From The Spirituality of the Celtic Saints, by Richard J. Woods
Known as “Mary of the Gael,” Saint Brigid of Kildare (ca. 450 – 525) is one of the most beloved of saints. Her first biography was written in the seventh century, long after any reliable historical information had been displaced by tales of her remarkable powers and career, largely, it would seem, the product of the undeniable admiration in which she was held.
Cogitosus and Ultán identify her father as Dubnthach, a pagan noble of Leinster. According to Cogitosus, her mother, Brocseach (or Brocessa), the daughter of Dalbronach, was of noble parentage, while Ultán and the later Latin Lives claim that Brocseach was a slave in the household of Dubhthach. She may have been both noble and a secondary wife, or adaltrach, which might account for her being “banished” to Faughart near Dundalk in County Louth before Brigid’s birth in 457. In any case, Brocseach was a Christian, and Brigid seems to have been baptized at an early age despite being fostered to a druid as a child. She also seems to have been reared as a noblewoman for whom her father had planned a suitably dynastic marriage. But Brigid chose to dedicate her life to Christ as a nun. Cogitosus provides a suitably dramatic dispute with Dubhthach over the matter, which was decided by the king of Leinster, himself a Christian, in Brigid’s favor. With seven other girls, Brigid was clothed with the veil of a nun.
In later accounts, Brigid was consecrated at Magh-Teloch by two bishops, Saint Mel of Ardagh and Saint MacCaille of Longford (d. 480, according to the Annals of Ulster). By accident, Saint Mel mistakenly read over her the prayer for the consecration of a bishop. When Saint MacCaille informed him of his error, Mel replied that it should stand, but that Brigid would be the only woman to hold the episcopal office in Ireland! Cogitosus may have known of this legend, and his introductory remarks describe her in plainly episcopal terms, but he adroitly avoids mentioning it or Saint Mel, for that matter.
Brigid seems to have established her first house for her nuns near Croghan Hill, but having been given a tract of land by the king of Leinster, she moved it to Druim Criadh, in the plains of Magh-Life (the Liffey Valley). There she founded what would be the most famous monastery in Ireland near an ancient oak tree that might have formerly been sacred to the druids. Her monastery was thus known as Cell-Dara, “the church of the oak.” (The tree itself is said to have survived to the tenth century.)
According to a tale found in Gerald of Wales, Kildare had been a pagan sanctuary where a ritual fire had been kept perpetually burning by an order of virgins. Some scholars have suggested that as the last of this line, Brigid transformed the pagan sanctuary into a Christian shrine. However that may be, Brigid and her nuns inherited the sacred fire, which was surrounded by a hedge through which no male was allowed to pass. The fire was maintained until the suppression of monasteries during the Reformation.
Whatever its pagan origins, the Kildare Brigid founded was a double monastery, with herself presiding over the nuns as abbess while Saint Conlaed was abbot of the monks. This tradition continued for centuries, according to the lists of succeeding abbesses and abbots, or comarbai, found in the Irish Annals. Moreover, the abbess of Kildare claimed to be head of all the nuns of Ireland, and Cogitosus claims that Conlaed was, in effect, bishop primate.
At Kildare, Brigid also founded a school of arts and letters, presided over by Saint Conlaed, who had been a master craftsman before Brigid plucked him from his hermitage to be her co-founder. It produced its own Gospel Book, which, had it survived, would have at least rivaled the Book of Kells. Lost at the time of the Reformation, this great masterpiece was described in the twelfth century by Gerald of Wales, whose enthusiasm for the Book of Kildare overcame his habitual disdain for the Irish when he acclaimed it as so beautiful it could only have been the work of angels, as the legend of its creation affirmed.
As a Christian evangelist, Brigid seems to have traveled extensively in her chariot, founding churches and monasteries, obtaining freedom for captives, offering advice where it was wanted and probably where it wasn’t. She negotiated the release of hostages, healed lepers, assisted the poor, and returned sight to the blind and speech to those who were dumb.
According to Cogitosus, Brigid herself was taught to read and write as a child. Her monastery was justly famous for its learning as well as the arts, which flourished under Conlaed. She also had a particular rapport with nature, from weather to plants and animals. Many of her reputed miracles involve the protection of flocks and even of wild animals.
Conlaed died some years before Brigid and was buried under a suspended silver crown on the left side of the high altar in the cathedral. When Brigid died, most probably around the year 550, she was buried in a casket of precious metals and jewels under a golden crown at the right of the altar, opposite Conlaed’s tomb. Late in the ninth century, her relics (and presumably those of Conlaed) were removed to Downpatrick because of the threat of Viking raids. There they were interred in a tomb said to contain the bodies of Patrick and Columba. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, in 1186 the relics were solemly translated to Downpatrick Cathedral “in the presence of Cardinal Vivian, fifteen bishops, and numerous abbots and ecclesiastics.”
In 1283, three Irish crusaders took the head (or hand) of Saint Brigid with them as they departed for the Holy Land. They seem only to have reached Portugal, where a plaque in an ancient church in Lumiar records their burial. A relic of Brigid is preserved in a chapel dedicated there to her memory.