Thursday, 16 February 2012

Devotion to Saint Brigid in Wales

Saint Brigid of Kildare is also venerated in Wales, where she is known as Saint Ffraid. Let's begin with a useful summary:
FRAID (LEIAN,) is the Welsh name of St. Bridget or St. Bride, whose memory has been held in the highest respect in the principality. According to the ancient records quoted in Bonedd y Saint, she was the daughter of Cadwrthai or Cadwthlach Wyddel, otherwise Dwyppws ab Cevyth. The Irish accounts state that she was born at Fochard, in the county of Louth, about A. D. 453, and that she was the illegitimate daughter of Dubtach or Dubtachus, a man of considerable rank in his country. When she grew up no importunities could prevail upon her to enter the married state, so she took the veil from the hands of St. Mel, a disciple and nephew of St. Patrick, who received her profession of perpetual virginity. She formed a religious community of her companions, who had been veiled with her, which increased so much, that she was obliged to erect several nunneries in many different parts of Ireland. Her fame spread through the British isles, and besides the numerous churches dedicated to her in Wales, there are several in England and Scotland, also in the Isle of Man, and especially in the Hebrides, where in one island, near to Isla, a celebrated monastery was built in her honour, called Bridgidiani. Iorwerth Vynglwyd, a Welsh poet of the fifteenth century, has put her legend in verse, with the miracles attributed to her, which is printed in Williams's History of Aberconwy. (8vo. Denbigh, 1835.) It is also to be found in English verse in a rare book entitled "A Triad of Irish Saints;" (Patrick, Columba, and Brigit,) published at Louvain, in 1647. Among other wonders, it is said that she sailed over from the Irish coast on a green turf, and landing near Holyhead, at the spot now known as Towyn y Capel; the sod became a green hillock, on which she caused a chapel to be built, which was called after her name. (See an interesting account of Towyn y Capel in the Journal of the Archaeological Institute, ill. 223, by the Hon. W. Owen Stanley.) That she visited Wales at some period, seems corroborated by the great veneration paid to her, for there are no less than eighteen churches and chapels dedicated to her in the Principality, viz. Diserth, in Flintshire; Llansantffraid Glan Conwy, and Llansantffraid Glyn Ceiriog, in Denbighshire; Llansantffraid in Mechain, Montgomeryshire ; Llansantffraid Glyn Dwrdu, in Merionethshire; St. Bride's, in Pembrokeshire; Llansantffraid, in Cardiganshire; Llansantffraid Cwmmwd Deuddwr, and Llansantfrraid in Elvael, Radnorshire; Llansantffraid, in Breconshire; St. Bride's Major, St. Bride's Minor, and St. Bride's super Elai, in Glamorganshire; St. Bride's or Llansaintffraid, Skenffreth, St. Bride's, in Netherwent, and St. Bride's Wentloog, in Monmouthshire; besides Capel Santffraid, now in ruins near Holyhead. St. Brigit died A. D. 525, on the first of February, on which day her memory is celebrated. There was another St. Brigid of Sweden, who is often confounded with her, but she lived many ages afterwards. [1]

I wouldn't share the author's conviction that Saint Brigid must have visited his country in person, it seems more likely that her cult was introduced by Irish monks. Yet I am very interested to see the distinctive Welsh genealogy for our saint which the sources preserve. When I read this translation of the 15th-century poet Iorwerth Fynglwyd's life of Saint Brigid though, I saw that he acknowledged her Irish birth and alluded to some of the most famous episodes from her various Irish lives, - food miracles, removal of her eye to avoid marriage - while also presenting the specifically Welsh dimension - floating across on a turf, the miracle of the fish:
The Welsh poet, Iorwerth Fynglwyd (Edward Greybeard, 1480-1527) described the life of Saint Bridget originally in verse, in the course of which he also recalled some of the many miracles that have been attributed to her:

“She was a beautiful nun, the daughter of Dubtach, an Irish nobleman. She procured honey from stone for the poor and gave her distaff to a ploughman to do duty for his broken mould-board. She converted butter that had been turned into ashes into butter again and gave to a certain district all the cheese in the steward's store, but not so much as one was ever missed by him. She knew the fifteen prayers. Whenever it rained heavily she would throw her white winnowing sheet on the sunbeams. On one occasion when her father desired her to marry someone she did not like, one of her eyes fell out of its socket, which she afterwards put back and it was as well as ever. She floated from Ireland to Wales on a turf and landed in the Dovey. She made of rushes (brwyn) the beautiful fish - without a single bone - called brwyniaid (smelts or sparlina), which she scattered among the watercress. She visited St. Peter's in Rome and a festival on Candlemas Eve (February 1st) was established in her honour.” [2]

The reference to Saint Brigid's knowledge of 'the fifteen prayers' would appear to indicate a confusion in the poet's mind between the holy lady of Kildare and the 14th-century saint Bridget of Sweden, to whom a medieval devotion known as the 'Fifteen Oes' is attributed. The Swedish Bridget died in 1373 so perhaps it is understandable that her cult was more topical in the poet's lifetime. Indeed, in researching devotion to Saint Brigid of Kildare in Europe I have come across cases where churches originally dedicated to the Irish virgin were rebuilt in later times and dedicated to the Swedish widow, in a case of mistaken identity.

I found it interesting too that in the Welsh miracle of the fishes, there is a link to rushes, which in the Irish context are most famously associated with Saint Brigid's crosses:
Another legend tells of a severe fish famine at Conwy. Saint Bride (Ffraid) was one day walking along the banks of the River Conwy and she was throwing rushes into the water. She prayed that there would be an end to the famine, and in a few days the rushes were transformed into fish. Soon the river was teeming with the miraculous fish, which ever since have been known as brwyniaid (‘sparlings’), meaning ‘rush-like’. It is a small, tasty fish (Osmerus eperlanus), belonging to the same family as the trout and is comparatively rare in Britain. [3]

Yet it is clear that the poet Iorwerth Fynglwyd was familiar with the stories of Saint Brigid to be found in the Irish sources, one of the most famous being the manner in which she avoided marriage by plucking out her eye:
cywydd by Iorwerth Fynglwyd (fl. 1485-1527) to San Ffraid:

Y dydd, y ceisiodd dy dad
wra yt, a'i roi atad,
un o'th lygaid a neidiawdd
o'th ben, hyn a'th boenai'n hawdd;
a thrannoeth aeth yr wyneb
oll yn iach, ni bu well neb.

[The day your father attempted to find you a husband, and give him to you, one of your eyes jumped out of your head, and this inevitably hurt you; but the next day, all your face healed, no one had ever felt better.] [4]

Saint Brigid has continued as a source of interest and inspiration to Welsh poets, the contemporary poet Ruth Bidgood was commissioned by the BBC in 1979 to write a radio poem and produced a Hymn to Saint Ffraid for three voices. This has now been published in full in a 2006 collection entitled 'Symbols of Plenty'. Another one for my must-read list.

Finally, more evidence of continuing devotion to Saint Brigid can be seen in the Millennium project at Trearddur Bay, Anglesey. This is the place where she was said to have come ashore after crossing the Irish Sea on a grass sod. A splendid Celtic cross, carved from native stone, was erected in 2000. It has the following inscription:

On the column is St. Ffraid's hand holding the eternal flame of Kildare, together with the inscription:

A.D. 2000 [5]

I find this continuity of Welsh devotion to Ireland's patroness a wonderful tribute to how she was able to touch not only the people of her own country, but those of other lands over the centuries.


[1] Rev. Robert Williams, Enwogion Cymru – A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Welshmen from the earliest times to the present, and including every name connected with the Ancient History of Wales. (Llandovery, 1862), 156-157.

[2] Noel Walley, Saints of North Wales -Saint Ffraid, Saint Mary’s Prayers, and Bardsey Island. Accessed online:

[3] Robin Gwyndaf, Welsh Folk Tales, (National Museum of Wales, 2nd edition, 1995), 13.

[4] Feminine Sanctity - The Female Saints of Wales. Accessed online:

[5] For further details of the cross and of excavations at the site go to

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