Feast of Saint Brigid

30 Jan 2013

Click here for details of the week long programme in Kildare town celebrating St Brigid and the first stirrings of Spring.

Who was Saint Brigid? 

St Brigid – Mary of the Gael – is second only to St Patrick in the esteem of the Irish people. She is, of course, specially associated with Kildare and the whole area of Magh Life (The Liffey Plain).

Brigid's father was Dubtach descendant of Con of the Hundred Battles, her mother Brotseach of the house of O'Connor. Her mother was said to have been a slave of Dubtach and she was sold, shortly before Brigid was born, to a Druid who lived at Faughart, a few miles from Dundalk. The date of Brigid's birth is disputed, but may be between 451 and 458; commonly it is taken as 453. Memories of the saint still linger around her birthplace. Her father's family were natives of the Province of Leinster and Fr. Swayne, late Parish Priest of Kildare, claims that they were from Umaras, between Monasterevin and Rathangan in Co. Kildare. Another explanation of how she came to be born in Faughart was that her mother was visiting some relatives at the time. In any case she was baptised in the Christian faith, receiving the name Brid or Brigid. It is said that she was reared on the milk of a white red-eared cow, the colour of the beasts of the Tuath de Danann.

From earliest childhood the stories of her kindness and miracles associated with her are told. Brigid was also renowned for her love of animals.

The Tripartite Life of St Patrick mentions her meeting with St Patrick. We are told that while still a child she was brought to hear him preach.

When Brigid came to marriageable age she decided to enter the religious life. Accompanied, it is said, by seven other young girls she left her home and travelled to Co. Meath where St Maccaille was Bishop. At first St Maccaille hesitated to take them into the religious life as they were very young, and he rather doubted their motives. However there was a great congregation in the church when Brigid and her companions entered to pray. They were all astonished when they saw a column of fire that reached to the roof of the church resting on Brigid's head. When the Saint heard of this miracle he hesitated no longer but gave the veil to the eight young girls.

St Maccaille's church was on Croghan Hill, in Co. Westmeath and it is here that St Brigid founded the first convent in Ireland. A large number of noble ladies entered the convent as postulants and here Brigid and her companions completed their novitiate. At the end of the novitiate Brigid and her original seven companions, journeyed to Ardagh where they made their final vows to St Mel, bishop of Ardagh and nephew of St Patrick. She founded another convent in Ardagh and remained for twelve years, during which time the convent flourished. At the request of many bishops she sent sisters to various parts of Ireland to establish new foundations.

St Brigid then went on a journey around Ireland. On her way she visited St Patrick who was preaching at Taillte or Telltown in Co. Meath. Having obtained St Patrick's blessing she continued on her journey. Many stories are told of miracles and the foundation of convents in various parts of the country during that journey.

The Leinstermen were always conscious that Brigid was from their province, and they constantly asked her to return and make her home amongst them. She was offered any site in the province. She decided to make her foundation on Druim Criadh (the ridge of clay) near the Liffey, in what is now the town of Kildare. On the ridge grew a large oak tree and Brigid decided to build her oratory beneath its branches.

The new foundation prospered and developed rapidly. Soon, it is said, Drum Criadh was covered with the cells of the community. From all parts of Ireland and even from abroad girls came to join the community. Bishops and priests went to Cill Dara (the Church of the Oak), as it was now named, seeking Brigid's advice and guidance. The poor, the sorrowful, and the afflicted flocked there in search of help and consolation, which was never refused. Kings showered gifts on the convent, and the privilege of sanctuary was conferred on the foundation, so that any who had offended against the law were safe within the precincts.

There is no exact date for St Brigid's death. It is said that she died at the age of seventy, which would make the date of her death somewhere between 521 and 528.

After her death the monastery flourished. The first Life of St Brigid was written not much later than 650, and perhaps even within a hundred years of her death. The author was a monk of the foundation in Kildare named Cogitosus. The “Life” was not really a biography as we would understand it, but rather a compilation of stories of St Brigid. It gives us a fascinating glimpse of life in Kildare some 1400 years ago. He describes the great church of Kildare where the bodies of Sts Brigid and Conleth were:

“laid on the right and left of the ornate altar and rest in tombs adorned with a refined profusion of gold, silver, gems and precious stones, with gold and silver chandeliers hanging from above and different images presenting a variety of carvings and colours”

St Brigid's Day is celebrated on 1 February.