Traditionally, February marked the transition from winter to spring in Ireland, icy rain watering green shoots. For the early medieval Irish, the month started with Imbolc, one of the quarter-days on which the calendar turned, the others being May 1st (Beltene), August 1st (Lugnasad) and November 1st (Samain). Above all, February 1st was the festival of Brigit of Kildare, arguably the most intriguing of all Irish saints. Brigit has been venerated for over a millennium and a half. She continues to be celebrated, whether imagined as a paragon of Christian virtue, the creator of the first St Brigit’s Cross, or a powerful goddess battling patriarchy.
The early medieval Irish, who provide us with our first evidence for Brigit emphasised her combination of power and nurture, praising her superiority to kings and her protection of the vulnerable. Brigit’s image was astoundingly complex. Yet, this complexity made her flexible and Irish travellers brought their admiration of Brigit with them to Britain and the Continent, popularising her as an international saint.
But who was St Brigit? Did she really exist? The early Irish thought so, although they were unsure as to her exact chronology. For instance, the Irish chronicles provide her with several different birth (439/42) and death dates (524/26/28). These were guesses, based on the idea that Brigit had been a younger contemporary of St Patrick. She was portrayed as his friend, even miraculously saving one of his bishops from a false accusation of paternity.
But there was more certainty regarding her family. Most sources agreed that Brigit was the daughter of a nobleman, Dubthach, and a female slave, Broicsech. She was part of a wider kindred called the Fothairt, who were mainly scattered throughout Leinster, including a branch at the Church of Kildare. Incidentally, a misreading of ‘Fothairt’ gave rise to a later association of Brigit with Fochairt (Faughart, Co. Louth). One of the most significant details, though, was Brigit’s slave origins. For instance, Broicsech’s pregnancy did not stop Dubthach selling her to new owners and Brigit grew to adulthood, having been fostered by a druid. She eventually converted him to Christianity and freed her mother. These experiences are foundational for Brigit’s role as protector of the powerless.
Early Irish society was hierarchical and women, with few exceptions, had far less status than men. This did not stop Brigit, however: in her earliest Lives (saintly biographies) Brigit constantly outwits kings and nobles. She frees prisoners and saves her followers from unlawful death. Brigit is frequently shown as blazing with fire, a visual representation of her enormous power. This fire imagery is often interpreted as being pagan, although it should be pointed out that Brigit is explicitly filled with fire of the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, it was also recognised that the name Brigit, and some of her characteristics, may have originated in the pre-Christian past. The early medieval text known as Sanas Cormaic (Cormac’s Glossary) tells us that there were three Brigits, daughters of the Dagda, associated with poetry, smithcraft and healing respectively. These sisters were so important that ‘Brigit’ came to mean Goddess.
Brigit’s authority was also refracted through the great church of Kildare, of which she was the founder-saint. In the seventh century, Kildare was so influential that it vied with Armagh for the highest position within the Irish Church. While Kildare was ultimately unsuccessful, Brigit’s representation became more remarkable over time. By the ninth-century it was claimed that she was ‘accidently’ ordained to the grade of a bishop. Moreover, her role as patron of the Leinstermen was further enhanced. Brigit was the banfhlaith (female ruler) of the province; she appeared before the Leinstermen going into battle and, in one text, is even shown routing Colum Cille, who had appeared to support his relatives, the Uí Néill rulers of Tara. Brigit, nurturer of the weak, was also a warrior.
These many representations of Brigit go some way to explain her enduring popularity. Perhaps, her most important characteristic, one which spools through her multitude of depictions, is her approachability, her willingness to connect with her followers. This is demonstrated in one of the most famous medieval stories told about her. Gerald of Wales in his Topography of Ireland, written around 1188, relates how nineteen nuns at Kildare maintained a fire in St Brigit’s honour. Each night one of the nineteen would make sure that the fire remained burning, but every twentieth night Brigit herself performed the task. Brigit was at one with her community. And, this community was a national one. The very earliest writings we have about Brigit suggest that she is the mother of the Irish people, Muire na nGaeidhel, Mary of the Irish. What other Irish saint could possibly compete?