Writing the life of a saint over a thousand years ago was not the strictly historical pursuit it is today. The writer would rely on oral tradition and the primary aim would be to foster devotion. It is not surprising then that it is difficult to reconcile the “lives” that have come down to us.
The oldest life of St. Brighid is that of St. Broccan Cloen who died in 650. In the late eighth century St. Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare, wrote a life which is now a treasure of the Dominican friary at Eichstatt in Germany. In the early ninth century an unknown author wrote “Bethu Brigte”.
St. Brighid lived at the threshold of Christianity in the British Isles. The accounts of her birth and childhood are redolent of Celtic paganism. Her life is full of magic and miracle. The date of her death was purposefully aligned with the feast of Imbolc.
The Celtic Church seems to have been happy to lay her story over that of the Goddess. Most early Celtic saints are unknown outside their immediate locality. But here Saint and Goddess are guardian and healer of the common people of the land. She aids birth, ensures the harvest, increases the lactation of cows, protects the croft, lights the winter fire, provides the ale, inspires the storyteller and guides the smith's hands. It is no wonder that her cult spread widely.
St. Brighid was quite literally born on the threshold of two worlds. She was the daughter of a princely father, Dubthach and a bonded mother, Broicsech. Two druids and two bishops prophesied that the child would be like no other on earth. When her time came Broicsech gave birth at sunrise as she carried the milk into the house with one foot outside and one inside.
St. Brighid's liminal nature is portrayed in her early association with sacred fire. Whilst the infant lay sleeping in her house neighbours saw the house ablaze with a flame that linked heaven and earth. A druid saw three angels of fire anointing the infant Brighid with oil and baptising her with water. It is also illustrated by the story that the infant Brighid would vomit on common food and so had to be fed with the milk of a red-eared (other world) cow. As she grew to puberty Brighid fulfilled her role as guardian and healer by tending the sheep, satisfying the birds, feeding the poor and healing her nurse by turning water into ale for her to drink.
Once a guest was being entertained in her father's house and Brighid was given five pieces of pork to cook. A stray dog came to the kitchen so Brighid gave it two pieces of the pork. The guest was so impressed that he asked for the remainder to be given to the poor.
When Brighid worked with her mother in a mountain dairy she would divide the butter into twelve portions in honour of the Apostles, but give a thirteenth portion, larger than all the others in honour of Christ, to the poor.
Brighid drove her father to distraction with her generosity, giving whatever she could lay her hands on to the poor. One day a leper came to her begging for alms. It happened that her father's sword was close by — as prized and valuable an article as the family car today. Without hesitation Brighid gave the sword to the leper saying to her enraged father, “The Virgin's Son knows that if I could I would give all your wealth to the Lord of the Elements”.
As a woman of great beauty St. Brighid received offers of marriage which she refused. In order to make herself less attractive she gouged out one of her own eyes, but when her family promised that she would never be told to marry she put her palm to her eye and healed herself.
St. Brighid and eight virgins went to Bishop Mel of Ardagh to be consecrated. St. Brighid held back but a column of fire rose from her head and so Mel called her first. Mel used the form for ordaining a bishop when consecrating Brighid. When some of the men objected that bishop's orders should not be conferred on a woman, he told them that that dignity had been conferred on her by God.
St. Brighid then lived for a short while at the foot of Croghan Hill in Leinster. The Irish name for this hill is, “Cruachan, Bri Eile” (The heap of the slope of Eile). Eile was the sister of Queen Maeve of Connacht and there is a legend that Eile is interred in the hill with her chariot.
About the year 470 St. Brighid founded the double monastery at Cill Dara (Cell of the Oak) now called Kildare.
St. Brighid's community grew around a tall sacred oak trees. Under her guidance it became a large mixed community and centre of learning. She coopted Bishop Conleth to help her manage the community which was famous for its illuminated manuscripts. With the same generosity that made her give her father's sword to a leper she set to giving Conleth's precious vestments to the poor.
Cill Dara is famous for the sacred perpetual fire that was tended by nineteen nuns. This was enclosed by a fence of brushwood which no man was allowed to enter. It burned continuously until 1220ce when Bishop Henry de Londres, concerned by its pagan connotations, had it extinguished. However, it was quickly relit but finally extinguished during the Reformation.
According to Cogitosus, Brighid and her community were renowned for their faith, healing powers, love of creation, hospitality, generosity and compassion. St. Brighid went on to found communities at, Breagh in Meath, Hay in Connaught and Cliagh in Munster
Kildare Imbolc 2008 Album