or Imbolg) which marks the beginning Spring.
It was not unusual in the early days for Christian clergy to subsume local pagan sites and days of worship into the Christian calendar to encourage conversions. Certainly, some of the folklore and traditions surrounding St Brigid retain shadows of former pagan rituals.
St Brigid’s Background
What we know of Brigid comes from books and accounts written long after her death with details differing between the sources .
Brigid was born around 452 AD at Faughart near Dundalk in County Louth. Her father was Dubthach a married nobleman and military leader. Her mother, Broicsech, was a Christian and a slave.
When Broicsech became pregnant, Dubthach’s wife demanded that Broicsech be sold. Dubthach sold Broicsech to a druid but maintained his ownership of the unborn child. When Brigid was born, she was baptised a Christian.
She spent her early years in the druid’s pagan household, helping her mother in the dairy with the milking and the butter-churning.
St Brigid’s Generosity
When Brigid was of an age to work, she returned to her father’s house near Croghan Hill in County Offaly. Here she was employed working with cattle and in the dairy. However, it is said that she often got in trouble for giving away milk and butter and any food she could find, to the poor and needy.
One of the earliest stories about Brigid is how she gave away her mother’s whole store of butter to a hungry family. However, in answer to her prayers the butter store was miraculously replenished.
On another occasion her father Dudthach, vexed with Brigid’s unstinting generosity, took her in his chariot to sell her to the King of Leinster. However, while negotiations were underway, Brigid took her father’s fine sword and gave it to a beggar so that he could sell it for food. Dubthach was not amused, but the King was impressed with the girl’s thoughtfulness and independent spirit. The King presented Dubthach with another sword and persuaded him to grant Brigid her freedom from slavery.
Devotion to the Church
Brigid was said to be very beautiful. So much so that her father and brothers wanted to marry her off to local nobility, despite her illegitimacy. Such a marital alliance would strengthen Dubthach’s power and influence in the area. However, Brigid had other ideas.
Brigid had committed herself to a life of celibacy and dedication to God. She prayed that her good looks would fade so that she would no longer be ‘marketable’. God answered her prayers and, with her beauty faded, her father reluctantly agreed to her becoming a nun. After Brigid’s took her vows at Mag Tulach in County Westmeath, her beauty was restored.
The Church of the Oak
A short time later Brigid and seven sister companions set up a convent on the grassy plains of the Curragh on the ridge of Drum Criadh. This was an idyllic spot with good land, fresh water and plenty of trees. The establishment was known as the Church of the Oak – Cil Dara in Gaelic, or Kildare today.
The convent would have comprised of a number of small huts and a wooden church. A constant fire was kept going, for practical reasons but also as a sign of their devotion to Christ. A flame has since become one of the symbols associated with Brigid.
The nuns worked the land and were self-sufficient rearing pigs and cows. Their lives would have been based around prayer, fasting, work and asceticism (ie self-discipline and avoiding of all forms of indulgence).
The Cathedral City
Brigid asked a local hermit Conleth to be chaplain to the community. As well as a priest he had the added bonus of being a skilled metal-worker. Conleth formed a monastery beside the convent, the two working side by side. He also started a school on the site of Cil Dara (Kildare) and taught young monks how to make beautiful chalices and sacred vessels.
Over the years the religious establishment and school at Kildare became a famed centre of learning and art. In time Kildare became a cathedral city. Many Christian books, texts and manuscripts all highly decorated were produced in the scriptorium. The Book of Kildare, a great illuminated manuscript, was said to rival the Book of Kells for its colours and intricately drawn Celtic motifs and calligraphy. Unfortunately, the Kildare Book was lost or destroyed during the Reformation period.
“Brigid’s reputation as a very holy woman, possessed of miraculous powers and great wisdom, spread throughout the country, and crowds flocked to consult her, high and low, clergy and laity. Even such men as St Finian of Clonard, St Kevin of Glendalough and St Brendan the Navigator came to her for advice. Whether rich or poor, saint or sinner, they received the same hospitable welcome”Irish News, 1st February 1965
The nuns were also renowned for their work in the local communities as well as providing food and shelter for travellers. They shared their produce with the poor and tended the sick. They were well-known for their skills in midwifery as well as their care for the dying.
“They remembered her as a woman skilled in contemporary medicine, who nursed and cured sick, who was not afraid to touch a leper…..So Brigid went about doing good, the woman of God who was also the woman of the people”Daphne Pochin Mould, St Brigid, 1964
By her own example Brigid influenced the pagan people around her. By weaving crosses from the rushes that grew around the river bank, Brigid instructed folk in the Christian beliefs. Many are said to have been converted due to her gentle teaching.
Every year, for her feast day, St Brigid’s crosses are woven and given out in churches. If one of these crosses is placed above a doorway, it is believed no evil can enter the home.
St Brigid’s Cloak
Many stories are told of the miracles that happened through Brigid’s prayers. Arguably the most famous is how she acquired the land for her convent. Brigid asked the King of Leinster for some land at Curragh where the soil was rich, there were trees for firewood and building and a lake for water and fish.
The King refused. Brigid then asked for just enough land as her cloak would cover. The King laughingly agreed. Whereupon Brigid instructed four of the sisters to each take a corner of the cloak and run in the direction of the four compass points. The cloak miraculously expanded and covered more than enough land for the building of a convent.
Brigid’s prayers were said to quell a storm and stop the rain and allow good harvests. Though her intersession two mute sisters gained the power of speech.
Brigid was also reputed to be a skilled brewer and on at least one occasion, through her prayers, turned water into beer for a community of lepers.
Brigid fulfilled her desire to dedicate her life to God. She spent her days promoting knowledge and learning and helping the most vulnerable in society.
St Brigid’s Death & Legacy
St Brigid died on 1st February 521 AD having received the Last Rites from St Ninnidh. She was buried under the high altar of the Church of Kildare.
However, in 878 AD her body was exhumed, due to the fear of Viking raids. Historians opinions differ, but the traditional belief is that her remains were interred in Downpatrick, with Ireland’s other two most famous saints – Saint Patrick and Saint Columcille. The plaque at St Patrick’s grave in Downpatrick reflects this belief.
St Brigid is the patron saint of learning and healing, poetry, blacksmithing, livestock and beer! The respect and love she envoked in the folk of Ireland led her to gain the title ‘Mary of the Gael’
Present Day Recognition
In todays more secular society the popularity of saints is less widespread than in earlier times. However, Brigid remains a constant in Irish life. Perhaps this is less to do with religion and more to do with her being recognised as an independent and influential woman in an extremely patriarchal world.
“Thus St Brigid, described by Church of Ireland historians as ‘an exceptionally brilliant star of early Irish monasticism’ seems to have been, to say the least, unusual and also ahead of her time”Mary E Pollard, In Search of St Brigid, Foundress of Kildare, 1984
From 1st February 2023, St Brigid’s feast day will be a public holiday in Ireland. Brigid is the first woman to be honoured in this way.
St Patrick is the Patron Saint of Ireland. A fifth century missionary, he is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland.
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