Brigit of Kildare: Mary of the Gaels

Brigit of Kildare was a saint and founder of monasteries in Ireland. Along with Patrick and Columcille she is said to be one of the three patron saints of Ireland. Her legacy and impact on Irish and Scottish Christianity is profound. Her legends are likely the amalgamation of a medieval abbess and a pagan goddess both bearing the same name. The goddess Brigit was a triune goddess who was the wife of Bres and the daughter of Dagda. She was a goddess of poets, spring time, and fertility. She had two other sisters, of the same name, in her trinity: a goddess of healing and one of metalworking.

The saint Brigit was one with an extreme amount of miracles attributed to her and a great deal of veneration surviving up to modern times. She was often called “Mary of the Gaels” though when you read her life story she acted more like Jesus himself than the blessed virgin. There are a few different medieval sources for information about Brigit. In this article I will be looking at the version known as the Irish life of St Brigit, so called because it was written in the Irish language. This text describes in more detail the early life of Brigit, her childhood, her renouncing of marriage, and her being named a bishop. It also talks about an interaction between her and Patrick, which is something that the Latin life of Brigid (which you can read about HERE) does not do.

Brigit’s mother was the slave of a druid named Dubthach, who was later converted by Patrick, and when she gave birth to his daughter the girl became a slave as well. Brigit was herself raised a pagan by her druid father, though she exhibited many signs, from her infancy, that she was chosen by the Christian god for a special Christian life. The druid Dubthach and her mother knew this as well. Dubthach had a dream when she was still a little baby that three Christian clerics dressed in white robes were baptizing her. One of them spoke to the druid and told him to name her Brigit. I find it very interesting that this pagan druid had a vision of Christian clerics doing a Christian ritual who told him to name her after a pagan goddess. This is so very representative of the intermingling of both traditions in early Ireland.

Not only did Dubthach receive a dream about her but he also had a waking vision. One night he was out watching stars with his uncle (who was himself a Christian) and they witnessed a pillar of fire rising up from the house where the baby Brigit and her mother were sleeping and shooting up into the heavens. The druid’s Christian uncle said that she must be a holy girl and the druid agreed. As she was growing up she performed many miracles, which we don’t have the space to go into here. Most of them revolved around feeding the poor and animals when she wasn’t supposed to. Often when she would do this, the stores of food were not diminished by her generosity. Very much like the loaves and fishes with which Jesus fed five thousand people.

As she was growing older she was sent to help cater a local gathering of bishops. One of the bishops had been discussing a dream he had with his colleagues before Brigit arrived. He had seen the virgin mother Mary and had been told that she would come to dwell among them. When Brigit entered the dining hall he jumped up and shouted, “this is the Mary who I have seen in my dream.” He went on to declare about the land of Kildare, where they were gathered, “this site is open to heaven, and it will be the richest of all in the whole island; and today a girl, for whom it has been prepared by God, will come to us like Mary.“

This idea that there was a special part of the earth which is open to heaven is an old way of talking about a thin place, where the veil between heaven and earth is thin. Not only was there a sacred thin place where Brigit was to build her monastery but she was also identified as the Mother Mary. There were two divine dreams, one pagan and one Christian, which named the girl as both the goddess Brigit and the Virgin Mary. Perhaps this was an ancient way of saying that the same archetype of divine mother applies to both?

Brigit’s habit of giving away all the food and riches to whoever passed by and seemed to need help (whether human or animal) got her into a little bit of trouble. It seems that the food wasn’t always magically returned afterwards because her stepmother, the wife of the druid, had complained about her enough that the druid Dubthach decided to sell her as a serving slave to the king. Dubthach left Brigit in the carriage with his things on the palace lawn and when he returned from the meeting he discovered that Brigit had given away his precious and very valuable sword to a leper who was begging nearby. That was the final straw and Dubthach left her there in the bonds of slavery. As he was leaving, however, Brigit magically appeared beside him again. “Truly Dubthach,” the king said, “this girl can neither be sold nor bought.” Then the king set her free from the bonds of slavery and she decided to take a vow of celibacy and live a life devoted to God.

As she was kneeling to receive the veil and consecrate her new vocation as a nun by the authority of a local bishop named Mel, God intervened to give Brigit what the church never would. The text says,

“The bishop, being intoxicated with the grace of God there, did not know what he was reciting from his book, for he consecrated Brigit with the orders of a bishop. ‘Only this virgin in the whole of Ireland will hold episcopal ordination,’ said Mel. While she was being consecrated a fiery column ascended from her head.”

Then, just like now, the Roman Catholic church, to which these bishops belonged, would not ordain women, let alone consecrate them as bishops. It took a holy intervention from God for Brigit to be the exception to that rule and just as a dove descended on Jesus at his baptism so did another pillar of fire descend on Brigit to bless her consecration. This consecration as bishop by God directly was not based solely on an unbroken laying of hands going all the way back to Peter, but rather it was based on God’s call of Brigit and her holiness. It’s an alternative view on what authority looks like and how we should consecrate those in our communities who take on roles of leadership.

Patrick was very much a part of the institutional church and was ordained in the typical manner, though he himself had also been a slave. There is one story in this text about Brigit and Patrick meeting together. Brigit had arrived, with the bishop Mel who had consecrated her, at an assembly of people who had gathered to discuss a scandal with another bishop. A woman had come to Patrick with a child in her arms claiming that one of his clerics had impregnated her. The bishop denied the charge and everyone was at a loss as to how to discern the truth. When Brigit arrived Mel asked Patrick to leave because Brigit would not have felt comfortable performing a miracle in front of such a holy man as Patrick. After Patrick left, Brigit asked the woman what had happened. When the woman answered, Brigit announced that she was lying. Brigit then made the sign of the cross over her head and her tongue swelled up so big in her mouth that she could no longer speak. 

With the verdict having been announced, Patrick returned to the assembly. Then, still in the presence of Patrick, Brigit performed a miracle after all by asking the new born baby who its father was. The baby spoke and answered that it was another man and not the bishop who was its father. The crowd was furious and demanded that the lying woman be burned at the stake but Brigit intervened and instead prescribed her penance in the manner of an anamchara. After the woman completed her penance the swelling went away and all were left unharmed.

News of Brigit’s ability above and beyond that of Patrick spread quickly and later that day Brigit was summoned by the slave of a local pagan to come and bless his house. Brigit refused to accept the man’s hospitality when she arrived and opted instead to fast in the hopes of him deciding to receive baptism. He said, “I have indeed declared that Patrick and his household would not baptize me. But for your sake, I will believe.”

Despite being the illegitimate child of a slave, despite being a woman in a time and place where women could not be church leaders, and despite not having gone to seminary Brigit was still the most respected saint in Irish history (at least in this story). Her consecration ordained by God rather than by the church made it more legitimate, not less. The signs and dreams shown to pagans and Christians alike declared that she was both the virgin Mary mother of God and the Goddess of Spring and Poetry. She was a bridge between the two worlds.

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