Tuesday 6 February 2018

Is Irish devotion to Saint Brigid written into our DNA?

Yesterday we looked at how Irish devotion to Saint Brigid is described in the pages of the 1907 book Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland by Father J. A. Knowles. Following this section, the author goes on to discuss the writings of the various Lives of Saint Brigid, of which more anon. But he cannot help returning to the theme of Irish love for the national patroness and suggests that reason for it lies in our DNA:
If we seek the key to the intense love and veneration for St. Brigid that rules and sways the Celtic heart to-day, as in the centuries gone by, we must look for it in one of the noblest traits of the Irish character. No matter what our faults may be, we, the children of the Gael, can never be charged by our bitterest enemies with ingratitude to our friends and benefactors. Wherever, in our chequered history, a hand has been held out to bestow a favour upon our race, we treasure up the memory of the good deed and pour benedictions on the head of the giver. St. Brigid, after our National Apostle, was the truest and best friend Ireland has ever had, or ever will have.
At this time it was commonplace to claim that one could identify racial traits from which a 'national character' could be deduced. The 'Celt' was dreamy and otherworldly, in sharp contrast to the hard-headed Anglo-Saxon who had his feet firmly on the ground. This sort of racial stereotyping may seem like harmless bunkum but one might argue that it did have an impact in what was an age of imperialism. The campaign for Irish self-determination, for example, begged the question of whether the naive, childlike 'Celt' was capable of ruling himself without the paternalistic guiding hand of the imperial family of which the solid Anglo-Saxon was the head.

I have also previously referred to another idea, common to writers of this time, that Saint Patrick's mission to convert the pagan Irish was a single-handed heroic endeavour of epic proportions. We have already seen Father Knowles liken it to a 'triumphal procession'.  He now applies some of the same thinking to Saint Brigid whom he credits with having 'infused a vigour and energy into the Irish Church, which it maintains down to the present day':
During her long life she, like her Divine Master, "went about doing good." She marked out the path of perfection which many an Irish virgin has since trodden, with happiest spiritual results. She infused a vigour and energy into the Irish Church, which it maintains down to the present day. Her works of charity relieved distress in many an Irish home. Her prayers strengthened and nurtured the infant Church, left by St. Patrick, into a vigorous manhood. Her example stimulated the guardians of the sanctuary to renewed effort to evangelise those not reached by the Apostle, St. Patrick, and to spread the Faith in lands beyond the seas. Her intercession has guided and preserved the Irish Church through many a storm of persecution and bloodshed, chronicled in the annals of our country. Her protecting hand is still extended over our Isle, that no spiritual harm may befall the Church which her blessed hands so laboriously toiled to extend and establish on a firm and lasting foundation. How, then, considering such a record of favours bestowed, could the children of this favoured land ever forget their benefactress and patroness — St Brigid?
Although I have read a good deal of Victorian devotional literature on Irish saints over the past few years I find this approach by Father Knowles one of the most memorable. Tomorrow we will continue with what he sees as the dire consequences for Ireland should we ever try to cast off our devotion to our benefactress and patron.

Rev. J.A. Knowles, O.S.A., Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, (Dublin, 1907), 16-18.

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