Brigit of Kildare

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Saint Brigid of Kildare
Stained glass, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Macon, Georgia, 1903
Virgin, abbess, inspirer
Bornc. 453
Diedc. 524
Honored in
Feast1 February
Patronagebabies; blacksmiths; boatmen; brewers; cattle; chicken farmers; children whose parents are not married; children with abusive fathers; children born into abusive unions; Clan Douglas; dairymaids; dairy workers; fugitives; infants; Ireland; Leinster, mariners; midwives; milk maids; nuns; poets; poor; poultry farmers; poultry raisers; printing presses; sailors; scholars; travellers; watermen
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This article is about Saint Brigit of Kildare. For Saint Bridget of Sweden, see Bridget of Sweden. For Brigid the goddess, see Brigid.
Saint Brigid of Kildare
Stained glass, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Macon, Georgia, 1903
Virgin, abbess, inspirer
Bornc. 453
Diedc. 524
Honored in
Feast1 February
Patronagebabies; blacksmiths; boatmen; brewers; cattle; chicken farmers; children whose parents are not married; children with abusive fathers; children born into abusive unions; Clan Douglas; dairymaids; dairy workers; fugitives; infants; Ireland; Leinster, mariners; midwives; milk maids; nuns; poets; poor; poultry farmers; poultry raisers; printing presses; sailors; scholars; travellers; watermen

Saint Brigit of Kildare (Irish: Naomh Bríd; Welsh: Ffraid; c. 451–525), also known as Brigid of Ireland, is one of Ireland's patron saints along with Patrick and Columba. Her name is also variously spelled as Brigid, Bridget, Bridgit, Bríd, and Bride and she is sometimes known as Mary of the Gael. Irish hagiography makes her an early Irish Christian nun,[1] abbess, and founder of several monasteries of nuns, including that of Kildare in Ireland, which was famous and was revered. Her feast day is 1 February, formerly celebrated as the Imbolc quarter-day of the pagan Irish year, which marked the beginning of spring, lambing, lactation in cattle, etc.


In the controversy about the historical existence of Brigid that erupted in the last third of the 20th century, researchers noted that eleven people with whom Brigid is associated in her Lives are independently attested in annalistic sources, sources that place her death at AD 523 (in the Annals of Tigernach and Chronicon Scotorum) and her birth at 451 (calculated from the alleged age of 72 at death).[2]

Probably the most ancient life of St. Brigid is that by St. Broccan Cloen (d. 650). Differing biographies, giving conflicting accounts of her life, having considerable literary merit in themselves. A second Vita was written by Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare in the eighth century, and is a fine example of Irish scholarship in the mid-eighth century. The Life attributed to Coelan, an Irish monk of the eighth century, derives significance from the fact that it is prefaced by a foreword from St. Donatus, also an Irish monk, who became Bishop of Fiesole in 824. St. Donatus refers to previous lives by St. Ultan and St. Aileran.[3]

According to claims advanced in her 1985 book, Pamela Berger, a Medieval Art Historian, says that Christian "monks took the ancient figure of the mother goddess and grafted her name and functions onto her Christian counterpart."[4] She suggests that believers have syncretised St Brigit with the pagan goddess Brighid.


Early life[edit]

Brigid may have been born in Faughart,[5] near Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland. Because of the legendary quality of the earliest accounts of her life, there is much debate among many secular scholars and even Christians as to the authenticity of her biographies. Three biographies agree that her mother was Brocca, a Christian Pict and slave who had been baptised by Saint Patrick. They name her father as Dubhthach, a chieftain of Leinster.[6]

The vitae say that Brigid's mother was a slave, and Dubthach's wife forced him to sell her to a druid when she became pregnant. Brigid herself was born into slavery. From the start, it is clear that Brigid is holy. When the druid tries to feed her, she vomits because he is impure. A white cow with red ears appears to sustain her instead.[6] As she grows older, Brigid performs many miracles, including healing and feeding the poor. According to one tale, as a child, she once gave away her mother's entire store of butter. The butter was then replenished in answer to Brigid's prayers.[7] Around the age of ten, she was returned as a household servant to her father, where her habit of charity also led her to donate his possessions to anyone who asked. In two vitae, Dubthach was so annoyed with her that he took her in a chariot to the king of Leinster, to sell her. While Dubthach was talking to the king, Brigid gave away his jewelled sword to a beggar to barter it for food to feed his family. The king recognized her holiness and convinced Dubthach to grant his daughter her freedom.[8]

Religious life[edit]

Saint Brigit as depicted in Saint Non's chapel, St Davids, Wales.

Although Brigid was "veiled" or received by St. Mac Caill at Croghan, yet, it is likely that she was professed by St. Mel of Ardagh, probably at Mág Tulach (the present barony of Fartullagh, Co. Westmeath). Mel also granted her abbatial powers. About 468, she and St. Macaille followed St. Mel into the Kingdom of Teathbha, which was made up of sections of modern Meath, Westmeath and Longford.

Around 480, Brigid founded a monastery at Cill Dara (Kildare), "Church of the Oak", on the site of an older pagan shrine to the Celtic goddess Brigid, served by a group of young women who tended a perpetual fire. The site chosen was under a large oak tree on the ridge of Drum Criadh.[9] Brigid, with an initial group of seven companions, is credited with organizing communal consecrated religious life for women in Ireland.[10] She founded two monastic institutions, one for men, and the other for women, and invited Conleth, a hermit from Old Connell near Newbridge, to assist her in Kildare as spiritual pastor of them. It has been frequently stated that she gave canonical jurisdiction to Saint Conleth, Bishop of Kildare, but, as Archbishop Healy points out, she simply "selected the person to whom the Church gave this jurisdiction", and her biographer tells us distinctly that she chose Saint Conleth "to govern the church along with herself". Thus, for centuries, Kildare was ruled by a double line of abbot-bishops and of abbesses, the Abbess of Kildare being regarded as superior general of the monasteries in Ireland. Her successors have always been accorded Episcopal honour.[11] Brigid's small oratory at Kildare became a center of religion and learning, and developed into a cathedral city.

Brigid also founded a school of art, including metal work and illumination, over which Conleth presided. The Kildare scriptorium produced the Book of Kildare, which elicited high praise from Giraldus Cambrensis, but which has disappeared since the Reformation. According to Giraldus, 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 colours left the impression that "all this is the work of angelic, and not human skill".[3]

There is evidence in the Trias Thaumaturga for Brigid's stay in Connacht, especially in County Roscommon and also in the many churches founded by her in the Diocese of Elphin. She also visited Longford, Tipperary, Limerick, and South Leinster[5] Her friendship with Saint Patrick is attested by the following paragraph from the Book of Armagh: "inter sanctum Patricium Brigitanque Hibernesium columpnas amicitia caritatis inerat tanta, ut unum cor consiliumque haberent unum. Christus per illum illamque virtutes multas peregit". (Between St. Patrick and Brigid, the pillars of the Irish people, there was so great a friendship of charity that they had but one heart and one mind. Through him and through her Christ performed many great works.)

When dying, St. Brigid was attended by St. Ninnidh, who was ever afterwards known as "Ninnidh of the Clean Hand" because he had his right hand encased with a metal covering to prevent its ever being defiled, after being he medium of administering the viaticum to Ireland's Patroness.[3] She died at Kildare on 1 February 525.[12]

Miracles associated with Brigid[edit]

Brigid is celebrated for her generosity to the poor. In her case, most of the miracles associated with her relate to healing and domestic tasks usually attributed to women.


Brigid was interred at the right of the high altar of Kildare Cathedral, and a costly tomb was erected over her "Adorned with gems and precious stones and crowns of gold and silver." Over the years her shrine became an object of veneration for pilgrims, especially on her feast day, 1 February. About the year 878, owing to the Scandinavian raids, Brigid's relics were taken to Downpatrick, where they were interred in the tomb of Patrick and Columba. The relics of the three saints were discovered in 1185, and on 9 June of the following year were reinterred in Down Cathedral.[12]

In modern Ireland, "Mary of the Gael" remains a popular saint, and Brigid remains a common female Christian name.


Saint Brigid's Cross or Crosóg Bhríde.

Brigid's skull has been preserved in the Igreja São João Baptista (Church of St. John the Baptist) in Lumiar in Portugal (38°46′29″N 9°09′55″E / 38.77460°N 9.16526°E / 38.77460; 9.16526.[17]) (near the Lisbon airport) since 1587 and is venerated on 2 February (not 1 February, as in Ireland).[18] St Brigid's head was reputedly carried to King Denis of Portugal in 1283 by Irish knights travelling to the Aragonese Crusade. According to Denis Murphy, when the relics of the saints were destroyed, in the sixteenth century, during the deputyship of Lord Leonard Gray, Brigid's head was saved by some of the clergy, who took to the Neustadt, in Austria. In 1587 it was presented to the church of the Society of Jesus in Lisbon, by Emperor Rudolph II.[19]

The inscription on the tomb in Lumiar reads: “Here in these three tombs lie the three Irish knights who brought the head of St. Brigid, Virgin, a native of Ireland, whose relic is preserved in this chapel. In memory of which, the officials of the Altar of the same Saint caused this to be done in January AD 1283.”

A fragment of this skull was brought to St Bridget's Church, Kilcurry in 1905 by Sister Mary Agnes of the Dundalk Convent of Mercy and in 1928 another fragment was sent by the Bishop of Lisbon to St Brigid's church in Killester, in response to a request from Fathers Timothy Traynor and James McCarroll.

At Armagh there was a "Templum Brigidis"; namely the little abbey church known as "Regles Brigid", which contained some relics of the saint, destroyed in 1179, by William FitzAldelm.


Brigida von Kildare, Gross St Martin, Köln

In liturgical iconography and statuary Saint Brigid is often depicted holding a reed cross, a crozier of the sort used by abbots, and a lamp (called a "lamp of learning and wisdom", as lamps and fire were regarded sacred to the Celts and druids). Early hagiographers portray Saint Brigid's life and ministry as touched with fire. According to P.W. Joyce, tradition holds that nuns at her monastery kept a sacred eternal flame burning there.[5] Light motifs, some of them borrowed from the apocrypha such as the story where she hangs her cloak on a sunbeam, are associated with the wonder tales of her hagiography and folklore. In her Lives, Saint Brigid is portrayed as having the power to multiply such things as butter, bacon and milk, to bestow sheep and cattle and to control the weather. Plant motifs associated with St Brigid include the white Lilium candidum popularly known since medieval times as the Madonna Lily for its association with the Virgin Mary, and the Winflower Anemone coronaria, called the "Brigid anemone" since the early 19th century. Kildare, the church of the oak Quercus petraea, is associated with a tree sacred to the druids. Her colour, white, was worn by the Kildare United Irishmen during the 1798 rebellion and is worn by Kildare sports teams.


Kilbride is one of Ireland's most widely found placenames, there are 43 Kilbrides located in 19 of Ireland's 32 counties: Antrim (2), Carlow, Cavan, Down, Dublin, Galway, Kildare, Kilkenny (3), Laois, Longford, Louth, Mayo (5), Meath (4), Offaly (4), Roscommon (2), Waterford, Westmeath (2), Wexford (4), and Wicklow (8) as well as two Kilbreedy’s in Tipperary, Kilbreedia and Toberbreeda in Clare, Toberbreedia in Kilkenny, Brideswell Commons in Dublin, Bridestown and Templebreedy in Cork and Rathbride and Brideschurch in Kildare.[20] Similarly, there are a number of placenames derived from Cnoic Bhríde ("Brigit's Hill"), such as Knockbridge in Louth and Knockbride in Cavan


  1. ^ Jestice, Phyllis G. (2004). Holy People of the World: A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 140–. ISBN 9781576073551. Retrieved 1 February 2013. Brigid of Ireland, or of Kildare, has been venerated since the early Middle Ages, along with Patrick and Columba, as one of the three national Christian patron saints of Ireland. ... At least two Latin Lives had been composed by the end of the seventh century describing her as a nobleman's daughter who chose to consecrate her virginity to God, took the veil as a Christian nun, and became the leader of a community of religious women, or perhaps of both women and men-certainly by the seventh century there was an important double monastery at Kildare that regarded her as its founder. 
  2. ^ Discussion on dates for the annals and the accuracy of dates relating to St Brigid continues, see A.P. Smyth, "The earliest Irish annals: their first contemporary entries and the earliest centres of recording", Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy lxxii C (1972), pp1–48, and Daniel McCarthy: "The chronology of St Brigit of Kildare", in Peritia, xiv (2000), pp255–81.
  3. ^ a b c Grattan-Flood, William. "St. Brigid of Ireland." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 22 Nov. 2014
  4. ^ Berger, Pamela (1985). The Goddess Obscured: Transformation of the Grain Protectress from Goddess to Saint. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 9780807067239.  edit
  5. ^ a b c Joyce, P.W.,The Wonders of Ireland, 1911
  6. ^ a b c d e Bethu Brigte." UCC Home Page. CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a Project of University College. Web. 9 April. 2013
  7. ^ Wallace, Martin. A Little Book of Celtic Saints. Belfast. Appletree Press, 1995 ISBN 0-86281-456-1, p.13
  8. ^ a b c Bitel, Lisa M, "St. Brigit of Ireland: From Virgin Saint to Fertility Goddess", Ohio State University, 2001
  9. ^ Mullowney, A.J., "History of Kildare Town", County Kildare Federation of Local History Groups
  10. ^ Brigid of Ireland", Catholic News Agency
  11. ^ Edward Sellnor makes this point in the book, Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, (Ave Maria Press, 1993)
  12. ^ a b "Our Patroness", Brigidine Sisters
  13. ^ Story of St. Brigit, November 14, 2012
  14. ^ Kennedy, Patrick. "St. Brigid's Cloak", Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts, 1891
  15. ^ St Patrick's World, Liam de Paor, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1993 – chapter 33, Cogitosus's Life of St Brigid the Virgin, accessed 13 February 2012
  16. ^ Page 211 in de Paor; page 16, internal chapter 9, of Connolly & Picard
  17. ^ "US Gazetteer files: 2010, 2000, and 1990". United States Census Bureau. 12 February 2011. Retrieved 23 April 2011. 
  18. ^ Youtube footage of St Brigid's skull in Lumiar
  19. ^ Murphy, Denis. "St. Brigid of Kildare", Journal of the Co. Kildare Archaeological Society and Surrounding Districts, Vol. 1, p.175, County Kildare Archaeological Society, 1895
  20. ^ Logainm topographical dictionary