By Steve Beard —
In Ireland, the first day of February is St. Brigid’s Day, as well as the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc, marking new birth and the threshold of spring. It has just recently been christened as an Irish government holiday (St. Patrick’s Day became an Irish “bank holiday” in 1903). The occasion is a celebration for both Christians and those who observe pre-Christian Gaelic traditions.
Over the summer, I was mesmerized by a compelling mural depicting a dual-faced Brigid in the town of Dundalk – halfway between Belfast and Dublin on Ireland’s east coast. After returning home, I read the medieval hagiography of this intriguing woman who died almost 1,500 years ago.
St. Brigid is said to be the child of a pagan chieftain and a Christian slave woman. It is thought that her father named his daughter after Brigid, the indigenous Celtic goddess associated with spring, healing, fire, fertility, and poetry. As a girl, she is said to have been raised in a separate Druid home before becoming a Christian at a young age.
The two-story mural created by the artist Friz in Dundalk attempts to portray the similar-but-different stories told about both Brigids. Because of the time period, there are many details that we do not know. Scholars continue to debate the competitive portrayals of the saintly abbess and the Gaelic goddess.
What has been passed down is that Saint Brigid (451-525) was a winsome and compassionate founder of one of Ireland’s most important and remarkable dual monasteries for both nuns and monks. Although exact dates are debated, St. Brigid’s ministry would have taken place after St. Patrick’s death in 461. The Abbey at Kildare – 40 miles west of Dublin – is thought to be built upon the very site of a shrine to Brigid the goddess under a large oak tree (Cill Dara, “church of the oak”).
The Abbey was known for its Christian hospitality, as well as its emphasis on art, metalwork, and “illuminated manuscripts” similar to the world-renowned Book of Kells. Unfortunately, the Book of Kildare is lost to history, and the Abbey at Kildare was destroyed in the 12th century (the Cathedral of Kildare is now built on the original site).
“This woman … grew in exceptional virtues and by the fame of her good deeds drew to herself from all the provinces of Ireland inestimable number of people of both sexes…” wrote Cogitosus (c. 650), a monk of Kildare, in his remembrance of St. Brigid. “On the firm foundation of faith she established her monastery … which is the head of almost all the churches of Ireland and holds the place of honor among all the monasteries of the Irish. Its jurisdiction extends over the whole of the land of Ireland, from coast to coast.” (Cogitosus’ work is the earliest hagiography found in Ireland.)
Because of her prominence, St. Brigid is also one of the three patron saints of Ireland, alongside St. Patrick and St. Columba.
There are numerous stories of her faith and tenderheartedness. As a child, she gave away butter and bacon to those who were hungry (including a whimpering dog). She is said to have also given away her father’s jewel-encrusted sword to a beggar in need – much to her father’s exasperation. After trying to sell her off, he finally realized that allowing her to live a life devoted to her faith made far more sense.
There are innumerable churches, schools, athletic associations, and more than a dozen holy wells in Ireland dedicated to St. Brigid. However, she is most well-known for weaving a cross from straw or reeds while at the deathbed of a pagan chieftain who had grown delirious with his illness. As she sat with him, she weaved a cross and explained its meaning. In some versions of the story, it is said that it brought peace to the man’s heart and he sought baptism before his final breath. (Modern day Irish children celebrate St. Brigid’s feast by weaving crosses from reeds.)
In his remembrance of her kindness, generosity, and miraculous life, Cogitosus did not fail to mention the time Brigid turned bathwater into beer. “On another extraordinary occasion some lepers asked this venerable Brigid for some beer, but she did not have any beer to give them,” he wrote. “Seeing water that had been prepared for baths, she blessed it in the strength of her faith and turned it into the very best beer, which she generously dispensed to the thirsty.”
Notably, the legacy of St. Brigid is immortalized outside her native Ireland. There are, for example, Brigidine nuns at work all over the globe. One of St. Brigid’s tunics is said to be treasured at the Cathedral of Bruges, Belgium. She is the patron saint of the oldest church in London – St. Bride’s, Fleet Street. There is even a Chiesa di Santa Brigida d’Irlanda (Church of St. Brigid of Ireland) in Piacenza, Italy. Twenty churches or parishes are named after her in the United States.
In the thirteenth century, three Irish knights took the skull of St. Brigid with them on a journey to the Holy Land as a sacred relic. It is said that the knights did battle in Portugal and stayed with her revered remains until their deaths. The three knights are interred in the tombs of St. Brigid’s chapel within the Church of St. John outside of Lisbon.
“Brigid bridges the greatest divide, between heaven and earth, between God and humanity,” wrote religious scholar Maeve Brigid Callan recently in The Irish Times. “The sixth- or seventh-century priest/poet Broccán describes her as ‘a marvelous ladder for pagans to visit the kingdom of Mary’s Son.’ From childhood on, she simultaneously embodied the highest Christian and indigenous Irish ideals, integrating attributes exemplified both by Christ at Cana and the Sea of Galilee and by native goddesses of fertility and sovereignty.”
The religious community that she helped create in Kildare, Ireland, centuries ago was a true sanctuary for weary souls. “The city is a great metropolis within whose borders, which St. Brigid marked out as a clear boundary, no earthly enemy nor hostile attack is to be feared,” wrote Cogitosus. “For the city is the safest place of refuge of all the towns anywhere in the whole of Ireland, with all its fugitives. …
“And who could count the various multitudes and innumerable crowds of people who swarm here from all provinces. Some come for the abundance of the festivals, some to have their illnesses cured, some come to see the spectacle of the crowds, and others come with great gifts for the feast of St. Brigid, who fell asleep on the first of February, safely casting off the burden of the flesh, and followed the Lamb into the heavenly mansions.”
Happy St. Brigid’s Day!
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. Photo: Brigid mural in Dundalk, Ireland. Taken by Steve Beard.