St Brigid may have been a Virgin Saint but her Christianized version barely concealed her origins as a Celtic mother goddess. Her power as a female icon of creativity is being rediscovered and celebrated in the increasing popularity of St Brigid’s Day, 1st February. This is a brief survey of Brigid as historical and mythological figure with information at the end on Embassy events celebrating her on 1 February.
Since St Brigid features prominently in the historical records of the 7th century, it appears that she was a real person. However, we have to caveat this. ‘Historical record’ is a loose term when applied to this period. Indeed, the fifth century is pretty much regarded as a lost century for the lack of documentation. What we know of the conversion of the Irish to Christianity is a matter of much conjecture. Much if not most of the writing undertaken was to a purpose, often what today we would call propaganda. It was a time of upheaval in Ireland. The withdrawal of Rome in 410 AD left Britain exposed to raids by Irish kings looking for treasure and slaves. Christianized captives, St Patrick among them, was one way that small Christian communities came to Ireland in Ireland. A bishop by the name of Palladius was dispatched to minister to them but also to counter the Pelagian heresy (that humanity was not tainted by original sin). It was St Patrick’s missionary efforts that would introduce a powerful and disruptive new ideology. Niall of the Nine Hostages and his sons were cutting a swath throughout Ireland toppling established kings, notably in the west and midlands, setting the foundation for what would become the leading dynasties of the Northern and South Uí Neill.
The conversion of the country to Christianity begun by St Patrick was likely slow and difficult. While druidism was in retreat and would fade away as a force, its belief systems were deeply rooted, dating back a thousand years to the beginning of the Iron Age. Those beliefs would show a remarkable tenacity with traces of them remaining well into the twentieth century. What became Christian holy wells, patterns and pilgrimages had in many instances performed the same function in pre-Christian times. Christian missionaries in early Ireland faced a formidable existing religion.
On another front, the diocesan organization of the Church that St Patrick had planned failed to take root. Since Ireland had never been conquered by Rome it lacked the urban centres to cater for the Church’s organizational model. In its place, by the 7th century monasticism found a particular appeal in Ireland and the emergent leaders of the Church were abbot-bishops.
In this ideological and political flux, both the new political powers in Ireland and the new Church had a keen interest in using records to establish their legitimacy. One of Ireland’s great twentieth-century scholars of this period, T.F. O’Rahilly, concluded gloomily that even the historical record of Ireland’s kings in the annals was completely unreliable.
Yet the records had to be grounded in some reality if they were to have credibility. And it is plain too that St Brigid as Abbess of Kildare was a force to be reckoned with, her national status to be explained and rationalized by an increasingly patriarchal church leadership. Taking the record at face value, we can say that Brigid was born in the 450s at Faughart in South Armagh, near Dundalk. She was royalty, daughter of Dubhtach, a king of Leinster and her mother a slave, married off to a druid. We don’t know what he was doing there at the time of her birth since the area is a border zone between Leinster and Ulster, as indeed it remains to this day. Most likely her father had suffered a setback in the regnal struggles that stemmed from Niall’s campaigns. A change of fortunes restored him as king of the Fortharta, a sub-sept of the kings of Leinster, and he returned to his homeland around Kildare, eventually joined by his young daughter.
As a powerful royal family holding such a strategic area, it is likely that St Patrick knew Dubhtach. Patrick made it his business to convert the elite and by the 460s his missionary campaign was well underway. St Patrick himself was a keen supporter of women leading the Christian life, encouraging celibacy, and advising widows not to remarry. Called to the religious life, Brigid established herself in in a modest cell or small church under a great oak tree on the plains of the Curragh in Kildare. Kildare means the Church of the Oak. Renowned for the gentleness of her person and her devotion to alms giving and caring for the poor, she attracted so many followers that she founded an order under her rules. An enormous monastery or religious settlement grew up around her. It was said that a sacred fire was kept there. Soon she was visiting other places in Ireland founding sister convents. St Brigid, among the forty or so Irish saints who were venerated across Frankish Gaul and Bavaria, became one of Ireland’s three patron saints, along with St Patrick and St Columcille.
The first three hagiographies of a saint in Ireland all concern St Brigid, which must say something of her high standing. The earliest is by Cogitosus in the mid-600s, about a century and a quarter after her death between 523 and 525 AD. He gives a vivid description of Kildare as ‘a great metropolitan city…[that]…reached a peak of good order’. It is the safest place in Ireland, the wealth of kings stored there secure, full of bustling crowds coming to be cured, to mix with visitors from all the Provinces, to join the great feasts, to make offerings to the Saint and to take part in her Festival. At its centre, he writes, is an ornate altar and sarcophagi ‘adorned with refined profusion of gold, silver, gems, and precious stones with gold and silver chandeliers hanging from above.’ It must indeed have been a wonder and the focus on Kildare and Brigid suggests in fact that she was true leader of the Church after the death of St Patrick and before the Second Order of Ireland’s saints were established.
The location of her monastery in Kildare makes sense because these fertile lands were the traditional power bases for the kings of Leinster. Cogitosus claimed that Kildare surpassed all others and its parochia or diocese covered the whole island. The implication was the Kings of Leinster in holding Kildare had a virtually ordained claim on the High Kingship. This was challenged by Armagh which through its association with St Patrick claimed primacy of the Church. Indeed around the same time as Cogitosus is producing his hagiography of Brigid, the churchmen in Armagh are compiling a dossier on St Patrick to advance their claims to primacy. By the end of the 7th century, Kildare’s boundary of influence was indeed confined to Leinster but this was by agreement with Armagh and it appears that Armagh left Kildare to its own devices. The only recorded interference in it is because of dynastic disputes.
Kildare had two strikes against it as a contender for primacy compared to Armagh. It was the centre of political competition and it had been established by a woman. Quiet Armagh and Patrick’s patronage ensured its eventual triumph as seat of Ireland’s archbishop and primate of all Ireland. Yet the autonomy granted Kildare and the stories of the respect that Patrick had for Brigid certainly attest to her enduring national standing in early Christian Ireland.
It was a measure of the integration of the monastic system into Gaelic society that its abbatial leadership was intractably linked to political power struggles. Indeed over time we find that very often abbatial office was a matter of family inheritance (the Irish bishops were not known for their celibacy). Over successive centuries, control of Brigid’s abbey was critical to political power in the region if not the island. The local kings of Kildare claimed that so long as they venerated St Brigid, they would hold power as kings of Leinster. This was true up to the 12th century on the eve of the arrival of the Normans. In his campaign to control Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough had Brigid’s successor abbess of Kildare abducted and disqualified as an abbess by rape, replacing her with his niece.
If most of Ireland’s bishops were also abbots, where did this leave St Brigid? The accounts claim that Patrick was so impressed with the miracles wrought by Brigid that he grants her autonomy within her own province, to be ‘left completely under your sway.’ One story had it that she was mistakenly consecrated by a drunken Bishop Mel who only realized his mistake when her veil was lifted. The story further claimed that his inebriation facilitated God’s will to confer such divinity on her. The story was an explanation for the exceptional honor and status accorded Brigid and her successors at Kildare, comparable to other abbatial bishops. Horrified at the notion of St Brigid as the Church’s only female bishop, the Church dismissed the story as absurd. However, and again as a measure of her status, the story of episcopal supervision of Kildare notes that it was Brigid who summoned and approved Bishop Conlaed to rule ‘with her’.
Certainly by the mid-seventh century, the religious community at Kildare was divided between male and female as the patriarchal nature of ascetic monasticism asserted itself. Rev John Ryan in his history of Irish monasticism writes: ‘With the growth of monasticism in the strict sense, under St Finnian and his disciples, women became objects of suspicion, and the relation between the sexes henceforth was one of rather distant cordiality.’
The life and role of St Brigid is however a far more complex tale than even the record suggests. The conversion of Gaelic Ireland, a very conservative society despite the political turmoil, was slow and difficult. Bound by the Brehon Laws that took their force from their long standing precedents, society looked to continuity for legitimacy. Belief in the old gods was deeply rooted and probably better organized that we often assume. It may be that Kildare was a pre-Christian center of learning. It is interesting to speculate whether the head of the center bore the title Brigid and that the first Christianized woman to hold it, the royal daughter of Dubhtach, simple took that title and with it control of a going concern. It is interesting that place names associated with Irish Saints often do not bear their names; Patrick and Armagh, Clonmacnoise and Ciaran, Kevin and Glendalough, Brigit and Kildare for example.
Tellingly, the vast majority of words associated with early Christianity in Ireland predate its arrival, with some only new Latin words added to the vocabulary. The Christian missionaries are using native words to describe their faith. As Dáibhi Ó Crónín writes in Early Medieval Ireland: ‘Consciously or unconsciously, Irish converts must have brought a great deal of their traditional culture with them, and onto this then were grafted the new concepts of the Christian religion. But the transition involved more than a shared terminology; old habits die hard.’
Old gods and goddess die hard too evidently. We can see this with Brigid. The hagiographies of the 7th century tell us very little about her life. Their focus is on her saintly ways and the miracles that surround her, the better to confirm her veneration. Yet the description of the miracles themselves give us a clue about her pagan origins as a Mother Goddess. Her miracles often involve sacred fire, sunlight, snakes, cows, and milk. She can hang her cloak on a sunbeam. St Brendan cannot. When St Brendan is confronted by a monstrous sea-serpent, it is only his invocation of her name that sends it back to the vasty deep. Her tasks are those of a midwife, a healer, a law-giver and a peace maker, very much in line with the functions of the pagan Brigid. The sun is a pagan divinity (represented by St Brigid’s cross), the snake a symbol of regeneration, the cow and milk of motherhood one of nourishment.
Even the details of Brigid’s birth are heavily freighted with symbolism. The druid who was to marry her mother, Broiseach, recognizes even from the womb that the unborn is a marvel (ominously for his profession as it turned out). She was born at sunrise, as her mother was carrying milk. The morning dew recalls the dew of the goddess, a pagan symbol of agricultural wealth. Folklorist Daithaí Ó hÓgáin noted that this belief survived in the tradition of hanging out a cloth on the eve of Brigid’s feast day to collect the dew and thus bring good fortune to the household.
In other words, the Christian missionaries were deliberately taking illustrations of her pagan powers and re-interpreting them as Christian miracles. Yet in doing so, they were also preserving Brigid’s true nature as a pre-Christian goddess and emanation of the old belief system. In Brigid we see her dual nature and the transition from pagan to Christian, more accurately perhaps its fusion. It is a testament to the power of the pagan belief systems with their focus on fertility, nature, land, and regeneration, that conversion to Christianity in Ireland depended on their incorporation.
Brigid was then much more than a Virgin Saint. As Mary Condren writes in her great book, The Serpent and the Goddess, she is an amalgam of traditions and beliefs, stretching deep into Ireland’s pre-Christian past. She is a goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann (literally, the People of the God of Danu), the Gaelic gods. A poet, a healer and a smithy, she represented creativity and its powers. Her association with sun means that fire and light are her elements. Perhaps even Brigid as a name embodies the idea of Goddess itself, because it means ‘exalted one’. Just as she was venerated across Europe as a saint, she was a pagan Mother Goddess across Europe, speaking to her pre-Christian Celtic origins. No wonder she was so popular.
St Brigid’s Day is 1 February, which is Imbolc, the beginning of Spring in the Celtic calendar. It was the day that Brigid as a Mother Goddess blew breathe into the dead month of January. The next day, 2 February, is Candlemass Day in the Christian calendar, when St Mary goes to the temple forty days after giving birth for purification and to present Jesus. Legend had it that St Brigid led the way for Mary bearing two candles. This image neatly represents the taking over of the pagan Brigid by the Church. To confirm the conversion of the Irish, the Church needed to incorporate the power of the old gods.
Over recent centuries, the Church in Ireland encouraged the Cult of the Virgin Mary, which had the effect of supplanting the focus on St Brigid with all her pagan evocations of fertility, creativity, and healing. This was particularly true after the Great Famine in the mid-19th century when the remnants of Gaelic culture among the Catholic population was dealt a devastating blow. Most of those who died were Irish speakers. In the next two generations, English supplants Irish as the main language of the Catholic population. The Catholic Church seizes its moment. Under ultra-montane influences that emphasized the power of the Pope, and in the absence of a national parliament, the Catholic Church established itself as the dominant social power. With its spiritual and practical control over marriage, baptism, education, health and death, it became truly the arbiter of every Catholics life cycle. The patriarchy had arrived in full force. When national government was established in 1922, it faced stiff competition from the Church for national leadership, often not even attempting to challenge it. It would take many decades and appalling scandals to end the Church’s dominant position of power and authority. For most of the twentieth century, the Marion cult reigned supreme in Ireland. Even James Joyce joined the Sodality of the Virgin Mary in his teenage years.
Yet St Brigid never completely faded from the scene. Her status as a native saint, her reputation as a healer and her association with the land and holy wells spoke to a very deep tradition. Writers like Mary Condren were attracted by her roots in pre-Christian Ireland and the universal motifs associated with her as a mother goddess; the sun, light, water and milk, regeneration and the cycles of life. One of the inspiring developments in recent years is the increasing popularity of St Brigid’s Day on 1 February. It is an opportunity to celebrate women and discuss their evolving role in society as not just equals but sources of talent, creativity and leadership if only given a fair chance. We have come far but there is far to go. This renewed celebration of Brigid demonstrates that she is too powerful figure in Irish culture to fade away. Her time has come again.
1 February 2023
Sources: Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200, Daíthí Ó Cróinín; Irish Monasticism, Rev John Ryan; The Sacred Isle, Belief and Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland, Daíthí Ó hÓgáin; The Serpent and the Goddess, Women, Religion and Power in Celtic Ireland, Mary Condren; The Wonders of Ireland, P.W. Joyce. New History of Ireland, Vol. II, editor Art Cosgrove.