Sunday 1 February 2015

Saint Brigid's Day

To celebrate the feast of our beloved national patroness, below is a piece published over eighty years ago, in which the writer, Mrs Leonard Wheeler, dips into the hagiographical tradition to present a portrait of Saint Brigid. I have the impression that this was perhaps written for an American audience but I have no further information on the author. Her work is blessedly free of any allusions to Saint Brigid being a pagan deity thinly disguised, for example she acknowledges that the old writers speak of our saint having been born at sunrise, but Mrs Wheeler sees this, not as evidence of pagan sun-worship, but of Brigid's soul being akin to the sun in its clarity.

St. Brigid's Day

Many an Irish mother will be telling her children to-night the story of St. Brigid the Bright, the lover of the poor, and the friend of the weary and outcasts of the earth, whose birth is commemorated throughout the Emerald Isle on the 1st of February.

Brigid it was who cared for the birds and the animals and was called "The Mother of the Flocks" because of her kindness to her sheep, who fed a hungry hound with the food from her own table, and the story goes that there were still the same number of pieces of bacon remaining after she had given two to the dog. It was said that the touch of her fingers sent the cold mists from the rivers, that her gentle blessing calmed the wild birds till they fed from her hand. Brigid had a dairy with twelve cows; she divided her churning into twelve parts in honour of the Twelve Apostles, and the Irish mother tells her child there was yet a thirteenth part left - that was the biggest part of them all. That was in honour of the Christ Who was the Lord of the Twelve, and St. Brigid gave it away to the poor people who worked hard for a living and could not afford butter for their bread. Cows and dairies are her particular care, and she is the Saint of Dairymen. Where her pictures are seen. she wears a cross over her head, and there is a cow near by in the background.

Her birth, being in the sixth century, is veiled somewhat in the cloak of contradictory legends, as in most cases, but it is certain that she was born in Connacht, and her mother was a godly working woman, very devoted to the best traditions of the Celtic Faith. Her father was a rich man of Munster, with whom she was living between the period she was brought up by a bard, who taught her the beauty of song and poetry, and the time that she took the veil at Kildare, and founded the monastery which was the nucleus of many such beautiful retreats. Old writers say that she was born at sunrise - a poetic fancy, maybe, but an apt one. For her soul was akin to the sun, undarkened by any fear or misgiving. If she were aware of any strangeness in her powers, it did not alarm her calm spirit. Neither had she any sort go self-consciousness - like the sun that shone on her sweet face, she went on her simple way, singing about the daily tasks that she did in field or dairy, giving of her splendour and warmth to the cold and suffering as they came her way.

She must have had little time to think of herself, for a more industrious saint never trod the earth, She wove the first cloth in Ireland, and probably steeped it in her buttermilk, for modern ideas of manufacture were as far from her dreams as the modern conceptions of medical practice. She was a healer of sickness, and her patients included the birds, beasts, and fishes too. Not only the sicknesses of the body, but the diseases of the mind, were her care, and "Victorious Bright Brigid "loved not war. When she was asked to attend the warriors, she said: "Aye, but before going with the Angels to battle, let us run with the Angels to the Church, for the Lord is greater than any poem of Victory!"

Small wonder is it that the Irish love St. Brigid, the "Fiery Arrow", the Mary of the Gael. Small wonder that she is enshrined in their loyal hearts next to St. Patrick alone, and that her bones lie buried in the same grave with the Patron Saint himself, who baptised her mother, and in whose steps Brigid herself so bravely trod.

And as the twilight falls to-night on the humble homes of Ireland as well as in its old castle halls, the old legends will be repeated as the fires are covered in, and the beautiful prayer of the long centuries will be said:

"I save this fire as Christ saved everyone. Brigid beneath it, the Son of Mary within it, let the three Angels most high in heaven keep this house and its people sheltered till dawn of day."


The Irish Monthly, Vol. 60, No. 704 (Feb., 1932), pp. 91-92.

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