“May Brigid bless the house wherein you dwell, Bless every fireside wall and door; Bless every heart that beats beneath its roof; Bless every hand that toils to bring it joy; Bless every foot that walks its portals through. May Brigid bless the house that shelters you.”
This prayer is known as the Blessing of St. Brigid, the Patroness of Ireland. Her feast day is celebrated on 1st February, and the fact it is also the date of celebration of the Celtic festival of Imbolc, marking the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, is not a coincidence. The story of this Christian saint has long been interwoven with stories of the Goddess Brigid, a Mother Fire Goddess from ancient Celtic times. They share many similarities, both are protectors and patrons of healers, blacksmiths, craftsmen, and are protectors of the home and children, as well as having a special connection with animals. Some say they are the same, that Brigid acts as a bridge between the pre-Christian and Christian worlds. Others say Saint Brigid was named after the Goddess by her pagan father. In Ireland St. Brigid is also known as Muire na nGael, which means Mother Mary of the Irish — showing the depth of love and respect for her. Today, I would like a share some stories from the life of this pioneering young woman in the early days of Christianity in Ireland.
St. Brigid was born in Ireland in 450AD, just eighteen years after St. Patrick had arrived. Her father was a pagan Leinster Chieftain, and her mother, who had been baptised a Christian, was one of his slaves. When the Chieftain’s wife discovered this slave girl was pregnant, she was sold to a Druid landowner before the baby was born. There are many stories of the little girl, named Brigid, feeding the poor, including one that she completely emptied the food stores to feed the hungry. When she realised she would be in trouble, she prayed, and the stores were miraculously filled again. She had to return to her father’s home when she was about ten years old as he was her legal owner. Her natural kindness landed her in trouble many times, as word spread that no one would be turned away hungry, and her healing powers drew many to her, especially lepers. When it was time for her to marry, she refused, insisting she wanted to devote her life to Christ. She prayed that her beauty would be taken so no one would want to marry her. Her wish was granted, and finally her father let her go. As soon as she had taken her vows her beauty was restored.
As a disciple of St. Patrick, she developed a great friendship and worked closely with him. In the 9th century text known as the Book of Armagh, it says: Between St. Patrick and Brigid, the pillars of the Irish people, there was so great a friendship of charity that they had but one heart and one mind. Through him and through her, Christ performed many great works.” From the outset it was clear she had a mind of her own, founding the first women’s monastery in Kildare, initially with seven other women. It was built above a shrine to the Celtic goddess Brigid.
A sacred fire had burned in Kildare since ancient times, used to invoke Goddess Brigid for a fruitful harvest and for the protection of the animals.
St. Brigid continued this tradition, representing the new light of Christianity. Her vision was to have a community where all would be welcome, be fed and healed. In particular, she was a pioneering educator and wanted women, as well as men, to have the opportunity to become scholars. She needed more land, so approached the King of Leinster. The land she had in mind was a perfect location for her monastery -, beside a forest where they could gather firewood and berries; a nearby lake to provide water, and fertile land. The king laughed at the suggestion, so Brigid asked him for only as much land as her cloak would cover. Seeing her small cloak he agreed. Brigid advised four of her followers to take a corner each of the clock and to spread out over the four directions. As they walked the cloak grew and spread out over many acres. The king realised he was dealing with a woman of God, and in time became a great patron before converting to Christianity himself.
St. Brigid built not just one monastery, but two, so that women and men could come. This was a complete break from tradition, more so when she invited Saint Conleth to come and help her run the monasteries. They became the most prestigious monasteries in Ireland, and over time their fame spread throughout Christian Europe. Later she founded a School of Art that included metalwork and illumination. It was here the Book of Kildare was created, said to have been “the work of angelic, and not human skill.” She held a unique position in the early church- in addition to being the head of the monastery, she presided over the church in Kildare. By the time St. Brigid left her body 525AD, monasteries had been established all over the country.
St. Brigid was a woman of the land, a friend of the poor, a peacemaker, and a champion of equality. As a woman of the land she was known for her skills as a dairy woman. It is said that on days when the cows had been milked twice, but more was needed to give to the poor who turned up, she would ask the cows if they could be milked a third time. They happily obliged. She was also a skilled brewer, who could turn water into beer when the need arose. She was known as a peaceweaver, someone with rare negotiating skills and authority, who could cause a mist to appear between opposing sides to prevent bloodshed. There are countless stories of miracles performed in her lifetime. One is the story of a woman who came to her for protection from a nobleman. He had given her a valuable brooch for safekeeping, but then secretly threw it into the lake and accused her of stealing it. If she was found guilty, she could be taken by him as a slave. As St. Brigid cut into a fish that had been pulled from the lake the brooch was found in its stomach. The nobleman confessed and freed the woman.
There are many customs associated with this great saint still alive today. Many people keep a St. Brigid’s cross in their home. It is believed it offers protection against fire and lightening. Many people leave a piece of cloth or ribbon outside on the eve of St. Brigid’s feast day, to catch the morning dew. The cloth is believed to absorb healing powers, particularly against headaches, earaches or toothache.
The flame of St. Brigid lives on. I leave you with a prayer for the blessings of this great saint:
Brigid of the Mantle, encompass us,
Lady of the lambs protect us.
Keeper of the hearth, kindle us,
Beneath your mantle gather us
And restore us to memory.
Mothers of our mother, foremothers strong,
Guide our hands in yours.
Remind us how to kindle the hearth,
To keep it bright, preserve the flame.
Your hands upon ours, our hands within yours
To kindle the light both day and night.
The mantle of Brigid about us,
The memory of Brigid within us,
The protection of Brigid keeping us from harm,
This day and night.
From dawn til dark, and dark til dawn.