Brigid of Kildare
Faughart, Dundalk, Kingdom of Ulaid Gaelic Ireland
|Died||c. 525 (age 74)|
Kildare, Kingdom of Leinster, Gaelic Ireland
|Venerated in||Catholic Church|
Eastern Orthodox Church
|Attributes||Brigid's cross; crozier of an abbess; flames or lamp; cow or geese|
|Patronage||Kildare; Ireland; healers; poets; blacksmiths; livestock and dairy workers|
Saint Brigid of Kildare or Brigid of Ireland (Irish: Naomh Bríd; Classical Gaelic: Brighid; Latin: Brigida; c. 451 – 525) is the patroness saint (or 'mother saint') of Ireland, and one of its three national saints along with Patrick and Columba. According to medieval Irish hagiographies, she was an abbess who founded the important abbey of Kildare (Cill Dara), as well as several other convents of nuns. There are few historical facts about her, and her hagiographies are mainly anecdotes and miracle tales, some of which are rooted in pagan folklore. They say Brigid was the daughter of a chieftain and a slave woman, and was raised in a druid's household before becoming a consecrated virgin. She is patroness of many things, including poetry, learning, healing, protection, blacksmithing, livestock and dairy production. In her honour, a perpetual fire was kept burning at Kildare for centuries.
Some historians suggest that Brigid is a Christianization of the Celtic goddess, Bríd. St Brigid's feast day is 1 February, and traditionally it involves weaving Brigid's crosses and many other folk customs. It was originally a pre-Christian festival called Imbolc, marking the beginning of spring. From 2023 it is a public holiday in the Republic of Ireland, the first named after a woman. This feast day is shared by Dar Lugdach, who tradition says was her student, close companion, and successor. The occasion is marked on the first Monday on or after 1st February.
The saint has the same name as the goddess Brigid, derived from the Proto-Celtic *Brigantī "high, exalted" and ultimately originating with Proto-Indo-European *bʰerǵʰ-. In Old Irish her name was spelled Brigit and pronounced [ˈbʲrʲiɣʲidʲ]. In Modern Irish she is also called Bríd. In Welsh she is called Ffraid (sometimes mutated to Fraid), such as in several places called Llansanffraid, "St. Brigit's church". She is also referred to as "the Mary of the Gael" and the "Mother Saint of Ireland".
There is debate over whether Brigid was a real person. There are few historical facts about her, and early hagiographies "are mainly anecdotes and miracle stories, some of which are deeply rooted in Irish pagan folklore". She has the same name and many of the same attributes as the Celtic goddess Brigid, and there are many supernatural events and folk customs associated with her. Like the saint, the goddess in Irish myth is associated with poetry, healing, protection, smithcraft, and domestic animals, according to Sanas Cormaic and Lebor Gabála Érenn. Furthermore, the saint's feast day falls on the Gaelic traditional festival of Imbolc.: 60–61 Some scholars suggest that the saint is a Christianisation of the goddess; others that she was a real person whose mythos took on the goddess's attributes. Medieval art historian Pamela Berger argues that Christian monks "took the ancient figure of the mother goddess and grafted her name and functions onto her Christian counterpart". Dáithí Ó hÓgáin and others suggest that the saint had been chief druid at the temple of the goddess Brigid, was responsible for converting it into a Christian monastery, and that after her death, the name and characteristics of the goddess became attached to the saint. Noel Kissane, in a piece in The Catholic Historical Review, argues she was a historical figure.
Among the most ancient accounts of St Brigid are two Old Irish hymns; the first by St Ultan of Ardbraccan (died c. 657), Brigit Bé Bithmaith ('Brigid ever-excellent woman') also known as "Ultan's hymn", and the second is "Broccán's hymn", composed by St Broccán Clóen (died c. 650) at the request of Ultan who was his tutor. Two early Lives of St Brigid in Hiberno-Latin prose, the Vita Sanctae Brigitae I and II, were written in the 7th–8th centuries, the first one possibly by St Aleran (died in 665), lector of Clonard, the second by Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare. An Old Irish prose Life, Bethu Brigte, was composed in the 9th century. Several later Latin and Irish Lives of the saint were composed. The Vita III, in hexameter verse, is sometimes attributed to St Coelan of Inishcaltra of the 7th–8th centuries, but appears more likely to have been written by St Donatus, an Irish monk who became Bishop of Fiesole in 824. In Donatus' prolog, it refers to the earlier Lives by St Ultan (see before for his hymn), St. Aleran (see "Vita I") and an Anonymus. A 34-hexameter Latin poem about St Brigid had previously been composed by the Irish Roman cleric Colman c. 800.
Discussion on dates for the annals and the accuracy of dates relating to St Brigid continues.
Because of the legendary quality of the earliest accounts of her life, there is debate among many secular scholars and Christians as to the truthfulness of her biographies. According to tradition, Brigid was born in the year 451 in Faughart, just north of Dundalk, in Conaille Muirtheimne, part of the Kingdom of Ulaid. All early sources say she was one of the Fothairt, a people mainly based in Leinster. Three biographies name her mother as Broicsech, a slave who had been baptised by Saint Patrick. They name her father as Dubhthach, a chieftain of Leinster.
The Vitae says that Dubhthach's wife forced him to sell Brigid's mother to a druid when she became pregnant. This might have been inspired by the Biblical story of Abraham and Hagar. An 8th century account calls the druid Maithghean. It says Broicsech gave birth to Brigid at dawn, on the threshold, while bringing milk into the druid's house. This liminality seems to be a vestige of druidic lore. Brigid was thus born into slavery. Legends of her early holiness include her vomiting when the druid tried to feed her, due to his impurity; a white cow with red ears arrives to sustain her instead. Brigid's druid stepfather is portrayed somewhat sympathetically in the stories. He can see that Brigid is special, he is concerned for Brigid's welfare, and he eventually frees her and her mother.
Cogitosus said she spent her youth as a farm worker; churning butter, shepherding the flocks and tending the harvest.
As she grew older, Brigid was said to have worked miracles, including healing and feeding the poor. According to one tale, as a child, she once gave away her mother's entire store of butter. The butter was then replenished in answer to Brigid's prayers.: 13 Around the age of ten, she was returned as a household servant to her father, where her charity led her to donate his belongings to anyone who asked.
In both of the earliest biographies, Dubhthach is so annoyed with Brigid that he took her in a chariot to the King of Leinster to sell her. While Dubhthach was talking to the king, Brigid gave away her father's bejewelled sword to a beggar to barter it for food to feed his family. The king recognised her holiness and convinced Dubhthach to grant his daughter freedom.
It is said that Brigid was "veiled" or became a consecrated virgin either through Saint Mac Caille, Bishop of Cruachán Brí Éile, or by St Mél of Ardagh at Mág Tulach (the present barony of Fartullagh, County Westmeath), who gave her the powers of an abbess.
According to tradition, around 480 Brigid founded a monastery at Kildare (Cill Dara, "church of the oak"), on the site of a pagan shrine to the Celtic goddess Brigid, served by a group of young women who tended an eternal flame. The site was under a large oak tree on the ridge of Druim Criadh.
Brigid, with an initial group of seven companions, is credited with organising communal consecrated religious life for women in Ireland. She founded two monasteries; one for men, the other for women. Brigid became the first Abbess of Kildare and invited Conleth (Conláed), a hermit from Connell, to help her; he became the first Bishop of Kildare. It has often been said that she gave canonical jurisdiction to Conleth, but Archbishop Healy says that she simply "selected the person to whom the Church gave this jurisdiction", and her biographer tells us that she chose Saint Conleth "to govern the church along with herself". For centuries, Kildare was ruled by a double line of abbot-bishops and of abbesses, the Abbess of Kildare being regarded as superior general of the monasteries in Ireland. Her successors have always been accorded episcopal honour. Brigid's oratory at Kildare became a centre of religion and learning, and developed into a cathedral city.
Brigid is credited with founding a school of art, including metalwork and illumination, which Conleth oversaw. The Kildare scriptorium made the Book of Kildare, which drew high praise from Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis), but disappeared during the Reformation. According to Giraldus, nothing that he ever saw was at all comparable to the book, every page of which was gorgeously illuminated, and the interlaced work and the harmony of the colours left the impression that "all this is the work of angelic, and not human skill".
According to the Trias Thaumaturga Brigid spent time in Connacht and founded many churches in the Diocese of Elphin. She is said to have visited Longford, Tipperary, Limerick, and South Leinster. Her friendship with Saint Patrick is noted in the following paragraph from the Book of Armagh: "inter sanctum Patricium Brigitanque Hibernesium columpnas amicitia caritatis inerat tanta, ut unum cor consiliumque haberent unum. Christus per illum illamque virtutes multas peregit" ("Between St. Patrick and St. Brigid, the pillars of the Irish people, there was so great a friendship of charity that they had but one heart and one mind. Through him and through her Christ performed many great works".) However, given that the 'historical' Brigid was born in 451 and Saint Patrick died circa 461, this is unlikely.
The monk Ultan of Ardbraccan, who wrote a life of Brigid, recounts a story that Darlugdach, Brigid's favourite pupil, fell in love with a young man and, hoping to meet him, sneaked out of the bed in which she and Brigid were sleeping. However, recognising her spiritual peril, she prayed for guidance, then placed burning embers in her shoes and put them on. "Thus, by fire", Ultan wrote, "she put out fire, and by pain extinguished pain." She then returned to bed. Brigid feigned sleep but was aware of Darlugdach's departure. The next day, Darlugdach revealed to Brigid the experience of the night before. Brigid reassured her that she was "now safe from the fire of passion and the fire of hell hereafter" and then healed her student's feet. The name Darlugdach (also spelled Dar Lugdach or Dar Lughdacha) means "daughter of the god Lugh".: 41
Brigid is said to have been given the last rites when she was dying by Saint Ninnidh of the Pure Hand. Afterward, he reportedly had his right hand encased in metal so that it would never be defiled, and this was the origin of his epithet. Tradition says she died at Kildare on 1 February 525.
Upon Brigid's death, Darlugdach became the second abbess of Kildare. Darlugdach was so devoted to her mentor that when Brigid lay dying Darlugdach expressed the wish to die with her, but Brigid replied that Darlugdach would die on the anniversary of her (Brigid's) death. The Catholic Church records Brigid's year of death as 521 and Darlugdach's as 522 and has assigned 1 February as the feast day of both saints.
Thomas Charles-Edwards wrote that Brigid's power is expressed in 'helping' miracles: healing, feeding the hungry, and rescuing the weak from violence. Unlike Saint Patrick, "most of her miracles were humble affairs for people of low rank" and she "never dictates the course of dynastic politics".
Dáithí Ó hÓgáin wrote that the melding of pagan goddess and Christian saint can be seen in some of the miracles, where Brigid multiplies food, bestows cattle and sheep, controls the weather, and is associated with fire or thermal springs.
According to Brian Wright, the miracles of Brigid outlined by Cogitosus mostly concern healing; charity; cows, sheep and dairy; the harvest; fire; fertility/pregnancy; and her virginity/holiness.
Brigid is honored on 1 February in the calendars of the Catholic Church in Ireland, as well as the Anglican Church of Ireland, Church of England, and Episcopal Church.
She is a patroness saint of Ireland (and one of its three national saints), as well as of healers, poets, blacksmiths, livestock and dairy workers, among others.
Brigid is said to have been buried at the right of the high altar of Kildare Cathedral, and a costly tomb raised over her "adorned with gems and precious stones and crowns of gold and silver".
In the late 12th century, Gerald of Wales wrote that nineteen nuns took turns keeping a perpetual fire burning at Kildare in honour of Brigid. It was said this fire was kept burning since Brigid's time, and it is suggested it was originally part of a temple of Brigit the goddess. Gerald said it was ringed by a hedge that no man was allowed to cross.
Main article: Saint Brigid's Day
Saint Brigid's feast day is 1 February. Cogitosus, writing in the late 7th century, is the first to mention a feast day of Saint Brigid being observed in Kildare on this date. It was also the date of Imbolc, a seasonal festival that is believed to have pre-Christian origins. Imbolc is one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Bealtaine (1 May), Lughnasa (1 August), and Samhain (1 November).
The customs of Saint Brigid's Day did not begin to be recorded in detail until the early modern era. Brigid's crosses are traditionally made on her feast day. These are three- or four-armed crosses woven from rushes. They are hung over doors and windows for protection against fire, lightning, illness and evil spirits.
On St Brigid's Eve, Brigid was said to visit virtuous households and bless the inhabitants. People left items of clothing or strips of cloth outside overnight for Brigid to bless. These were believed to have powers of healing and protection. Brigid would be symbolically invited into the home and a bed would often be made for her. In some places, a family member who represented Brigid would circle the house three times carrying rushes. They would then knock on the door three times before being welcomed in.
In Ireland and parts of Scotland, a doll representing Brigid would be paraded around the community by girls and young women. Known as the Brídeóg ('little Brigid'), anglicized 'Breedhoge' or 'Biddy', it was made from rushes or reeds and clad in bits of cloth, flowers, or shells. In some areas, a girl took on the role of Brigid. Escorted by other girls, she went house-to-house wearing 'Brigid's crown' and carrying 'Brigid's shield' and 'Brigid's cross', all of which were made from rushes.
Holy wells are often visited on St Brigid's Day, especially those wells dedicated to her.
St Brigid's Day parades have been revived in the town of Killorglin, County Kerry, which holds a yearly "Biddy's Day Festival". Men and women wearing elaborate straw hats and masks visit public houses carrying a Brídeóg to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck for the coming year.
About the year 878, owing to Viking raids, Brigid's relics were purportedly taken to Downpatrick and reburied in the tomb of St Patrick and St Columba. The relics of the three saints were said to have been found in 1185 by John de Courcy, and on 9 June of the following year he had them solemnly reburied in Down Cathedral. They are said to have remained in Down Cathedral until 1538, when the relics were desecrated and destroyed during the deputyship of Lord Grey, excepting Brigid's head which was saved by some of the clergies who took it to the Franciscan monastery of Neustadt, in Austria. In 1587 it was presented to the church of the Society of Jesus in Lisbon by Emperor Rudolph II, that is the Igreja de São Roque (Church of St Roch), where a frontal part of her skull is still venerated. However, an occipital part of the skull could already have reached Portugal in the 13th century, preserved in the Igreja São João Batista (Church of St. John the Baptist), on the Lumiar (near Lisbon Airport), where it is venerated on 2 February (not 1 February, as in Ireland). According to the local tradition of the latter church, St. Brigid's head would have been carried to King Dinis of Portugal in 1283 by three Irish knights travelling to the Aragonese Crusade. A commemorative inscription on the northern facade of the church, in 16th-century characters, reads: "Here in these three tombs lie the three Irish knights who brought the head of St. Brigid, Virgin, a native of Ireland, whose relic is preserved in this chapel. In memory of which, the officials of the Altar of the same Saint caused this to be done in January AD 1283." It is in fact only from the mid-16th century onwards that this church assumed the invocation of Saint Brígida, when a new side chapel was built and dedicated to her.
In 1884, Francis Cardinal Moran, Archbishop of Sydney, obtained a relic of the saint's tooth from the parochial church of St. Martin of Tours in Cologne in the German Empire and gave it to the Brigidine Sisters in Melbourne. Cardinal Moran wrote about the circumstances in which he obtained the tooth in a letter to the Rev. Mother of this Convent dated 13 March 1906:
I went all the way to Cologne on my return from Rome in 1884, on my appointment of Archbishop of Sydney to secure a portion of the precious relic of St. Brigid preserved there for over a thousand years. It is venerated at present in the Parochial Church of St. Martin to which in olden times was attached a famous Irish monastery….. The relic is, if I remember aright, a tooth of the Saint. At Cologne, I found great difficulty in securing a portion of this relic. It was at first peremptorily refused. The Pastor of St. Martin's declared that his parishioners would be at once in revolt if they heard that their great parochial treasure was being interfered with. I then had to invoke the aid of an influential Canon of the Cathedral of Cologne, whom I had assisted in some of his literary pursuits and he set his heart on procuring the coveted relic. One of his arguments was somewhat amusing: It was the first time that an Irish Archbishop of the remote See of Sydney had solicited a favour from Cologne. It was the new Christian world appealing to the old for a share of its sacred wealth. At all events our pleading was successful and, and I bore away with me a portion of the bone, duly authenticated, which is now the privilege of you good Sisters to guard and venerate….
In 1905, Sister Mary Agnes of the Dundalk Convent of Mercy took a purported fragment of the skull to St. Bridget's [sic] Church in Kilcurry. In 1928, Fathers Timothy Traynor and James McCarroll requested another fragment for St. Brigid's Church in Killester, a request granted by the Bishop of Lisbon, António Mendes Belo.
The city of Armagh had several associations with St. Brigid. In the twelfth century, the city had two crosses dedicated to Brigid, though, according to the Monasticon Hibernicum, purported relics of the saint reposing in Armagh were lost in an accidental fire in 1179. In the seventeenth century, Armagh also had a street named Brigid located near Brigid's church in the area called "Brigid's Ward."
The Old Saint Peter's Church, Strasbourg contains also (unspecified) relics of St. Brigid, brought by the canons of St. Michael in 1398 when they were forced to leave their submerged abbey of Honau-Rheinau, itself founded by Irish monks.
In liturgical iconography and statuary Saint Brigid is often depicted holding a Cross of Saint Brigid, a crozier of the sort used by abbots, and a lamp. Early hagiographers portray Brigid's life and ministry as touched with fire. According to Patrick Weston Joyce, tradition holds that nuns at her monastery kept an eternal flame burning there. She is also often depicted with a cow, or sometimes geese. Leitmotifs, some of them borrowed from the apocrypha such as the story where she hangs her cloak on a sunbeam, are associated with the wonder tales of her hagiography and folklore. Cogitosus' circa 650 Vita Sanctae Brigidae portrays Brigid as having the power to multiply such things as butter, bacon, and milk, to bestow sheep and cattle, and to control the weather.: 86
Plant motifs associated with St. Brigid include the white Lilium candidum popularly known since medieval times as the Madonna Lily for its association with the Virgin Mary, and the Windflower Anemone coronaria, called the "Brigid anemone" since the early 19th century. Kildare, the church of the oak Quercus petraea, is associated with a tree sacred to the druids. The colour associated with Brigid is white, worn not only by the Kildare United Irishmen during the 1798 rebellion but also by Kildare sports teams in more recent times.
Kilbride ("Church of Brigid") is one of Ireland's most widely found placenames, there are 43 Kilbrides located in 19 of Ireland's 32 counties: Antrim (2), Carlow, Cavan, Down, Dublin, Galway, Kildare, Kilkenny (3), Laois, Longford, Louth, Mayo (5), Meath (4), Offaly (4), Roscommon (2), Waterford, Westmeath (2), Wexford (4), and Wicklow (8) as well as two Kilbreedys in Tipperary, Kilbreedia and Toberbreeda in Clare, Toberbreedia in Kilkenny, Brideswell Commons in Dublin, Bridestown and Templebreedy in Cork and Rathbride and Brideschurch in Kildare. A number of placenames are derived from Cnoic Bhríde ("Brigid's Hill"), such as Knockbridge in Louth and Knockbride in Cavan.
There are many traditions associating the saint with Wales, with dedications and folklore found across the country. As such, villages are often named for either a church or "Llan" associated with Bridget. These include the village, castle and parish of St Brides in Pembrokeshire (near St Brides Bay), the churches and villages of St. Brides-super-Ely and St Brides Major in the Vale of Glamorgan, the church and village of St. Brides Netherwent in Monmouthshire and the church of St Brides, in Newport, the village of Llansanffraid Glan Conwy in Conwy, Llansantffraid in Ceredigion, and the villages of Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain and Llansantffraed in Powys.
In Scotland, East Kilbride and West Kilbride are called after Brigid. Lhanbryde, near Elgin, Scotland is thought to be Pictish for "Church of Brigid". In Toryglen, on Glasgow's southside, there is a Chapel and a Primary School named for St. Brigid; the stained glass windows of the chapel depict St. Brigid's cross.
In Fleet Street, City of London stands St Bride's Church, substantially rebuilt since its foundation in the 600s (7th century).
In the Isle of Man, where the first name Breeshey, the Manx form of the name is common, the parish of Bride is named after the saint.
St. Brigid's popularity made the name Brigid (or its variants such as Brigitte, Bridie, and Bree) popular in Ireland over the centuries. One writer noted that at one time in history "every Irish family had a Patrick and a Brigid".
Judy Chicago's epic feminist artwork The Dinner Party features a place setting for Saint Brigid on the triangular table's second wing, designated for iconographic women from the beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation.
In Haitian Vodou, Saint Brigid (along with the goddess Brigid and Mary Magdalene) is worshipped as the death loa Maman Brigitte, the consort of Baron Samedi.: 14
St. Brigid has long been linked to Glastonbury. Sites that depict her include Glastonbury Tor, where a stone carving of her milking a cow can be seen above one side of the entrance. She also appears in a fresco painting that adorns the interior of St. Patrick's Chapel on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey depicting the saint with a spindle, a bowl of fire, and a cow in the background.
It is also documented by William of Malmesbury that ‘Wherefore the report is extremely prevalent that both Saint Indract and Saint Brigid, no mean inhabitants of Ireland, formerly came over to this spot. Whether Brigid returned home or died at Glastonbury is not sufficiently ascertained, though she left here some of her ornaments; that is to say, her necklace, bag, and implements for embroidering, which are yet shown in memory of her sanctity, and are efficacious in curing divers diseases.’
The Benedictine Monk John of Glastonbury wrote in the mid-fourteenth century that the chapel which was excavated in Beckery was named after her; 'Saint Brigid made a stay of several years on an island near Glastonbury, called Bekery or Little Ireland, where there was an oratory consecrated in honour of Saint Mary Magdalene. She left there certain signs of her presence—her wallet, collar, bell, and weaving implements, which are exhibited and honoured there because of her holy memory—and she returned to Ireland, where, not much later, she rested in the Lord and was buried in the city of Down. The chapel on that island is now dedicated in honour of Saint Brigid; on its south side there is an opening through which, according to the belief of the common folk, anyone who passes will receive forgiveness of all his sins.’
Brides Mound in Beckery is also linked to St. Bridgid and in 2004 'Brigadine sisters, Mary and Rita Minehan, bring the perpetual Brigid flame (restored in 1993) from Solas Bhrde, in Kildare, during a Glastonbury Goddess Conference ceremony on Bride's Mound.'
Brigid of Ireland, or of Kildare, has been venerated since the early Middle Ages, along with Patrick and Columba, as one of the three national Christian patron saints of Ireland. By the end of the seventh century, at least two Latin biographies had been written describing her as a nobleman's daughter who chose to consecrate her virginity to God, took the veil as a Christian nun, and became the leader of a community of religious women—or perhaps of both women and men. Certainly, by the 7th century, there was an important double monastery at Kildare that regarded her as its founder.