The lives of the Irish saints have been a wonderful inspiration in my life and faith journey. As I am a descendant of Irish immigrants to America, the hagiographies of saints like Patrick, Columba, and Brigid contain threads of Celtic culture and history that help me to understand Ireland better. These stories also help me as I seek God in daily life and in my relationships with others.
Just a few days ago, the Church celebrated the Feast of St. Brigid of Kildare. Along with St. Patrick and St. Columba, St. Brigid is considered a patron saint of Ireland. Born in the 5th century, much of her life is detailed only in myth and legend. However, in later biographies, it is agreed that Brigid was born around 450 A.D. to a Christian woman and slave named Broicsech, who herself was baptized by St. Patrick.
Brigid was a generous girl who performed deeds of charity at an early age. She was “veiled,” or accepted into religious life, and later became abbess. From this point on, the miracles attributed to Brigid are fantastic and too numerous to list here.
The most well-known story may be that of Brigid’s cloak. According to legend, Brigid once approached the King of Leinster requesting land on which to build her monastery. When the miserly king refused, Brigid asked, “Give me as much land as my cloak will cover.” Laughing at the small cloak in her arms, the king agreed. Yet Brigid asked four of her helpers to pull the cloak in opposite directions. As the helpers ran north, south, east and west, the cloak grew and grew until it covered many acres, and the king pleaded with her to stop. He agreed to donate adequate land, on which was built Brigid’s famous monastery at Kildare. The king later converted to Christianity.
For many years—pre-dating Christianity—a sacred fire that was kept by local priestesses had been burning in Kildare. Brigid continued this custom of keeping a fire alight (now representing the new light of Christianity) as she established what is considered the first monastery for women in Ireland. Incredibly, Brigid’s fire burned continuously into the 16th century! Brigid also founded a monastery for men around the same time. As a prototype for women of leadership in the faith, “Brigid held a unique position in the Irish Church and in the society of her day. As Abbess, she presided over the local Church of Kildare and was leader of a double monastery for men and women” (The Brigidine Sisters).
Brigid died on February 1st, 525 A.D., which we celebrate now as her feast day. Brigid’s Day is associated with many customs in Ireland and throughout the world, including candle-lit pilgrimages and the weaving of Brigid’s Crosses (instructions on how to make your own Brigid’s Cross here). Brigid’s feast day aligns with Imbolc, the ancient pagan festival marking the beginnings of the return of spring – another example of her legacy bridging the gap between the old world and the new.
Brigid is remembered today as a woman of contemplation and action, devoted to serving others and bringing an end to strife and conflict. She is also held as a model for creative co-operation with God, and is a favored saint of many artists, musicians, and writers.
Brigid lived and died nearly 1500 years ago, yet I am confident that the example of her life has never been more relevant. Just like Brigid’s time, this century we live in calls for dynamic conflict resolution skills and creative community-building efforts. Like Brigid, we too must protect and care for the vulnerable among us. And for a Church seeking better ways to engage and accompany young people regarding discernment and faith, the model of a young woman and entrepreneurial leader like Brigid offers clear insight for how to engage and empower the next generation.
Mike McCormick serves as the Outreach Coordinator at the Catholic Volunteer Network in Washington, DC.