Saint Brigid of Kildare, Abbess and Secondary Patron of Ireland

Brigid of Kildare (Irish: Naomh Bhríde; lived 451-525 AD) was an Irish nun, abbess, and founder of several convents. Like many early saints there is much debate among scholars and even Christians as to the authenticity of her biographies.

The earliest writing about the life of Brigid is the Vita Brigitae of Cogitosus which is thought to have been written no later than the year 650. According to tradition, Brigid was born at Faughart near Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland. Her parents were said to be Dubhthach, a pagan chieftain of Leinster, and Brocca, a Christian Pict who had been baptized by Saint Patrick. Some accounts suggested that Brigid’s mother was actually Portuguese, kidnapped by Irish pirates and brought to Ireland to work as a slave in much the same way as Patrick.

Brigid was given the same name as one of the most powerful goddesses of the pagan religion which her father Dubhthach practised. Brigid was the goddess of fire, whose manifestations were song, craftsmanship, and poetry, which the Irish considered the flame of knowledge. From an early age she was said to have been inspired by the teaching of St Patrick (who began his mission in Ireland in the year 432).

Against the will of her father, she was set on entering religious life. There are many stories of her piety and her deep concern for the poor who were never turned away. Her generosity did not please her father, and when she gave away his bejewelled sword to a leper, he accepted the nature of her vocation and she was sent to a convent.

She received the veil from Saint Mel and professed vows dedicating her life to Christ. She is believed to have founded her first convent in Clara, County Offaly. But her major foundation was in Kildare.

Around 470, she founded Kildare Abbey, a double monastery for nuns and monks on the plains of Cill-Dara, “the church of the oak”. Her cell was made under a large oak tree. As Abbess of this foundation she wielded considerable power. Brigid was known for her common-sense and most of all for her holiness. Even in her lifetime she was regarded as a saint. Kildare Abbey became one of the most prestigious monasteries in Ireland, its fame spreading throughout Christian Europe.

She died at Kildare about 525 and was buried in a tomb before the high altar of her abbey church. After some time, her remains were exhumed and transferred to Downpatrick to rest with the two other patron saints of Ireland, Patrick and Columba (Columcille). Her skull was extracted and brought to Igreja de Sao Joao Baptista (Lumiar) in Lisbon, Portuga by three Irish noblemen, where it remains.

There is widespread devotion to her in Ireland where she is known as the “Mary of the Gael” and she is considered one of Ireland’s patron saints along with Saints Patrick and Columba.  Her cult was brought to Europe by Irish missionaries, such as Foillan, in the centuries after her death. In Belgium there is a chapel (7th-10th century) dedicated to Sainte-Brigide at Fosses-la-Ville.

Her feast day is February 1, the traditional first day of spring in Ireland.


Gabhaim molta Bríde (An ancient invocation sung by Cathie Ryan)

Gabhaim molta Bríde, iníon í le hÉireann
Iníon le gach tír í, molaimís go léir í. 

I give praise to Brigid, who is a daughter of Ireland
Daughter of all lands, let us all praise her.

Lóchrann geal na Laighneach, soils’ ar feadh na tíre
Ceann ar óigheacht Éireann, ceann na mban ar míne.

The leader of Ireland’s youth, leader of gentle women.
The bright torch of Leinster, shining across the country

Tig an Geimhreadh dian dubh, gearra lena géire
Ach ar lá le Bríghde, gar dúinn earrach Éireann.

The house of Winter is black, hard, cutting with its sharpness.
But on Brigid’s Day, spring in Ireland draws near to us.

Gabhaim molta Bríde, iníon í le hÉireann
Iníon le gach tír í, molaimís go léir í.

I give praise to Brigid, she is a daughter of Ireland,
Daughter of all lands, let us all extol her.

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