Wednesday 1 February 2017

'This extraordinary woman' : Saint Brigid

February 1 is the feast of Saint Brigid, secondary patron of Ireland and to mark the occasion below is a summary of her life from a County Mayo born historian and journalist, Martin Haverty (1809-1887). The author draws on the major episodes from hagiography and ends with a dismissal of the later medieval tradition that Saint Brigid shares a common grave in Down with Saint Patrick:

...of all the Irish saints of the first century of Christianity in this country the highest position, next to that of St. Patrick himself, is unanimously yielded to St. Brigid. This extraordinary woman belonged to an illustrious race, being lineally descended from Eochad, a brother of Conn of the Hundred Battles, monarch of Ireland in the second century, and was born about the year 453, at Fochard, to the north of Dundalk, where her parents, although a Leinster family, and therefore belonging to Leath Mogha, or the southern part of Ireland, were then sojourning. As she was remarkable for sanctity from her childhood, it is possible that she had become known to St. Patrick, by whom her biographers say she was baptized. She received the veil from St. Maccaille, in one of the earliest convents for religious women founded in Ireland, and her zeal for establishing nunneries was exercised throughout her life with wonderful results. She travelled into various parts of Ireland for this purpose, being invited by many bishops to found religious houses in their dioceses: and at length the people of Leinster became jealous of her attention to the other provinces, and sent a deputation to her in Connaught entreating her to return, and offering land for the purpose of founding a large nunnery. This was about the year 480, or shortly after; and it was then that she commenced her great house of Kildare, or the Church of the Oak, which soon became the most famous and extensive nunnery that has ever existed in Ireland. A bishop was appointed to perform the pontifical duties connected with it, an humble anchorite named Conlaeth being chosen for that office; and the concourse of religious and pilgrims who flocked to it from all quarters, soon created in the solitude a city which became the chief town of all Leinster. The vast numbers of young women and pious widows who thronged round St. Brigid for admission into her convent, present a singular feature in a country just emerging from paganism; and the identity of that monastic and ascetic form which Christianity, in all the purity and fervor of its infancy, thus assumed in Ireland, as in all other countries, with the form which it has continued to retain, in all ages, in the Catholic Church, must strike every student of history. St. Brigid has been often called "The Mary of Ireland;" a circumstance which shows, not that the primitive Irish Christians confounded her with the Mother of Our Lord—a silly mistake which some modern writers have thoughtlessly attributed to them—but that they felt that the most exaggerated praise which they could bestow upon their own great saint was to compare her with the Blessed Virgin.

One of the most distinguishing virtues of St. Brigid was her humility. It is related that she sometimes attended the cattle on her own fields; and whatever may have been the extent of the land bestowed upon her, it is also certain that a principal source of subsistence for her nuns was the alms which she received. The habit of her order was white, and for centuries after her time her rule was followed in all the nunneries of Ireland.

The Four Masters record the death of St. Brigid at the year 525; and according to Cogitosus, one of her biographers, her remains were buried at the side of the altar, in the Cathedral Church of Kildare, and not, as some late traditions have it, in the same tomb with the apostle of Ireland in Downpatrick.

Martin Haverty, The History of Ireland from the Earliest Period to the Present Time (New York, 1871), 75-77.

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