Brigid: A Bishop in All But Name

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:

Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae Background and Historical Value Author(s): Seán Connolly Source: The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland , 1989, Vol. 119 (1989), pp. 5-49 Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25508969  
St Brigid of Kildare, Life, Legend and Cult by Noel Kissane. Four Courts Press 2017
A Dictionary of Irish Saints by Pádraig Ó Riain. Four Courts Press, 2011

Loughrea Cathedral and the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement

How did a church in an Irish country town become a repository for some of the greatest treasures of the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century? That church is St Brendan’s Cathedral in Loughrea, Co Galway, which we visited last week.

Evie Hone’s St Brigid window

The Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction against soulless methods of industrial production which emphasised repetitive tasks and removed the link between the worker and the final product. Such factory processes were eventually applied to works of art, such as stained glass windows, where numerous workers would be employed to assemble a final product. Within the movement, artisans, artists and makers sought to get back to a former time, often conceived as medieval and highly romanticised, when craftsmen and women designed and executed exquisite works from start to finish.

Queen of Heaven window by Michael Healy

So where does Loughrea come in? Well, for a start, it was the home of Edward Martyn, a wealthy enthusiast for all things Gaelic Revival including language, theatre, literature, music and art. Heavily influenced by the philosophies of the Arts and Crafts movement, particularly by those of William Morris, he worked with Sarah Purser to found An Túr Gloine (The Tower of Glass) as an artist/maker stained glass studio. Not a small part of their initial success was his ability to promise commissions from the decoration of St Brendan’s Cathedral.

The Stations of the Cross are by Túr Gloine artist Ethel Rhind and are executed in the unusual opus sectile mosaic technique

Thus it is that this church, in outward appearance very much like the prevailing neo-Gothic style of the end of the nineteenth century, is packed with the work of the most eminent women and men artists of the opening decades of the 20th century. Yes, that’s right, women and men – the Arts and Crafts movement empowered women artists like few such movement had before (or since, perhaps).

The Agony in the Garden by A E Child, detail

It takes a moment to realise what you have entered – initially the church interior seems familiar and unremarkable, almost heavy in its preponderance of marble, tile and dark wood.

But as the eyes adjust, you can be permitted a gasp or two as you realise that all the capitals are carved with scenes from the life of St Brendan, that there are fine sculptures here and there, that the arm of each pew has been individually decorated with idiosyncratic characters, that are are art-nouveau-looking light standards throughout the aisles, that the stations of the cross are unlike any you’ve seen before, and finally that the stained glass windows are numerous and beautiful.

Two scenes from the Death of Brendan, carvings by Michael Shortall

All the Túr Gloine stained glass arts are represented here: A E Child, Michael Healy, Ethel Rhind, Catherine O’Brien, Beatrice Elvery, Evie Hone and Hubert McGoldrick. There is even a small St Brendan window by Sarah Purser herself – a rarity as she mostly confined herself to the management of projects rather than glass-painting.

One of the very few stained glass windows actually executed by Sarah Purser herself – a Brendan image in the porch of the church

The stone carving is mostly the work of Michael Shortall, a student of John Hughes, the foremost sculptor of his day who provided bronze figures for the church. Eminent architect William Scott was engaged to design church furnishings and was responsible for the side altars, the entrance gates, the altar vessels and candlesticks, the baptismal font and altar rail.

Each pew arm has a whimsical creature – this one was no doubt intended to concentrate the mind on mortality

The woodwork was all done locally, with the workers encouraged to use their skills to depicts beasts and mythical figures, in much the same way that medieval craftsmen had done.

The museum contains an outstanding collection of sodality banners designed by Jack B Yeats and his wife, Cottie, and embroidered by the Dun Emer Guild. Above is the original design and the finished product

But that’s not all. Beside the church is a small museum, similarly packed with treasures. In particular, here is where you will see the work of the Dún Emer Guild, a women’s cooperative enterprise that designed and supplied materials (altar cloths, vestments, rugs, tapestries) to churches and others. Strongly influenced by traditional Irish designs such as scrollwork, interlacing, high crosses and Book of Kells symbols, the works supplied to St Brendan’s are wonderful examples of Irish Revival motifs, skillfully embroidered in gorgeous colours.

The Museum holds other artefacts too, including extremely rare medieval wooden carvings: most wooden statues were destroyed by the Puritans and very few have survived. There are also fifteenth century vestments, original drawings and sketches by Irish artists, altar vessels, and stained glass cartoons.

Twelfth or Thirteenth century wooden statue of the Virgin or Child

This post is a small introduction to the wonders of Loughrea Cathedral. About 40 minutes east of Galway and just south of the M6, this church is a must-see for anyone interested in the history of Ireland and its Arts and Crafts movement. The only comparable experience is the Honan Chapel in Cork.

Michael Healy’s magnificent Resurrection window

All I can do here is show you a representative sample of what we saw and encourage you to go see the totality for yourself. You won’t regret it.

The massive cathedral gates, designed by William Scott