Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Vignettes from the Lives of the Irish Saints: Saint Brigid's Choice


St. Bridget, Patroness of Ireland, accompanied by her nuns, was, on a certain occasion, in the presence of Bishop Maccelle, from whom she had received the veil, and she asked the good bishop to give them a brief instruction on some pious subject. The bishop delivered a brief discourse on the “Eight Beatitudes." Whereupon the saint, turning to her sister nuns, said: “We are eight virgins, and eight virtues are offered to us as a means of sanctification. It is true that whoever practices one virtue perfectly must possess every other; yet let each of us now choose a virtue for special devotion."

St. Bridget, as superioress, was requested to make the first choice, and she chose that sweetest of all virtues, Mercy. Her whole life afterward was a living illustration of the virtue which she had chosen.

Monday, 27 February 2012

The Life of Brigit of Kildare in the Castilian Leyenda de los Santos

Whilst I have found the study of the lives of those Irish saints like Saint Columbanus who laboured in Europe particularly rewarding, I have also been fascinated by the European dimension to the cult of some Irish saints who were not numbered among the peregrini pro Christo. The following abstract of a recently-published article deals with the Lives of Saint Brigid known in the medieval Iberian peninsula, I only wish I were able to access the full text:


Across the twelve Castilian collections of saints' lives, or santorales, derived in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries from Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda aurea, there are witnesses of saints, some of them local, whose lives do not appear in the Latin compilation. These saints, purposely taken from other sources and added to the compilations, merit the attention of scholars of medieval Castilian hagiography. One of these saints is Brigit of Kildare (c. 451–525), who follows an active vocation and performs miracles in her role as abbess of a monastery, and whose life (alongside that of Bárbara) garnered sufficient popularity for it to be added to later versions of the Legenda aurea. This contribution discusses the Castilian witnesses of the saint's life (one in Esc MS k–II–12 and one in Esc MS m–II–6), the ways in which they compare and the differences between them, and the extent to which they correspond to the earliest Latin versions, in order to shed light on the ideological representation of Saint Brigit in the medieval Iberian Peninsula. It also includes transcriptions of the Título de santa Brígida and the Vida de señora santa Brígida la qual fue fija de Diptoto e de Broca su madre, both previously unedited accounts of Brigit's life.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

A Commentary on the Life of Saint Brigid by Donatus of Fiesole

In a presentation to an International Congress in Florence in 2001 Irish scholar, Professor Máire Herbert, has provided a most useful commentary on the Life of Saint Brigid by Bishop Donatus of Fiesole. Before looking at this however, it is worth noting that the devotion of Saint Donatus to Saint Brigid is known from sources other than the metrical life. There is a charter dated 850 in which Donatus, Bishop of Fiesole, grants a church at Piacenza to the Monastery of Bobbio on condition that it should act as a hostel for Irish pilgrims passing through the area. This church was dedicated to Saint Brigid, and Michael Richter in his book 'Bobbio in the Early Middle Ages' comments that this is apparently the earliest-known dedication to Saint Brigid outside of Ireland. So clearly in the life of the ninth-century Irish Bishop of Fiesole, the cult of Saint Brigid of Kildare played a very important part. Professor Herbert sets this into context:
Irish hagiographers from the eighth century attributed contacts with Rome to their saints in order to stress their participation in the unity of Christendom. In the eighth-century text of a Life of Brigit the saint is granted a vision of Masses being celebrated in Rome at the tombs of Peter and Paul, and she asks that the order of this Mass and of ‘the universal rule’ be brought to her. Then, after a time, she declares that she has discerned that certain things had been changed in the mass in Rome since her messengers returned, so she sent them back for the newer version. In hagiographical terms, what Brigit’s monastic followers in Ireland were affirming was the fact of their own contemporary contact with Rome, and with its most recent liturgical usage.

We may suggest, then, that the establishment of Brigit’s cult in Italy was a process which proceeded in parallel with the various types of Irish peregrinatio during the period between the seventh and the tenth centuries. The connection which I have already suggested between the mission of Columbanus and the introduction of Brigit’s cult finds support in the fact that around St Gallen Brigit is commemorated in association with the local patron who came to the area in the company of Columbanus. Thereafter Brigit’s monastic followers in seventh and eighth-century Ireland stressed their own communication with Rome, and these traditions persisted. In fact, we find a foundation-legend for Brigit’s church at Piacenza in an eleventh-century Irish hymn-preface. This relates that three members of the saint’s household, en route for Rome, reached ‘Blasantia’, where they were saved from an attempt to poison them by recitation of a eulogy of Brigit, who miraculously appeared in their midst. The saint’s reappearance converted the potential murderer, who granted his own dwelling, or the whole of the city of ‘Blasantia’, to Brigit. The legend supports an association between the Roman contacts of Brigit’s community in Ireland in the seventh and eighth centuries and the establishment of Brigidine sites on the route to Rome. In the ninth century, then, the third kind of Irish traveller, the scholar, bishop Donatus of Fiesole, made his particular contribution to the promotion of the cult of Brigit, as he affirmed her role as patroness of visiting pilgrims in Piacenza, and produced a new verse Life of Brigit.

Brigit had been commemorated in Ireland by Latin prose vitae from the seventh century onward, but the texts which survive are known only through the fact that numerous manuscript copies were made in continental Europe. Indeed, the Life of Brigit is probably the most-copied of all the vitae of early medieval women saints in Europe, yet no copy of the early vitae survived in Ireland. It is to the peregrini that we owe our knowledge of these most important records of Irish hagiography. While we have no very early Italian manuscript copy of a seventh-century vita of Brigit, we do have evidence that these vitae were in circulation among the Irish in Italy. A poem by an Irishman called Colman, said to have been composed in Rome, recalls one of the best-known of Brigit’s miracles, the incident of the cloak on the sunbeam , a story interesting also for the fact that it seems to be modelled on an apocryphal story about the infant Christ playing on a sunbeam as if it were a solid wooden beam. Colman ends his verses on Brigit by stating that he leaves to others the narration of the saint’s many other uirtutes.

Bishop Donatus of Fiesole [876], the fellow-countryman of Colman, seems to have taken up the challenge.

The metrical Life of Brigit ascribed to Donatus survives in four main copies, all apparently of Tuscan provenance. The text shows close but not direct relationship with the so-called Vita Prima of Brigit, itself identified as an eighth-century amalgamation of three seventh-century vitae. We may suppose that both works drew independently on the same material. Why did Donatus produce yet another vita of Brigit when vitae from Ireland were evidently in circulation? The work of Donatus shows that he is focusing in particular on a continental readership rather on the Irish emigrees familiar with the saint. Donatus substitutes a hagiographical form which came into vogue in Carolingian circles, that of a Latin hexameter epic, for the existing Hibernicized Latin prose narratives which were influenced by vernacular Irish storytelling. Clearly, in proclaiming Brigit’s deeds to Tuscan ecclesiastics, Donatus sought that the medium of his work should invite reception and that form should not distract from content.

We learn more of the writer’s outlook from his prologues. Two hymns on Christ and the saints set Donatus’s account of Brigit in context. In the first hymn we find praise of Christ through brief recall of his deeds for mankind, especially his death and resurrection, and at the end is the poet’s own request for mercy and eternal salvation. The adoption of this poetic mode suggests that Donatus viewed his work in a manner similar to that which we noted earlier in the verse of Columbanus and of Blathmac, and thus within a framework of reciprocal relations between poet and patron. Donatus the bishop is also concerned with proper protocol, as he accords Christ pride of place as his primary patron, then he proceeds to extol the saints from the martyrs onward, and follows with praise of Brigit in particular. Before recounting Brigit’s deeds, moreover, Donatus includes verses in praise of Ireland, native land of the saint and his own native land. We may view this as Donatus the exile looking back on his homeland as a kind of Biblical paradise. Yet the placement of these verses in his hagiographical text suggests that somewhat more was in question, that Donatus wished to link Brigit’s Irishness with her sanctity. Proclaiming to a Tuscan audience that Brigit’s deeds merited recognition in the universal canon of sanctity, at the same time he proclaims that this great saint was his compatriot.

Once he had asserted the fact of Brigit’s Irishness, Donatus dispenses with the detail, abbreviating biographical data in his source-texts. He is more concerned with establishing the saint’s favour with God than with setting out a chronological career. Brigit is called ‘ uirgo Dei’ or ‘ sancta Dei’, and it is emphasized that divine power was manifested in the deeds which she was enabled to do. Miracles of assistance predominate. The sick and disabled are cured, lepers are healed, food is miraculously multiplied, water is changed into beer or milk, lost or broken objects are restored. Brigit is a saint who protects and provides, who restores health, guides the lost, and gives abundantly. Furthermore, Brigit is shown as being eminently approachable. She is not cloistered, and she travels through the countryside, encountering and assisting people from every echelon in society. Her deeds proclaim the virtues of humility and charity, and the few instances of punishment through her power arise through sins against these virtues. Donatus, in his pastoral role, presents Brigit as a saint who interacted with kings and bishops, but who had especial care for the poor and afflicted. She is a patron worthy of the regard of the whole community.

The epitaph of Donatus emphasizes the prominent role which he played in public life in northern Italy as a scholar and as an ecclesiastical magnate who interacted with secular powers.

Yet his devotion to Brigit implies concern with the weak in society as well as with the strong. Brigit was a role-model in helping and protecting all who sought her assistance, especially the most needy in the community. Historical sources testify that in his episcopal role Donatus attended royal courts and church councils, and acted as feudal lord in the city. Was there a contradiction, then, between his public role and his position as a follower of Brigit, saint of humility and charity? Beyond the city is the rural hermitage of Santa Brigida, very probably dedicated by Donatus to his patron saint. The hermitage under Brigit’s patronage may well have constituted for Donatus a place of ascetic retreat, known in Irish as di/sert, literally ‘desert’, away from the obligations of episcopacy and power, where he might pray and contemplate. Following the example of Martin of Tours, one of the saints most venerated in the early Irish church, Donatus may have sought to balance the episcopal and monastic roles, the pastoral and the ascetic. City and hermitage thus may be seen as contrasting yet complementary dwellings, the one serving public obligation and interaction with the powerful, the other, offering private meditation and interaction with the poor and needy of the countryside.

In parallel, Donatus’s own commemoration of Brigit linked Irish tradition with Carolingian scholarship, as the narration of the saint’s deeds in epic hexameters performed the service of poetic praise for patron in expectation of a spiritual reward. Donatus’s composition implies the view that while Brigit belonged to Ireland she belonged also to the wider world and to Tuscany itself. The fact that Tuscany preserved manuscripts of Brigit’s Vita and the name of Santa Brigida must surely be attributed to the actions of Donatus, and ultimately to his conviction that the deeds of Brigit were not merely matters of history or clerical concerns, but served as a universal inspiration for all time.

Moreover, our earliest documentary reference to Brigit, in a vernacular Irish text dated about 600 AD says of her “She will be another Mary, mother of the great Lord ”. Devotion to Brigit was, therefore, associated with Marian devotion. A vernacular text on the Life of Brigit dated c. 900 AD depicts a prophecy of Brigit’s coming to her Irish site of Kildare thus: “ This site is open to heaven ...; and today a girl for whom it has been prepared by God will come to us like Mary”. The close geographical association between Santa Brigida and Marian sites in Tuscany such as Santuario Madonna delle Grazie al Sasso thus mirrors a connection between Brigit and Mary which extends back to the beginnings of Christianity in Ireland.

The continuing veneration of Santa Brigida, moreover, indicates that the site served as a place of retreat and meditation even after the time of Donatus. That it was particularly linked with female devotion is suggested by an episode in the thirteenth-century Life of St Andrew, identified as a disciple of Donatus in Ireland, and subsequently his Archdeacon in Fiesole.

It is related that God took pity on Andrew as he lay in his final illness far from his homeland, and angels were sent to bring his sister, Brigit, from Ireland to comfort him at his life’s end. After Andrew’s death, the Life recounts that his sister remained in the area, living a life of prayer in the hermitage now known as Santa Brigida. The hagiographical episode may be based on an episode in the Life of Donatus himself, which recounts how the saint was consoled and healed by a vision of his patron saint, Brigit. The thirteenth-century story in the Life of Andrew seems to be an adaptation which makes the sixth-century Irish saint into a more accessible and immediate figure, who was physically as well as spiritually present in the Tuscan countryside. The significance of the story is that it witnesses in an important way to contemporary devotion, and to the fact that the secluded site of Santa Brigida was known as the retreat of a female saint. Thus, the legacy of Brigit, patron and guide of the first Irish pilgrims to Italy, took root and survived, in various forms, and through the centuries. The saint’s legacy in Tuscany associates female sanctity and intercession with a holy place which continues to inspire the practices of prayer and contemplation.


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Saturday, 25 February 2012

Prologue to The Life of Saint Brigid by Donatus of Fiesole

Below is the translation by Margaret Stokes of the Prologue to the Life of Saint Brigid attributed to Saint Donatus of Fiesole. In it he describes his homeland, Ireland, or Scotia as it was often called at this time, as an almost magical place blessed with all manner of riches and resources (except in the fierce beasts department). It is into this rich and wonderful land that the holy virgin Brigid is born. She, of course, outdoes her homeland when it comes to the enumerating of her virtues. Saint Donatus also refers to some of the other biographers of Saint Brigid -Ultan, Aileran and Animosus - and to her father, Dubtach.

Three fragments of the writings of Donatus have been preserved. The first is a prologue to the life of St. Brigid of Kildare, in an ancient MS. preserved in the Laurentian Library, Florence. (Bibl. Mugellane xix, p.78)

"Far in the west they tell of a matchless land,
Which goes in ancient books by the name of Scotia;
Rich in resources this land having silver,
Precious stones, vesture and gold;
Well suited to earth-born creatures as regards
Its climate, its sun and its arable soil,
That Scotia with lovely fields
Hath skill with husbandry and raiments, and arms and arts and fruits
There are no fierce bears there, nor ever
Has the land of Scotia brought forth savage
Broods of lions. No poisons hurt no serpent
Creeps through the grass, nor does the babbling frog
Croak and complain by the lake. In this land
The Scottish race are worthy to dwell, a renowned race of men
In war, in peace, in fidelity. Here was born in former days
The most holy virgin,
Brigid, glory of the Scots; her name, her honour,
A tower reaching to the highest points of the flame-bearing heaven.
An inexhaustible light, a noble crown of God,
A blessed fountain rejoicing, reforming the hearts of the Scots;
While recreating them, she takes care of herself, she feeds, she grows;
A ladder prepared for men, excellent for youths and girls.
For mothers and for saints, she reaches to the stars of heaven.
Her father was called by name Dubtacus;
A man renowned for his good deeds, of famous ancestry;
Noble and humble, gentle and full of piety ;
Nobler because of his wife and pious offspring.
Many have written of the virtues of this virgin soul.
The learned Ultan and Eleran honouring her ;
One called Animosus has written many books
Concerning the life and studies of this virgin and her good deeds.
I shall begin from the least, nor shall greater things follow,
But so shall I gather fitting blossoms in a garden full of flowers.
If, beholding the glittering stars of heaven, we seek to know
their order and high-aspiring course,
If we could number the minutest grains of sand which the troubled
waves of the sea have scattered on our shores,
Then might we number the virtues of this virgin
Whose body was the temple of the Most High God."

Margaret Stokes, Six months in the Apennines; or, A pilgrimage in search of vestiges of the Irish saints in Italy (London, 1892), p237-8.

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Friday, 24 February 2012

Colgan's Lives of Saint Brigid

Below is a useful summary from Archbishop John Healy of the Lives of Saint Brigid  published by the 17th-century hagiologist, Father John Colgan:

In connection with St. Brigid and the School of Kildare, we may here make brief reference to the celebrated scholars who have compiled her biography.

The first of the six Lives printed by the learned Father John Colgan is the metrical Hymn of the Saint commonly attributed to St. Brogan Cloen of Rostuirc in the Diocese of Ossory. The original Hymn is written in the Irish language; Colgan also gives a Latin translation. This Irish original has been preserved in the Liber Hymnorum, and also in a MS. in Trinity College of very recent date. The following Irish preface is prefixed to the Hymn in the MS. of St. Isidore's, now in Merchants' Quay, Dublin.

“The place where this hymn was composed was Sliabh Bladhma (Slieve Bloom), or Cluain Mor Moedhog. The author was Brogan Cloen. The time (to which it refers) was when Lughaidh, son of Laeghaire, was king of Ireland and Ailil, son of Dunlang, king of Leinster. The cause of writing it- viz , ''Ultan of Ardbraccan, tutor of Brogan, requested him to narrate the miracles of Brigid in suitable poetical language, for Ultan had collected all the miracles of Brigid for him."

We gather from this interesting statement that Saint Ultan of Ardbraeccan, who was an uncle on the mother's side of St. Brigid, collected the materials for this poem. It is true St Ultan did not die until the year a.d. 656 or 657, but if he were then, as is stated in the Martyrology of Donegal, 189 years of age he might well have been the uncle and contemporary of the Virgin Saint. He was a very celebrated man, and was especially remarkable for his love of poor orphans, for he often had no less than 200 of them together, whom he used to feed with his own hands. He was also very mortified in his life, sleeping on the bare board in his narrow cell, and bathing his body in cold water in the sharpest blasts of the wintry wind. " It was he," says the same authority, " that collected the miracles of Brigid in one book, and gave them to his disciple Brogan to render them into verse''.

St Brogan Cloen himself lived, it seems, for some time in the monastery near Slieve Bloom, founded by St. Molua, and afterwards in that of Clonmore, in the barony of Bantry, County Wexford, which was founded by St. Aidan about the year A.D. 620. The scholiast doubts whether he composed this hymn while at Slieve Bloom or Clonmore ; so we may fairly suppose that it was composed sometime between A.D. 620 and 657, when St. Ultan died...

The hymn consists of 212 lines or 53 stanzas of four lines each. It describes at great length the virtues and miracles of St Brigid, but is unhappily too meagre in historical facts. The writer assumes that because her history was well known in his own time, it would continue to be equally well known to future generations.

There is also in the Book of Hymns published by Dr. Todd, what seems to be a fragment of an ancient Latin hymn in praise of St. Brigid. The preface to this Hymn attributes it either to St. Ninnidh of the Clean Hand, Brigid's chaplain, or to St. Fiacc of Sleibte, or to St. Ultan of Ardbraccan. This last conjecture, however, seems to arise from the statement that "Ultan collected the miracles of St. Brigid into one book. It was an abecedarian hymn originally, and is undoubtedly a very ancient composition. At present it consists of four stanzas of four lines each, having a rhyme or assonance in the middle and at the end of each line, which properly should consist of sixteen syllables. The first line at present is:

" Christus in nostra insula quae vocatur Hibernia,"

and notwithstanding the statement of the scholiast that the hymn was abecedarian, these words—Christus in nostra insula—appear to have been always regarded as the beginning of the hymn. In the eighth line Brigid is declared to be " Mariae sanctae similem," an expression which may have given origin to the saying that Brigid was the " Mary of the Irish." The following passage from the Leabhar Breac gives a glowing eulogy of St. Brigid, and formally calls her" the " Mary of the Gaedhil."

"There was not in the world one of more bashfulness and modesty than this holy virgin. She never washed her hands, or her feet, or head before men. She never looked a man in the face. She never spoke without blushing. She was abstinent, unblemished, fond of prayer, patient, rejoicing in God's commands, benevolent, humble, forgiving, charitable. She was a consecrated shrine for the preservation of the Body of Christ. She was a temple of God. Her heart and mind were the throne of the Holy Spirit;she was meek before God. She was distressed with the miserable. She was bright in miracles. And hence in things created her type is the Dove among birds, the Vine amongst trees, and the Sun above the stars."

This beautiful eulogy concludes by declaring that Brigid is " The Queen of the South. She is the Mary of the Gaedhil."

The Second Life printed by Colgan, is the celebrated work of Cogitosus. He tells us himself that he was a monk of Kildare, and that he wrote in obedience to the wishes of the community, not of his own presumptuous notion. In the last chapter he asks a prayer, " Pro me Cogitoso culpabili,'' but it is evident when he calls himself a 'nepos.' that he does not mean that he was the 'nepos' of St. Brigid, as some have fancied. In his humility he uses the word in its secondary classical sense, and calls himself a sinful spendthrift of God's time and of God's graces. The use of the word 'nepos,' therefore, furnishes no argument that this Life was written shortly after the death of St. Brigid. On the other hand, there is nothing in this Life that, as Basnage insinuates, ' smells of a later age' than the eighth or the beginning of the ninth century. As we have already observed, the description which Cogitosus gives of the great Church of Kildare, of its wealth, of the tomb of its founders, and the inviolable character of the city, clearly proves that it must have been written earlier than the ravages of the Danes. There are, however, some expressions that show it was written a considerable time after the decease of St. Brigid and St. Conlaeth. The writer speaks of 'the prosperous succession ' of prelates and abbesses who ruled in the sacred city, ritu perpetuo, a strong expression, which points to a long series of successors in Kildare.

We need make no special reference to the other four anonymous Lives printed by Colgan. The Third is attributed, but without any proof, to St. Ultan; the Fourth is probably the work of a monk called Animosus, of whom nothing else is known ; the Fifth was written by an Englishman, Laurence of Durham, in the twelfth century. The Sixth, like the First Life, is a poetic work in Latin, which Colgan got from Monte Cassino, and which the MS. itself attributes to Chilien, or, perhaps, more properly, Coelan, a monk of Iniscaltra, or the Holy Island, in Lough Derg, who probably flourished in the eighth century. We know that many monks from Holy Island went abroad in the ninth and tenth centuries to preach the Gospel, and, doubtless, one of them carried this MS. with him either to Bobbio, or some other Benedictine Monastery, whence it might easily find its way to Monte Cassino. The prologue of the poem is attributed to Donatus, an Irish prelate in Tuscany, during the ninth century. This also helps to explain how the Irish-born prelate would get this volume from some of his countrymen abroad, and also write a prologue to this poetic life of the Queen of Ireland's virgin saints.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Oak of Kildare

A third piece of evidence some cite for pagan survivals at Kildare is its great oak tree, first encountered in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century when it was added to Brigit’s Vita I by the redactor identified by Richard Sharpe as ‘D’ as he wrote out what was to become the Vita IV. The tree is not mentioned in any earlier source, but appears to have really existed in D’s day, for he saw it as explaining the origin of the name of Kildare, ‘Cell Dara’:

Vita IV, book 2, ch. 3: ‘For there was a very tall oak tree there which Brigit loved very much, and blessed, of which the trunk still remains. No one dares cut it with a weapon, but whoever can break off a part of it with his hands deems it a great advantage, hoping for the help of God by its means; because through St Brigit’s blessing many miracles have been performed by that wood.’

For nineteenth century scholars.. the implication of the oak tree, the druidic cult, and the Kildare legend was obvious. Kildare was built in a druidic oak grove and the great tree was venerated even in Christian times. This assertion, resting on this same constellation of evidence, is found in the late twentieth century, too, though not in academic writing. [in the work by Irish feminist Mary Condren, The Serpent and the Goddess]. The true origins of the name of Kildare are almost certainly the building material of the church, i.e. ‘oaken church’, suggested by both annal entries and archaeology.

The community at Kildare was clearly neither semi-pagan in its Christianity, nor even sympathetic to native druidic religion. It was, in fact, anti-pagan. Its hostility in the seventh and eighth centuries is epitomized by the verses left by one Kildare clerical poet who saw in the comparative fortunes of his monastery and its neighbouring pagan religious fortress a cause for gloating. Brigit’s church went from strength to strength, he crowed, but druidic Dun Ailline (‘Alenn’) was now an abandoned, empty ruin:

It is not worth listening to the worship of auguries, or of spells or prophecy that predict death for, when tried, they are all falsehood, since Alenn is a deserted fort. Bright is the smile that shines on you from the plain north of Corc’s land; Liffey of Lorc has made ashes of every generation it has reared. . . . Brigit, in the land I behold, where each king has lived in turn, your fame has proved greater than that of the king, you are superior to them. You have an eternal domain with the King, as well as the land where your sanctuary lies. Granddaughter of Bresal mac Dian, sit safely, Brigit, in triumph.

Brigit may have started out as a pagan goddess, and may live in the twenty-first century as one again, but in the early middle ages she was a very Christian, very determined crusader for Christ. She sat safely, indeed, in a very Christian and very orthodox, triumph.'
[emphasis mine]

Christina Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church - Ireland 450-1150 (Oxford University Press, 2002), 66-7.

To which conclusion I can only add Amen!

It was refreshing to see a scholar subject the thesis that Brigid the saint is really only Brigid the goddess with a thin veneer of Christianity to scrutiny. This seems to be a case of 'if you state something often enough it is accepted as true'. The evidence, however, is surprisingly weak. Harrington remarks that she is able only to give a summary of the evidence as the subject deserves a monograph. Let's hope she will write one!

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Wednesday, 22 February 2012

An Analysis of the Perpetual Fire at Kildare

Now we can turn to Harrington's analysis of the famous fire at Kildare:
The popular belief in Kildare having been a pagan centre depends upon saint Brigit being either a Christianized version of that goddess or an eponymous high-priestess of her cult, and that, as discussed above, is far from established. It also depends, less directly, upon the existence in pagan times of female druidic enclaves —a point treated in the previous chapter and shown to be equally tenuous. The reports of Kildare’s vestal flame and the question of its allegedly pagan antecents have a bearing on how one approaches the Christianity practised there in its first centuries. If one believes that it was a transmogrified druidic centre it is reasonable to ask, were the devotions practised semi-druidical? Were the nuns more like priestesses than orthodox Christian devotae? For this reason the key piece of evidence for this model must be addressed, i.e. the supposed perpetual flame at Kildare, the alleged sign of surviving fire worship or vestal devotion. There is no mention of it in any of the three early Lives of Brigit, namely the Vita I, Cogitosus, or the ninth-century Bethu Brigte. It is hard to imagine that it could be overlooked in all three Lives. It is, in fact, absent from all other Lives, from annals, from the martyrologies and their glosses—all sources, in fact, until Gerald of Wales, a visitor in the twelfth century, almost 700 years after the alleged pagan-Christian transition took place.There is no doubt that Gerald was referring to a genuine, existent perpetual flame, for it is confirmed in other sources, in particular in a twelfth- or thirteenth-century gloss on a Middle Irish tale, and in Anglo-Norman documents for the year 1220. Today at Kildare there are the ruins of a smallish stone building called the ‘fire-house’, in which the fire was known to be kept through the fourteenth century at least, for a ‘fyre house’ is mentioned in a 1397 close roll. The fire-house itself may not be very ancient, certainly not dating to the pre-Christian era; it may have been built as late as the tenth century, or, if it was built in earlier centuries, it may have previously had a different use. That the fire was a ‘vestal’ one also needs considering. Gerald did say that only nuns were allowed to tend the fire, and this may have been the case, but Kildare did have monks and clerics on its premises in his day as in earlier centuries. Nor was the presence of a perpetual fire unique to Kildare: in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries seven others are mentioned in the hagiography, all of them at male monasteries. The inescapable conclusion is that such flames in Ireland were not especially associated with women and appear rather late in the historical record. The reasons for their existence were probably Christotheological: the luminary imagery of Christian deity was as ubiquitous in Ireland as it was elsewhere in the West. Why they appeared suddenly in the twelfth century is a question not ventured here.
[Emphasis mine]

Christina Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church- Ireland 450-1150 (Oxford University Press, 2002), 64-5.

I think Harrington has raised a very important question here - if this perpetual fire was such an important part of Brigid's cult, why is it totally absent from any of the earlier Irish sources? Effectively we seem to have taken the unsubstantiated claims of Gerald that these rituals went back to the time of the Virgin i.e. Saint Brigid, as fact. But where is the evidence?

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Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Gerald of Wales and the Perpetual Fire at Kildare

Before going on to examine Harrington's analysis of the famous Perpetual Fire at Kildare, it may be helpful to have the text of Gerald of Wales to hand. He writes about the fire in his 12th-century work, The History and Topography of Ireland. Indeed, it seems that Gerald is just about the only source of information on the fire, and it is thus important to remember that he was writing some six centuries after the time of Saint Brigid.


AT Kildare, in Leinster, celebrated for the glorious Brigit, many miracles have been wrought worthy of memory. Among these, the first that occurs is the fire of St. Brigit, which is reported never to go out. Not that it cannot be extinguished, but the nuns and holy women tend and feed it, adding fuel, with such watchful and diligent care, that from the time of the Virgin, it has continued burning through a long course of years ; and although such heaps of wood have been consumed during this long period, there has been no accumulation of ashes.


As in the time of St. Brigit twenty nuns were here engaged in the Lord's warfare, she herself being the twentieth, after her glorious departure, nineteen have always formed the society, the number having never been increased. Each of them has the care of the fire for a single night in turn, and, on the evening before the twentieth night, the last nun, having heaped wood upon the fire, says, "Brigit, take charge of your own fire ; for this night belongs to you." She then leaves the fire, and. in the morning it is found that the fire has not gone out, and that the usual quantity of fuel has been used.


THIS fire is surrounded by a hedge, made of stakes and brushwood, and forming a circle, within which no male can enter ; and if any one should presume to enter, which has been sometimes attempted by rash men, he will not escape the divine vengeance. Moreover, it is only lawful for women to blow the fire, fanning it or using bellows only, and not with their breath. Moreover, by virtue of a curse pronounced by the virgin, goats here never have any young....

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Monday, 20 February 2012

Brigid the Fire Goddess?

It is commonplace on neo-pagan websites to present the Christian saint Brigid as a watered-down version of an Irish goddess whose cult has fire as an essential element. This is expressed in her alleged patronage of smithing and other arts involving fire. But as Christina Harrington points out, actual evidence for these assertions is thin on the ground:
As was mentioned in the previous chapter, we know very little about the pagan goddess of the name Bríg or Brigit in Ireland, owing to a lack of evidence, written and archaeological. Because no one has ever dug underneath Kildare to see if there is a pre-Christian temple site, even the presumed cult centre, if there was one, is not known to exist. The earliest evidence for the goddess is in the Irish vernacular law tracts, written down c.700, which contain a few little legal stories in which Bríg is the daughter, wife, or mother of the legendary judge Sencha of the distant Irish past. According to these she sat by Sencha’s side as he made pronouncements on law, and on occasion intervened to correct or contradict him. Nowhere in this material is she equated with the saint of the almost-identical name. Then in the tenth century the compilers of Sanas Cormaic (Cormac’s Glossary) included an entry on Brigit calling her the goddess worshipped by poets, adding that she had two sisters of the same name who were patronesses of smithcraft and healing respectively, and that her name was derived from bri-sagit, ‘fiery arrow’. It is uncertain whether they equated the deity Brigit with the saint Brigit, but it is impossible that the saint was unknown to them; for some reason they chose not to make explicit their understanding of the relationship between the two. It is with Sanas Cormaic that we find the first explicit link made between this goddess and the element of fire, in the word bri. McCone has convincingly shown that the three arts it claims Brigit supervised — healing, smithcraft, and poetry — were in early Ireland all associated with fire. The authors of the saints’ Lives of Brigit seem to have been aware of the same-named goddess, though they never say so explicitly: all of her Lives give Brigit a druid father figure, so she is made into a member of the druid class, the same class as poets and judges. The hagiographers do not carry through the parallels, though, for the saint is not portrayed as a judge, nor a law-maker, nor a poet; she has no noticeable interest in smithcraft, and her healing miracles are not very physician-like. The only significant overlap is the motif of fire and light, but the references can all be attributed to common motifs and have equivalents in male Irish Lives. Another association between Saint Brigit and fire would in the twelfth century be reiterated by Gerald of Wales, but that too was not specific to her.

McCone has pointed out that another saint, the virgin Lassair, also has a fire name, from lassar, flame. In his view Brigit, like Lassair, was a goddess who became a saint in Christian times; both succeeded in the new religions because their attributes could be harmonized with those of the Christian God, for the Bible is filled with light and fire imagery. The fire element in the name, then, betokens a goddess origin, for him, in spite of the insignificance of fire and its attendant crafts in the early texts from Brigit’s cult.

Christina Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church- Ireland 450-1150 (Oxford University Press, 2002), 63-4.

[Emphasis mine]

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Sunday, 19 February 2012

Saint Brigid and Imbolc

Having touched on the aspects of Saint Brigid as the harbinger of spring in Ireland, it is perhaps now time to examine the notion that Saint Brigid is no more than a thinly-disguised pagan goddess, whose feast is an unconvincing Christianization of the Celtic festival of Imbolc. This line is trotted out as unquestioned fact on neo-pagan websites and has even been accepted by popular writers on modern 'Celtic Christianity'. However, as scholar Christina Harrington points out, the evidence for this belief is neither strong nor conclusive. She sees the patronage of women as being the only real connection between the goddess and the saint:
The saint’s feast day fell in Imbolc, the official start of spring in the native Irish calendar. Cormac’s Glossary has an entry on imbolc, defining it as ‘the time the sheep’s milk comes’, but does not identify the festival with Brigit. Care of sheep was a specifically women’s activity in early Ireland, and there are stories of Saint Brigit shepherding and making dairy products, but it must be remembered that the girl, as the daughter of a slavewoman, is portrayed doing what non-noble girls would do normally. Nowhere, in fact, is Imbolc said to be the festival of the goddess Brigit, and beyond that, the goddess’s attributes do not include sheep care. It is only the connection to women that is marked.
[Emphasis mine]

Christina Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church- Ireland 450-1150 (Oxford University Press, 2002), 63-4.

Harrington's book is an excellent read, and I will go on to look at other elements of the goddess versus saint debate which she reviews - the perpetual fire at Kildare and the oak tree. The evidence for those too rests on equally uncertain foundations.

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Saturday, 18 February 2012

Is Saint Brigid Really a Celtic Goddess?

I recently enjoyed a very nice post for Saint Brigid's Day, on the New Liturgical Movement website. Yet I was saddened to see the first comment stating that the person thought the cult of Saint Brigid of Kildare had a pagan origin. Not that I am criticizing the individual who raised the issue, for the notion that Saint Brigid is really a Celtic goddess has become such an accepted and unquestioned 'fact' that when I first began my research a few years ago, I fully expected to find a body of irrefutable evidence for the link between the two. I was, therefore, genuinely surprised to find that when the sources and origins of this thesis are examined there is actually no firm evidence behind it, certainly none that would constitute the 'smoking gun' that puts it beyond dispute. Instead, the sources on which it is based do not inevitably lead to the conclusion that Brigid the saint inherited the name, festival and attributes of the pagan goddess. Moreover, the idea that saint and goddess are the same entity can be traced back, not to far bygone ages, but to Victorian scholars heavily influenced by the historical and cultural factors that shaped their own age. The concept has even been given iconographic expression in our own times in the illustration above, originally sourced here, from an article entitled Goddess or Saint, Multi-tasking Brigid is a True Inspiration. The image shows a prayer card of Saint Brigid, printed in Italy and widely available in Ireland, which shows her dressed as a nun, holding her abbatial staff, clasping the cross close to her heart and framed by a scene of her church and the floral emblems of white lilies and roses to symbolize her purity. Although it is not shown here, the reverse of this card contains a quotation from the closing paragraphs of the Homily on Saint Brigid from the Lebahar Breac, describing her as 'the prophetess of Christ and the Mary of the Gael'. The other image shows a modern pagan illustration of the 'triple goddess', a title which the author explains arises from her subject's patronage of 'three important skills: poetry, healing and smithcrafting'. So, let's begin with this 'triple goddess' and try to see whether the evidence does in fact confirm the link between the saint and the goddess suggested by the picture.

The main source for the triple goddess is the 9th-century text, Sanas Cormaic, Cormac's Glossary, attributed to the King-bishop of Cashel, Cormac ua Cuilennain, who died in 908. The 19th-century scholar Whitley Stokes published an edition of this text in 1862, which includes the gloss on Brigit:

Brigit, i.e. a female poet, daughter of the Dagda. This Brigit is a poetess, or a woman of poetry, i.e. Brigit a goddess whom poets worshipped, for very great and very noble was her superintendence. Therefore they call her goddess of poets by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit, woman of healing, Brigit, woman of smith-work, i.e. goddesses, from whose names with all Irishmen Brigit was called a goddess. Brigit then, i.e. breo-saigit, a íiery arrow. [1]

On the face of it, this goddess does not seem to have any obvious link to the Christian foundress of Kildare. Indeed, there is a separate entry for Sanct Brigit in the Glossary which reads Sanct Brigit .i. naem Brigit indsin, 'Sanct Brigit i.e. St. Brigit this'. Might not this suggest that rather than identifying the goddess with the saint, Cormac instead distinguishes between them?

Cormac's Glossary is also often quoted in connection with the pagan festival of Imbolc. The author of the article on the multi-tasking goddess saint confidently asserts that 'Brigid played an important role in the Celtic festival of Imbolc..' Yet in reality, evidence to back up this statement is lacking. As my  post Saint Brigid and Imbolc, looking at the analysis by Christina Harrington, pointed out:

The saint’s feast day fell in Imbolc, the official start of spring in the native Irish calendar. Cormac’s Glossary has an entry on imbolc, defining it as ‘the time the sheep’s milk comes’, but does not identify the festival with Brigit. Care of sheep was a specifically women’s activity in early Ireland, and there are stories of Saint Brigit shepherding and making dairy products, but it must be remembered that the girl, as the daughter of a slavewoman, is portrayed doing what non-noble girls would do normally. Nowhere, in fact, is Imbolc said to be the festival of the goddess Brigit, and beyond that, the goddess’s attributes do not include sheep care. It is only the connection to women that is marked. [2] [Emphasis mine]

A similar note of caution is sounded by Professor Ronald Hutton in his examination of the ritual year. He cites as a source a secular tale, Tochmarc Emire, the wooing of Emer, which although dealing with the pre-Christian hero Cú Chulainn, was composed in the 10th or 11th century. At one point in the tale Emer has occasion to name the main seasons of the calendar and one is named as 'Imbolc, when the ewes are milked at spring's beginning'. Hutton goes on to add:

The festival must be pre-Christian in origin, but there is absolutely no direct testimony as to its early nature, or concerning any rites which might have been employed then. There is, in fact, no sign that any of the medieval Irish writers who referred to it preserved a memory of them, and some evidence that they no longer understood the meaning of the name itself.[3] 

Once again the claims that the goddess Brigid was central to the festival of Imbolc, or that the customs once associated with Saint Brigid's Day in Ireland are direct pagan survivals, cannot readily be substantiated from the sources.

Another common claim, which supposedly proves our saint's true pagan origin, centres around the burning of a perpetual fire at Kildare, tended by 19 virgins and with a protecting hedge around it which prevents men from entering. The source of this information is the 12th-century Norman chronicler, Gerald of Wales. Gerald claimed that this fire had been going since the days of Saint Brigid herself. Now other sources do testify to the existence of a fire in the later medieval period, which was extinguished first on the orders of the Archbishop of Dublin in 1220 and finally as part of the Reformation suppression of the monasteries. I would accept, therefore, that it is entirely plausible that Gerald saw a fire at Kildare in the 12th century. We have only his word, however, that it went back to the time of Saint Brigid and his claim, written six centuries later, is not confirmed independently by any of her Lives or by any other other source. If fire was such an important part of the cult the saint supposedly inherited from the goddess, why should this be? Professor Hutton, who otherwise agrees with the basic premise that Saint Brigid became conflated with a pagan goddess of the same name, is nevertheless as a professional historian rightly cautious about going beyond what the sources support. Noting that the goddess, contrary to the claims neo-pagans make, 'was not especially associated with fire' and noting the absence of any mention of the fire from the 7th-century Life by Cogitosus, suggests that 'it is possible, therefore, that it grew up between the 7th and the 12th centuries as a derivation from the meaning of the saint's name'. [4] Here it is important to remember that fires are recorded in the medieval hagiography of other Irish saints, some of whose names also have a link to fire, as for example Saint Molaise. It is thus possible that for some reason, as yet unresearched, there was something going on in the 12th century which brought the burning of fires at the shrines of Irish saints into focus in the sources. If that is so, it might provide a different context for the fire at Kildare, one free of the pagan overtones inevitably associated with vestal virgins and men entering the sanctuary at their peril, despite the fact that Kildare was once a double monastery for both men and women.

Where the sources are frustratingly silent, imagination has, and still continues, to fill in the gaps. One of the most extraordinary examples is to be found in the writings of R.A.S. Macalister (1870-1950), a pioneering Irish archaeologist. In a 1919 paper on the remains of the pre-Christian site, the Hill of Tara, he mentions that some of our native saints, whilst he does not deny their historicity, nevertheless have had their names 'confused with other names which by reason of a much longer history, stretching far back into the unknown abysses of pagan ages, had made a deeper impression on popular memory'. Having started off his discussion with two male examples (Saints Ibar and Senan), he moves on to the example par excellence:

A case even more remarkable than the two above cited is that of the foundress of the nunnery of Kildare. There was doubtless here, in pagan times, a college of priestesses who tended a perpetual fire, and who (presumably with orgiastic rites resembling those of the Gaulish priestesses of Sena) honoured the fire-goddess Brigid, this divinity being immanent in the sacred sun-oak which gave to the place the name that it still bears. Probably the head of the college was regarded as an incarnation of the goddess, and so bore her name, as the kings of Temair bore the name of Eochu. But one of the succession came under Christian influence, and, embracing the Faith of the Cross, she accomplished the tremendous feat of converting the pagan sanctuary into a Christian religious house a work in its way far more wonderful than the miracles with which her biographers credit her. It is no detraction from the honour due to her for this achievement, that she could not quite rid the establishment over which she presided of all its pagan vestiges; "the bright lamp that lay in Kildare's holy fane" still "burnt through long ages," not, as Moore foolishly says, of "darkness and storm," but of Christian Faith and Works. And though it is most probable that she herself changed the official name "Brigid" which hitherto she had borne (for no Christian lady would willingly continue to bear a name so heathenish while paganism was still a force), it was too deeply rooted in the folk-memory, and continued to be used locally to designate her. [5]

With his use of the terms 'priestesses', 'orgiastic rites', 'sun-oaks' and 'fire-goddesses', we can see the clear influence of the Victorian scholarly conviction that early Irish Christianity preserved 'primitive survivals'. What is striking, however, is that Macalister produces not one shred of hard evidence to back up his view of Kildare as a place where paganism lived on beneath a thin veneer of Christianity. He says that there was 'doubtless' a college of priestesses who 'presumably' had Gaulish-style orgiastic rites and whose head was 'probably' considered the incarnation of the fire-goddess. These are some pretty big assumptions.

In a fascinating examination of the changing fortunes of Saint Brigid in the 19th century, modern scholar Catherine McKenna has traced the origins of the type of thinking that lies behind Macalister's views. She identifies the continental Celticist, Henri d'Arbois de Jubainville (1827-1910), as instrumental in placing the figure of Brigit in a mythological rather than a hagiographical or historical setting. His 1884 work, Le cycle mythologique irlandais et la mythologie celtique, marks the first time that Dr McKenna has seen an explicit identification of the triple goddess with the saint of Kildare made in print. Page 145 of this text makes what is now a familiar claim:

... Brigit, goddess of the pagan Irish, was supplanted in the Christian era by Saint Brigit, and the Irish of the Middle Ages transferred in some way to this national saint the cult that their pagan ancestors had addressed to the goddess Brigit. [6]

I can't help noting the use of the vague term 'in some way' (en quelques sorte) to describe the transference of the pagan cult to the Christian saint by the medieval Irish. It seems to me that right from the start this 'dual Brigit' thesis has been set forward with a great deal of imprecision. Sadly, this has not prevented it from being embraced wholeheartedly ever since, but things may at last be changing. Dr McKenna makes this valuable suggestion to other scholars:

A recognition of the historical conditions that give rise to our current assumptions about the origins and development of the cult and hagiography of St Brigit, of course, tells us nothing about their actual origin and development. It does, however, suggest that we might profitably re-examine the concepts that have become axiomatic, and question the usefulness of repeating the commonplace that Saint Brigit is a euhermerized divinity. [7]

I believe that this is sound advice for Christians too. Let's stop unthinkingly throwing in references to the goddess when speaking of our national patroness. Instead, let's firmly separate her from the unsubstantiated claims of neo-pagans and stand up for our Saint Brigid, the Prophetess of Christ and Mary of the Gael.


[1]Whitley Stokes (ed.), Three Irish Glossaries (London and Edinburgh, 1862). Translation from the preface, xxiii-xxiv.

[2] Christina Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church - Ireland 450-1150 (Oxford University Press, 2002), 63-4.

[3] Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun - A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford University Press, 1996), 134.

[4] Ibid, 135.

[5] R.A.S. Macalister, 'Temair Breg: A Study of the Remains and Traditions of Tara', Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 34C (1919), 340-341.

[6]Translation from Catherine McKenna, 'Apotheosis and Evanescence: The Fortunes of Saint Brigit in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries' in J. F. Nagy ed., The Individual in Celtic Literatures, CSANA Yearbook 1 (Dublin, 2001), 79.

[7] Ibid, 97.

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Thursday, 16 February 2012

Devotion to Saint Brigid in Wales

Saint Brigid of Kildare is also venerated in Wales, where she is known as Saint Ffraid. Let's begin with a useful summary:
FRAID (LEIAN,) is the Welsh name of St. Bridget or St. Bride, whose memory has been held in the highest respect in the principality. According to the ancient records quoted in Bonedd y Saint, she was the daughter of Cadwrthai or Cadwthlach Wyddel, otherwise Dwyppws ab Cevyth. The Irish accounts state that she was born at Fochard, in the county of Louth, about A. D. 453, and that she was the illegitimate daughter of Dubtach or Dubtachus, a man of considerable rank in his country. When she grew up no importunities could prevail upon her to enter the married state, so she took the veil from the hands of St. Mel, a disciple and nephew of St. Patrick, who received her profession of perpetual virginity. She formed a religious community of her companions, who had been veiled with her, which increased so much, that she was obliged to erect several nunneries in many different parts of Ireland. Her fame spread through the British isles, and besides the numerous churches dedicated to her in Wales, there are several in England and Scotland, also in the Isle of Man, and especially in the Hebrides, where in one island, near to Isla, a celebrated monastery was built in her honour, called Bridgidiani. Iorwerth Vynglwyd, a Welsh poet of the fifteenth century, has put her legend in verse, with the miracles attributed to her, which is printed in Williams's History of Aberconwy. (8vo. Denbigh, 1835.) It is also to be found in English verse in a rare book entitled "A Triad of Irish Saints;" (Patrick, Columba, and Brigit,) published at Louvain, in 1647. Among other wonders, it is said that she sailed over from the Irish coast on a green turf, and landing near Holyhead, at the spot now known as Towyn y Capel; the sod became a green hillock, on which she caused a chapel to be built, which was called after her name. (See an interesting account of Towyn y Capel in the Journal of the Archaeological Institute, ill. 223, by the Hon. W. Owen Stanley.) That she visited Wales at some period, seems corroborated by the great veneration paid to her, for there are no less than eighteen churches and chapels dedicated to her in the Principality, viz. Diserth, in Flintshire; Llansantffraid Glan Conwy, and Llansantffraid Glyn Ceiriog, in Denbighshire; Llansantffraid in Mechain, Montgomeryshire ; Llansantffraid Glyn Dwrdu, in Merionethshire; St. Bride's, in Pembrokeshire; Llansantffraid, in Cardiganshire; Llansantffraid Cwmmwd Deuddwr, and Llansantfrraid in Elvael, Radnorshire; Llansantffraid, in Breconshire; St. Bride's Major, St. Bride's Minor, and St. Bride's super Elai, in Glamorganshire; St. Bride's or Llansaintffraid, Skenffreth, St. Bride's, in Netherwent, and St. Bride's Wentloog, in Monmouthshire; besides Capel Santffraid, now in ruins near Holyhead. St. Brigit died A. D. 525, on the first of February, on which day her memory is celebrated. There was another St. Brigid of Sweden, who is often confounded with her, but she lived many ages afterwards. [1]

I wouldn't share the author's conviction that Saint Brigid must have visited his country in person, it seems more likely that her cult was introduced by Irish monks. Yet I am very interested to see the distinctive Welsh genealogy for our saint which the sources preserve. When I read this translation of the 15th-century poet Iorwerth Fynglwyd's life of Saint Brigid though, I saw that he acknowledged her Irish birth and alluded to some of the most famous episodes from her various Irish lives, - food miracles, removal of her eye to avoid marriage - while also presenting the specifically Welsh dimension - floating across on a turf, the miracle of the fish:
The Welsh poet, Iorwerth Fynglwyd (Edward Greybeard, 1480-1527) described the life of Saint Bridget originally in verse, in the course of which he also recalled some of the many miracles that have been attributed to her:

“She was a beautiful nun, the daughter of Dubtach, an Irish nobleman. She procured honey from stone for the poor and gave her distaff to a ploughman to do duty for his broken mould-board. She converted butter that had been turned into ashes into butter again and gave to a certain district all the cheese in the steward's store, but not so much as one was ever missed by him. She knew the fifteen prayers. Whenever it rained heavily she would throw her white winnowing sheet on the sunbeams. On one occasion when her father desired her to marry someone she did not like, one of her eyes fell out of its socket, which she afterwards put back and it was as well as ever. She floated from Ireland to Wales on a turf and landed in the Dovey. She made of rushes (brwyn) the beautiful fish - without a single bone - called brwyniaid (smelts or sparlina), which she scattered among the watercress. She visited St. Peter's in Rome and a festival on Candlemas Eve (February 1st) was established in her honour.” [2]

The reference to Saint Brigid's knowledge of 'the fifteen prayers' would appear to indicate a confusion in the poet's mind between the holy lady of Kildare and the 14th-century saint Bridget of Sweden, to whom a medieval devotion known as the 'Fifteen Oes' is attributed. The Swedish Bridget died in 1373 so perhaps it is understandable that her cult was more topical in the poet's lifetime. Indeed, in researching devotion to Saint Brigid of Kildare in Europe I have come across cases where churches originally dedicated to the Irish virgin were rebuilt in later times and dedicated to the Swedish widow, in a case of mistaken identity.

I found it interesting too that in the Welsh miracle of the fishes, there is a link to rushes, which in the Irish context are most famously associated with Saint Brigid's crosses:
Another legend tells of a severe fish famine at Conwy. Saint Bride (Ffraid) was one day walking along the banks of the River Conwy and she was throwing rushes into the water. She prayed that there would be an end to the famine, and in a few days the rushes were transformed into fish. Soon the river was teeming with the miraculous fish, which ever since have been known as brwyniaid (‘sparlings’), meaning ‘rush-like’. It is a small, tasty fish (Osmerus eperlanus), belonging to the same family as the trout and is comparatively rare in Britain. [3]

Yet it is clear that the poet Iorwerth Fynglwyd was familiar with the stories of Saint Brigid to be found in the Irish sources, one of the most famous being the manner in which she avoided marriage by plucking out her eye:
cywydd by Iorwerth Fynglwyd (fl. 1485-1527) to San Ffraid:

Y dydd, y ceisiodd dy dad
wra yt, a'i roi atad,
un o'th lygaid a neidiawdd
o'th ben, hyn a'th boenai'n hawdd;
a thrannoeth aeth yr wyneb
oll yn iach, ni bu well neb.

[The day your father attempted to find you a husband, and give him to you, one of your eyes jumped out of your head, and this inevitably hurt you; but the next day, all your face healed, no one had ever felt better.] [4]

Saint Brigid has continued as a source of interest and inspiration to Welsh poets, the contemporary poet Ruth Bidgood was commissioned by the BBC in 1979 to write a radio poem and produced a Hymn to Saint Ffraid for three voices. This has now been published in full in a 2006 collection entitled 'Symbols of Plenty'. Another one for my must-read list.

Finally, more evidence of continuing devotion to Saint Brigid can be seen in the Millennium project at Trearddur Bay, Anglesey. This is the place where she was said to have come ashore after crossing the Irish Sea on a grass sod. A splendid Celtic cross, carved from native stone, was erected in 2000. It has the following inscription:

On the column is St. Ffraid's hand holding the eternal flame of Kildare, together with the inscription:

A.D. 2000 [5]

I find this continuity of Welsh devotion to Ireland's patroness a wonderful tribute to how she was able to touch not only the people of her own country, but those of other lands over the centuries.


[1] Rev. Robert Williams, Enwogion Cymru – A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Welshmen from the earliest times to the present, and including every name connected with the Ancient History of Wales. (Llandovery, 1862), 156-157.

[2] Noel Walley, Saints of North Wales -Saint Ffraid, Saint Mary’s Prayers, and Bardsey Island. Accessed online: http://www.greatorme.org.uk/bryncroes.html

[3] Robin Gwyndaf, Welsh Folk Tales, (National Museum of Wales, 2nd edition, 1995), 13.

[4] Feminine Sanctity - The Female Saints of Wales. Accessed online: http://cymraeg.lamp.ac.uk/Department/English/current/sanctity.php

[5] For further details of the cross and of excavations at the site go to http://www.holyhead.com/tbaycelticcross/index.html

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Saint Brigid and Glastonbury

It is interesting to reflect that the cult of Saint Brigid was not confined to Ireland, but was known in other parts of these islands, not to mention continental Europe. One of the most intriguing claims is made by the English monastic site of Glastonbury, where it is held that Saint Brigid spent some time at a place called Beckery. Indeed, she is not the only Irish saint with whom Glastonbury claims a link, for medieval sources also lay out an alternative chronology for Saint Patrick and identify more than one saint of this name. The third of Ireland's trinity of patrons, Columcille, was claimed as a visitor to Glastonbury as well. The idea of Ireland having this triple patronage developed after the Norman invasion, when the remains of these three great saints were supposedly translated to Downpatrick in 1185. This allowed the Norman conqueror of Ulster, John de Courcy, to attempt to associate his regime with the patronage of the native saints. There is also a less well-known Irish saint, Indract, whose story has become entwined with that of Glastonbury too. Below is an account of Saint Brigid's association with this famous English site, taken from a mid-14th century source, The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey by John of Glastonbury. This work gives a history of Glastonbury Abbey from the earliest times until the author's own day and draws upon many other sources, some of which are now lost. Particularly interesting is the description of Saint Brigid's relics which were venerated there in the pre-Reformation period:

Saint Bridget flourished at the end of the life of the greater Patrick, with whom we dealt earlier. She survived him, as Gildas writes, by sixty years, and she came to Glastonbury about AD 488. Saint Kolumkilla was born four years before the death of Saint Brigid and came to Glastonbury later, about AD 504. These saints, indeed, frequented the spot, along with some of the Irish nobility because of the venerable relics of their patron Patrick. Saint Bridget made a stay of several years on an island near Glastonbury, called Beckery or Little Ireland, where there was an oratory consecrated in honour of Saint Mary Magdalene. She left there certain signs of her presence - her wallet, collar, bell and weaving implements, which are exhibited and honoured there because of her holy memory - and she returned to Ireland, where, not much later, she rested in the Lord and was buried in the city of Down. The chapel on that island [i.e. Beckery] is now dedicated in honour of Saint Bridget; on its side there is an opening through which, according to the belief of the common folk, anyone who passes will receive forgiveness of all his sins.

J.P.Carley and D. Townsend, The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey - An Edition, Translation and Study of John of Glastonbury's Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis (Boydell and Brewer, 1985), 67.

A couple of points can be made about this account. First, the placename Beckery has been the subject of some discussion among scholars. The received wisdom was that the name was a rare survival of an Irish placename in England, Beckery being derived from Becc Eriu, latinized as Parva Hibernia i.e. Little Ireland. One scholar pointed out that the name Beckery was also used in the Middle Ages for a a small island in Wexford Harbour. However, in a paper on Saint Patrick and Glastonbury, HPR Finberg suggested that it was a purely English placename meaning 'beekeepers island' derived from beocere= beekeeper and ig or ieg = island. Secondly, the information on Saint Brigid in the Glastonbury Abbey Chronicle seems to derive from the medieval monastic writer William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of England. In his work William states that he does not know whether Saint Brigid actually died at Glastonbury but he is certain that she visited and left behind her relics. Some 20th-century scholars have supported both the idea of her visit and the existence of the relics. The reference to the date of her death in the Glastonbury Chronicle is to the Historia Britonum which was often attributed to Gildas in the Middle Ages. It says that Saint Brigid died forty years after Saint Patrick. However, John of Glastonbury's claim that she was then buried in the 'city of Down' i.e. Downpatrick, would contradict the testimony of Saint Brigid's biographer, Cogitosus, who describes her tomb in the church at Kildare. The translation of her relics did not take place until the late 12th-century.

Glastonbury is now a stronghold of the neo-pagan movement and much of the information available online reflects the usual goddesses and druids bunkum. This page, however, formerly at the website of the Christian shrine of Our Lady of Glastonbury,* concludes 'For us the unanswered question is: did St. Brigid come to Glastonbury and spend perhaps two years in prayer in an oratory at Beckery or Brideshay, before founding her famous monastery in Kildare? Legend suggests it; history has yet to prove it'. A good question indeed.

* This page now has to be recovered through the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine and may take a moment to load.

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