Feast Day : February 1
Patronage: blacksmiths; boatmen; cattle; children whose parents are not married; dairy workers; fugitives; healers; Irish nuns; mariners; midwives; newborn babies; poets; the printing press; scholars; travelers; watermen; Ireland
Name meaning: Fiery arrow (Breo-Saighit in Gaelic)
Also known as: Bride, Brigid of Kildare, Mary of the Gael, Bride of the Isles, Queen of the South, Bridget, Ffraid (Wales)
Brigid was born half-princess, half-slave, ca. 450–453, to the Irish chieftain Dubthach (pronounced “Duffack” or “Duffy”) and a Pictish bondwoman named Brocessa or Brocca at Faughart, near Dundalk in County Louth—an area associated with the mythical Irish queen Medb (Maeve). Her father allowed her to live with her mother—who had been sold to a druid—until she was older. Brigid showed an interest in God at an early age, reportedly after hearing St. Patrick preach, and gave whatever she had to anyone in need. Her determination to further Christian charity by giving away all her father’s goods angered Dubthach so much that he decided to sell Brigid in marriage to the Christian king of Leinster. Dubthach threw Brigid in his chariot and drove furiously to the king’s castle, whereupon he left his sword with Brigid so as not to appear belligerent and went inside to strike the bargain. No sooner had he left than a poor leper begged alms of Brigid, and she, having no money, gave him the sword. When Dubthach returned and found his sword missing, he began beating Brigid, but the king stopped him. He asked Brigid why she had given away her father’s sword, and she replied that she would gladly give away all the king’s wealth as well if it could serve her brothers and sisters in Christ. The king of Leinster diplomatically declined to marry Brigid, telling Dubthach that, “Her merit before God is greater than ours.” Brigid left Dubthach to care for her ailing mother and run the druid’s dairy, where she resumed her habit of giving everything away. The druid—realizing he was making no money from his dairy products—asked Brigid to bring him a large basket of butter, thinking he could entrap her. But miraculously the hamper was full. Impressed with Brigid’s powers, the druid granted her request to release her mother from bondage. Upon her return to Dubthach’s home, her father attempted to marry his daughter to a poet, but she had vowed to remain a virgin. After finding a wife for the groom, she took the veil as a nun from St. Macaille at Croghan Hill, where she and seven other girls lived together. About 468, Brigid followed St. Mel of Ardagh, a pupil of Patrick’s, to Druin Criadh, in the plains of Magh Life (Meath). There, under a large oak tree (a tree sacred to the druids), Brigid founded Cill-Dara (Kildare): the “church of the oaks.” Kildare was a double monastery, meaning it housed communities of both men and women. Legend tells that Brigid was ordained a bishop “by mistake” as justification for her leadership role at the abbey, including even her supposed canonical selection of St. Conlaeth as bishop of the men’s community. As opposed to the Roman diocesan system, in which women had minor roles, the Celtic Christians were organized and governed by the monasteries. Many abbeys were governed by abbesses, who served as spiritual leaders, preached, heard confession and may have even performed Mass. Kildare was a school as well, teaching reading, writing, illumination and the practical arts of carpentry and blacksmithing. Artisans and goldsmiths created beautiful objects for churches, such as bells, crosiers, chalices, patens and bookrests, and scribes copied books sent throughout Europe. The Book of Kildare, older than the Book of Kells, was considered one of the finest Irish illuminated manuscripts until it disappeared over 300 years ago. Brigid, who never left Ireland, was revered as the prototype of all nuns. She reportedly was beautiful and vivacious and wore a red-purple cloak over her habit. She was joyful, pious, hospitable and generous—the kind of person who might wipe her hands simply on her apron as she greeted a stranger. She loved both animals and people. She traveled all over Ireland, converting souls and tending to the sick and hungry. In many ways, Brigid resembled her namesake, the Celtic pagan goddess Brighid, who presided over the arts of inspiration and poetry, the crafts of smithing, and medicine and healing. And in keeping with druidic influences, Brigid kept an eternal flame burning on the altar of Kildare, tended by 20 nuns, as a symbol of the shining light of the Gospel. Names of places such as Brideswell (the birth parish of St. Thomas Becket), Tubberbride, Templebride, Kilbride and even Bride’s Island off the coast of Japan honor the saint. Many little girls, especially in Ireland, are still named Brigid. As patroness of the medieval knights of chivalry, Brigid was invoked each time a knight called his new wife “bride” (pronounced “brida”), supposedly becoming the English word “bride.” One interesting story about Brigid says that once the Virgin Mary was trying to speak to Brigid and became rather annoyed at Brigid’s ability to draw a crowd, interrupting their conversation. In order to placate the Virgin, Brigid brought out a rake whose tines flashed like candles, distracting the onlookers. As a reward for her thoughtfulness, Mary granted Brigid’s request of having her feast day ahead of Mary’s: Brigid’s memorial is February 1, while Our Lady’s Feast of the Purification is February 2. On February 1 the faithful put out reed crosses, reminding followers to share whatever they have. (Interestingly, these dates are the same as for Imbolc, a pagan winter purification festival that celebrates Brigid (also spelled Briguid), the Irish Celtic goddess of fire, fertility, crops, livestock, wisdom, poetry and household arts. As Brigid lay dying (ca. 523–525), she was attended by St. Ninnidh, known thereafter as Ninnidh of the Clean Hand because he encased his right hand—the one that had administered the sacraments to Brigid— in a metal covering to keep it undefiled. Brigid was buried at Kildare in a jeweled casket, but her relics were transferred to Downpatrick in 878 to avoid the Vikings, where she was entombed with Patrick and Columba. The relics of all three saints supposedly were found in 1185 and enshrined in Downpatrick Cathedral. In 1283, three knights allegedly carried Brigid’s head with them on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. They died in Lumier, Portugal, near Lisbon, where the head is kept in a Jesuit chapel. Brigid remains a popular saint and is frequently invoked in prayer, because it is written in the Leabhar Breac, or Book of Lismore, that the Lord granted whatever Brigid asked of Him, and at once.