Chapter Four: Brigid in the Early Medieval Irish Church


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What was Brigid's role in the early Church in Ireland? The best way to answer this question is to carefully examine the stories of her life, the foundation of her monastery and the many ways Brighde manifested in early Celtic Christian hagiography. The needs of the people of Ireland had not changed, yet their religion did. How was this possible? How were their needs for a fertility fire and healing goddess kept? As we will see, this was made possible by Christianity's retention of the major deity of the Irish people through stories of a miraculous saint who, by no coincidence at all, had many of the same attributes and legends as their most important goddess.

The tradition of the writing of the Life of a great saint was taken full advantage of by the Church writers who sought to validate those deities whose worship could not be driven from the minds of the people. St. Brigid was one the first of the Irish saints to have her Life written down, which was no small feat considering the Church attitude towards women at the time. Through the stories of this pagan saint we will see why she was so important to the people of Ireland.

Lives & Legends of St. Brigid

The actual identity of the person who founded the monastery at Kildare is almost completely unknown. The information we have about Brigid of Kildare is almost entirely based on her Lives written at the earliest 150 years after her alleged existence. All other sources of information on the saint derives from legends and folk tales collected after the 17th century, most in the 19th and early 20th centuries, most of which are based on the earlier Lives.

There is so much uncertainty about her identity, that even the birthplace and parentage of St. Brigid varies widely from Life to Life. In some versions she is the daughter of well-to-do Christian parents, in others her mother is a slave of a pagan nobleman or cheiftan, who is sold to a druid before Brigid is born. In one version of this story, the name of her father is Dubthach, which is also the name of a legendary warrior in the Ulster sagas, a legendary poet, named Dubthach Lánfhile, and a St. Dubthach, whose feast is February 5. It is probably no coincidence that Brigid was also known as Bánfhile ("poet-woman") or that St. Dubthach's feast day is so near to St. Brigid's. It is likely that the story of the birth of Brigid was created with the knowledge of the legendary poet in mind, and that the feast day of the Saint Dubthach was chosen with the relationship of the legendary poet and St. Brigid in mind.

The stories of the actual birth of the Saint vary as well; some are very simple whereas others are quite elaborate. In some she is born on the threshold as her mother is walking outside at sunrise with a vessel of milk in her hand, and Brigid is washed with the milk her mother was carrying. In another version her mother tries to hold off Brigid's birth by sitting on a stone "which thereafter bore the mark of the child'shead and was venerated." This is not an uncommon story in which a saint sits, kneels upon or otherwise touches a stone, leaving a permanent impression. These stones, called "bullauns" (Irish for "bowl") are thought to be pre-Christian and possibly pre-Celtic symbols of female fertility, and are often found in connection with standing stones. Ones that regularly collect rainwater are often thought of as holy wells, and there are several throughout Ireland that are sacred to St. Brigid.

In other versions of the story in which Brigid is the daughter of noble Christians, as in the Life of St. Brigid by Cogitosus, Bishop of Kildare, her father is still named Dubthach and her mother Broicsech. He claims Brigid is of the Ui Eachach, a tribe located in modern Co.Louth, near Faughart. Other legends say she was born in the town of Faughart, while others say she was of the Fotharta, a tribe of people located west of the Bog of Allen.

There are many stories about the childhood of St. Brigid, in which she heals the sick, produces miraculous quantities of milk, bread and other foods, and people have visions of fire surrounding her, coming out of her head and never harming her. Other miracles involve swords, animals, healing, multiplication of food, especially milk and dairy products.

One of the most fascinating and historically impossible aspects of Brigid’s life is that of being the midwife and foster-mother of Jesus Christ. The story goes that Brigid was working at the inn where Mary & Joseph came looking for rest & food & water. She gave them of her own rations (there was a famine on) but had to turn them away from the inn. Later, she saw a light from the barn behind the inn, and went to inspect & got there just in time to deliver the infant Jesus. This is a Scots-Irish Highland version of the tale, not just Irish, so it’s relevance to the Kildare Saint is tenuous at best. However, the Brigid this story is associated with does indeed have her feast day on February 1.

There were five lives of St. Brigid written in the middle ages, all of which are somewhat unreliable, since they were all written well after the time she was supposed to have lived. The earliest life of St. Brigid was written by Cogitosus, who was at the time bishop of Kildare. The original Life was written in the Book of Kildare, which has been lost, and was probably composed no later than about 800, almost 200 years after Brigid was to have lived. Some say Cogitosus' Life is the first Irish saint's life, while others think it may have been third. Several other lives have been written, describing the many wondrous deeds performed by Brigid. The second life of St. Brigid was written by St.Breccan and was a lyrical life.

Cogitosus, as bishop, also had political reasons for wanting to promote his patron Saint, the first of which is financial. As discussed in Chapter Two, the more popular a saint becomes, the more pilgrimages were made on the feast of that saint, and the more pilgrims, the more donations. The best way in the medieval church to get money and power was through the vast numbers of pilgrims attracted by a powerful holy well and relics that have a strong reputation for performing miracles.

There are several versions of the story of how Brigid got "accidentally " ordained as a bishop, in fact the only woman bishop ever ordained. Double monasteries were not uncommon in the Celtic Church, but it is often explained as an accident in order to justify and explain how it could have been possible for men to be subject to an abbess. Sellner, a modern Christian author, explains her ordination as an act of God:

Brigit is Ordained as a Bishop

Brigit and certain virgins went to take the veil from Bishop Mel. He was very happy to see them. Because of her humility, Brigit held back so that she might be the last to whom a veil should be given. A fiery pillar rose from her head to the roof of the Church. Bishop Mel said to her: "Come, holy Brigit, that a veil may be placed on your head before the other virgins." Then, it happened that, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, the form of ordaining a bishop was read over Brigit."

Lady Gregory, patron and friend of W.B. Yeats was one of the great 19th century collectors of Irish folk legends. The folk legends of St. Brigid even more clearly reflect her origins as a pre-Christian figure, though the methods of worship or "traditions" carried on in honor of Brigid, are mere shadows of what the rituals might have been. However, they are very telling and carry the basic information necessary and have the main symbols of the goddess. That is, most of the stories have the elements of milk, cows or sheep, fire, poetry, healing and smithwork.

Many of the Lady Gregory stories about St. Brigid involve her giving away large quantities of food, especially milk, butter and cheese, but the supply is never exhausted. One tells of how she hung her cloak on a sunbeam, being too tired to notice it wasn’t a beam of wood. Both of these tales point to her association with a mother goddess and a goddess of the herds, as well as a fire-goddess, since the sun is often associated with fire gods and goddesses.

Though many sources seem to think that there may have actually been a figure named Brigid who lived in Kildare, according to Davies and Bowie, "it is likely that imagery and themes associated with a powerful pre-Christian goddess figure became associated with her." Some scholars, even those who have studied her Lives in detail doubt her very existance. "St. Brigit seems to have been a euhemerized deity," says Sharpe, who analysed in detail several of the many Latin Lives of St. Brigid. He goes on to comment that it is "hardly surprising that hagiographers one or two centuries later had no historical information to go on." Other scholars share this opinion, and one concludes "The goddess of poetry, healing, and the metal arts thus became the Christian patroness of learning, healing, and domestic arts." The same author also says that he does believe that there may have been women named Brigid who became nuns at Kildare and Faughart, "but the overwhelming evidence is that the Brigid of the 'Roman Calendar' is essentially Celtic."

Even Christian authors and official Church publications are unable to deny the similarities between the Saint and the Goddess, even in the earliest days of Christian Hagiography. Cormac in his glossary notes that there was at least one goddess named Brigid and possibly more "sister" goddesses of the same name. Sellner also comments on the incredible similarities between the Saint and the Goddess Brigid, and postulates that the attributes of the goddess "were eventually identified with Brigit, the saint, whose feast day, February 1, came to be celebrated on the same day as that of the pagan goddess.

Whether Brigid is "confused" with aspects of the goddess Brighde or is simply a Christianized adaptation and importation of the same deity, the ways in which she manifested in Christian hagiography are multitudinous, and extend beyond the solitary figure of "Brigid of Kildare," as we will see.

Many Brigids & Other Saints

Several sources identify 15 or more supposedly different saints with the name Brigid, most of them have the feast day on or near Feb. 1 and are believed to actually be the same figure. Even the 14th century Swedish saint Brigitta has her feast day on February 1, though it is doubtful she is a manifestation of the goddess. There are also many saints with other names whose feast days are also on or very near to the modern calendar date of February 1, which is the modern date assigned to the ancient festival of Imbolc. Because they are aspects of the goddess Brighde whose feast was not fixed to a calendar date, but was floating between the solstice and the equinox, the exact matching of dates is not as important.These saints usually have many of the same attributes and most are associated with many of the same legendary figures as St. Brigid, though there are some exceptions. Some specific examples that need to be discussed are Saints Ita of Killeedy, Ia of Cornwall, and Canair of Bantry Bay, whose feast days are January 15, February 3 and January 28.

In his book Legends of the Saints, the Bollandist monk, Hippolyte Delehaye lists the ways in which saints are identified and associated with other saints. He says the three main ways to discover the origins of a saint's cult are through place, date and legend. The places, dates and legends of the following saints point to their associations and parallels to Brigid of Kildare.

St. Ita of Killeedy

Although the feast day of St. Ita is January 15, that is less significant in comparing her to St. Brigid than the details of her life and associations. Though she is not mentioned under the January 15 entry in the Roman Martyrology, one source describes her as among the "most famous of Irish women soul friends". Brigid also was considered a "soul friend" by her hagiographers. One of the primary reasons for believing she is the same figure as St. Brigid is that her hagiographer calls her "a second Brigit" and describes many of the same characteristics that Brigid had. Her father was a respectable member of the Deisi, who ruled Ireland from Tara. In her early years there was a fire that she was not harmed by, and family and friends saw her with a fiery glow around her. After she had convinced her parents to let her become a nun, she founded a monaster for women in what is today Co. Limerick, at the foot of a mountain, Sliabh Luachra, which suggests association with the Celtic god Lugh. Because this monastery was founded with the goal of educating small boys, she was called the "foster mother of the saints of Erin." Another source claims she is referred to as the foster mother of Jesus. The similarity to St. Brigid, who also has the title of the "foster mother of Christ" and the patron saint of fostership, is obvious.

There is also a holy well dedicated to St. Ita at her monastery at Killeedy, which was originally, as St. Brigid's Kildare, a monastery for women only. She is called "'the bright sun of the women of Munster'" which is reminiscent of Brigid's titles of 'fiery arrow" and "bright one" and other names that show a relationship to the fire goddess. Brigid is also associated in several versions of her life and legends with St. Senan of Scattery Island, as is Ita, Ia and Canair. It seems likely that the name Ita is not derived from "Dierdre" as Sellner suggests, but rather the last syllable of the Irish version of Brigid, which is "Brighde," pronounced "Bree-dah."

St. Ia of Cornwall

The name of St. Ia is phonetically similar to Ita, and the very brief story of her life as presented by Edward Sellner indicates that she was an Irish saint who went to Cornwall with St. Gwinear. Her story is only found in the medieval Life of St. Gwinear. Her feast is given as February 3rd and she is the patron of the town of St. Ives. The only story remaining about her is that she used a rod to turn a leaf into a boat to sail across the Irish Sea to Cornwall from Ireland. She is now the patron saint of St. Ives (not St. Ives, curiously enough) and the tiny chapel contains a stone font and a "Lady's Chapel" which are often found in ancient Celtic churches to be dedicated to St. Brigid, as is the one at the Cathedral in Kildare. The "rod" she uses is reminiscent of the one which is put into the Brigid's Bed on the Feast of St. Brigid in Ireland and Scotland, which is discussed in Chapter 5. There is no solid date given for St. Ia, but Sellner notes she lived in the "fifth or sixth century" when she came to Cornwall with several other monks, including a St. Gwinear. It is possible that "Gwinear" is a Welsh variant of "Canair," another saint that is potentially another version of St. Brigid.

St. Canair of Bantry Bay

This Irish saint is also very sparsely mentioned in Irish Hagiography, however, what we do know of her legends are indicative of a parallel to St. Brigid. She is mentioned only in a medieval life of St. Senan of Scattery Island, much like Ita and Ia. Her feast day is January 28, and her year of death is placed at approximately 530AD. These two things are enough to suspect association with St. Brigid, however, the few details of her life that remain also lend support to this theory. She is said to have had a vision of all the churches of Ireland, with towers of fire rising out of them. Because the highest tower of fire seems to be rising from St. Senan's monastery on Inis Cathaig (Scattery Island, Co. Kerry), she decides to journey there, led by a pillar of fire. She walked to the island, even across the water. When she was finally allowed on the island, after a rather feminist reproach of St. Senan, she was blessed and given the sacrament of the eucharist, and immediately died or "went to heaven." This death-upon-conversion theme is common in Celtic hagiography, and is especially associated with the conversion of pagan gods and, more frequently, goddesses. A very common version of this is when St. Patrick converts Ethne and Fedelm, who are also thinly disguised goddesses who become saints. According to O'Corrain, the name Canair derives from the older name "Cainder" or "Cainnear" who is the legendary daughter of Medb, the Irish queen. There is also a St. Cainder whose feast is the 28th of January, and others whose feast days are not given.

Sts. Gobnait and Goban are other figures that have been identified as Christianization sof the Celtic goddess Brighde and/or the smith god Goban/goddess Gobnait. Depending on the location of the worship site, Goban is male and Gobnait is female. This smithcraft deity was worshipped throughout the Celtic world. The feast day of the saints are often on or around February 11 or 12, and are ususally patrons of smithcraft and metal-work. Again, because the Celtic festival of Imbolc was movable by our calendrical standards, the exact date of the saints' feast days does not need to remain the same.

These are only but a few of the examples of saints that seem to be Christianized versions of the same figure, Brighde, the goddess of fire, smithcraft, healing, fertility and motherhood. The repetition of this figure shows how important she was to the Celts of Ireland and their reluctance to let her be forgotten with the coming of Christianity. She was preserved through her incarnation as St. Brigid of Kildare and other St. Brigids, as well as her many less-known facets as other saints who were given new names but retained the old stories. Because so many of the stories are the same, says de Paor, "we are almost forced to conclude that these are stories told originally about the goddess or goddesses, of whom the most widespread name is Brig[id], but who is known by different names in different localities."

The Fire Temple and the Foundation of Kildare

One of the largest pieces of evidence pointing to the pre-Christian origins of the Cult of Brigid is the "Fire Temple" or "Fire House" at Kildare, which is certainly a remainder of a pagan fire-goddess cult. Gerald of Wales comments on the eternal flame that was kept by 19 nuns, one for each night, and on the 20th night, it was said that Brigid kept her own fire. Whether or not this points to a title of "Brigid" or a magical intervention on the part of the saint is not clearly known. At the time of Gerald of Wales, writing in the very end of the 12th century, there was a circular fence of hedges and twigs surrounding it that no male was allowed to enter. Gerald relates several tales in which errant men of the area or English knights tried to enter the hedge, or did so, and were punished with death, insanity and mutilation. Most scholars admit that the eternal flame is "a custom that may have originated with female druids residing at that spot long before the saint arrived." These blatantly pagan overtones were attacked repeatedly and many attempts were made to end the practice of the eternal flame, however, they were completely unsuccessful as long as the Catholic Church remained in control of Kildare. It was not until the Reformation, under Archbishop George Brown of Dublin, that the fire house was put out of comission and mostly destroyed. As of the end of the 18th century one wall remained. Today, however, only the foundation remains, though the fire temple is still a part of the Church, as the street leading from the town center to the Cathedral (now Protestant) is still called "Fire Castle Lane." The temple appears to have been a room about 10 feet across and 30 feet or less in length. There are two steps down into the room, so that inside the walls apear to be about 4.5' tall, while outside they are only 2 or 3 feet from the ground. It is no longer used for anything but a tourist attraction, but clearly at one time it was a focus of the religious site.

One theory of the foundation of the monastery of Kildare is that St. Brigid was a priestess of the goddess who converted to Christianity and founded the monastery in place of the pagan religious site. However, other legends say that Brigid approached the king and asked for as much land as her cloak would cover. He agreed and miraculously it covered many acres, including the land on which she founded the monastery. Another version has Brigid and Bishop Mel together demanding land from the King, who refused until his horses were struck down in the road before them. He agreed and fully financed the construction of the monastery.

The question of why this location was chosen still remains. There was a center of druidic worship very near Kildare, and there is some evidence that the pre-Christian monastery and fire temple were used as a center of worship by the Druids also. This is partly supported by the name Kildare itself. "Cill Dara" means "church or cell of the Oak," and the importance of the oak tree to Celtic religions, as well as many other trees, is well known to Celtic historians.

It has been suggested by several authors that Kildare was not only the first all-women's monastery in Ireland, but the first Irish monastery. Until the end of the 5th century, the missionaries to Ireland, including St. Patrick, were attempting to establish a more Roman, urbanized version of Christianity, governed by Bishops whose seats were in centralized cities and towns. Because Ireland was and still is so very rural and de-centralized, and partly because the Roman culture, customs and urbanization never reached Ireland, this method of ecclesiastic government did not take hold as strongly as it did even in Britian. The monastic movement begun in Egypt and the Holy Land was much more like the previously existing religious structure of the druids, and appealed to the extremest ascetic tastes of the Irish.

If Kildare as a Christian monastery was established around the year 500, as Liam de Paor thinks, then it was a few years ahead of any male-founded monasteries which did not appear until about 535-540, according to de Paor. If we are to believe that Brigid was "accidentally" ordained a Bishop, that would make the monastery at Kildare also the first to have a bishop as the head of the monastery, in this case the abbess. Throughout the functionality of Kildare as a double monastery of men and women, it was the abbess who ruled the entire establishement, and only used the priest abbott for sacraments the abbess was unable to perform because of Church rules.

Although we cannot be sure, nearly 1500 years later, of the exact circumstances of the foundation of the monastery at Kildare, we do know that it was one of the centers of Irish Christianity throughout the middle ages. For a time, it was the seat of the Archbishop of Ireland, ruling over all the other monasteries, including Armagh and other churches that later gained power over the ecclesiastic community of Ireland. Women were given a special place at Kildare, and given privileges that probably evolved from the monastery's origins as a site sacred to the goddess, unchallanged by men. The worship of the Celtic Fire Goddess continued in an apparently unbroken line through the conversion of the entire world around it to Christianity. This is true not ony of the intellecual monastic culture, but also of the more secular, uneducated lay people of Ireland, as we will see in the next chapter.

On to Chapter Five.