Today is the Feast of St. Brigid, one of Ireland’s most beloved saints.
She is associated with Kildare, just west of Dublin.
Stuff collected from various websites:
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. While still a child she was put in charge of the dairy by her mother. One day she had given away so much milk and butter to poor people that none remained for the family. She feared her mother’s displeasure and so resorted to prayer. When her mother visited the dairy she found such an abundance of milk and butter that she praised the dairy maids for their industry. Brigid was also renowned for her love of animals and many stories were told of her kindness to stray and starving dogs.
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, and that as she listened to him she fell into an ecstasy.
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. Here in Ardagh she founded another convent 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 now 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.
A most unusual community developed with both monks and nuns on the one site. It became necessary to have a bishop appointed to the foundation, as only a bishop could ordain priests. However the story is also told that St Mel was old, and a bit doddery, when he professed Brigid, and instead of professing her as a nun he consecrated her as a Bishop. St Brigid for that reason had all the privileges of a bishop.
In any case, St Brigid chose Conleth, a saintly hermit who lived at Old Connell (Connell of the Kings) near Newbridge.
St Conleth visited St Brigid in Kildare where they first met. He stayed some days preaching to the congregation and made a good impression. When the time came for him to return to Old Connell he mounted his chariot and asked Brigid for her blessing. He journeyed home across the Curragh plains, and it was only when he got home that he discovered that the wheel of his chariot had been loose throughout his journey, and it was a miracle brought about by Brigid that it had not fallen off and killed him.
About the year 490 St Conleth was consecrated the first Bishop of Kildare. He may also have been Abbot of the community of monks in the foundation. Brigid and Conleth seemed to have worked well together though they had a somewhat complex relationship.
A story is told of Brigid having given away the vestments which Conleth used for saying Mass, when she had nothing else to give the poor. These were vestments he had got from Italy. It appears that he was none too pleased. Brigid prayed to God with “great fervour”. Vestments exactly resembling those given away immediately appeared, and Conleth was appeased.
Despite her anxiety about Conleth’s vestments, it appears however that St Brigid continued to hold the reins firmly in her own hands and ruled over both communities, monks and nuns. Her authority is well illustrated by the story of how St Conleth met his end. He decided to go on a pilgrimage to Rome without obtaining Brigid’s permission. He did not get very far as he was attacked and killed by a wolf near Dunlavin in Co. Wicklow in 519 a.d..
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”
The Annals record that in the year 836 a Danish fleet of 30 ships arrived in the Liffey and another in the Boyne. They plundered every church and abbey within the territories of Magh Liffe and Magh Breagh. They destroyed the town of Kildare with fire and sword, and carried off the shrines of St Brigid and St Conleth.
It is said that in fact in the previous year, 835, the remains of St. Brigid were removed for safe keeping to Down. However Down suffered too from the “Danes”. Accordingly her body was removed from Down and buried in a place known only to a few priests so that eventually all knowledge of her burial place was lost.
In 1185 St. Malachy was bishop of Down, and wanting to discover the burial place of St. Brigid who was supposed to have been buried with St Patrick and St Columba, prayed hard to the Lord to reveal the burial place.
A beam of light settled over a spot on the floor of the church and sure enough when St. Malachy dug at this spot he found the graves of Saints Patrick, Brigid and Columcille. Malachy petitioned Pope Urban 111 for permission to move the bodies to Down Cathedral. The move took place on 9 Jun 1186, the Feast of St. Columcille.
At the dissolution in the reign of Henry VIII, the sacred shrine was despoiled and the relics of the Saints were scattered. Luckily some were saved from destruction. The head of St. Brigid now rests in Portugal, in a chapel devoted to her in the Church of St. John the Baptist in Lumiar, near Lisbon, where her feast is celebrated yearly.
The farmers in the locality are said to regard St Brigid as their special patroness.
Below: Kildare Cathedral, which I visited in 2004.