St. Brigid of Kildare
Writing the life of a saint over a thousand years ago was not the historical pursuit it is today. The writer would rely on oral tradition and embellish it to foster more fervent devotion. Miracles would be a natural part of the oral tradition as they make a good story. We are natural story tellers and we understand our world through the medium of story. Our world is a better place when someone radiates goodness, generosity and does all she can to aid, heal and comfort those in need. Love of beauty and the natural world is evident and led to Brigid founding a school of art, metalwork and illumination. She is the patron saint of midwives, new born babies, dairymaids, cattle and Irish religious.
St. Bridget of Kildare, St. Patrick and Saint Columba are the three patron saints of Ireland. St. Bridget was born c451ce. Her feast day is the 1st of February, the first day of the Irish Spring. "Then it is that the Christians celebrate the feast and the festal day of the holy Brigid on the calends of February."1 She lived through the great change from Pagan to Christian Ireland and the new Church may have smoothed this transition by conflating her with Brigid daughter of the Dagda, an Irish Goddess connected with the Celtic Goddess name, Brigantia.2 The historian, Simon Young in his brilliant survival guide for civilised Greek visitors to Britain and Ireland around the year 500ce writes, "So it is among the Gaels and with Brigid, for already the Irish have begun to add their own pagan distortions to the true life of this admirable virgin… Indeed, Auxilius informs us that the locals never pray to Christ but always to Brigid."3
St. Broccān Clōen's Life of Brigid
The oldest life of St. Bridget is that of St. Broccān Clōen4 who died c 650ce. It was written in verse at the request of his tutor Ultan of Ardbrecain. Broccān begins by praising Bridget's many virtues: "Brigid mother of my Lord,— of heaven's kingdom best was she born. She was not a carper, she was not malevolent, she loved not vehement woman's-war: She was not a serpent wounding, speckled: she sold not God's Son for gain. She was not greedy for treasures, she gave without gall, without abatement: She was not hard or penurious: she loved not the world's pastime. She was not harsh to sojourners, gentle was she to wretched lepers." He then tells us that Brigid aided the conversion of Ireland. How St. MacCaille set the veil of a nun on her head and how she founded a marvellous congregation that spread its missionary flame. Her prayers were heard by God: "A marvellous ladder for pagans to visit the kingdom of Mary's Son. Marvellous was St. Brigid's congregation: marvellous the flame that went from it. In a good hour MacCaille set the veil on St. Brigid's head: Clear was she in her goings: in heaven was heard her prayer." Broccān then tells us that God honours St. Brigid, blessing her with good harvests, milk, fine weather and sunbeams to dry her clothes: "On her day of reaping well reaped she — fault was not found there with my pious one: There was fine weather always in her field — though on the world fell a storm. Bishops who visited her, not trifling was the danger to her If it had not been that the King increased the cows' milk three-fold. She herded on a day of storm sheep amid a plain : She spread afterwards her hood in the house on a sunbeam." He then recounts some of Brigid's miracles, e.g.: "Marvellous for her the bath which she blessed: about her it was red ale. She blessed the pregnant nun, she was whole without poison, without illness : There was a greater marvel another time — of the stone she made salt for the poor. I have not told, I tell not, what the holy creature wrought. She blessed the table-faced man, so that his two eyes were clear. A dumb girl was brought to Brigid — it was one of her miracles — Her hand went not from her hand until her speech was clear." He concludes: "There are two nuns in heaven, whom I rely on for my protection, Mary and Saint Brigid: under the protection of them both be we!"
Cogitosus, Bethu Brigte and the Book of Lismore
Vita sanctae Brigidae is an early Latin life of St. Brigid by Cogitosus a monk at the monastery of Kildare. It was written not much later than 650ce. In the Prologue Cogitosus tells us about monastic life at Kildare and the status of Kildare as head of almost all the Irish churches with supremacy over all the monasteries.5 In the early ninth century an unknown author wrote "Bethu Brigte".6 In 1814 maintenance at Lismore Castle revealed a damaged old manuscript. The Book of Lismore contains the lives of a number of Irish saints. It was written in Irish and compiled from earlier manuscripts in the fifteenth century. In 1890 Whitely Stokes published an edited version with an English translation.
The Birth of St. Brigid
St. Patrick was in Leinster and he baptised many bonded women. One of these, Broicseach, belonged to a pagan man of rank called Dubhthach. He lay with her and she conceived. One day Dubhthach and Broicseach drove past the house of a wise man, a druid. He said to them, "Marvellous will be the child that is in her womb… the bondmaid will bring forth a daughter conspicuous, radiant who will shine like a sun among the stars of heaven". Then two bishops, Mēl and Melchu, came from Scotland to bless her. One morning Broicseach carried a vessel full of milk. When she put one foot over the threshold of the house she gave birth. The maids washed the baby Brigid with the milk that was still in her mother's hand. As Brigid lay sleeping neighbours thought the house was ablaze with a flame that linked earth and heaven. But when they went to extinguish the fire they realised that it was the baby filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit. The druid dreamt of three angels pouring oil over Brigid's head consecrating her to God. Brigid vomited food given to her by the druid. He chose a red eared cow to give milk and he found a Christian woman to milk her. The holy girl consumed the milk and did not reject it.
This story marks Brigid's liminal nature, the child of a Pagan and a Christian; a freeman and a bondwoman. Blessed by a druid from Ireland and bishops from overseas. Born on the very threshold of the house. Her consecration to God seen in a dream by a druid. Fed on milk from a fairy cow expressed by a Christian woman. As she grew to puberty Brigid 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.
A Christian woman invited Brigid to a gathering of the Synod of Leinster. Bishop Ibhair received a vision of Mary the Virgin attending the Synod. When he saw Brigid he declared, "This is the Mary whom I beheld." From that time Brigid has been called, "The Mary of the Gael."
Once a guest was being entertained in her father's house and Brigid was given five pieces of pork to cook. A stray dog came to the kitchen so Brigid 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 Brigid 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. Brigid 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 Brigid 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". St. Brigid visited the king of Leinster. Admiring the harps hung around the great hall she asked, "Who plays the harp?" She was told that nobody at court was able to play. So she blessed the hands of some of the people and they took down the harps and played the most beautiful music. The king was enchanted and said, "You may have anything that is in my power to give." Without hesitation Brigid asked for all the prisoners to be released. Once a friend brought Brigid a basket full of delicious apples and she immediately began to distribute them to the poor and the sick. Her friend said, "Those apples were for you to eat." Then Brigid replied, "What is mine is theirs also." Once a wild boar charged into the monastery grounds with hunters in full chase. Brigid told the hunters that the boar had claimed the right of sanctuary. The hunters protested that animals had no rights but she insisted and eventually they rode off. Brigid then blessed the frightened boar and gave it food, water and a home.
As a woman of great beauty St. Brigid received an offer of marriage from a relative of Dubhthach. He and his sons were willing but Brigid 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. Brigid and seven virgins travelled to County Meath where St. MacCaille was bishop. At first he was unsure whether to admit them to the religious life as they were very young but Brigid's holiness won him over. St. MacCaille's church was on Croghan Hill in County Westmeath and it is here that Brigid founded the first convent in Ireland. Brigid and her seven companions completed their novitiate and went to Bishop Mel of Ardagh to be consecrated. Mel used the form for ordaining a bishop when consecrating Brigid. 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. As she was consecrated Brigid touched the wood that supported the altar. At her touch the seasoned wood burst into green growth. She founded a convent at Ardagh and visited St. Patrick at Taillte in County Meath.7 The story of Brigid's consecration explains how the abbesses of Kildare held episcopal status until the Synod of Kells ended the practice in 1152.8 On the 30th of November 2013 Patricia Storey was consecrated bishop of the Anglican diocese of Meath and Kildare.9
The king of Leinster promised Brigid land so she could build a monastery and a church. However, he prevaricated but finally agreed to a meeting. They agreed that the king would gift Brigid as much land as her cloak could cover. One telling says that when Brigid laid down her cloak it began to grow so fast that the king feared that it would cover all his land. Another telling says that four of Brigid's nuns held the corners of the cloak and ran to all the four directions, the cloak growing between them. So Brigid was gifted the land she needed. As she set about building her monastery one of the king's sons passed by with a hundred horses laden with prepared logs. Brigid asked for some of the logs and when she was refused the horses lay down and refused to get up. So Brigid was gifted the logs. The most likely date for the abbey and church at Kildare (Cill Dara – Cell of the Oak) is 480ce. As Abbess she presided over the church at Kildare and was head of a double monastery of men and women. She invited a hermit, Conleth to assist her. When Conleth returned from a visit to the continent with a set of costly vestments Brigid cut them up to give cloth to the poor. So the poor came to be clothed and fed, the sick to be healed and the rich to give gifts. Nothing remains of the original wooden church and monastery. By the 7th century more substantial buildings had been erected. They are described by Cogitosus thus, "The church contains the glorious bodies of Conleth and Brigid, resting in monuments which are placed on the right and left of the decorated altar and which are adorned with various ornaments of silver and gold." In 835ce the Vikings demolished the church but Brigid's remains were saved having been taken to County Down. "In Down, three saints one grave do fill, Patrick, Brigid and Columcille."10
One Easter Brigid wanted to brew ale for the churches around her. That year there was a little corn available in Meath and Brigid had only one sieve of malt. Despite this she was able to brew enough ale to supply seventeen churches from Maundy Thursday to Low Sunday (11 days). After Eastertide two women brought her a bucket of water. Brigid said, "The Virgin's Son knows that there is good ale here." And the water changed into ale. A certain nun fell ill and wanted some milk. There was no cow near the church at that time so a vessel was filled with water. Brigid blessed it and it was turned into milk. The nun drank it and became well again. A woman came to Brigid to beg as she had always lived in poverty. Brigid gave her girdle to her and told her it would heal any illness to which it was applied. Thus the woman was able to earn a good living. In the tenth century this text was ascribed to her:
"I'd like to give a lake of beer to God. I'd love the Heavenly Host to be tippling for all eternity. I'd love the men and women of Heaven to live with me. To dance and sing, If they wanted. I'd give for their use vats of suffering. White cups of love I'd give them, with a heart and a half; sweet pitchers of mercy I'd offer to everyone. I'd make Heaven cheerful because the happy heart is true. I'd make the people contented for their own sake, I'd like Jesus to be there too. I'd like the people of Heaven to gather from all around, I'd give a special welcome to women, the three Mary's of great renown. I'd sit with the men, the women of God. There by the lake of beer. We'd drink good health forever, and every drop would be prayer."
- Life of St. Brigid, from The Book of Lismore translated by Whitley Stokes, Clarendon Press 1890
- Cormac's Glossary translated by John O'Donovan, edited by Whitley Stokes, Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society 1868 website
- A.D. 500 A Journey Through the Dark Isles of Britain and Ireland, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2005 pp76-77.
- Goidelica, edited by Whitley Stokes, Trübner and Co. 1872 pp142-146
- Cogitosus' "Life of St Brigid" Content and Value, Sean Connolly and J.-M. Picard, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland
- Bethu Brigte website
- Irish Catholic Bishops Conference, Feast of Saint Brigid, website
- The Hidden History of Women's Ordination: Female Clergy In The Medieval West, Gary Macy, Oxford University Press 2008
- Meath and Kildare Diocesan website
- Down Cathedral history website