Above; A portrait of St. Brigid on a stained glass window, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Macon, Georgia, 1903.

Saint Brigid of Kildare

 

Virgin, abbess, inspirer

Born c. 453
Died c. 524
Honoured in Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism
Feast 1 February
   

  Saint Brigid of Kildare (Irish: Naomh Bríd; c. 451–525), also known as Brigit of Ireland, is one of Ireland’s patron saints along with Patrick and Columba. Her name is also variously spelled as Brigid, Bridget, Bridgit, Bríd, and Bride and she is sometimes known as Mary of the Gael. Irish hagiography makes her an early Irish Christian nun, abbess, and founder of several monasteries of nuns, including that of Kildare in Ireland, which was considered legendary and was highly revered. Her feast day is the 1st of February, formerly celebrated as the Imbolc quarter-day of the pagan Irish year, which marked the beginning of spring, lambing, lactation in cattle, etc.

Life Story;

In the controversy about the historical existence of Brigid that erupted in the last third of the 20th century, researchers noted that eleven people with whom Brigid is associated in her Lives are independently attested in annalistic sources, sources that place her death at AD 523 (in the Annals of Tigernach and Chronicon Scotorum) and her birth at 451 (calculated from the alleged age of 72 at death). The differing biographies written by different authors, giving conflicting accounts of her life, are regardedas having considerable literary merit in themselves. Three of those biographies agree that she had a slave mother in the court of her father, Dubhthach, a king of Leinster. Some scholars suggest that believers syncretised St Brigid with the pagan goddess Brighid. According to medievalist Pamela Berger, ” Christian monks took the ancient figure of the mother goddess and grafted her name and functions onto her Christian counterpart.”

 Birth and early life;

Brigid may have been born in Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland. Because of the legendary quality of the earliest accounts of her life, there is much debate among many secular scholars and even faithful Christians as to the authenticity of her biographies. According to her biographers her parents were Dubhthach, a Pagan chieftain of Leinster, and Brocca, a Christian Pict and slave who had been baptized by Saint Patrick. Some accounts of her life suggest that Brigid’s father was in fact from Lusitania, kidnapped by Irish pirates and brought to Ireland to work as a slave, in much the same way as Saint Patrick. Many stories also detail Brigid and her mother’s status as pieces of property belonging to Dubhthach, and the resulting impact on important parts of Brigid’s life story. The Vita outlined Brigid’s early life. It says that Brigid’s mother was a slave, and Brigid herself was born into slavery to a druid. From the start, it is clear that Brigid is holy. Before a name had been given to the infant, Dubthach dreams of three clerics baptizing her. One of the clerics told her father, “Let Brigid be your name for the girl”. When the druid tries to feed her, she vomits because he is impure. Dubhthach recognizes his impurity and finds a white cow with red ears to sustain her instead. As she grows older, Brigid performs many miracles, including healing and feeding the poor. Saint Brigid is celebrated for her generosity to 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.

Above; St. Brigid’s Cross

Commitment to Religious Life;

The ceremony was performed, according to different accounts, by one or the other of the bishops Mel (d. 487) or Mac-Caille (d. c.489), the location probably being in Mág Tulach (the present barony of Fartullagh Co. Westmeath). Mel also granted her abbatial powers. She followed Saint Mel into the Kingdom of Teathbha, which is made up of sections of modern Meath, Westmeath and Longford. This occurred about 468. According to some sources, Brigid was ordained bishop by Bishop Mel at Mag Tulach, and her successors have always been given Episcopal honour. Brigid’s small oratory at Cill-Dara (Kildare) became a center of religion and learning, and developed into a cathedral city. She founded two monastic institutions, one for men, and the other for women, and appointed Saint Conleth as spiritual pastor of them. It has been frequently stated that she gave canonical jurisdiction to Saint Conleth, Bishop of Kildare, but, as Archbishop Healy points out, she simply “selected the person to whom the Church gave this jurisdiction”, and her biographer tells us distinctly that she chose Saint Conleth “to govern the church along with herself”. Thus, 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. Brigid also founded a school of art, including metal work and illumination, over which Conleth presided. The Kildare scriptorium produced the Book of Kildare, which elicited high praise from Giraldus Cambrensis, but which has disappeared since the Reformation. According to Giraldus, nothing that he had ever seen was at all comparable to the book, every page of which was gorgeously illuminated, and he concludes by saying that the interlaced work and the harmony of the colours left the impression that “all this is the work of angelic, and not human skill”. There is evidence in the Trias Thumaturga for Brigid’s stay in Connacht, especially in County Roscommon and also in the many churches founded by her in the Diocese of Elphin. Her friendship with Saint Patrick is attested by 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 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.)

 Miracles Associated With Brigid;

Miracles during Brigid’s lifetime were commonly recorded by those who had witnessed them or had some relation to a person who had. In Saint Brigid’s case, most of her miracles were related to healing and domestic tasks usually attributed to women. If Brigid wished or predicted something to occur then it came to pass. One of the more commonly told stories of St. Brigid was when she went to the King of Leinster to ask for land to build a convent. She told the king that the place where she stood was the perfect place for a convent. It was beside a forest where they could collect firewood and berries. There was also a lake nearby that would provide water and the land was fertile. The king laughed at her and refused to give her any land. Brigid prayed to God and asked him to soften the king’s heart. Then she smiled at the king and said “will you give me as much land as my cloak will cover?” The king thought that she was joking and because Brigid’s cloak was so small he knew that it would only cover a very small piece of land. The king agreed and Brigid spread her cloak on the ground. She asked her four friends to hold a corner of the cloak and walk in opposite directions. The four friends walked north, south, east and west. The cloak grew immediately and began to cover many acres of land. The king was astonished and he realised that she had been blessed by God. The king fell to the ground and knelt before Brigid and promised her and her friends money, food and supplies. Soon afterwards, the king became a Christian and also started to help the poor and commissioned the construction of the convent. Legend has it, the convent was known for making jam from the local blueberries which was sought for all over Ireland. There is a new tradition beginning among followers of St. Brigid to eat jam on the 1st of February in honour of this miracle. She is associated with the preservation of a nun’s chastity in unusual circumstances. Some authors claim that it is an account of an abortion. Both Liam de Paor (1993) and Connolly & Picard (1987), in their complete translations of Cogitosus, give substantially the same translation of the account of Brigid’s ministry to a nun who had failed to keep her vow of chastity, and become pregnant. In the 1987 translation: A certain woman who had taken the vow of chastity fell, through youthful desire of pleasure and her womb swelled with child. Brigid, exercising the most potent strength of her ineffable faith, blessed her, causing the child to disappear, without coming to birth, and without pain. She faithfully returned the woman to health and to penance.

 Veneration In Ireland;

In modern Ireland, “Mary of the Gael” remains a popular saint, and Brigid remains a common female Christian name.

Shrines and Relics;

It seems that Faughart was the scene of her birth. Faughart Church was founded by Saint Moninne in honour of Brigid. The old well of Brigid’s adjoining the ruined church still attracts pilgrims. At Armagh there was a “Templum Brigidis”; namely the little abbey church known as “Regles Brigid”, which contained some relics of the saint, destroyed in 1179, by William FitzAldelm. Brigid was interred at the right of the high altar of Kildare Cathedral, and a costly tomb was erected over her “Adorned with gems and precious stones and crowns of gold and silver.” Over the years her shrine became an object of veneration for pilgrims, especially on her feast day, the 1st of February. About the year 878 AD, owing to the Scandinavian raids, Brigid’s relics were taken to Downpatrick, where they were interred in the tomb of Patrick and Columba. The relics of the three saints were discovered in 1185, and on the 9th of June of the following year were reinterred in Down Cathedral. Above; The three major Irish Saints. The church of St Joao Baptista at Lumiar near Lisbon airport in Portugal holds a relic claimed to be the skull of St Brigid. A fragment of this skull was brought to St Brigid’s Church, Kilcurry in 1905 by Sister Mary Agnes of the Dundalk Convent of Mercy and in 1928 another fragment was sent by the Bishop of Lisbon to St Brigid’s church in Killester, in response to a request from Fathers Timothy Traynor and James McCarroll. In liturgical iconography and statuary, Saint Brigid is often depicted holding a reed cross, a crozier of the sort used by abbots and a lamp (called a “lamp of learning and wisdom”, as lamps and fire were regarded sacred to the Celts and druids). Early hagiographers portray Saint Brigid’s life and ministry as touched with fire. According to P.W. Joyce, tradition holds that nuns at her monastery kept a sacred eternal flame burning there. Light motifs, 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. In her Lives, Saint Brigid is portrayed as having the power to multiply such things as butter, bacon and milk, to bestow sheep and cattle and to control the weather. 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 Winflower Anemon coronaria, called the “Brigid anemone” since the early 19th century. Cill Dara (Kildare), the church of the oak Quercus petraea, is associated with a tree sacred to the druids. Her colour, white, was worn by the Kildare United Irishmen during the 1798 Rebellion and is worn by the Kildare GAA team.

Above; St Brigid with the reed cross and a ‘lamp of learning and wisdom’.

Placenames;

Kilbride is one of Ireland’s most widely spread 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 Kilbreedy’s 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. Similarly, there are a number of placenames derived from Cnoic Bhríde (“Brigit’s Hill”), such as Knockbridge in Louth and Knockbride in Cavan.

Namesakes;

Not all Kilbride or St Bride’s churches are directly associated with Brigid the daughter of Dubhthach. Seathrún Céitinn’s History of Ireland 1841 edition edited by Dermod O’Connor, lists 14 Saints gleaned from the martyrologies and heroic literature each called Brigid, and not including Brigid of Kildare. This dizzying abundance of Brigid’s had the effect of confusing those scholars in the 16th and 17th centuries who compiled the calendars from older manuscript sources, many of them now lost. For example John Colgan states Brighit of Moin-miolain was the daughter of Neman in one reference and the daughter of Aidus in another. The Martyrology of Donegal, for example, lists Brighit daughter of Diomman (feast day the 21th of May), Brighit of Moin-miolain (feast day on the 9th of March), and what may be five more: Brigid the daughter of Leinin (associated with Killiney, feast day the 6th of March), Brighit of Cillmuine (the 12th of November), Brighe of Cairbre (feast day the 7th of January). and two other Brighits (feast days the 9th of March, the second Brigit of that date, and the 30th of Sept).

Veneration beyond Ireland;

Church dedications, artwork, folklore and medieval manuscripts indicate the extent of the cult of Brigid in western Europe.

  • Alsace: Devotion to Brigid dates to the 8th century, there are relics of the Saint in the Church of Saint-Pierre-le-Vieux in Strasbourg.
  • Belgium: A fragment of a medieval Irish shawl known as “St Brigid’s Mantle” is venerated at the Cathedral of Bruges, where the cultus of Brigid was introduced by its Irish bishop Saint Foillan (died 655). There is a chapel (7th–10th century) dedicated to Sainte-Brigide at Fosses-la-Ville, a church in Liege and an altar in Hesse.
  • Brittany: The Church of St. Denis in Saint-Omer is the best known of over thirty church and chapel dedications to Brigid, she is venerated in folklore as midwife to the Blessed Virgin Mary and protectress of cattle. A palton is held at Morimer each year.
  • Cologne: four parish churches and seven chapels are dedicated to Brigid and a relic is preserved at the Great St. Martin Church. A church dedicated to St Brigid was destroyed in the Napoleonic period. There was also a chapel dedicated to her in Mainz.
  • England: St Bride’s Church in the City of London was rebuilt in 1672.
  • Italy: Donatus of Fiesole compiled the metrical Life of Brigid and built a Church in Piacenza (9th century) which was donated to the Irish order of the Monastery of Saint Colombanus, in Bobbio. The Church – and the attached hospital – sheltered predominantly Irish pilgrims moving to Bobbio and on to Rome. It still exists. The cult of Saint Brigid is particularly important in Northern Italy (Piacenza, Como, Val Brembana etc).
  • Netherlands: Saint Brigid is the patron saint of the Dutch city of Ommen.
  • Portugal: Brigid’s skull, preserved in the Church of São João Baptista in Lumiar, was traditionally venerated on 2th of February and in former times was carried in procession as a sacred instrument in the blessing of children and animals throughout the parish, in a ceremony called the bênção do gado (blessing of the cattle).
  • Spain: A cult of Brigid at Olite in Navarre was introduced from Troyes and Picardy in northern France around 1200 and a church is dedicated to her in Seville.
  • Switzerland: A sacred flame, the Lumen Sanctae Brigidae, was tended at Liestal in the 13th century and there is a chapel dedicated to her in the city of St. Gallen.

Saint Brigid, in the alternative spelling of her name, Bride, was patron saint of the powerful medieval Scottish House of Douglas. The principal religious house, and Mausoleum of the Earls of Douglas and latterly Earls of Angus being St. Bride’s Kirk, Douglas. Another saint Bridget of Sweden (1303–1373) was given a Swedish variant of the old Irish name named in honour of Brigid. Above; St. Brigid of Sweden

  • United States: In St. Joseph, Minnesota, there is double monastery dedicated to St Brigid, known as the Saint Brigid of Kildare Methodist-Benedictine Monastery.

Placenames outside Ireland;

Brigid-related names in Scotland and England include several Bridewells or Brideswells, (commemorating in their names the presence of a sacred well dedicated to Brigit or her pre-Christian antecedent), East Kilbride, West Kilbride, Kilbride, Brideswell, Templebride and Tubberbride, derived for the word for well, “Tobar” in Irish or Gaelic). These Brigidine sites include the original Bridewell Palace in London which became synonymous with jail houses through the English speaking world. Kilbride and St. Bride’s in Newfoundland Canada, are named in her honour.

Relics;

Brigid’s skull has been preserved in the Igreja São João Baptista (Church of St. John the Baptist) in Lumiar in Portugal, near the Lisbon airport) since 1587 and is venerated on the 2nd of February (not the 1st of February, as in Ireland). St Brigid’s head was reputedly carried to King Denis of Portugal in 1283 by Irish knights travelling to the Aragonese Crusade. The inscription on the tomb in Lumiar 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.”

Western Liturgy;

Various Continental breviaries of the pre-Reformation period commemorate Brigid, and her name is included in a litany in the Stowe Missal. In the 2004 edition of the Roman Martyrology, Brigid is listed under 1st of February with the Latin name Brígidae. She is cited as follows: ‘At Kildare in Ireland, Brigid, who founded one of the first monasteries in Ireland and, together with Saint Patrick, began the work of evangelisation’. Thus Brigid is officially recognised by the Vatican as a first-millennium saint, recognised by popular acclaim, rather than ever being formally canonised.

Eastern Liturgy;

Brigid is highly venerated by many Eastern Orthodox Christians as one of the great Western saints before the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches. Her feast day, as in the West, is the 1st of February, although churches following the Julian calendar (as in many Orthodox countries) celebrate her feast on the 14th of February, the corresponding date on the Julian calendar. According to the tradition of the Orthodox church, Saint Brigid lost one of her eyes which saved her from being married against her will as related in the first and second troparia of the fourth ode of the canon of the saint from the Orthodox Matins service. In another version of the legendary story of Saint Brigid losing her eye, she suffered an eye disease making her lose one eye. In the book ‘Saint Brigid’ by Iain MacDonald, Saint Brigid had an eye disease, she put her finger under her eye and plucked it out of her head so that it lay on her cheek, and when Dubthach and her brethren beheld that, they promised that she should never be told to go to a husband except for the husband whom she should like; then Saint Brigid prayed to God, put her palm to her eye, and it was healed at once.    

The Biddy

The Biddy is one of the many customs associated with Saint Brigid. Saint Brigid’s feast day falls on the 1st of February, which is also the first day of Spring. On this day nature was thought to awaken from its long winter slumber and prayers and invocations were made to Saint Brigid to bless the crops and to improve the fertility of man and beast! Above; Getting ready for the Biddy! On the eve of the feast day an effigy of Saint Brigid was made and taken into each home to bring good luck. The young people would then travel about the parish with the effigy proclaiming the news the Saint had arrived in the locality. These were known as Boidógs or Biddys. Both boys and girls took part and generally went in disguise. As a rule the boys dressed as girls and visa versa. Straw suits or masks were frequently used to enhance the disguise. The Biddys received gifts of foodstuffs, for example; butter, eggs, vegetables, fruit and the like in each house and concluded their outing with a feast! As time went on, money was given instead of food and the simple feast developed into a “Ball Night”. The Biddy was frequently constructed by using a peeled turnip to represent the head. The features were cut out and coloured with soot or any other colour available. The “head” was mounted on a broom handle, or churn dash, for ease of carrying. A churn dash was preferred as it could stand independently. (A churn dash comprised of a handle with a flat wooden cross at one end, used to agitate or dash the milk when making butter.) The dash was then covered with an old skirt or cloth and stuffed with hay or straw to form the body. The Biddys went from house to house providing entertainment by way of music, song or dance in exchange for money. The tradition of going on the Biddy to collect for a “Ball Night” has mostly been discontinued.

Biddys

Above; From left to right, Larry Cronin and Larry O Connor enjoying the Biddy in Killorglin.

Nowadays if the Biddys go out, it is to collect for charity and they are more likely to ply the ancient craft in the public houses of the towns than in private homes. In the Killorglin Parish there were many famous Biddy Groups which flourished in the early part of this century and indeed up to the 1920s and 30s. Amongst these were the Glencuttane, Kilgobnet, Caragh Lake and Aunagarry Biddy Groups. Perhaps the greatest of all, the one that has endured in song and story is the famous Ceannavoree Biddy. It is hoped that the fine tradition of the Biddy will never die. It provides an excellent excuse for fun as well as perserving an authentic link with those who went before us, perhaps in this instance, not just for hundreds of years but for significantly longer.