1 February 523/25: The death of Saint Brigid/ Naomh Bhríde aka ‘Mary of the Gael’ and the ‘Fiery Arrow’ on this day. Or as the Irish Annals are fond of stating ‘according to some’.
Saint Brighit, virgin, Abbess of Cill Dara, died. It was to her Cill Dara was first granted, and by her it was founded. Brighit was she who never turned her mind or attention from the Lord for the space of one hour, but was constantly meditating and thinking of him in her heart and mind, as is evident in her own Life, and in the Life of St. Brenainn, Bishop of Cluain Fearta. She spent her time diligently serving the Lord, performing wonders and miracles, healing every disease and every malady, as her Life relates, until she resigned her spirit to heaven, the first day of the month of February; and her body was interred at Dun, in the same tomb with Patrick, with honour and veneration.
Annals of the Four Masters
Though according to another account the key dates in her Life were as follows:
Birth of St. Brigid, on a Wednesday, the 8th of the February moon; on a
Wednesday, the 18th, she received the veil, with eight virgins; on a
Wednesday, the 28th, she rested.
Chronicon Scotorum 439 AD
Whatever the true story of Brigid’s Life we are capable of putting the outlines of her story. She was born to a mother called Brocca, a Christian from Britain who was not married to but subserviant to Dubhthach, a Gaelic Cheiftan and the father of Brigid. Her place of birth was at Faughart in what is now north Co Louth. Whether Brocca was merely an attractive slave girl or a trophy mistress taken on a raid is an open question but its possible that Brigid did not know her father weel while a child and was more or less raised by her Mother. Her name Brigid was taken from that of a Celtic Goddess and this considered Diety was apparently worshipped in her Father’s Household. This female diety was was the goddess of fire, whose manifestations were song, craftsmanship, and poetry, which the Irish considered the flame of knowledge.
As she grew to womanhood she showed signs of piety and generosity to those less fortunate than herself. While the date is not quite certain she was perhaps took the veil in around 468 AD and was received into Holy Orders by Saint Mel. If this be true she might have already have been a devotee of Brigid and as the daughter of a powerful man who was won over to Christianity she would have been a important convert to the Church.
She is believed to have founded her first convent in Clara, County Offaly, other ones followed after her fame grew. But it was to be in Kildare that her major foundation would emerge.
Her father seems to have had his base around here and have used his local influence to secure her a good site, perhaps on the locus of an earlier Shrine to Goddess herself. Around 470 she founded Kildare Abbey, a double monastery, for nuns and monks, on the plains of Cill-Dara, "the church of the oak", her cell being made under a large oak tree. As Abbess of this sacred place she wielded considerable power. She became famous for her great spiritual powers over men and women and the animals that she encountered. She was also reputed to have powerful gifts of divination and the ability to impose herself on the powers of Nature. Perhaps in a throwback to her earlier devotion she maintained a Sacred Flame at her abbey of Kildare that was never allowed to go out.
We are not quite sure of the exact year of Brigit's settlement here; but it probably occurred about 485, when she was thirty years of age. Hard by the church she also built a dwelling for herself and her community. We are told in the Irish Life of St. Brigit that this first house was built of wood like the houses of the people in general; and the little church under the oak was probably of wood also, like most churches of the time. As the number of applicants for admission continued to increase, both church and dwelling had to be enlarged from time to time; and the wood was replaced by stone and mortar. Such was the respect in which the good abbess was held, that visitors came from all parts of the country to see her and ask her advice and blessing: and many of them settled down in the place, so that a town gradually grew up near the convent, which was the beginning of the town of Kildare.From ‘The Wonders of Ireland’ by P. W. Joyce, 1911
But eventually St Brigid went the way of all flesh and on her death her mortal remains were buried beside the High Alter of her beloved Church in Kildare. Years later when the Viking Raids moved inwards her remains were dug up and moved to Downpatrick and eventually interred along with those of Saints Patrick and Columba (Colmcille). Alas we now know not their exact place of burial but it is believed they may be buried underneath or near Downpatrick Cathedral.
In Down, three saints one grave do fill,
Patrick, Brigid and Columcille
After her death the 1st February became known in Ireland as Féile Brígíd and it replaced the old Celtic Festival of Imbolc that celebrated the beginnings of Springtime. For nearly 1,500 years the eve of her day was marked throughout the Country but especially in Leinster with the St Brigid’s Cross, a reworking of the more traditional one and possibly based on an even more ancient design.
Numerous ‘Lives’ were written about her of which we know the following:
The first of them is contained in a hymn in very ancient Irish, written by St. Broegan Claen, abbot of Rosturk, in Ossory, on “The Titles and Miracles of the Saint.”
The second Life is by Cogitosus. It is in Latin prose. Most probably he was a monk of the monastery of Kildare that was under the rule of St. Brigid in ancient times, for he describes, in great detail, the architecture, ornaments, and arrangements of the church, as if lie had it before his eyes every day.
The third Life is by St. Ultan, of Ardbraccan, in Meath, the same who induced St. Breogan to write the metrical Life already mentioned.
The 4th Life is by Anmchad, Latinized Animosus: it is in Latin metre. Who this Anmchad was — whether he was Bishop of Kildare and died in 980, or another — we have not sufficient grounds for saying with anything like certainty. The work seems to be that of one well acquainted with Kildare and its surroundings, and is more detailed than the others already mentioned.
The 5th Life is the work of Laurence of Durham, a Benedictine monk, who lived about the year 1100.
Lastly, there is the Life by St. Caelan, a monk of Iniscealtra, in the Shannon, near Scariff. It is in Latin hexameters. It was discovered by an Irish Benedictine in the library of the mother-house of the Order, at Monte Cassino. The author lived in the first half of the eighth century.
Saint Brigid of Kildare
By the Rev. Denis Murphy S.J.