Fearless St. Brigid

St. Brigid is the female patron saint of Ireland. Brigid, a contemporary of Saints Patrick and Columba, was mostly known as an Irish Christian saint, abbess (female bishop), and founder of several monasteries, most famously, the one at Kildare (Church of the Oak). Her name is a Celtic/Irish female name derived from the noun brígh, meaning "power, strength, vigor, virtue" or "exalted one". The name, especially in Ireland, is largely related to the popularity of Saint Brigid of Kildare, and she was known as "Mary of the Gael"

Brigid’s Early Life

St. Brigid was born in AD 450 in Faughart, near Dundalk in Co. Louth. Her father, Dubhthach, was a pagan chieftain of Leinster and her mother, Broicsech, was a Christian. It is thought that Brigid’s mother was born in Portugal but was kidnapped by Irish pirates and brought to Ireland to work as a slave, just like St. Patrick was. Brigid’s father named her after one of the most powerful goddesses of the pagan religion - the goddess of fire, whose manifestations were song, craftsmanship, and poetry, which the Irish considered the flame of knowledge. He kept Brigid and her mother as slaves even though he was a wealthy man.

A Friend of the Poor

Brigid spent her early life cooking, cleaning, washing and feeding the animals on her father’s farm. She lived during the time of St.Patrick and was inspired by his preaching to become a Christian. When Brigid turned eighteen, she stopped working for her father. Brigid’s father wanted her to find a husband but Brigid had decided that she would spend her life working for God by looking after poor, sick and elderly people. Apparently, she prayed that her beauty would be taken away from her so no one would seek her hand in marriage; her prayer was granted. Brigid’s charity angered her father because he thought she was being too generous to the poor. When she finally gave away his jewel-encrusted sword to a leper, her father released her to follow her calling.

Brigid finally got her wish and founded a monastery for women, and later one for men too. She received her veil from St. Macaille and made her vows to dedicate her life to God. After making her vows, Brigid regained her beauty and that God made her more beautiful than ever.

Brigid had an extraordinary concern and compassion for the poor people of her time. Her story challenges us to share the goods of the earth with our brothers and sisters especially those who live in desperate poverty in the developing world.

Brigid’s spirit of hospitality was legendary. For Brigid, every guest is Christ. News of Brigid’s good works spread and soon many young girls from all over the country joined her. Brigid went on to found many monasteries all over Ireland; the most famous one was in Co. Kildare, built beside an oak tree where the town of Kildare now stands.

A Woman of Miracles

Brigid is celebrated for the miraculous events that took place in her life and those that were associated with her. She, along with seven of her companions, are known for wearing all white as they committed their lives to Christ. Stories recount that people received physical healings in their bodies, social justices for women took place, and many souls were converted to Christ as she traveled by chariot throughout Ireland.

God performed many miracles through Brigid during her lifetime, tradition says, and most of them have to do with healing. One story tells about Brigid curing two sisters who couldn't hear or talk. Bridget was traveling on horseback along with the sisters when the horse Brigid was riding got startled and Brigid fell off, hitting her head on a stone. Brigid's blood from her wound mixed with the water on the ground, and she got the idea of telling the sisters to pour the mixture of blood and water onto their necks while praying in Jesus Christ's name for healing. One did so, and was healed, while the other one was healed simply by touching the bloody water when she bent down to the ground to check on Brigid.

A woman full of the Holy Spirit

Her life was that of the supernatural, full of God's miraculous power, generosity and leadership. When Brigid built her monastery and church in Kildare, she set up an eternal flame of fire to represent the Holy Spirit's constant presence with people. That flame was extinguished several hundred years later during the Reformation, but lit again in 1993 and now burns perpetually at the monastery in Kildare. To this day, Saint Brigid has a well in Kildare whose water is known for its healing properties and many have set out on a pilgrimage to this place.

It is said in an excerpt from the 'Book of Armagh', "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’.

St. Brigid’s Cloak

One of the more intriguing legends tells how Brigid seeking land from the King of Leinster. In this specific instance it is said that she told the king that the place on which she stood would be perfect for a monastery. It was adjacent to a forest, which was useful for collecting firewood and berries. Also, a lake was not too far off and could provide water and the land was fertile for crops. The king laughed and refused to give Brigid any land. She smiled while praying that the king would soften his heart and asked, "Will you give me as much land as my cloak will cover?" He agreed to her seemingly ridiculous request. At once her four companions grabbed the garment and ran swiftly in opposite directions, the cloth began to expand and continued as they ran, covering several acres of land.

"Oh, Brigid" said the king, "What are you about?" She said, "I am, or rather my cloak is about covering your whole province to punish you for your stinginess to the poor." He said, "Call your maidens back. I will give you a decent plot of ground." The king then gave her a plot of land, and later he became a Christian and helped with the poor and began the construction of the convent there. The legend goes that this particular convent became well-known for making jam from the local blueberries. The tradition is now for the followers of Brigid to eat jam on the 1st of February in honor of this miracle.

St. Brigid’s Cross

Making a St. Brigid’s cross is one of the traditional rituals in Ireland to celebrate the beginning of early spring, 1st February. The crosses are made of rushes that are pulled rather than cut. They are hung by the door and in the rafters to protect the house from fire and evil. According to tradition, a new cross is made each St Brigid's Day. St. Brigid and her cross are linked together by the story that she wove this form of cross at the death bed of either her father or a pagan lord, who upon hearing what the cross meant, asked to be baptised.

One version goes as follows:

“A pagan chieftain from the neighbourhood of Kildare was dying. Christians in his household sent for Brigid to talk to him about Christ. When she arrived the chieftain was raving. As it was impossible to instruct this delirious man, hopes for his conversion seemed doubtful. Brigid sat down at his bedside and began consoling him. As was customary, the dirt floor was strewn with rushes both for warmth and cleanliness. Brigid stooped down and started to weave them into a cross, fastening the points together. The sick man asked what she was doing. She began to explain the cross, how Jesus died for our sin, so we could be forgiven and hve eternal life. As she talked his delirium quieted and he questioned her with growing interest. Through her weaving, he converted and was baptised at the point of death. Since then the cross of rushes has been made in Ireland.”

A Prophetic Pioneer

Brigid was born at a time of major transition in 5th century Ireland. She embodies in herself the Christian Celtic spirit. Around 470 she also founded a double monastery, for nuns and monks, in Kildare. As Abbess of this foundation she wielded considerable power, but was a very wise and prudent superior. The Abbey of Kildare became one of the most prestigious monasteries in Ireland, and was famous throughout Christian Europe.

She also founded a school of art, including metal work and illumination, over which St. Conleth presided. In the scriptorium of the monastery, the famous illuminated manuscript the Book of Kildare was created. Some scholars credit Brigid with pioneering monastic life in Ireland. Her monastery was acclaimed as a centre of education, pilgrimage, worship and hospitality until the 16th century when all the monasteries were suppressed in the English Reformation.

A Peacemaker

Feuds between clans were commonplace in Brigid’s day. She is often referred to as a peacemaker who intervened in disputes between rival factions and brought healing and reconciliation. Brigid is depicted in an icon in the parish church in Kildare with her foot on the sword. She challenges us to be peacemakers and peacekeepers.

A Woman of the Land

Brigid is remembered through the ages as a woman of the land. Brigid was close to animals, and several miracle stories from her life have to do with animals, such as when she touched a cow that had already been milked dry and blessed it to help hungry and thirsty people. Then, when they milked the cow, they were able to get ten times the amount of milk as usual. Her feast day on the 1st February marks the first day of Spring in the northern hemisphere. It is the season when we celebrate new life on earth. Many today draw inspiration from the respect which Brigid and our ancestors had for all creation.

Model of Equality

Brigid held a unique position in the early Irish church. Scholars tell us that she presided over the local church of Kildare and was head of a double monastery for men and women. She challenges both men and women today to create a church and a society where men and women are equally respected. Brigid spread the truth of Christ, the love of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. Her life continues to sing the song of the Gospel. She continues to be remembered as an extraordinary woman of faith, a fearless woman who continues to inspire us today to follow Christ as she did.

Miriam O'Regan