Friday 19 February 2016

'Proto-martyr of the Irish Church': Saint Odhran, Charioteer of Saint Patrick

February 19 is the feast of Saint Odhran who is remembered in hagiographical tradition as the charioteer of Saint Patrick. He is more importantly remembered as having laid down his life for his saintly master and is described below as 'the proto-martyr of the Irish Church' by a nineteenth-century female writer on early missionaries to Europe: 

After his [Saint Patrick's] departure from Munster, as he passed through the territory of the Hyfailge in Kildare, and parts of the King's and Queen's Counties, he escaped even a more imminent danger through the fidelity of Odran, his charioteer. One Foilge Berrard, a Pagan, had boasted that if he met Patrick he would kill him, in revenge for the overthrow of the idol Cenn Cruagh, which had been Foilge's god. His boast was kept back from Patrick by his people, but it was known to Odran, his charioteer. Accordingly, when they came into Foilge's district Odran said to the saint, "Since I have been a long time driving for you, Patrick, let me take the chief seat for this day, and be you the charioteer, Father." Patrick consented, and changed seats. After this Foilge came up and dealt a thrust through Odran, believing him to be Patrick. Odran at the moment of death forgave his murderer, and became the proto-martyr of the Irish Church, as well as the only martyr in S. Patrick's time.

Mrs Anne Fulton Hope, The Conversion of the Teutonic Race, 2nd edition ed. Rev J.B. Dalgairns (London, 1887), 212.

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Tuesday 9 February 2016

'A matter of holiness with wheels under it '

Photo credit:
Yesterday we were posed a question by Daphne Pochin Mould: 'Can we, in fact, sum up the essential characteristics of the real Brigid and her life?' and we will bring this octave of posts in honour of our national patroness to a close with her answer:

To some extent, we can. Brigid is, in a sense, a democratic saint, a woman who made good in spite of the handicap of birth and breeding. She was, quite obviously, a girl of great determination and the ability to get her own way, she made up her mind to give herself wholly to God and overcame all the obstacles in her path. She was a woman of God and of prayer,  but if the legends mean anything at all, she was also a woman of the people. She did not cut herself off from the world inside the Kildare rath; she went out from it to help people, spiritually and materially, to bring aid wherever it was needed. This combination of total dedication to God, of the life of prayer with practical ability, knowledge and common sense, is still as much needed in modern life as in the Ireland of St. Brigid. The statues showing Brigid standing still are all wrong; they give an impression of a static saint; whereas the reality would seem to have been a matter of holiness with wheels under it, Brigid in her chariot with horses at the trot. The modern Irish woman can move a great deal faster, but the direction in which to steer remains a good one, and for which there is still a need.

D.D.C. Pochin Mould, Saint Brigid (Dublin and London, 1964), 74.

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Monday 8 February 2016

Saint Brigid - an Outdated Patron Saint?

As the Octave of the Feast of Saint Brigid draws to a close we return to the 1964 study of Saint Brigid by Daphne Pochin Mould. In her final chapter, 'Saint Brigid and Modern Ireland'  the author makes the point that the traditional way of life with which Saint Brigid was so intimately connected has now disappeared:
...Times have changed. Modern life leaves little leisure for the gracious round of folk custom, modern discoveries have replaced prayer and traditional skill with surer methods. The modern hospital, the ambulance plane, the vet with a whole litany of modern drugs at his disposal; these are the things to which mainlander and islander now turn for help in trouble. There is no need today to use any of the ancient prayers to Brigid for help, when we look for it rather at the end of a telephone line! Even the way of country life is so changed that the old prayers cease to have point or place. The fire is no longer smoored but switched off! 
Thus one may say that a whole section, and a very large section, of the cult of Brigid is linked to a way of life that is no more.  
On the other hand, should one go on to claim that Brigid herself is irrelevant to modern Ireland; that the country should change to some more contemporary patron? Does Brigid still set a headline for Irishwomen, and Irishmen for that matter? Can we, in fact, sum up the essential characteristics of the real Brigid and her life?
D.D.C. Pochin Mould, Saint Brigid (Dublin and London, 1964), 73-74.

Answer tomorrow!

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Sunday 7 February 2016

The Most Beautiful Star in the Sky of Ireland

Such are the accounts of the legendaries. And while some gathered these fantastic stories, others related the daily wonders of her life and the benefits which her solicitous mercy unceasingly scattered over the little and the poor. She had passed everywhere, everywhere her charity had left ineffaceable traces, and the country of Kildare had not a rivulet, a house, or a stone, which did not relate a virtue or a miracle of Bridget.* Can we wonder that so alluring a history charmed the imagination and the heart of a poetic race, and that the sweet form of the heroine shines radiantly amid the saints of the legend as the most beautiful star in the sky of Ireland?

* Topog. Hiberniae. 

L. Tachet de Barneval, 'The Saints of Erin' -  Legendary History of Ireland (Boston, 1857), p.73.

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Saturday 6 February 2016

Saint Brigid 'the most generous heart'

In the stories which nourished the easy faith of the Irish people, and which enlivened their misery; in the inexhaustible, yet simple, story of charity, one name returns more frequently than others; it is the name of St. Bridget. Bridget was the most generous heart, the tenderest and most feeling soul among all these holy souls, all these benevolent hearts that loved and succored poor Ireland; but it seems, too, as though the popular imagination took pleasure in portraying, in the form of a woman,  the sweetest of powers, the dearest of virtues.

L. Tachet de Barneval, 'The Saints of Erin' -  Legendary History of Ireland (Boston, 1857), p.67

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Friday 5 February 2016

Saint Brigid the Peacemaker

Vignettes from the Lives of the Irish Saints: Saint Brigid the Peacemaker

She was also gifted with an extraordinary power of reconciling disputes between neighbors. She was often appealed to in cases of this sort, and she scarcely ever failed in arranging matters amicably. Sometimes she adjusted the dispute by her good sound sense, sometimes by her miraculous power. On one occasion, she was met by two brothers of the O'Neill family, who were contending at the time for the supreme authority. Clonald, on meeting Saint Bridget, asked her blessing, as he was pursued by his brother Corpreus, who was anxious to take away his life, in order that he might enjoy his father's kingdom. Saint Bridget blessed him, and they had not advanced many steps, when Corpreus was seen advancing with his men. Saint Bridget's companions became dreadfully alarmed, but she told them not to fear, that there would be no encounter between the hostile bands. Clonald stands still, and Corpreus embraces him at the request of Saint Bridget. After a short stop, they both took their respective courses, each quite unconscious of having embraced the enemy whom he intended to despatch in the first warlike encounter.

The Life of Saint Bridget, "The Mary of Erin" by an Irish Priest (New York, 1861),

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Thursday 4 February 2016

The Mary of Erin

...The Irish always had a most tender love for the Blessed Virgin, and Saint Bridget was called by the Irish saints "the second Mary," "the Mary of Erin." Nothing could give us a more exalted idea of her sanctity, nothing could express their love more forcibly. To place her near the mother of God would be a great honor; to place her next her is the greatest mark of respect they could pay her. Mary was their refuge in every danger, and to honor both by the same act, they called them by the same name.

But this did not satisfy the piety of these holy men. They wished to extol her still more. She is called the "Mother of Christ" partly on account of her great resemblance to the Blessed Virgin, and partly on account of her perfection; for Christ himself has said," that he, who does my will, is my father and my mother." In this sense she deserved this title, for the will of God was "her meat and her drink;" she was never so happy as when she was carrying out the designs of His mercy.

The Life of Saint Bridget, "The Mary of Erin" by an Irish Priest (New York, 1861), 169-170.

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Wednesday 3 February 2016

Teagasc Bhríde - Brigid's Instruction

Gaelic Journal, Vol. 4, No. 46 (1893)
We continue the octave of posts in honour of Saint Brigid with a look at one of the lesser-known poems preserved in the oral tradition - Teagasc Bhríde - Brigid's Instruction or Teaching. Daphne Pochin Mould on page 67 of her 1964 study of Saint Brigid introduces it thus:
A fairly long poem called Brigid's Instruction, Teagasc Bhríde, was known throughout Ireland from at least the beginning of the 18th century. Fragments have been collected from Irish speakers at the beginning of the present century. Brigid appears to the author of the poem and explains that she has been allowed back to earth to give him the instruction that will bring him to the City of Glory, where Jesus Christ sits with his mother beside him.
Ireland's first President, Dr Douglas Hyde (1860-1949), took down a version of the poem from a monoglot Irish speaker, Martin Rua O Gillarná from Lisanishka near Monivea, County Galway, and included it in the first volume of his Religious Songs of Connacht. I have reproduced only the English translation as I don't have time to transcribe the Irish original from the old script. The volume is available online if you wish to see both versions on facing pages. The illustration on the left is from another version referred to by Hyde in one of his footnotes. Somehow I doubt that Brigid's Instruction will have much appeal to either the neo-pagan followers of the goddess Brigid or to the contemporary followers of 'Celtic Christianity'. What we have here is an expression of an older strain of popular Irish Catholicism altogether:


The teaching of Breed for his good to the sinner,  
To take his father's advice and blessing, 
To plead for ever with Mary Mother, 
A guiding-star to our foolish women.

The Son of the Woman who earned no scandal, 
 The Son who never forgot the Father, 
 It was He himself who made our purchase, 
 And through His side that the lance's thrust went. 

 The poem goes on to say of those who have no pleasure in alms or in mercy : 

 The darkest night in this world at present 
 Dark without mist or stars or moonlight, 
 Is brighter than their day when brightest. 

 Could you come with me but once, and see it, 
 You would sooner be hacked in little pieces, 
 Be boiled, be burned, and be roasted,
Be put in an oven till you had perished, 
 Be ground in a quern with hundreds grinding, 
- Sooner than live in a sin that is mortal. 

 Go to Mass when you rise at morning, 
 As you should do, regard the altar. 
 See, Christ Jesus is thereby standing, 
 In the priest's hand is His sacred body. 

 Go home again when that is finished, 
 Give wanderers lodging until the morning, 
 Food and drink to him who is empty. 

 Is your friend ill, or on sick-bed lying, 
 Bring him whatever will give him comfort, 
- Never earn the curse of widow. 

 When to your bed you get at night-time 
 Go on your knees your prayers repeating, 
 Do the same when you rise next morning.

 What the poem chiefly teaches is to do good deeds : 

Do good deeds without lie or falsehood, 
 Do without lie good deeds on earth here, 
 That is the one straight way to follow, 
 That is the road, and go not off it.

D. Hyde, ed. and trans., Abhráin Diadha Chúige Connacht or The Religious Songs of Connacht, Cuid I (London and Dublin, 1906), 96-101. 

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Tuesday 2 February 2016

Saint Brigid by Daphne Pochin Mould

Cover illustration by Piet Sluis
I have been enjoying a re-read of the late Daphne Pochin Mould's 1964 book on Saint Brigid, one of a number of worthwhile titles on the early Irish church and its saints published by Clonmore and Reynolds. I find them one of the more interesting Irish publishing houses, Clonmore being the Anglo-Irish aristocrat Viscount Clonmore, who at some personal cost converted to Catholicism in the early 1930s. He also acted as translator for a number of books originally written in French, titles such as the Daniel-Rops collection The Miracle of Ireland which this publisher made available for an Irish audience. Saint Brigid is a slim but important volume as the author had access to the research notes for a projected book on Saint Brigid by Father Felim Ó Briain, O.F.M. Sadly, this was left unfinished at the time of the scholarly Franciscan's death, a great pity indeed since Father Ó Briain had published a number of pioneering studies of Irish hagiography and early Church history. Dr Mould admits at the end of the first chapter:
I do not pretend to Father Felim's scholarship, and this is not the book that he would have written had be lived. I would however like to present it as a tribute to the memory of a very learned Irishman who was not afraid to describe St. Brigid's place in the world as standing "head and shoulders above all the saints of the Gael".
D.D.C. Pochin Mould, Saint Brigid (Dublin and London, 1964), 12.

Over the course of seven chapters and seventy-five pages the author examines:

1. The Enigma of St. Brigid
2.  St. Brigid's Ireland
3. The Historical St. Brigid
4. The Legend of St. Brigid
5. The Veneration of St. Brigid
6. St. Brigid's Festival
7. St. Brigid and Modern Ireland

Whilst it is obvious that this book predates the current New Age interest in the goddess Brigid, as well as the raft of recent scholarship on hagiography and historical revisionism of cherished positions about that 'Miracle of Ireland', it is by no means an uncritical study. For example, the very first words of the book make a candid admission:
Nobody would have any difficulty in writing the certain facts about St. Brigid of Ireland on the back of a postage stamp, an ordinary small stamp, not a large special issue.
This leads to an appreciation of the difference between hagiography and history or biography. Nor is this the only thorny issue the author confronts as she tackles the issue of the saint's relationship to the goddess head on too:
There really is no half-way house. Either Brigid is a hoax, a whitewashed fertility goddess, or she is Ireland's greatest woman saint to date, one indeed of the world's great saints and great women.

The book sets out to provide an answer using all of the sources available - hagiographical, genealogical, liturgical and historical. There is a very good summary of the cult of Saint Brigid in countries outside Ireland, although the chapter on Saint Brigid's Festival relies heavily on Scottish Gaelic sources. Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica is itself something which has come under critical scrutiny since this book was written. But overall this volume packs a lot of punch in its seventy five pages and as I like to mark the feasts of our Irish patrons with an octave of posts in their honour I will bring a few more selections from it over the next week.

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Monday 1 February 2016

The Life and Legend of Saint Brigid

Rev. S. Baring-Gould Lives of British Saints 

To celebrate the Feast of Saint Brigid, below is an account of her life and legend from a redoubtable Victorian lady author, Mrs Arthur Bell. I was initially confused by the attribution of her work at the Internet Archive to 'N. D'Anvers' but learnt that this was a device to make her sound like a male author, the pseudonym being composed of the elements 'N' for Nancy, her own first name, and Anvers for the Belgian birthplace of her father. Bell was a pioneer in the popularisation of art history and had an interest in the depiction of the saints in art. Thus in her account of Saint Brigid below, she ends by describing the symbolism associated with depictions of the Irish patroness. In general her account takes an uncritical and straightforward narrative approach to the life of Saint Brigid, recalling most of the more famous episodes from her hagiography. I note also in her opening description of the 'simple, child-like faith' of the Irish patrons a typically Victorian belief in these supposed 'Celtic' attributes, which contrasted, of course, with the supposed hard-headedness of the Anglo-Saxon. So enjoy the recapitulation of all our favourite stories about Saint Brigid on this her feast day!



THERE are few more romantic legends than those of Saints Patrick and Bridget, two Saints of the fifth century, whose memory is peculiarly dear to the Irish, though they are also greatly honoured in the rest of the British Isles as well as in France. Very little is really known of either of them, but there is absolutely no doubt that they lived and were both earnest workers in the cause of their Master, suffering much for the truth, and, although they did not work all the wonderful miracles with which they are credited, achieving many spiritual victories through their simple, child-like faith... 

...Full as is the legend of St. Patrick of romantic beauty, it is equalled if not excelled by that of St. Bridget, who ranks with him and St. Columba, the Apostle of Scotland, as one of the most revered Saints of Ireland. The daughter of a great Irish chieftain named Dubtach and a beautiful slave, Bridget, or Bride, as she is sometimes called, was brought into the world under a cloud of disgrace, for her mother is said to have been driven out of the house of her lover and master by his legitimate wife, just before the birth of her little one. In spite of this unpropitious beginning, however, the future Saint was brought up as a Christian, and when she was about three or four years old she was received into her father s house. She was often, it is said, taken to hear St. Patrick preach, and on one occasion fell asleep during his sermon. Before she was fourteen she had resolved to dedicate her life to God, but her father opposed her and wished her to marry a wealthy suitor. To escape from what she considered a desecration, Bridget prayed to God to destroy the beauty that made her so attractive to men, and it is said that her petition was answered by the loss of one of her eyes. Some claim that she received the veil from the hands of St. Patrick himself, whilst others assign that honour to St. Mel, the nephew and disciple of the great Apostle of Ireland. Who ever was the officiating Bishop on the occasion, three very re markable incidents are said to have occurred at St. Bridget's consecration: a column of fire descended upon her head as she knelt at the feet of the holy man, hence her name of the Fiery Dart; when his hands had touched her, and the dedica tion to God was irrevocable, her sight was restored to her; and when she laid her hand upon the altar, which was of wood, it sent forth a living green shoot. This last miracle is, however, by some assigned to a later period, when certain aspersions had been cast on the reputation of the Saint, and her innocence was proved by the sprouting forth of a branch on the altar at which she knelt, praying God to vindicate her by some sign of His favour.

After her consecration St. Bridget withdrew with two or three companions, who had also taken the vows, to a grove of oaks on the site of the present Kildare, the name of which signifies the cell (or church) of the oak, and the holy women had not been there long before the fame of their wonderful piety spread far and near. On one occasion, when a tame wolf belonging to the chief of the district had been shot by mistake by a peasant, St. Bridget saved the culprit from death by calling to her side a fierce white wolf, which after she had touched it became as meek as a lamb, followed her to the palace, and took the place of the lost pet. This was but one amongst many instances of the power of the saintly maiden over wild animals, and her home in the oak grove was soon sought by all in need of her intervention with the dumb creatures. The little community at Kildare quickly became the nucleus of a great community of virgins, who lived in separate cells, meeting for meals and prayer only, and looking up to St. Bridget as their head. The Abbess, though undoubtedly an excellent guide in all things connected with the spiritual life, seems to have been a very indifferent housekeeper, the result, perhaps, of the fact that, even when she was in her father's home, miracles had been performed to save her from the effects of her improvidence, for, when she had given all the milk and butter under her care to the poor, her stepmother always found the right quantity in the pans when she went to inspect the dairy. All through her life St. Bridget met with similar good luck, if luck it could be called. When a Bishop came to her settlement in the grove with a long train of attendant priests, and the larder in the big oak was bare, the Abbess merely milked the one cow owned by the community three times and all their wants were supplied. Again, when St. Bridget came in from an excursion wet through and sought in her cell for somewhere to hang her dripping cloak, a sunbeam, strong enough to sustain its weight, darted in at the slit serving as window, and on this sunbeam the cloak remained until it was dry. Throughout her long and chequered career there was never any need for the favoured saint to take thought for the morrow; she was so hedged about with love, both human and Divine, that every need was supplied as soon as it arose.

As a matter of course, the fame of all these wonders spread far and near, and the 'Fiery Dart', or, as she was sometimes called, the 'Mary of the Irish', because a certain holy man who had seen the Blessed Virgin in a vision had hailed Bridget as her living image, soon rivalled even St. Patrick in the number and zeal of her followers. The white-cloaked sisters of the Order of St. Bridget were to be seen all over Ireland, and many were the churches and monasteries which were built through their initiative. The rule given to these holy women by their revered Abbess was, though extremely rigid so far as individual conduct was concerned, remarkably unconventional with regard to the relations of the nuns with the outside world. They sought to serve God rather by going out amongst the poor and suffering than by shutting themselves away from all human intercourse, and St. Bridget herself seems to have led quite an exciting life; driving about in her chariot and pair to preach in the open air, or to visit some royal convert. On one occasion she nearly lost her life through her naive endeavour to do two things at once. The driver of her chariot was also the chaplain of her nunnery, and, St. Bridget having asked his advice in some spiritual difficulty, he forgot to guide his steeds as he answered her. The result was that one of them ran away, and the other slipped partly down a precipice, dragging the chariot after him. Nothing dismayed, the charioteer continued to hold forth and the nun to listen, never recognising their peril, till a rush to their rescue from some passers-by brought them face to face with the reality.

Before his death St. Patrick had asked that his shroud should be worked by St. Bridget, and it would seem as if the very spirit of the great Apostle had remained with her, for after her sacred task was completed her power over evil was greatly increased. Even the mad and distraught are said to have recognised her superiority at a glance, and as long as she was present their ravings would cease. Once a dangerous lunatic who had escaped from confinement dashed in amongst the white-cloaked nuns, who, led by St. Bridget, were proceeding  to some service. All except the Abbess fled at his approach, but she addressed the sufferer calmly, calling upon him to quote some words of his Master and her own. At once he became calm, and replied in a steady voice: 'O holy Bridget, I obey thee. Love God and all will love thee . . . fear God and all will fear thee'. The recovery was, however, only temporary, and the next moment the glimpse of reason was gone. The poor man fled away again as mad as ever, but the nuns never forgot the incident.

St. Bridget, like St. Patrick, is said to have lived to a great age, but nothing certain is known of the date or manner of her death. She is supposed, however, to have drawn her last breath in her convent at Kildare, surrounded by her sister nuns, and a fire was kept burning there in her honour until it was quenched in 1220 by order of the Bishop of the diocese. Later, St. Bridget's fire was re-kindled for a time, but at the Reformation its continuance was again forbidden. No human veto could, however, quench the fire of love for the maiden saint, which still glows in the hearts of her votaries. More churches have been built in her honour, more children have been named after her, than after any other Irish saint, and her memory is preserved in many a village remote from the scene of her earthly pilgrimage. Kilbrides are nearly as numerous in Scotland as in Ireland ; Kirkbride, Bridekirk, and Brigham in Cumberland, with Bridstow and Bridge-Rule in Devon shire, are all memorials of her, and the church of St. Bride's, in Fleet Street, as well as the prison of Bridewell, prove that even in the time of Wren she was still held in honour in Protestant London.

St. Bridget is generally represented wearing the picturesque dress of her order, with the long white cloak and hood forming a becoming framework to the face. She holds a large bowl in her hands, and a cow is introduced beside her in memory of the miraculous supply of milk and butter, alluded to above, on account of which she is supposed to be the special patron of cows, especially in certain districts of Belgium, where the peasants bring rings and other small articles to be blessed by the priest on her fete day, February 1, in the belief that their sick cattle will be healed by being touched with them. Some times St. Bridget holds a crosier as Abbess, sometimes a green branch, the latter in allusion to the miracle of the altar. More rarely a column of fire is seen above her head, or it is introduced over the cell in which she is praying. Instances also occur of a goose being placed beside her, the reason for which is obscure, but it has been suggested that it is because that bird is the type of the end as well as the beginning of winter, and in the South spring begins about February 1, the fete day of the saint.

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