Saint Brigid of Kildare - the Mary of the Gaels

A Short Biography of Ireland’s Second Saint

Almost Byzantine image of Saint Brigid - in a Catholic church bearing her name, in Oldcastle (County Meath).
© Bernd Biege 2015

Saint Brigid (or to be really correct Saint Brigid of Kildare) is a saint of many names: Brigid of Ireland, Brigit, Bridget, Bridgit, Bríd, Bride, Naomh Bhríde or "Mary of the Gaels."

But who really was this Irish Saint Brigid, venerated in churches up and down the country, and giving her name to many a townland (as in "Kilbride," or literally "Church of Brigid")?

Living from 451 to 525 (according to hagiography and the consensus of the faithful), Brigid was an Irish nun, abbess, founder of several convents, held the rank of bishop and soon generally venerated as a saint. Today, Brigid is considered to be one of Ireland's patron saints, ranking only (and by a small margin) behind Saint Patrick himself in importance. Her feast day, Saint Brigid's Day, is February 1st, also the first day of spring in Ireland. So who was Brigid and well is she so widely celebrated in Ireland today?

Saint Brigid – A Short Biography

Traditionally, Brigid is thought to have been born at Faughart (County Louth). Her father was Dubhthach, a Leinster pagan chieftain, her mother Brocca, a Pictish Christian. Brigid was named after the goddess Brigid of Dubhthach's religion, a goddess of fire.

In 468, Brigid left behind her half-pagan roots and converted to Christianity, having been a fan of Saint Patrick's preaching for some time. Her father was not pleased when she felt a longing to enter religious life, and tried in vain to keep her at home at first. Stuck in her own family house, she became known for her generosity and charity. She never refused any poor beggar who came knocking at Dubhthach's door, and the household needed a steady supply of milk, flour, and other essentials for her to give away. Having nothing else to hand, she once even gave her father's jeweled sword to a leper.

Dubhthach finally gave in, and sent Brigid to a convent, maybe simply to avoid bankruptcy.

Receiving the veil from Saint Mel, Brigid embarked on a career as convent founder, starting in Clara (County Offaly). However, she is really known for her activity in Kildare, which became her most important life's work. Around the year 470, she founded Kildare Abbey, a co-ed monastery for both nuns and monks. Kildare comes from cill-dara, meaning "the church of the oak" because Brigid's cell was located under a large oak tree.

As abbess, Brigid held considerable power – in fact, she became a bishop in all but name (as women were not and still are not allowed to become Bishops within the Catholic Church). Nevertheless, the abbesses of Kildare had an administrative authority equal to that of a bishop until 1152.

Dying in or around 525, Saint Brigid was first buried in a tomb before the high altar of Kildare's abbey church. Later her remains are said to have been exhumed and transported to Downpatrick - to rest with the two other patron saints of Ireland: Patrick, and Columba (Columcille).

The Religious Impact of Saint Brigid

In Ireland, Brigid was quickly and still is regarded as the holiest native saint after Patrick – a ranking that secured her the somewhat ambiguous name of "Mary of the Gaels," even though she is not at all associated with a virgin birth. Because of her venerated position in Irish religious life, Brigid remains a popular name in Ireland and there are hundreds of place-names honoring Brigid found all over Ireland. Her popularity as a saint also seems to extend to neighboring Scotland where you can find the ever-popular Kilbride (Church of Brigid), Templebride or Tubberbride, just to give a few examples.

Irish missionaries made Brigid a popular saint for converted pagans all over Europe too – especially in pre-reformation times Brigid of Kildare had many British and continental followers, though the distinction to other saints of the same name is occasionally blurry.

The Sign of Saint Brigid's Cross

According to legend, Brigid made a cross from rushes for a dying man she was trying to convert to Christianity. Though the origins of this story are unknown, even today many households in Ireland have a Saint Brigid's Cross in honor of the saint. The cross may take several forms, but in its most common appearance it bears a (distant) resemblance to a fylfot or even swastika. These crosses are often remade and rehung in homes as part of the celebration of her saint's day and to prepare and protect the house for the arrival of spring.

Apart from religious reasons, keeping a Saint Brigid's Cross in its traditional place is prudent for practical purposes: It is believed that hanging the cross from the ceiling or the roof itself is a sure-fire way to preserve the home from fire. Note that one of Brigid's innovations in Kildare was an eternal fire. And that the pagan goddess she was named after was a fire goddess.

Saint Brigid as a Goddess

Indeed, Brigid she could have been a goddess first, as legend says, she was named after the pagan goddess Brigid, and a lot of her Christian mythology reflects aspects of this goddess (like the obsession with fire). So some folks insist that Brigid was just a sanitized version of the earlier goddess, not an actual living saint. Well, you can make up your own mind about this because the hard evidence is sorely lacking. However, Saint Brigid's popularity is now what lives on in Irish common belief.

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