The first of February marks St Brigid’s Day, also known as Imbolc, which celebrates the early signs of Spring and the arrival of longer warmer days. Saint Brigid is a patron saint of Ireland, dairymaids, cattle, midwives, Irish nuns, and newborn babies. She is also known as Muire na nGael or Mary of the Gael which means Our Lady of the Irish and is one of the Patron Saints of Ireland, along with St Patrick and St Columcille. Brigid is interesting in that she seems to have been both a pagan goddess and a Christian saint, with a smooth transition over time. As a goddess, she was the patron of healing, crafts, and poetry. Although venerated all over Ireland, Brigid had special territorial power over Leinster. She was an expert in prophecy, and she was invoked by women in childbirth. This fertility aspect of her character is strong, and her pagan feast day was the feast of Imbolc, which was a season of fertility celebrating the lactating of ewes. The Irish government have also just announced that, from 2023, St. Brigid will officially be recognised with a new public holiday to mark her feast day on 1st February! This blog post tells the story of one of Ireland’s most inspirational female role models.
According to legend, St Brigid was born around 450 AD near Dundalk, Co Louth. There is much debate about her early life but it is generally agreed that her father, Dubhthach, was a pagan chieftain of Leinster and her mother, Brocca, was a Christian Pict slave who had been baptised by St. Patrick. It was 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. Brigid herself was named 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.
Brigid lived during the time of St. Patrick and was inspired by his teachings, which lead her to adopt Christianity. Her father wanted her to find a wealthy husband, but Brigid had decided that she would spend her life working for God by looking after poor, sick, and elderly people. Legend says that she prayed that her beauty would be taken away from her so no one would seek her hand in marriage and her prayer was granted when she lost an eye. After this, her father finally allowed her to enter a convent. Initially, 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 realised that she would be best suited to religious life. She received her veil from St. Macaille and made her vows to dedicate her life to God. Legend also says that Brigid regained her beauty after making her vows and that God made her more beautiful than ever before!
News of Brigid’s good works spread and soon many young girls from all over the country joined her in the convent. Over time, Brigid founded many convents across Ireland. The most famous of these was in Co. Kildare. It is said that this convent was built beside an oak tree where the town of Kildare now stands. Around 470 AD she also founded a double monastery for both nuns and monks in Kildare and, as Abbess of this foundation, she was considered a wise superior.
St Brigid has also been associated with many miracles and traditions that continue to this day. One of the most famous is the story of St Brigid and her expanding cloak. Legend has it that Brigid asked the King of Leinster for land so that she could build a convent. She told the king that the place where she stood was the perfect place for a convent as it was beside a forest where they could collect firewood, there was also a lake nearby that would provide water, and the land was fertile. However, the King simply laughed at her request and refused to part with any of his land. She then prayed to God, asking him to soften the King’s heart and again requested land from the King, this time asking for only as much land as her cloak would cover. On this occasion, the King agreed as her cloak appeared small. St Brigid set her cloak on the ground, asked her friends to pull the corners and the cloak grew to cover many acres of land. The King was in awe of this and was inspired to convert to Christianity.
A traditional St. Brigid’s cross is also made from rushes that are pulled rather than cut. According to tradition, Brigid was by the sickbed of a dying pagan chieftain, possibly her father, soothing him with stories about her faith and her unwavering trust in God. She began telling the story of Christ on the Cross, picking up rushes from the ground to make a cross. Before his death, the chieftain asked to be baptised. Initially, legend has it, people used to make similar crosses to hang over the door, and in the rafters, of their homes to ward off evil, fire, and hunger. Over time, word spread about St Brigid, her kindness, faith and the making of the cross became synonymous with her and the tradition now bears her name. Tradition states that a new cross is made each St Brigid’s Day, and the old one is burned to protect the home from fire.
St. Brigid died in AD 525 at the age of 75 and was buried in a tomb before the High Altar of her Abbey church. Her remains were later said to be exhumed and transferred to Downpatrick to rest with the other patron saints of Ireland, St. Patrick, and St. Columcille. Two wealthy Irishmen took her skull and brought it to Lisbon, Portugal where it remains to this day.
St. Brigid is the only female patron saint of Ireland and, in recognition of this, from 2023 St Brigid’s Day will become a national holiday in Ireland! The organisation Herstory has campaigned for this recognition since 2019. They say that the recognition of St Brigid’s Day as a national holiday reflects the ‘…progressive, modern Ireland we live in today’.