St. Brigid is one of Ireland’s best known Irish saints. She was born around 453 A.D. and died in 524. There are many stories and legends relating to her birth and early years. Although one story suggests Faughart, Co. Louth, as her place of birth, there is a strong tradition in Kildare that she was born in Ummeras, about 5 miles northwest of Kildare town. Her father, Dubhthach, was a local chieftain - a military leader.
Her mother, Broicseach, was a ‘bondmaid’ in Dubhthach’s household and tradition holds that she became a Christian. St. Brigid was born at a time of transition in Irish society. Her life straddles the pre-Christian Christian era. She inherited some of the attributes and some of the folklore surrounding the pre-Christian deity of similar name. Much of what we are told about Brigid comes from an oral tradition as records only began at the beginning of the 7th century. It is likely that Brigid became a Christian in her early teens. According to some accounts she grew up in her father’s household and is associated from an early age with dairying, taking care of the cows and the calves, making the butter, and brewing the ale.
As a result, in her iconography, she is often portrayed with a cow or a bucket of milk. She became famous for her charity sometimes driving her father and stepmother to distraction by her prodigal giving to the poor and the needy. There is a story, possibly true, that when she was in her late teens and of marriageable age, her father and stepbrothers wanted her to marry, as her stepbrothers were keenly interested in the ‘bride price’ her prospective husband would be obliged to pay the family. She was beautiful and had a number of eligible suitors, but Brigid was resolute in her refusal to marry. She had by then become a Christian and wanted to live her life totally dedicated to God as a nun. In the face of her persistence and determination her father relented and allowed her to consecrate her life to God. Widely regarded as an icon of feminine strength and leadership, Brigid challenged and transcended traditional gender roles of her era.
Tradition holds that St. Brigid established a double monastery for women and men on the low hill of Kildare around 480 A.D. the sole example of its kind ever to be established in Ireland. She invited a local hermit, named Conleth who lived near Newbridge, to take charge of the male section of the monastery. He looked after a school of metalcraft and a scriptorium in the monastery. Giraldus Cambrensis, a Welsh chronicler, who visited Kildare in the 12th century speaks of a beautifully illuminated Book of Kildare and refers to it as ‘the work of an angel rather than a man’. Unfortunately, the Book has got lost through the centuries. Prior to Brigid’s time the area was called Druim Criaig (ridge of clay). By building her monastery beside a great oak tree, the name changed from Druim Criaig to Cill Dara, Kildare which means cell or church of the oak. Kildare town grew up around the monastery. Some medieval historians contend that St. Brigid and the abbesses who succeeded her were the most powerful and influential women in Ireland up to the 12th century. The church and monastery became acclaimed as a place of pilgrimage, a centre of worship, learning and hospitality up to the suppression of the monasteries in the 16th century. A beautiful 13th century cathedral stands on the monastic site today.
The monks and scholars leaving Ireland from the 6th century onwards carried the story of Brigid’s life and devotion to England, Scotland Wales and into continental Europe. St. Brigid was far better known in Europe than St. Patrick in the Middle Ages. From the 18th and 19th centuries onwards missionaries, migrants and scholars carried St. Brigid’s name and spirit to the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and the wider world. Trace elements of Brigid, both as saint and goddess can be found across the globe. Pilgrims and visitors come to Kildare in increasing numbers to find out more about St. Brigid, visit the sites associated with her, including St. Brigid’s well, and walk in her footsteps. St Brigid has left an inspiring legacy through the values she stood for in her day. Her life continues to speak to some of the issues that confront and challenge us in our world today, and that contributes to her relevance.
St. Brigid emerges through history as a woman of deep faith, a spiritual leader, a woman of the land, an advocate for the poor, a peacemaker, and a woman of legendary hospitality. She blazed the trail for female leadership in 5th century Ireland. We can still hear a female voice coming from an overwhelmingly patriarchal and hierarchical world. She is the source of inspiration and a model for many women and men of today in their efforts to promote the equal dignity of women and men in church and society.
Of all the values associated with Brigid, her outreach to the poor and needy of her time is a remarkable legacy. She has always been associated with those on the margins of society. In the earliest LIFE of St. Brigid (hagiography) written by a monk in her monastery named Cogitosus, he devotes twenty three of the thirty-two chapters in the LIFE to Brigid’s compassionate outreach to the poor and oppressed people of her day. Cogitosus asserts that Brigid was incapable of refusing a poor person any request and it often got her into trouble in the monastery. However, we are told her supplies of food for the poor were miraculously replenished.
Brigid was also famed for her compassion towards animals. They often came to her assistance when she was in difficult situations. Interestingly, Brigid’s regard for her surroundings reflects many modern environmental concerns. Her compassion towards both humans and animals shows her respect for the interconnectedness of all creation.
St. Brigid and the abbesses that succeeded her in Kildare were renowned as peacemakers. The legend of St. Brigid giving away her father’s sword so that it could be bartered for food for a hungry family is a source of inspiration to many today. A weapon of war, in Brigid’s hands was transformed into a life-giving instrument. In that context, and to mark the new National Holiday, Into Kildare (Tourism Board for Co. Kildare) and Solas Bhríde Spirituality Centre in Kildare town launched a global Pause for Peace Movement on the 12th January 2023. The movement sees the residents of Co Kildare calling on people all around the world to stop for 1 minute’s silence/prayer/reflection at 12 noon on 1st February each year. The movement is an outcome of the Brigid 1500 committee established by Kildare County Council in 2022 to begin preparations for the 1500th anniversary of the death of St. Brigid in 2024.
Her feast day marks the traditional beginning of Spring in Ireland according to the Celtic calendar. February 1st was originally celebrated as a pagan festival called Imbolc, marking the midpoint between the winter equinox and spring solstice, and the arrival of longer, warmer days. February 1st is when the snowdrops appear on the landscape, the daffodils start to bloom, the evenings start to lengthen, and the gloom of winter goes on its way. There are many customs and traditions associated with St. Brigid that continue to keep her memory alive. It was traditional to make St. Brigid’s crosses out of rushes on her feast day. It was believed that the crosses would protect their thatched homes from fire. The "Brat Bhride" or “Brigid’s Blanket" was placed outside at sunset on the eve of Brigid’s Feast Day, February 1st, and brought back inside before sunrise. It was understood that the dew that fell that night imbued the fabric with healing and protective powers for the entire year. This cloth was kept in a special spot within the house and utilised when needed for healing purposes, such as wrapping it around the head to alleviate a headache or assisting women in childbirth, as Brigid was revered as the patron of healers and midwives. Additionally, it was employed for the healing of sick animals, particularly cows and sheep, to whom Brigid had a special connection.
St. Brigid’s Flame, having been relit in 1993, burns in Solas Bhríde today as a beacon of hope, justice and peace for the world.
A warm welcome awaits all who come to Kildare in search of St. Brigid.