The Brigid window, detail, Kilrush, Co Clare. Photo courtesy of John Glynn
This year, I am taking the Vita Prima as my starting point. It’s the Life of Brigid that was written about the middle of the 700s. As we saw in my first post about St Brigid, a year ago, Cogitosus wrote his Life in about 650, about 125 years after the death of Brigid. So this Life, the Vita Prima, was written 225 years after her death – but there is sound evidence that it is was based on the writings of St Ultan, who died around 650. In fact, the author of the Vita Prima and Cogitosus may both have drawn from this common source. *
The Brigid window, detail, Kilrush, Co Clare. Photo courtesy of John Glynn
My illustrations are all taken from stained glass and all the images are my own except for the wonderful Kilrush window, kindly shared with me by the photographer, John Glynn. John has undertaken extensive new research on this window and is now convinced that it was mostly designed by Harry Clarke, even though it has been up to now designated as by his Studio rather than by himself.
St Brigid, detail from St Fachtna’s Church, Rosscarbery, Co Cork, unknown artist
St Brigid – and yes, the evidence also points overwhelmingly to the fact that she was a real person – was born around 452 and died in either 524, 26 or 28, in her 70s. That means, by the way, that next year is the 1,500th anniversary of her death.
The Brigid window, detail, Kilrush, Co Clare. Photo Courtesy of John Glynn
This version assigns her ‘veiling’ as a nun to Bishop Mel, but does not include the story of his accidentally making her a bishop. The image above shows him handing her a crozier, this referencing the story I included in last year’s post.
Then saint Brigit taking three nuns with her went to the territory of the Ui Neill to the two holy bishops, Mel and Melchu, who were disciples of St Patrick and lived in the towns of Mide. And they had a certain disciple called Mac Caille who said to Mel, ‘Look, there are holy virgins outside who wish to receive the veil of virginity from your hands.’
Then he ushered them into the bishop’s presence, and while bishop Mel was gazing intently at them, a column of fire suddenly appeared rising from Brigit’s head up to the very top of the church in which she dwelt. Then the holy bishop Mel placed the veil on saint Brigit’s head and when the prayers had been read Brigit bowed her head and seized the wooden foot of the altar in her hand and since that moment the altar foot has permanently remained fresh without any decay or blemish. And saint Brigit’s eye was healed forthwith when she received the veil. Then eight other virgins also received the veil together with saint Brigit and the virgins with their parents said, ‘Don’t leave us. Instead stay with us and make your home in these parts.’ Thereafter saint Brigit stayed with them.
Brigid’s veiling, Earley Studios, Drumcong, Co Mayo
The reference to eye healing, by the way, related to another story. When she was pressured to marry a man
Saint Brigit asked God to afflict her body with some deformity in order that men might stop paying suit to her. Thereupon one of her eyes burst and liquefied in her head. For she preferred to lose her bodily eye than the eye of her soul and loved beauty of soul more than that of the body.
Predella of Brigid window in Carnew, Co Wicklow
You’ll be pleased to hear I don’t have an illustration of this episode. But this book (like the Life in The Book of Lismore, see last year’s post) rather than a biography, is a relating of miracle after miracle. Many deal with her ability to provide food – bread, meat and beer – to hungry people (as above). Here’s just one:
At this time saint Brigit was a guest at the monastery of St Laisre. Now one day towards evening St Patrick came with a large crowd to put up at that monastery. Thereupon the local community was worried and said to Brigit, ‘What are we going to do. We don’t have food for such a large crowd.’ But Brigit said to them, ‘How much do you have?’ They said to her, ‘All we have is twelve loaves and a little milk and one sheep which we have cooked for you and your folk.’ But Brigit said, ‘These will be enough for the whole lot of us, for the sacred scriptures will be read to us, thanks to which will we shall forget about bodily food.’ Whereupon the two groups of people, namely, Patrick’s and Brigit’s, ate together and had their fill and the amount of scraps they had left over was greater than the supplies which St Laisre had offered them in the first place, and later St Laisre offered herself and her place to saint Brigit in perpetuity.
Knockainy, Co Limerick, window by William Dowling for the Harry Clarke Studios
She was also famed for her ability to heal – the blind, maimed, mute, paralysed, deranged, bulimic (I’m not making this up) and leprous all came to her in their afflictions and were healed. She healed the poor and the kingly equally.
The Brigid window, main panel, Kilrush, Co Clare. Photo courtesy of John Glynn
Here’s an interesting instance of her using her powers to ‘heal’ a pregnancy:
Another day saint Brigit by the very powerful strength of her faith blessed a woman who had fallen after a vow of integrity and whose womb was pregnant and swelling and the conception in the woman’s womb decreased and she restored her to health and repentance without childbirth or its pangs. The woman was healed and gave thanks to God.
From the Brigid window, Collon, Co Louth, probably by the Harry Clarke Studios
The Vita Prima has Brigid and Patrick as contemporaries who knew each other and there are several stories of them together. Here is one:
Patrick was preaching the word of God one day to the crowds and saint Brigit. Then everyone saw a very bright cloud coming down from the sky to the dark earth on a rainy day. Gleaming from an enormous flash of lightning, it paused for a little while at a spot nearby beside the crowd. Afterwards it went to Dun Lethglaisse where Patrick is buried. Lingering there a while longer the cloud then disappeared and the crowds did not dare ask what this extraordinary apparition meant but asked saint Brigit. And Brigit said, ‘Ask Patrick.’ When Patrick heard this he said, ‘You and I know equally well. Reveal this mystery to them.’ And Brigit said, ‘This cloud, in my opinion, is the spirit of our father St Patrick who has come to visit the places where his body will be buried and rest after his death. For his body will rest for a short while in a place nearby, and afterwards will be taken to be buried in Dun Lethglaisse and there his body will remain till the day of judgement.’ Then Patrick told Brigit to make with her own hands a linen shroud to cover his body with after his death, as he desired to rise to eternal life with that shroud. Brigit accordingly made the shroud and it was in it that St Patrick’s body was later wrapped and it is still in that place.
I have used St Brigid bringing the winding sheet for St Patrick in last year’s Brigid post, but here it is again. It’s from Killarney Cathedral and by Hardman.
Interestingly, the Vita Prima contains only one direct reference to Kildare, where St Brigid established her foundation. Here she is instructing her masons in how she wants it built (as a 15th century church, apparently). This one is from Armagh Cathedral and I think it’s by Mayer of Munich.
The author of the Vita Prima brings us to the end of Brigid’s life in surprisingly modern language.
But after having fought the good fight and run a successful race, saint Brigit departed this life for the kingdom of heaven escorted thither by the ranks of angels and archangels and having been accorded a place amid the choirs of patriarchs and prophets and apostles and martyrs and confessors and virgins she now possesses everlasting joy with Christ to whom, with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, be praise and glory forever and ever. Amen.
This image of Brigid is from a window by Michael Healy, in the Bishop’s Palace in Monaghan
St Brigid, I am discovering, can be all things to all people – a pagan goddess for the New Agers, a saint for devout Catholics, and an empowering symbol of female leadership. While there has been much speculation (some of it offered as assertion) about her links with a pagan goddess, Brigantia, the evidence is very slight and the goddess connection mostly lies in the realm of conjecture, leaps of imagination and wishful thinking.
Evie Hone’s St Brigid, from Loughrea Cathedral
What the various writings about Brigid do point to is a powerful, benevolent and influential ecclesiastical woman who established a centre of devotion and learning and a city in Kildare, and whose cult spread across Europe in the centuries that followed her life. That, in itself, is more than enough, to mark her out as momentous, and worthy of commemoration. Here’s how Padraig O’Riain, the pre-eminent scholar on Irish saints, puts it:
For all her dubious origins, therefore, Brighid’s record shows that she stood alone among the women saints of Ireland, a rival in importance to Patrick and Colum Cille, an abbess whom all other abbesses revered, a bishop in all but name, of such high status that she came to be regarded, possibly as early as the seventh century, as “Mary of the Irish”.
Brigid, Patrick and Columcille from Lusk, Co Dublin, by the Harry Clarke Studios
Therefore, tomorrow, Feb 6th, 2023, no matter which version of her you prefer, let us celebrate together our first National Holiday in her honour. She deserves it – finally!
*I am relying for this post on three main sources: