We spoke to Dr Catherine Healy, Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum about Ireland’s female patron saint
Who was Brigid before she became a saint?
Brigid left behind no writings of her own, but her life is described in a number of early Christian sources written in the centuries after her death. According to most accounts, she was born in Leinster in the mid-fifth century – Faughart, near Dundalk, is usually described as her birthplace – to an enslaved mother and noble father. Her father is said to have sold her mother to a druid while she was pregnant, but Brigid was eventually returned to him.
As a young woman, she was known for her sense of compassion and justice. Tensions apparently developed at home because of her tendency to give away food and belongings to the poor. Facing pressure to marry a suitor, she turned to religious life and went on to establish Ireland’s first convent in Kildare. The settlement became a community for both nuns and monks, developing into one of the richest and most important religious establishments in Ireland. As abbess of that monastery, Brigid was said to have travelled around the country by chariot, preaching and blessing people.
What inspired her calling to religious life?
We don’t have details of what inspired Brigid’s religious calling, but she did grow up in a period of growing Irish enthusiasm for Christianity. Some hagiographers present her parents as Christians, but as religious writers they also had a vested interest in distancing this venerated saint from any association with the druids of Celtic Ireland. In reality, she may well have come from pagan stock.
What miracles is she said to have performed?
One of the best-known stories about Brigid centres on her famous cloak. According to legend, Brigid approached the King of Leinster for land on which she could establish a monastery. Not taking the request seriously, he responded that she could have whatever her cloak covered. She placed her cloak on the ground and it duly expanded to cover all the land needed to build her monastery.
Brigid was also very much a saint of the common people. Her supposed miracles often involved helping people – whether that be feeding the hungry, healing the sick or preventing violence. The earliest account of her life, by a Kildare monk named Cogitosus, described her miraculously replacing the food she gave away when she was young. In later life, she was said to have cured people of leprosy and blindness. She even apparently turned water into beer for a group of visitors, in a sign of her hospitality.
But a lot of new stories were added to Brigid’s record in the centuries after she died, some of them clearly drawn from the New Testament. So, we do have to bear in mind that a number of these ‘miracles’ might have been plucked from biblical narratives rather than passed down through generations.
Where does the tradition of making St Brigid’s crosses come from?
The Brigid’s cross has its roots in early Christian folklore. According to her hagiographers, Brigid converted a dying pagan chieftain to Christianity after she explained the crucifixion of Jesus by weaving a cross from rushes found on the ground. In another story, she cured a very sick friend by hanging a woven cross above his bed.
The cross, in time, became a symbol of protection and fertility. Many believed that St Brigid travelled around the country on the eve of her feast day and blessed homes and farms where these crosses were left on display. They served quite a few different functions through the centuries, and of course there have been many variations in style. The Irish Folklore Commission collected hundreds of examples in the 1940s as part of a research project on St Brigid’s Day, and some of them can be seen today at the Castlebar branch of the National Museum of Ireland.
Why do you think Brigid is an important saint for Ireland?
St Brigid could be seen, in some respects, as one of Ireland’s most durable cultural exports. Her story was spread through Europe by early Christian missionaries, and carried over to America, Africa and Australia by many generations of Irish emigrants. Why does she remain important today? As a saint, she speaks to a host of contemporary issues – social justice and women’s rights, perhaps most obviously. She also stands far removed from the traditional patriarchy of institutional Catholicism, representing a much more inclusive kind of faith than what many in Ireland have grown up with.
How would you say her story has inspired women’s rights activists in Ireland?
Brigid was a powerful ecclesiastical authority at a time when women were legally considered subordinate to men. She provided a model of female leadership quite unlike anything seen before in Ireland, offering thousands of women an alternative to the strictures of domestic life. Generations of women’s rights activists have been inspired by her leadership and courage.
In the early 20th century, for example, she was adopted as the patron saint of Maud Gonne’s Inghinidhe na hÉireann, a radical Irish nationalist women’s organisation. The Irish Catholic Women’s Suffrage Association, which campaigned for women’s right to vote, also considered her a patron.