No doubt you’ve heard of Ireland’s patron saint St Patrick, whose feast day is celebrated around the world every year on March 17th. But have you ever heard of St Brigid? She is another of Ireland’s patron saints and her feast day is today, February 1st.
Many details of St Brigid’s life are vague because she lived sixteen centuries ago, probably in the period c.450–550. It is believed that she may have been a pagan priestess before she converted to Christianity.
I live just outside Kildare Town in Co Kildare, which is a place very much associated with St Brigid as she founded a church, monastery, and convent there. St Brigid’s Cathedral now stands on the site of her original wooden church.
St Brigid was known for her acts of charity and her miracles. There are many stories of her giving generously to the poor. One of the legends associated with St Brigid is that she approached the King of Leinster seeking land for her abbey. He agreed to give her as much land as her cloak would cover. According to the legend, her cloak then spread out to cover an enormous part of Kildare called the Curragh (5,000 acres). St Brigid is also strongly associated with holy wells.
Despite her conversion to Christianity, some of her pagan practices remained. St Brigid and her nuns maintained a fire temple at Kildare which was a place where no men were allowed. Given the dominance of men throughout history, I love that these women were strong enough to preserve that female-only space.
The inscription reads ‘Foundations of St Brigid’s fire temple restored 1988’
Her legend has lasted down through the centuries. A very popular place name throughout Ireland is Kilbride, meaning ‘church of Brigid’. There are dozens of schools around the country named after her, not to mention the generations of girls who were called Brigid, Bridget, Bridie, Bríd or Biddy. The main female character in my own series of books, A Matter of Class, is named Bridget. Here is a quote from my first book, A Class Apart, which reveals how she was named:
St Brigid died around the year 524. Her feast day is celebrated on February 1st, the beginning of spring. St Brigid’s crosses are traditionally made on this day – I remember making them when I was in primary school. They are woven out of rushes. The crosses are hung up in Irish homes (tradition says they help ward off disease) and remain there all year round until the next Festival of St Brigid comes along.
If you’d like to try making a St Brigid’s cross yourself, you can find instructions on the website of a primary school in Portlaoise, Co Laois (a neighbouring county of Kildare). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the school is called Scoil Bhríde! If you don’t have any rushes to hand, you can use straws.
If you are ever in the vicinity of Kildare Town, I would highly recommend popping into the local Kildare Heritage Centre where you will get a detailed history of the area and of St Brigid. They also sell gorgeous tiny bottles containing shavings of bog oak which you can burn like incense to release the bog oak fragrance, a distinctive smell of Ireland.
Finally, it is important to note that the name Brigid derives from the noun ‘brí’ which means ‘strength’ or ‘vigour’. A fierce femme indeed.
Lá Fhéile Bríde shona daoibh – happy St Brigid’s Day to you all!