St Brigid of Kildare (also known as St Bride)
She is second only to St Patrick in the esteem of the people of Ireland. She is also known as Mary of the Gael, as it is said that Bishop Ibor had a vision of the Virgin Mary the day before meeting Brigid and pronounced them identical. In the Book of Lismore, there is a passage which testifies to her importance: "It is she who helpeth everyone who is in danger; it is she that abateth the pestilences; it is she that quelleth the rage and the storm of the sea. She is the prophetess of Christ; she is the Queen of the South; she is the Mary of the Gael." In Gaelic, the oystercatcher is called the Guide of St Bride, as she was supposed to send the birds to guide sailors to safety.
Formally named a patron of Ireland in 1962, St Brigid is said to offer protection to poets, blacksmiths, healers, cattle, dairymaids, midwives, newborn babies and fugitives. The numerous stories of miracles performed by her even in childhood convey the impression that she was really a person of compassion, charity and strength. To fetch well water which tasted more like ale for a sick servant or to pick up rushes from the floor to twist into a cross to explain the message of salvation to a dying man show her practicality and resourcefulness. Her generosity was legendary and frequently necessitated resort to prayer to make good the deficit.
Her father was a pagan nobleman in Leinster, Dubtach, and her mother his Christian bondwoman, Brotseach, whom he sold to a Druid who lived near Dundalk. Here the child was born in the mid-fifth century, generally considered 451 or 453, and given Christian baptism with the name of Brid or Brigid. As she grew older, her mother put her in charge of the dairy. She was taken as a child to hear St Patrick preach, we are told in the Tripartite Life of St Patrick, and as she listened she fell into an ecstasy.
At marriageable age (about fourteen), she decided to enter the religious life and, with seven other young girls, she left home and travelled to Co. Meath where St Macaille was Bishop. Hesitant to admit them to the religious life because of their youth and possible insincerity, St Macaille's doubts were removed when a large congregation in the church where the girls had gone to pray witnessed a great column of fire which reached to the roof resting on Brigid's head. Here on Croghan Hill, Brigid founded the first convent in Ireland. Many noblewomen joined her and here she and her companions completed their novitiate. Then the original eight journeyed to Ardagh to make their final vows to St Mel, a nephew of St Patrick. Here Brigid founded another convent which also flourished. She remained here for twelve years and was often asked by other bishops to send sisters to various parts of Ireland to establish new foundations. Brigid herself now travelled round Ireland, visiting St Patrick on her way. Many stories are told of miracles and the founding of convents on this journey.
However Leinstermen were always conscious that Brigid was originally from their province and constantly asked her to return and offered her any site. She decided to make her foundation on Druim Criadh (the ridge of clay) near the Liffey and built her oratory on what had been a pagan site under a large oak tree. The area was soon covered with cells. Bishops and priests came in numbers to Cill Dara (the church of the oaktree) for 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 foundation and conferred the privilege of sanctuary.
A unique community of both monks and nuns developed with Brigid Abbess of the nuns and Conleth, the first Bishop of Kildare, Abbot of the monks. However the reins of authority remained in Brigid's hands. The monastic community continued to flourish and the cathedral town of Kildare grew up round it. It became a centre for spirituality and learning, healing, faith-sharing and evangelism and also for art. Kildare has been a site of unbroken Christian worship for 1500 years.
Originally a pagan fire had burned continuously on Druim Criadh. This fire, now known as St Brigid's fire, was tended by her nuns and kept alight as a fire of resurrection, night and day. It was kept burning for a thousand years with only one brief interval of suppression in the 1200s, to be finally extinguished at the Reformation.
Brigid's death occurred on 1st February, the day on which she is remembered, between the years 521 and 528. She is depicted in art as an abbess holding a lamp or candle with often a cow in the background. This poem is ascribed to her:
I long for a great lake of ale
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