March 17 is typically a day reserved for drinking in celebration of one of Ireland’s patron saints; St. Patrick. Due to the holiday, he’s a well known name in almost every household. However today, at the intersection of celebrating Irish heritage and Women’s History month, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about another one of Ireland’s patron saints; St. Brigit of Kildare. Brigit of Kildare (aka Brigid, Bridget, Bridgit, Brid, or Bride) like many other saints and religious figures, is probably part real, part legend, part pagan god. For followers of some Christian religions however, she was very real, and thus very much like Queen Esther she appears on this list despite conflicting accounts of her life and the apparent syncretization between her and “Brigid”, a Celtic “triple goddess” that might frustrate certain scholars and historians with her inclusion.
Brigit was probably born in Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland in or around 453 CE (Some records have her born as early as 451, others in 452, still others in 453). Records of her early life seem to agree that she was born to a pagan chief of Leinster “Dubhthach” and a Christian slave of his, a woman who managed his dairy production and cattle. While growing up, Brigid heard St. Patrick speak, and his words stuck with her. She was highly religious, and very sensitive to the needs of others, often helping others by giving away what was her father’s. Frustrated with her constant need to give everything away, he tried to sell her to the King. Legend has it that during the exchange, her father discovered she’d given his sword away to a leper. As he was about to strike her as punishment, she defended herself saying she’d “given it to god through the leper”. Struck by her piety, the King ordered Dubhthach not harm her, and she was granted her freedom instead.
After gaining her freedom, Brigit returned to help her mother manage the cattle and dairy production. While she continued to give away produce to help others, dairy production did well under her management, and thus nobody minded. Eventually, Dubhthach granted her mother her freedom as well. Brigit grew up to be a beautiful woman, with a kind heart who attracted many suitors. Finally after one arranged meeting by her father, she turned down the would-be suitor and went to see the local Bishop, taking her first vows as a nun. Legend says that in the hopes of warding off additional requests for marriage, she also prays for her beauty to be removed temporarily, until she takes her final vows so no man asks her for marriage again.
In 468 CE, Brigit started her first convent with 7 other nuns (some stories specify “virgins”). From there, she traveled the country, becoming an extensive traveler for her time, setting up convents, healing the sick, and performing miracles. Among those claimed miracles; she once healed a leper by pouring water over him, and generally what she wanted to happen, supposedly came to pass. Whether she sent someone to find a woman nobody knew existed, or food appearing so she could help the hungry, if Brigit wanted something it happened. According to one story, she used her cloak to cover a large amount of ground for a convent with the king’s permission, as he believed her cloak was too small to cover any amount of ground. When he saw it grow, he was so shocked he praised her and gave her what she wanted. (I must say, this sounds like a vague translation of the story of Dido, selecting a hill for her future city.) In 523, after 70 years of service to others, Brigit died quietly, of natural causes.
Today, Brigit is considered the patron saint of many things, among them milk maids, cattle, dairy farmers, travelers, and sailors for reasons that are clear, but she’s also known for her close association with Oak trees, as part of the syncretization between her and the Druid goddess “Brigid”, although Christians attribute that association to a grove of oak trees near the site of her first convent. Regardless of the reasoning, she’s associated so closely with the word that the very word “Kildare” means “Church of the Oak”.
While it’s certain that portions of her tale are much more legend than reality, Brigit was almost certainly a very real person, a pious nun from Ireland to whom a great deal of Christian heritage in that area is attributed. She spent her life giving to others, and her name will live on forever as a result.