Below is Canon O'Hanlon's account of the Translation of the Relics of Saint Brigid to Lisbon in Portugal. He acknowledges as his source, Fr. Edward Caffrey, a Catholic priest serving in Widnes, England, whose health had obliged him to spend almost a year in Portugal.
25th Day of January Translation of the Relics of St. Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, to Lisbon, Portugal.
It is a matter of great interest for us in Ireland to learn, that at this present time the distant land of Portugal preserves with great respect an important and a considerable relic of the holy patroness of our island, St, Brigid. In the village of Lumiar, about six miles from Lisbon, and in the parish church of St. John the Baptist, is a chapel, dedicated to the virgin protectress of Ireland. There may be seen a beautiful statue of St. Brigid; but what is still more remarkable is the fact of her head having been preserved in it, during many a past age. That relic is supposed to have been brought from Germany, and it is held in the greatest veneration by the Portuguese. That head has been in Lumiar church since the thirteenth century, which is proved by an inscription on the outside of St. Brigid's chapel. There are three marble slabs inserted in the wall, and about four feet from the ground. These slabs are numbered respectively, 1, 2, and 3. If an inscription had been formerly on either 1 or 2, it is now completely effaced; but on number 3, there is a carving in very old Portuguese:
Aqui nestas tres sepulturas jaz enterados os tres Cavaleiros Ibernios q, trouxera acabeea Da Beanaventurada S. Brigida Virge D. Ibernia, cuja reliquiaesta nesta Capella, para memoria Do qual hos oficias Da Mesa Da Beanaventurada da S. mao Darao fazer este EIN RO D 1283."
The English translation is thus supplied by the Rev. Mr. Caffrey:—
"Here in these three tombs lie interred the three Irish Knights (or gentlemen) who brought the head of the Blessed Saint Bridget, virgin, a native of Ireland, whose relic is in this chapel, for remembrance of which the officials of the board (or confraternity) of the saint, out of their own funds, caused this to be made A.D. 1283."
In his very short notice regarding St. Bridget's head, and which the Rev. Alban Butler seems to have taken from the Bollandists, we are informed by the Rev. Mr. Caffrey, he is quite wrong in stating that precious relic had been kept at the Jesuits' church in Lisbon. However this may be, we feel obliged to reproduce the Bollandists' own statement.
We are told, that in the month of October, A.D. 1587, the head of St. Brigid, with the relics of many other celebrated saints, had been obtained with great zeal and exertion by John Borgia and by his pious consort, Frances of Arragon, from the Emperor Rudolph II. and his mother Maria. These he presented to the Church of St. Roch, belonging to the Jesuits at Lisbon. The approbation of the archbishop, Michael de Castro, was obtained, to have this commemoration held on the 25th of January, the following year. The Austrian Albert, who was then governor of Portugal for Philip II., ordained by decree a splendid and solemn celebration for those enshrined relics. These were borne in procession, with singular pomp and honour, in twelve distinct shrines or cases. On account of the heads of St. Brigid and of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus having been among them, Pope Sixtus V. granted a perpetual jubilee in that church.
At Lumiar there is a grand ceremony on St. Brigid's feast day, when the relic is exposed, as also during the octave. On St. John's day, it is likewise exposed. A fair is held on each occasion, which lasts the whole week. For miles around, peasants bring their cattle, and drive them three times around the church, according to an old custom. This probably originated from a knowledge that St. Brigid in early life had been engaged at pastoral occupations.
In a footnote O'Hanlon adds that
'The people believe that after such process their cattle will have no sickness or hurt during the year to come. In St. Bridget's chapel, there are literally thousands of votive offerings in wax. These are principally figures of sheep, cows, etc. These animals she greatly protects'.
I couldn't help but be struck by these references to the agricultural aspects of the Portuguese popular devotion, as these would have been mirrored among the Irish. Traditional iconography often depicts Saint Brigid accompanied by a cow and the cow features in the various Vitae of the saint. It is a tradition which is still alive in some parts of rural Ireland today, I recently watched a programme on the Irish language television station about Saint Brigid's Well at Liscannor in County Clare. An Irish farmer described how when the herds of his neighbours were being affected by a bovine disease, he saved his cattle by appealing to Saint Brigid's intercession and administration of the water from her well.
Canon O'Hanlon did not live to see the return of a portion of the Lisbon relic to Ireland. The current edition (February, 2009) of the parish newsletter of St Brigid's Church at Killester, County Dublin has reprinted an account of the events to mark the seventieth anniversary:
St Brigid’s Relic
(Taken from the Life of St. Brigid, Rev. John J. Gaffney)
On January 27th, 1929, His grace the Archbishop of Dublin solemnly enshrined a Relic of St. Brigid at St. Brigid’s Church, Killester. The Relic is a portion of the head of the Saint.
St. Brigid died on February 1st, 525, and was buried in Kildare. Due to the danger of desecration in Scandinavian raids, her Relics were taken to Downpatrick in 878. In time their actual location was lost; but their resting place was discovered by Malachy, Bishop of Down, in the year 1185. On June 9th 1186 they were translated to Downpatrick Cathedral. To save these Relics during various upheavals, they were divided amongst churches, monasteries, private families and individuals in safer districts. Most of these must have been destroyed in the desecrations under Henry VIII and Elizabeth. A few escaped destruction.
In 1283 some Irish knights, on a Crusade to the Holy Land, took with them the head of St. Brigid. In Portugal these knights fell fighting against the Moors. The holy Relic was brought to Queen Dinez, who confided it to the custody of the Sisters of St. Bernard, in the Royal convent of Odivellas. In 1706 the Relic was translated to the Church of St. John the Baptist at Lumiar, near Lisbon. In 1780 it was enclosed in a special shrine. Lumiar, under Providence, remains its resting place today.
In the parish church at Lumiar is a special chapel dedicated to St. Brigid, containing her statue. Local Catholics show great devotion to our Patroness, and on her feast day a special holiday is kept. The people bring their cattle to have them blessed with the Relic, and the parish priest blesses the crops and vines in the surrounding districts.
A portion of this Relic was given under the Seal of the Cardinal of Lisbon, on November 26th 1928 to the parish priest of Killester. This portion was approved by His Grace the Archbishop of Dublin on November 26th, 1928. It was translated with solemn ceremony to the church of St. Brigid, Killester, on January 27th, 1929.
The casket in which the reliquary at Killester is enclosed was made to the design of the casket which contains St. Patrick’s Bell. The actual reliquary inside this casket is in the form of an Irish Cross, and is made of bronze, heavily gold-plated. The centre of this cross contains a metal cylinder with a glass front, and the actual Relic is bound with gold into this receptacle. It was sealed into place by His Grace the Archbishop of Dublin, with the Seal of the Archdiocese.
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