Updated: Mar 11, 2021
The feast day of Brigid is celebrated on February 1. It is a time of new beginnings. Winter is passing and Spring is on its way. It is something of a liminal space, characterised by hope for brighter days to come. The Irish News in January 2020 called Brigid a saint for our times because of her "care for the earth, work for peace and justice, equality, as well as being a model for the contemplative life."1
Brigid was born in 450 near Dundalk in Ireland. Her father was a pagan chieftain and her mother a christian slave who came from the land of the Picts (who was apparently baptised by Patrick). According to tradition Brigid was fostered by the druids and so learned the lore of the pagan Celts as well as the way of Christ. This made her an excellent candidate to bridge the divide between paganism and christianity. She understood the culture and mindset and became adept at leading druids to Christ. She became a powerful missionary evangelist and was especially compassionate towards women and slaves on account of her mother's experience.
She is often referred to as Brigid of Kildare, the place where she established her influential centre for mission and discipleship, a double monastery (both men and women) where the abbess had more authority than the abbot (as a first among equals). Her monastery was revered as a centre of education, pilgrimage, worship and hospitality (a holistic centre of wellbeing) 2. According to one of the earliest records (the life of St Brigid by Cogitosus written around 650AD) Kildare became the mother house for most of the monasteries in Ireland which showed the extent of its influence. 3
Brigid said "it is a virtue and a prize to listen patiently to and put up with insults for the sake of God." This sentence gives some insight into how Brigid was received, she was both revered and reviled. As a pioneering woman leader (the first female priest and some say bishop in Ireland) she managed to upset certain sections of society and church. To some she was a saint, others thought she was a heretic. This meant she received a lot of criticism for her pioneering approach. She was often misunderstood and had to put up with undermining criticism of her leadership but did so with grace and forgiveness.
Brigid is still adopted as an archetype today by modern day neo-pagans who dislike what they would see as a patriarchal hierarchy. She represents an alternative society that values equality, one that is close to creation and the natural world, honours the feminine and healthy partnership between men and woman. Of course, the reality was not so romantic. 5th century Ireland was in the midst of major changes which resulted in a lot of bloody infighting (King Conall Gulban of Donegal was murdered in 464). Brigid is often referred to as a peacemaker who intervened in disputes between rival factions and brought healing and reconciliation.
Brigid was famous for caring for the poor and practicing radical generosity. Even as a young girl her father was so frustrated with her acts of kindness he tried to sell her to the king so they "journeyed to the castle, and while Brigid waited at the castle gates for her father to negotiate with the King. A beggar came along asking for alms. Brigid at once gave him her father’s jewel-encrusted sword. On hearing of this the King declared that he could never buy Brigid. ‘She’s too good for me,’ he said, ‘I could never win her obedience.’"4 She is described as "gentle to wretched lepers." 5
She was also highly practical, combining her contemplation with hands on activism. Her monastery at Kidare had a school of metal-work, taught people how to brew ale, she oversaw the cattle and a dairy farm which made butter. She is also well known as a miracle worker which was common to the Celtic saints who lived in a highly supernatural culture (influenced by the druids). It is said she turned water into beer, 6 caused the weather to change by stilling the wind and the rain, made prophetic utterances that came to pass, and healed the sick. These accounts all reflect the biblical stories of Jesus who she followed and represented to the pagan Irish. The miracles authenticated her message of a higher kingdom of heaven.
Brigid was clearly a ground breaker, an effective missionary, a planter of new monasteries, an educator and made a huge impact on Irish society turning them to Christ. She is one of Ireland's patron saints (Patrick, Columba and Brigid). I believe she is a great example for us to follow today not only as a good news person but because of her holistic Way of Life.
Cogitosus' "Life of St Brigid" Content and Value, Sean Connolly and J.-M. Picard, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland