St. Brigid of Kildare

There are some really interesting women whose names come down to us through history from the Dark Ages, and Brigid is one of them. Born in 451 AD in the north of Ireland, in County Lough, she,  along with Patrick and Columba, is one of the patron saints of Ireland. She is also known as Brigit or Bride (pronounced more like breed than bride).

As is the case with many of the people whose stories come to us from this period, caveats abound in the recounting of their stories, and in Brigid’s case, there are more caveats than most.

The biggest caveat is that there is some controversy as to whether she even existed at all. She shares a name with an important goddess of the Celtic pagans who lived in what is now known as Ireland. This goddess was associated with healing, smith-craft, and fertility; some of these are also associated with St. Brigid, in terms of the miracles attributed to her. Some suggest that the Celtic god Brigid was Christianized into the Saint we know as Brigid. It is true that the Christian church did appropriate pagan sites for their churches, and superimposed their own religious festivals on top of the existing pagan ones. So it is possible that some of that has gone on in the stories that come down to us about Brigid.

However, I tend to think that she was a real person, and although some of her story might be mixed up with the pagan god Brigid I am going to proceed under the assumption that she did, indeed, exist.

The main details of her life come to us from a few sources, mainly hagiographies*. The earliest of which was written around 625 AD, about a hundred years after Brigid died in 525 AD, by St. Broccan Cloen (said to be the nephew of St. Patrick).  Another was penned in the 8th century by Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare. There are a couple of others, referred to in a forward added to Cloen’s biography, by an Irish bishop in the 8th century.

It is worth noting, on the question of whether or not Brigid was a real person, that scholars have found eleven people mentioned in her biographies who are independently verified in other sources. So that lends a little veracity to the story of her life included in her biographies.

Brigid, by all accounts, was born a slave. She was the daughter of the Pict Brocca, a Christian, who was the servant to Brigid’s father, Dubthach, a pagan chieftain of county Leinster. It seems that Dubthach’s wife was not too impressed when Brocca became pregnant, and forced him to sell her (and her unborn child) to a druid. There are various stories of miracles surrounding Brigid as a child, including that she was unable to eat the food provided by the druid (because of its unclean nature, one presumes) and a white cow with red ears appeared to provide for her (in milk and cheese) instead.

Saint_Brigid's_cross

St. Brigid’s Cross. Tradition says that she was tending to a pagan chieftain (perhaps her father) on his deathbed, and she picked up some rushes from the floor and began weaving them into a cross in order to explain the Christian gospel to him. He was so enamoured of her words he accepted the faith and was baptized before he died. Traditionally, every year on the eve of her feast day (Feb. 1) Irish Catholics will weave a cross and put it up on the inside of their house, over the door. Image from Blarney.com

She was returned to her father at around the age of ten as a household servant, and impressed all by her acts of charity. However her father wasn’t too pleased, as being a servant Brigid had no property to speak of, and so the items she gave away to the poor were in fact his. The final straw came when he got fed up and tried to sell her (or in some stories, marry her) to the king of Leinster and while they were negotiating the deal, Brigid tried to give away her father’s jewel-encrusted sword to a leper. The king recognized Brigid’s holiness and persuaded her father to grant her freedom, that she might become a nun.

Around 480 AD, when Brigid was around thirty, she built an oratory (place of prayer) at  Kildare. This name is Anglicized from the Celtic, Cill Dara, “church of the oak”. This is because the it was established on the site of an older, Celtic druidic shrine, which featured a large oak tree, sacred to the Celts.

It’s fascinating to see the intersection of pagan and Christian beliefs, and how the  Celtic Christians attempted to not just eradicate the old ways, but to fold them into the new beliefs. It seems that along with the sacred oak, pagan women would tend to an eternal flame at this site, the goddess Brigid being associated with smith craft, which took fire, of course.

Brigid the Abbess did not quench this flame, but instead had a group of her young nuns tend it, after being consecrated to Christ, one assumes (some stories say this started after her death, in honour of her). Amazingly, this flame was kept burning until the 1200s, when it was put out by the Archbishop of Dublin, due to his fears that it fostered superstition.

The small oratory soon expanded. The Celtic Christians were unique in that they allowed for women and men to serve in monasteries together (although in separate buildings) and the monastery at Kildare was the first of these in Ireland, presided over by Brigid as Abbess, who appointed the hermit Conleth to co-rule with her (and presumably take care of the monks). Kildare thus became the first organized centre of spirituality for women in Ireland.

Kildare quickly became an important centre for religion and learning, which drew students not only from Ireland but from all across Europe. Brigid is credited with founding a school of metal-working and art on the site, and although the illuminated manuscript produced there, known as the Book of Kildare, disappeared during the Reformation (grrr) by all accounts it was exceedingly beautiful. The church itself was also said to be very beautiful and lavishly decorated with embroidered tapestries and pictures, and featuring elaborately carved windows and doors.

Brigid did not just rest on her laurels at Kildare, however. She travelled extensively through Ireland, founding many churches. It is said that she had a great friendship with St. Patrick, who was her contemporary.

She died at Kildare in 525 AD. Tradition says she died on February 1st, which became her feast day. That may or may not be true, I’m a little suspicious about that. Simply because February 1st is also Imbolc, the pagan festival celebrating spring. Possibly this is one of those times when the Church added a Saint to a pagan festival to Christianize it.

No matter what the actual date was, it is said that as she lay dying, she was given the last rites by a priest named Ninnidh, and  that afterwards, he encased his hand in metal, so as to never again touch anything with the hand that had touched Brigid, becoming known as “Ninnidh of the Clean Hand.” The patron saint of all those who swear never to wash their hands again after touching someone famous, I suppose!

440px-KildareCathedral

This is the cathedral at Kildare today, a restoration of the medieval buildings destroyed during the Reformation. Brigid’s original buildings would of course been made out of wood, or wattle and daub. Image from Wikipedia

Brigid’s remains were interred at the altar of Kildare, with a costly tomb adorned with jewels and precious stones raised over her. But due to the Viking raids, her relics were taken from there and re-buried in the tomb of Patrick and Columba, which shows the high esteem the people of Ireland had for her. Today, she is known as the “Mary of the Gaels.”

There is a prayer purported to be Brigid’s, which I really like. It’s impossible to say whether or not this does actually come from her, but nevertheless it gives you an idea of either her own perspective or how she was seen by others:

I would like the angels of Heaven to be among us.
I would like an abundance of peace.

I would like full vessels of charity.
I would like rich treasures of mercy.
I would like cheerfulness to preside over all.
I would like Jesus to be present.
I would like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.**
I would like the friends of Heaven to be gathered around us from all parts.
I would like myself to be a rent payer to the Lord; that I should suffer distress, that he would bestow a good blessing upon me.
I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I would like to be watching Heaven’s family drinking it through all eternity.

From Brigid or not, this definitely belongs to the Early Middle Ages, however. The last couple lines comes straight from the mead hall, evoking the scene of the warriors drinking and celebrating after a battle, with the ale flowing liberally. So if that is how an earthly king’s victories is celebrated, how much more should we celebrate the victories of the King of Kings? With a lake of beer, of course, and drinking throughout eternity!

The Celts had a culture in which there was considerable equality between men and  women, and where women were involved in positions of power, even so far as to going to battle and being judges and Queens. It was a much more matriarchal society than those which came from the Greek and Roman tradition. So it’s not surprising that the Celtic Christians incorporated this into their church structures, allowing for double monasteries, and powerful women church leaders like Brigid and Hild of Whitby.

Brigid, by all accounts, was a strong but humble leader, generous and hard-working, devoted to God. She left an indelible impression on Irish society which remains to this day.


* A hagiography is a biography of a saint. In the rest of this post I will use the word “biography”, as it is the more familiar one. But that word gives us the modern connotation of objectivity. A hagiography most certainly was not.  Generally they were not written with an eye for exact historical details, but rather to extol the virtues of that particular saint, who likely was the founder the monastery to which the author belonged. In other words, you have to take these with a grain of salt. There was a lot of “my saint is better than your saint” involved. They are similar to the stories of the kings and other important people that come down to us from this era and earlier ones, except these try to extol spiritual strength, not worldly.  It was more about proving that your “guy” (or gal) was the best – the strongest, the most heroic, the most virtuous, the most whatever. It’s not to say that these don’t have any nuggets of historical truth in them, though. You just have to sift through some of the flowery details to find them. 🙂

**The three Marys appear in Scripture and in church tradition, referring to the three Marys at the crucifixion and/or the three Marys at the resurrection.  Mary was a common name at the time, and so in Scripture you find Mary, mother of Jesus; Mary Madgelene; Mary of Bethany; Mary, mother of James the Less; Mary of Cleopas; Mary, mother of John Mark; and Mary of Rome. Some of these may be the same person.

Featured image is from St. Brigid’s Parish, Gisbourne, and is an icon of Brigid. I like that she is holding the flame!

Canada and a 6th Century Monk

In honour of Canada Day, I thought it might be fun to share with you one of my favourite stories from the Britain’s Early Middle Ages; that of the 6th century monk known as Brendan the Voyager. This story has a Canadian connection because it has been speculated that Brendan and some fellow monks, not the Vikings, were the first Europeans to set foot on North America, specifically Newfoundland.

Some 50 years after St. Patrick died in 461 A.D., Brendan and other Irish monks continued Patrick’s work of converting the pagan Irish Celts to Christianity. Brendan was born in 484 A.D. in County Karee in the south-west of Ireland, and was ordained as a priest at the age of 28. He frequently sailed the seas to bring the gospel to not only Ireland but also Scotland, Wales, and Brittany, the Gaulish outpost in the north of present-day France.

This method of travel was not unusual at this time. Overland journeys were dangerous. The roads themselves may or may not be in repair, and one could easily get stuck or delayed by bad weather. The impressive roads that the Romans engineered as a means of moving their legions easily around the country were slowly falling into disrepair, making travel difficult.  As they were the main highways they were often frequented by outlaws, which was another outcome of the absence of Roman government. The tribal kings were meant to keep their people safe in return for their tribute, but it wasn’t the same as having the might of Rome patrolling the roads.

The other small, rutted tracks that criss-crossed the country could be difficult to navigate, and what if you came across a bridge that hadn’t been kept up?

For all these reasons, plus speed of travel, people of the day often preferred travelling by boat along the rivers or in ships along the coastlines, and many were quite at ease handling their vessels on the open sea to get between Britain and the continent. It is astonishing to learn of the people who voyaged between Britain and Jerusalem, and to begin to understand the amount of trade that went on between Britain, the rest of Europe, and beyond to Asia, as shown by various archaeological finds.

For the Irish, the traditional vessel of choice was called the currach. This was a wooden-framed boat over which was stretched animal hides. The seams were sealed with tar, or animal fat and grease. This could be rowed, and for larger, sea-going vessels, a mast and sail would be attached.

There are two main sources of information about Brendan and his journey; The Life of Brendan, and The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot.  The second one, the Voyage is the more better-known of the two, and in fact became one of the most popular and enduring legends of the time. The earliest extant version of this dates from around 900 AD, but scholars feel that it was written sometime in the second half of the 8th century, due to references to it in other earlier manuscripts.

The Voyage is written as a type of immram, which was a genre of popular literature peculiar to Ireland at that time. These works were adventurous stories of seafaring heroes. The writer of the Voyage merged this type of story with that of the traditional stories of the aesthetic Irish monks who would travel alone in boats, just as the Desert Fathers of the 2nd and 3rd century used to isolate themselves in caves.

The Voyage is fantastical reading, and that’s what makes it so fun. According to the tale, sometime between AD 512-530 Brendan  became inspired by the stories of another monk called St. Barinthus who claimed to have sailed to an island found beyond the horizon. Brendan gathered some other monks and after the requisite prayers and fasting set off to find this island. They journeyed for seven years, during which time they encountered various mysterious islands and creatures, including an Ethiopian devil, birds that sing psalms, magical water that put them to sleep for a number of days, a huge sleeping whale they mistake for an island which is roused when they build a fire on it, gryphons, crystal pillars floating in the ocean, giants tossing fireballs, sea creatures, and my personal favourite – Judas, sitting on a rock in the middle of a cold, dark sea, on his weekly respite from Hell.

It is a religious work, meant to teach others about salvation,obedience, and faith. But there have been many scholars who have attempted to determine if Brendan actually took this voyage by trying to figure out the places mentioned in it. And this is where it gets interesting.

Trying to sift through the legends and myths in the story is difficult, but there are suggestions that make sense. The great crystal pillars could be icebergs. The giant demons tossing fireballs could be volcanic eruptions on Iceland. And when you look at a map, you can start to see that the journey from Ireland to present-day Canada actually might have been possible, for it is not just heading out in the open sea, but a series of navigations to the Faroe Isles, and then along the coasts of Iceland and Greenland, and finally to the shores of Labrador. This type of coastal navigation interspersed with short hops in-between would have been quite familiar to sailors of that time, as previously explained.

brendan_route

The possible route Brendan could have taken to reach Canada in the 6th century. Map from irelandofmyheart

If you are still skeptical that such a small and fragile vessel could survive such a journey, consider that in 1976 explorer Tim Severin built a currach using traditional methods and materials such as would be common in Brendan’s time and successfully used it to travel from Ireland to Canada in an attempt to recreate Brendan’s journey.

Stbrendanscurrach

Model of the currach Tim Severin built to cross the Atlantic, displayed at Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. From Wikicommons.

There has also been arguments made that Christopher Columbus learned from the Voyage the directions of the prevailing winds and therefore the most favourable routes to take to and from North America on his famous journey of discovery.

It’s all fascinating stuff. So, today on Canada Day I’m hoisting my cup of tea to St. Brendan the Navigator, who possibly was the first European to set foot on our shores.

Here’s to you, Brendan, an honorary Canadian if there ever was one!


Featured picture is the marvellous bronze statue of St. Brendan crafted by Tighe O’Donaghue/Ross, found on Fenit Harbour on Great Samphire Island, in Ireland. He is depicted in traditional dress, clutching a Gospel book, leaning into a force 10 storm such as he might have faced on his travels, his cloak streaming out behind him. He points out to sea, urging us ever forward to spread the word of God. Picture from vanderkrogt.com