St. Brigid of Kildare, Abbess & Virgin
(Bride, Bridget, Brigit, Ffraid)
Born at Faughart (near Dundalk) or Uinmeras (near Kildare), Louth,
Ireland, c. 450; died at Kildare, Ireland, c. 525; feast of her
translation is June 10.
“We implore Thee, by the memory of Thy Cross’s hallowed and most bitter
anguish, make us fear Thee, make us love Thee, O Christ. Amen.”
–Prayer of Saint Brigid.
Saint Brigid was an original–and that’s what each of us are supposed to
be, an original creation of the Almighty Imagination.
Unfortunately, most of us get caught up in the desire to be accepted by
others. We conform to the norm, rather than opening up to the creative
power of God and blooming to render Him the sweet fragrance of our
unique lives. We miss the glory of giving God the gift of who we were
intended to be.
Brigid lacked that fault. She got things done. She had a welcome for
everyone in an effort to help them be originals, too. She was so
generous that she gave away the clothes from her back. She never shied
away from hard work or intense prayer. She would brush aside the
rules–even the rules of the Church–if it was necessary to bring out
the best in others. Perhaps for this reason, the saint who never left
Ireland, is venerated throughout the world as the prototype of all nuns.
She bridged the gap between Christian and pagan cultures.
Brigid saw the beauty and goodness of God in all His creation: cows made
her love God more, and so did wild ducks, which would come and light on
her shoulders and hands when she called to them. She enjoyed great
popularity both among her own followers and the villagers around; and
she had great authority, ruling a monastery of both monks and nuns.
Her chief virtue lay in her gentleness, in her compassion, and in her
happy and devoted nature which won the affection of all who knew her.
She was a great evangelist and joined hands gladly and gaily with all
the saints of that age in spreading the Gospel. So great was her
veneration throughout Europe that the Medieval knights, seeking a
womanly model of perfection, chose Brigid as the example. This theory
maintains that such was the image of Brigid as the feminine ideal that
the word “bride” passed into the English language. (This is unlikely,
however. The word probably derives from the Old German “bryd,” meaning
Historical facts about Saint Brigid’s life are few because the numerous
accounts about it after her death (beginning in the 7th century) consist
mainly of miracles and anecdotes, some of which are deeply rooted in
pagan Irish folklore. Nevertheless, they give us a strong impression of
her character. She was probably born in the middle of the 5th century in
eastern Ireland. Some say her parents were of humble origin; others that
they were Dubhthach, an Irish chieftain of Leinster, and Brocca, a slave
at his court. All stories relate that they were both baptized by Saint
Patrick. Some say that Brigid became friends with Patrick, though it is
uncertain that she ever met him. Beautiful Brigid consecrated herself to
God at a young age. She was veiled as a nun by Saint Macaille at Croghan
and consecrated as Abbess by Bishop Saint Mel at Armagh.
The Book of Lismore bears this story:
Brigid and certain virgins along with her went to take the veil from
Bishop Mel in Telcha Mide. Blithe was he to see them. For humility
Brigid stayed so that she might be the last to whom a veil should be
given. A fiery pillar rose from her head to the roof ridge of the
church. Then said Bishop Mel: “Come, O holy Brigid, that a veil may be
sained on thy head before the other virgins.” It came to pass then,
through the grace of the Holy Spirit, that the
form of ordaining a bishop was read out over Brigid. Macaille said that
a bishop’s order should not be confirmed on a woman. Said Bishop Mel
“No power have I in this matter. That dignity hath been given by God
unto Brigid, beyond every (other) woman.” Wherefore the men of Ireland
from that time to this give episcopal honour to Brigid’s successor.
Most likely this story relates to the fact that Roman diocesan system
was unknown in Ireland. Monasteries formed the centre of Christian life
in the early Church of Ireland. Therefore, abbots and abbesses could
hold held some of the dignity and functions that a bishop would on the
Continent. Evidence of this can be seen also at synods and councils,
such as that of Whitby, which was convened by Saint Hilda. Women
sometimes ruled double monasteries; thus, governing both men and women.
Bridget, as a pre-eminent abbess, might have fulfilled some
semi-episcopal functions, such as preaching, hearing confessions
(without absolution), and leading the neighbouring Christians.
Beginning consecrated life as a anchorite of sorts, Brigid’s sanctity
drew many others. When she was about 18, she settled with seven other
like-minded girls near Croghan Hill in order to devote herself to God’s
service. About 468 she followed Saint Mel to Meath.
There is little reliable information about the convent she founded
around 470 at Kildare (originally Cill-Daire or ‘church of the oak’),
the first convent in Ireland, and the rule that was followed there. This
is one of the ways Brigid sanctified the pagan with the Christian: The
oak was sacred to the druids, and in the inner sanctuary of the Church
was a perpetual flame, another religious symbol of the druid faith, as
well as the Christian. Gerald of Wales (13th century) noted that the
fire was perpetually maintained by 20 nuns of her community. This
continued until 1220 when it was extinguished. Gerald noted that the
fire was surrounded by a circle of bushes, which no man was allowed to
It is generally thought to have been a double monastery, housing both
men and women–a common practice in the Celtic lands that was sometimes
taken by the Irish to the continent. It’s possible that she presided
over both communities. She did establish schools there for both men and
women. Another source says that she installed a bishop named Conlaeth
there, though the Vatican officially lists the See of Kildare as dating
Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare in the eighth century, expounded the
metrical life of St. Brigid, and versified it in good Latin. This is
what is known as the “Second Life”, and is an excellent example of Irish
scholarship in the mid-eighth century. Perhaps the most interesting
feature of Cogitosus’s work is the description of the Cathedral of
Kildare in his day:
“Solo spatioso et in altum minaci proceritate
porruta ac decorata pictis tabulis, tria intrinsecus
habens oratoria ampla, et divisa parietibus tabulatis”.
The rood-screen was formed of wooden boards,
lavishly decorated, and with beautifully decorated
Probably the famous Round Tower of Kildare dates from the sixth century.
The sixth Life of the saint printed by Colgan is attributed to Coelan,
an Irish monk of the eighth century, and it derives a peculiar
importance from the fact that it is prefaced by a foreword from the pen
of St. Donatus, also an Irish monk, who became Bishop of Fiesole in 824.
St. Donatus refers to previous lives by St. Ultan and St. Aileran.
Even as a child Brigid showed special love for the poor. When her mother
sent her to collect butter, the child gave it all away. Her generosity
in adult life was legendary: It was recorded that if she gave a drink of
water to a thirsty stranger, the liquid turned into milk; when she sent
a barrel of beer to one Christian community, it proved to satisfy 17
more. Many of the stories about her relate to the multiplication of
food, including one that she changed her bath-water into beer to satisfy
the thirst of an unexpected clergyman. Even her cows gave milk three
times the same day to provide milk for some visiting bishops.
Brigid saw that the needs of the body and the needs of the spirit
intertwined. Dedicated to improving the spiritual as well as the
material lives of those around her, Brigid made her monastery a
remarkable house of learning, including an art school. The illuminated
manuscripts originating there were praised, especially the Book of
Kildare, which was praised as one of the finest of all illuminated Irish
manuscripts before its disappearance three centuries ago.
Once she fell asleep during a sermon of Saint Patrick, but he
good-humouredly forgave her. She had dreamed, she told him, of the land
ploughed far and wide, and of white-clothed sowers sowing good seed.
Then came others clothed in black, who ploughed up the good seed and
sowed tares in its place. Patrick told her that such would happen; false
teachers would come to Ireland and uproot all their good work. This
saddened Brigid, but she redoubled her efforts, teaching people to pray
and to worship God, and telling them that the light on the altar was a
symbol of the shining of the Gospel in the heart of Ireland, and must
never be extinguished.
Brigid is called the ‘Mary of the Gael’ because her spirit of charity,
and the miracles attributed to her were usually enacted in response to a
call upon her pity or sense of justice. During an important synod of the
Irish church, one of the holy fathers, Bishop Ibor, announced that he
had dreamed that the Blessed Virgin Mary would appear among the
assembled Christians. When Brigid arrived the father cried, “There is
the holy maiden I saw in my dream.” Thus, the reason for her nickname.
Her prayers and miracles were said to exercise a powerful influence on
the growth of the early Irish Church, and she is much beloved in Ireland
to this day.
When dying at the age of 74, St. Brigid was attended by St. Ninnidh, who
was ever afterwards known as “Ninnidh of the Clean Hand” because he had
his right hand encased with a metal covering to prevent its ever being
defiled, after being he medium of administering the viaticum to
She was interred at the right of the high altar of Kildare Cathedral,
and a costly tomb was erected over her. In after years her shrine was an
object of veneration for pilgrims, especially on her feast day, 1
February, as Cogitosus related. About the year 878, owing to the
Scandinavian raids, the relics of St. Brigid were taken to Downpatrick,
where they were interred in the tomb of St. Patrick and St. Columba.
A tunic reputed to have been hers, given by Gunhilda, sister of King
Harold II, survives at Saint Donatian’s in Bruges, Belgium. A relic of
her shoe, made of silver and brass set with jewels, is at the National
Museum of Dublin. In 1283, three knights took the head of Brigid with
them on a journey to the Holy Land. They died in Lumier (near Lisbon),
Portugal, where the church now enshrines her head in a special chapel.
In England, there are 19 ancient church dedications to her. The most
important of which is the oldest church in London–St. Bride’s in Fleet
Street–and Bridewell or Saint Bride’s Well. In Scotland, East and West
Kilbride bear her name. Saint Brigid’s Church at Douglas recalls that
she is the patroness of the great Douglas family. Several places in
Wales are named Llansantaffraid, which means “St. Bride’s Church.” The
Irish Bishop Saint Donato of Fiesole (Italy) built a Saint Brigid’s
Church in Piacenza, where the Peace of Constance was ratified in 1185.
The best-known custom connected with Brigid is the plaiting of reed
crosses for her feast day. This tradition dates to the story that she
was plaiting rush crosses while nursing a dying pagan chieftain. He
asked her about this and her explanation led to his being baptized.
Traditional Irish blessings invoke her. “Brid agus Muire dhuit, Brigid
and Mary be with you” os a common Irish greeting, and in Wales people
say, “Sanffried suynade ni undeith, St. Brigid bless us on our journey.”
A blessing over cattle in the Scottish
isles goes: “The protection of God and Colmkille encompass your going
and coming, and about you be the milkmaid of the smooth white palms,
Brigid of the clustering, golden brown hair”
(Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Delaney, Encyclopaedia, Farmer, Gill,
Groome, Montague, O’Briain, Sellner, White).
She is usually portrayed in art with a cow lying at her feet, or holding
a cross and casting out the devil (White). Her emblem is a lighted lamp
or candle (not to be confused with Saint Genevieve, who is not an
abbess). At times she may be shown (1) with a flame over her; (2) geese
or cow near her; (3) near a barn; (4) letting wax from a taper fall upon
her arm; or (5) restoring a man’s hand (Roeder).
Brigid is the patron saint of Ireland, poets, dairymaids, blacksmiths,
healers (White), cattle, fugitives, Irish nuns, midwives, and new-born
babies (Roeder). She is still venerated highly in Alsace, Flanders, and
Portugal (Montague), as well as Ireland and Chester, England (Farmer).
# For other Lives of St. Brigid:
“Saint Brigid: The Mary of the Gael”:
“A Gift of Hospitality – Saint Brigid, Abbess of Kildare”:
Icons of St. Brigid:
Many icons of the Saint on one page
Troparion of St Brigid of Kildare tone 1
O holy Brigid, thou didst become sublime through thy humility,/ and
didst fly on the wings of thy longing for God./ When thou didst arrive
in the Eternal City and appear before thy Divine Spouse, wearing the
crown of virginity,/ thou didst keep thy promise to remember those who
have recourse to thee./ Thou dost shower grace upon the world, and
dost multiply miracles./ Intercede with Christ our God that He may
save our souls.
Kontakion of St Brigid tone 4
The holy virgin Brigid full of divine wisdom,/ went with joy along the
way of evangelical childhood,/ and with the grace of God/ attained in
this way the summit of virtue./ Wherefore she now bestows blessings
upon those who come to her with faith./ O holy Virgin intercede with
Christ our God/ that He may have mercy on our souls.
Apolytikion in the Fourth Tone
Having learned of things divine by the words of Patrick, thou hast
proclaimed in the West the good tidings of Christ. Wherefore, we
venerate thee, O Brigid, and entreat thee to intercede with God that
our souls be saved.
Kontakion in the Third Tone
At the Church of the Oak, thou didst establish thy sacred monasteries
for those that took up the Tree of life, even the Precious Cross, upon
their shoulders. And by thy grace-filled life and love of learning,
thou didst bear fruit a hundredfold and didst thereby nourish the
faithful. O righteous Mother Brigid, intercede with Christ, the True
Vine, that He save our souls.
Both of the troparia are also available with music
Apolytikion in the Fourth Tone