The Woman Who Helped Forge Irish Catholicism
by Meghan Ferrara
Saint Brigid, known as ‘Mary of the Gael,’ is one of Ireland’s most beloved saints. Along with Saint Patrick and Saint Columba, she is a patron saint of the Emerald Isle. Her influence was as essential as St. Patrick’s in the spread of Catholicism among the Irish, and her story is equally remarkable. Her strength, grit, and faith helped forge the character of Irish Catholicism.
Brigid was born in 451 at Faughart near Dundalk, Louth, Ireland to a pagan father and a Christian mother. Her father, Dubhthach, was a pagan chieftain of Leinster. Brigid’s mother, Brocca, was a Christian slave in her father’s court. St. Patrick eventually baptized the entire family, though the family faced many difficult obstacles along the way.
Brigid’s mother, Brocca, was a Christian slave in her father’s court. St. Patrick eventually baptized the entire family.
Throughout her life, Brigid’s munificent nature led her to provide extraordinary aide to the poor. However, when she was a girl, many of the goods Brigid gave away belonged to her father, and Dubhthach did not appreciate his daughter’s magnanimity. When he protested, the young girl explained, ”Christ dwells in every creature.” In frustration, Dubtach even attempted to sell Brigid to the king of Leinster. While they bargained, she gave a treasured sword of her father‘s to a leper. Dubtach was furious, but Brigid explained she had given the sword to God through the leper, because of its great value. Then the king, a Christian, intervened saying, “Her merit before God is greater than ours.” After this incident, the chieftain gave his daughter her freedom.
From a very early age, Brigid expressed an interest in religious life. Despite her father’s wish for her to marry, and the excellent offers she received, Brigid never waivered in her desire to become a bride of Christ.
In frustration, Dubtach even attempted to sell Brigid to the king of Leinster. While they bargained, she gave a treasured sword of her father‘s to a leper. Dubtach was furious.
St. Mel and St. Patrick hear St. Brigid profess her vows
Brigid first began to prepare for her vocation with St. Macaille at Croghan. Brigid eventually professed her full vows in the presence St. Mel of Armagh, who, according to legend, conferred abbatial authority on her. St. Patrick himself, whose preaching so influenced Brigid as a child, heard her final vows upon entering the convent. After Brigid professed her final vows, she resided at the foot of Croghan Hill for a brief period with a small group of fellow sisters. About the year 468, Brigid followed St. Mel to Meath.
St. Brigid founds the double monastery at Kildare
In 470 Brigid founded and became abbess of the double monastery at Kildare. Kildare was the first convent in Ireland and became renowned as a center of spirituality and learning. This center gave rise to the Cathedral city of Kildare.
Brigid also founded a school of art at Kildare. The illuminated manuscripts produced there became famous, particularly the Book of Kildare, which was arguably the finest of all illuminated Irish manuscripts before its disappearance three centuries ago. Brigid’s religious life was rooted in prayer, but also involved substantial manual labor including cloth making, dairy farming, and sheep raising.
Kildare was unique as the only known Irish double monastery. It included a separately housed men’s community, led by the bishop Saint Conleth. Brigrid became an avid traveler, journeying across Ireland founding numerous additional religious communities.
Brigid founded the double monastery at Kildare, the first convent in Ireland renowned as a center of spirituality and learning — eventually becoming the great Cathedral city of Kildare.
Many miracles are attributed to Brigid
Brigid was one of the most remarkable women of her times. There are many legendary, incredible, and amazing miracles attributed to her. Brigid was particularly renowned for her generosity, her healing, and her feeding the poor.
According to one of many such tales, as a child Brigid gave away her mother’s store of butter. It was then replenished as an answer to Brigid’s prayers. Similar narratives about Brigid’s miraculous deeds were told throughout her life. While there are many legends surrounding Brigid, there is no doubt that her extraordinary spirituality, and her boundless charity and compassion for those in distress was real.
Brigid dies and is buried with St. Columba and St. Patrick
Brigid passed into eternal life on February 1, 525 at Kildare. She is buried at Downpatrick with St. Columba and St. Patrick, with whom she is patron of Ireland.
Saint Brigid’s feast day is February 1. Her determination, energy, and abounding faith helped form the rich Catholic heritage that is still integral to Irish identity today.
Brigid is buried at Downpatrick with St. Columba and St. Patrick, with whom she is patron of Ireland.