Celts to the Creche:Day 5
St. Brigid of Kildare
c 452-523/525 AD
On this 5th day of Advent on our journey with the Celts to the Creche, we meet St. Brigid/Brigit, Bridget, Bride, an early Irish saint, one of Ireland’s three patron saints along with St. Patrick and St. Columba (see day four of Celts to the Creche). It is said that St. Brigid and St. Patrick were friends and that she was possibly a Bishop. She is famous for saying, “A person without an anam cara (soul friend) is like a body without a head.” St. Brigid’s feast day was likely chosen as February 1 since Imbolc, one of the four Celtic feasts begins on this date.
Brigid was a Christian nun, Abbess, Bishop, and founder of several monasteries including Kildare (Cill Dara meaning “Church of the Oak Tree”), which was a double monastery of men and women serving equally together.
Kildare was built beside an ancient holy tree which survived until the 10th century.1 But, according to some scholars, the reason it was called Kildare (Church of the Oak Tree) is because it was built of oak.2 Since the Druids and Celts had a great love for trees and often worshipped in oak groves, it would make sense that her church and monastery took the Celtic and Druidic customs and transformed them into Christian rituals and places.
Brigid’s fame was taken across Western Europe by traveling Irish monks. She was even described by Oengus, the poet-chronicler, as “Brigid, excellent woman, golden flame.” Brigid has often been called the Mary of the Gaels and a common salutation in the Irish language expresses the hope that Brigid and Mary be with you. Even today, the tradition still thrives that Brigid was a companion and trusted friend of the Holy Family and was privileged to be the midwife and nursemaid at the birth of Jesus.3
Her Early Life: There are numerous Brigid’s in history and legend that often get tangled up with St. Brigid of Kildare, including many folktales that became interwoven with Druidic mythology as well as Christian traditions. There are at least six separate Lives of Brigid, the first perhaps composed by Aileran the Wise of Clonard (died 665) and the second by Cogitosus about 650.4
According to tradition, this Brigid was born in Faughart near the border of south Louth and north of Armagh. Her father, Dubthach was a major landowner of royal blood, but not a king. Her mother Brocessa was a concubine and likely a slave. There are several stories of Brigid’s birth. One of which sadly states that Dubthach sold her mother and kept the daughter. Another says that Dubthac sold Brocessa to a poet who then in turn sold her to a Druid.5 There is even another story that says that Dubthach’s primary wife was jealous of Brocessa, so Dubthach banished her to Fochard-Muirthemhne in the Dundalk area even before Brigid was born. Some modern scholarship favors the territory of Fotharta Airbrech near Croghan Hill on the Offaly-Kildaire border as the birthplace of Brigid so this might corroborate this record of her birth.6 Some legends say that Brigid was a Ban-Druí, a Druid before she became a Christian when St. Patrick baptized her.7 It is also interesting that some believe from studies of early writings that St. Patrick endorsed women as head of churches. 8
Her Call: When Brigid gave away her father’s sword to a leper he was so angry that he tried to sell Brigid to the king, but the king would not bargain for her because “her merit was higher before God than before men.”9 Her father gave her freedom but still tried to marry her off, but she refused to be accept any proposal. Eventually Dubthach agreed to let his daughter go see the aged Bishop Mel in Ardagh who had been a disciple and possibly a nephew of St. Patrick.
In the Hymn to Brigid written at the beginning of the 7th c. by St. Broccan Cloen at the request of Ultan of Armagh, there is a reference that goes on to say “hence Brigid’s successor is always entitled to have episcopal orders and the honor due a bishop.” This hymn states that Mel accepted her along with seven other women who went to him to receive the order of penance and to be dedicated to the religious life. Bishop Mel ordained her as a nun and some say that he also by mistake read the wrong prayers which ordained her as a bishop. When he ordained her as a bishop, a brilliant flame ascended from her head.10 Afterwards, Mel was asked why he had read the incorrect prayers making her a bishop. He replied that the Holy Spirit had taken the matter out of his hands.11 (I so love how the Spirit works in ways we cannot dream or imagine!!!) Others say that Bishop Ibor ordained her as a bishop.12
Brigid had a reputation for generosity and Kildare became known as “the city of the poor.” There is a table blessing attributed to Brigid which reflects her compassion and inclusivity that everyone is welcome at the table. “I should welcome the poor to my feast, for they are God’s children. I should welcome the sick to my feast, for they are God’s joy. Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place, the sick dance with the angels.” 13 She was also known as a friend of animals because of her love and protection of God’s creation.
Life of Brigid by Cogitosus: Around 650AD, about 100 years after her death, Cogitosus, a monk at Kildare wrote a Life of Brigid. He told about the large double monastery in which men and women lived and worked as equals with Brigid as the Abbess. Cogitosus claimed that Kildare in the 7th c. was “head of almost all the Irish churches with supremacy over all the monasteries of the Irish and a paruchia which extended over the entire island of Ireland.”14 Cogitosus also described Brigid as on the move, a traveller, preaching the gospel and caring for those whom she met. He recorded the story of how Brigid travelled in a chariot and her driver was a priest who would baptize the converts as they travelled from place to place. Cogitosus said that she was kind and compassionate, a saint of the people.
He also wrote in great detail about a wooden church that contained the relics of Brigid and Conleth, who was a hermit and metal worker whom Brigid invited to Kildare to make church vessels and to be pastor of the local people surrounding the monastery. Brigid also founded a school of art, that included metal work and illumination, over which Conleth presided. Carol Neuman De Vegvar in The Cross Goes North discusses Cogitosus’ fascinating record of Brigid’s church at Kildare. We can only imagine the magnificent Irish/Celtic artwork that came from Kildare.
Gerald of Wales Writes about Brigid: The Kildare scriptorium produced the illuminated Book of Kildare, which elicited high praise from Gerald of Wales when he travelled to Ireland in the 12th c., but which has disappeared since the Reformation. According to Gerald, 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 colors left the impression that “all this is the work of angelic, and not human skill.”15
Tending the Flame and the Brigidine Sisters: The name Brigid comes from a Celtic goddess of fire and light and Brigid of Kildare likely carried some of these attributes. When Gerald of Wales visited her monastery he saw a fire which 19 of her nuns carefully tended for 19 days and on the 20th day, it is said she would return to tend the flame. It never died out.
The communal hearth was a central feature of ancient rural communities and was held to be holy and sacred. Brigid’s fire was extinguished during the Norman invasion of 1220, but was rekindled and kept lit until her monastery was destroyed during the 16th c. Reformation when Kildare was taken over by the English crown. In 1992, Sister Mary Minehan and Sister Phil O’Shea of the Brigidine Sisters that was founded in 1807 came to Kildare which led to the relighting of Brigid’s flame in 1993 in the Market Square, Kildare, by Sister Mary Teresa Cullen, then congregational leader of the Brigidine Sisters.16
Kildare County Council commissioned a sculpture to house the flame in Kildare Town Square in 2005. President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, presided at the lighting of the Perpetual Flame in the Town Square on St. Brigid’s Day 2006.17 The flame was lit from the flame tended by the Brigidine Sisters in Solas Bhríde, a Christian community centre for Celtic spirituality. The Brigid Light is still guarded and tended in Solas Bhríde as it was in Kildare many centuries ago by the Sisters of St Brigid. The flame burns as a beacon of hope, justice and peace for Ireland and our world.
Solas Bhríde believes that Brigid is still relevant for today. They teach that her life continues to inspire those who desire full equality of men and women in the church and society and who desire to work for the protection of the earth and bring peace, justice, and reconciliation. 18
Brigid’s Rush Cross (Cosog Brigde):
One of the stories of her life surrounds her cross made of rushes. She was called to the deathbed of a dying pagan chieftain of Ireland whom some think may have been her father. As she sat beside him, she picked up some rushes from the the floor and wove them into a cross and explained the story of the crucifixion of Christ to him.19 The cross is believed to protect houses from burning down.
Place of Resurrection and Relics: St.Brigid died about 523/5 on February 1 after receiving Holy Communion from St. Ninnidh of Inismacsaint, one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland who had his monastery on a small island about a half mile off the western shore of Lower Lough Erne adjacent to Derrygonnelly.20
In the National Museum in Dublin, there is a shrine of silver and brass set with jewels containing a relic of Brigid’s shoe. Her mantle is in a Bruges cathedral that is said to have been brought there by King Harold of England’s sister after the Norman invasion. It is a small square of red wool cloth with curly tufts, such shag-rug mantles were woven from Bronze Age times until the 16th c.21
Brigid was interred at the right of the high altar of Kildare Cathedral, and a magnificent tomb was erected over her mentioned earlier. Cogitosus in his Life of Brigid admired the ornate tombs of Brigid and Conleth on either side of the altar that were covered with gems and precious metals. Crowns of gold and silver hung above them, and carved statues and paintings adorned the church. Over the years her shrine became an object of veneration for pilgrims, especially on her feast day, February 1.
About the year 878, owing to the Viking raids, Brigid’s relics were taken to Downpatrick, where they were interred in the tomb of the other Irish patron saints Patrick and Columba, the founder of Iona.
The relics of the three saints were discovered in 1185 and on June 9 of the following year were reinterred in Down Cathedral.
Throughout Ireland there are Brigid’s wells where pilgrims come to pray, reflect, and seek healing.
Brigid Pilgrimages in Kildare: There are 5 important pilgrimages associated with St. Brigid and Kildare: Going to her wells, to St. Brigid’s Cathedral, to the Fire Temple, to the Peace Pole, and to the Labryinth.22
Feast day February 1
May the Perpetual Light of St. Brigid illuminate the way to the Creche for us.
St. Brigid’s Blessing from the Brigidine Sisters
May Brigid bless the house wherein you dwell
Bless every fireside every wall and door
Bless every heart that beats beneath its roof
Bless every hand that toils to bring it joy
Bless every foot that walks its portals through
May Brigid bless the house that shelters you.23
1 Christina Harrington. Women in a Celtic Church, p. 66.
3 Mary Earle and Sylvia Maddox. Holy Companions, p. 21.
4 Michelle Brown. How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland, p. 92.
5 Edward Sellner. Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, p. 78.
6 John J. Ó’Ríordáin. Early Irish Saints, p. 22.
7 Brown, p. 92.
8 Harrington, p. 57.
9 Sellner, p. 79.
10 Bridget Mary Meehan and Regina Madonna Oliver. Praying with Celtic Holy Women, p. 22.
11 Ó’Ríordáin, p. 22.
12 Brown, p. 93.
13 Meehan, p. 34.
14 Connolly p. 5
15 Eoghan Corry. Whatever Happened to the Book of Kildare?
16 Meehan, p. 24.
18 Andrew Jones. Early Pilgrim’s Guide to Celtic Britain and Ireland, p. 159.
19 Meehan, p. 27.
20 Ó’Ríordáin, p. 54.
21 Lisa Bitel. Landscape with Two Saints, p. 198.
22 Jones, p. 160.
23 Meehan, p. 26.
Baring-Gould, S. and John Fisher. The Lives of the British Saints; The Saints of Wales, Cornwall, and Such Irish Saints as Have Dedications in Britain, Part One. Kessinger Reprints.
Bitel. Lisa M. Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
_________. Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Brown, Michelle P. How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland. Oxford, UK: Lion Hudson, 2006.
Corry, Eogan. “Whatever Happened to the Book of Kildare?” Kildare Voice, September 27, 2007. http://www.kildare.ie/library/ehistory/2007/11/book_of_kildare_not_the_work_o.asp
D’Arcy, Mary Ryan. The Saints of Ireland. St. Paul, MN: The Irish American Cultural Institute, 1974.
Davies, Oliver, ed. “The Life of St. Brigit the Virgin by Cogitosus,” Celtic Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1999.
De Vegvar, Carol Neuman. “Romanitas and Realpolitik in Cogitosus’ Description of the Church of St. Brigit, Kildare” in Carver, Martin, ed. The Cross Goes North. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2003.
Earle, Mary C. and Sylvia Maddox. Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2004.
Ellis, Peter B. Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and Literature. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.
Harrington, Christina. Women in a Celtic Church: Ireland 450-1150. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
The Historical Works of Gerald of Wales. from Archive. com.
Jones, Andrew. Every Pilgrim’s Guide to Celtic Britain and Ireland. Ligouri, Missouri: Ligouri Publications, 2002.
Jones, Kathleen. Who are the Celtic Saints? Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2002.
Meehan, Bridget Mary and Regina Madonna Oliver. Praying with Celtic Holy Women. Hampshire, UK: Redemptorist Publications, 2003.
Minehan, Rita. Rekindling the Flame: a pilgrimage in the footsteps of Brigid. Solas Bridhe.
Mitton, Michael. The Soul of Celtic Spirituality in the Lives of Its Saints. Mystic, CT: Twenty Third Publications, 1996.
Ní Mheara (O’Mara), Róisín. In Search of Irish Saints. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1994.
O’Hannon, John. Life of St. Brigid, Virgin. Dublin: Joseph Dollard, 1887.
Ó’Ríordáin, John J. Early Irish Saints. Dublin: The Columba Press, 2004.
Pennick, Nigel. The Celtic Saints. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 1997.
Rees, Elizabeth. An Essential Guide to Celtic Sites and Their Saints. London: Burns & Oates, 2003.
Richter, Michael. Medieval Ireland: The Enduring Tradition, rev. ed. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2005.
Sawyers, June Skinner. Praying with Celtic Saints, Prophets, Martyrs, and Poets. Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2001.
Sellner, Edward C. Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, rev. and expanded. St. Paul, MN: Bog Walk Press, 2006.
Wallace, Martin. Celtic Saints. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1995.
Warren, Brenda G. St. Brigit of Kildare as a Bishop? February 17, 2017. Godspace.light.
Woods, Richard J. The Spirituality of the Celtic Saints. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000.