14 February 2010

'The Saint of Eire's Farms & Hills'—St Brighid of Kildare

Today, 1 February on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Abbess Brighid of Kildare (c. 452-c. 525), the Second Patron of Ireland and ‘the Mary of the Gael’. Her 7th-c. hagiographer, Cogitosus, calls her ‘Brigit of blessed and sacred memory’ and describes her as ‘burning with the flame of an inextinguishable faith’. [1] Owen White’s friend, Edward Sellner, notes that she is ‘the most famous female leader of the early Celtic church’, [2] and Michael Staunton writes that St Brighid ‘is second among Irish saints only to Patrick’. [3] Here is the account of her life in the Great Horologion:

When Ireland was newly converted to the Christian Faith, the Holy Abbess Brigid devoted herself to the establishment of the monastic life among the women of her country, and founded the renowned convent of Kildare—Kil ‘Cell (or Church)’ Dara ‘of the Oak’. She was especially renowned for her great mercifulness, manifested in her lavish almsgiving and in miracles wrought for those in need. The Book of Armagh, an ancient Irish chronicle, calls Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid ‘the pillars of the Irish’ and says that through them both, ‘Christ performed many miracles.’ She reposed in peace about the year 525. [4]

In my main post on St Brighid last year (here), I referred to and briefly summarised a story I first found in a Greek book on Saints of the British Isles. It concerns a blind nun under St Brighid’s care, and as I mentioned last year, it was particularly moving to see a blind lady at a Greek monastery respond to the story when it was read to her. Well, I’ve found my photocopy of the account of St Brighid from that book, and have now translated as best I can this story, the original source of which I don’t know:

One night the abbess Brighid was speaking spiritually with the nun Dara, who was blind. The sweet conversation so engrossed them, that they did not notice that the night had already passed and that in a few moments the sun would rise. It was such a beautiful moment and the abbess Brighid was grieved and became melancholy at the thought that it was not possible for her blind sister to enjoy that magnificent sight. After praying noetically, she made the sign of the cross over the eyes of Dara, who could immediately see, and beheld for the first time the mountains looming around, the glory of the heavens, the forest, the grass and the flowers which shone in the morning light. She remained long absorbed, and at last said to the abbess, ‘Close my eyes again, beloved mother. It seems the beauty of the cosmos has darkened within me the vision of God.’ St Brighid prayed, and the eyes of Dara closed for good, in order to leave the abundant uncreated light to dawn within her. [5]

In a follow-up to my main St Brighid post last year (here), I dealt briefly with the ridiculous notion, unquestioned by so many commentators on ‘Celtic Christianity’, that St Brighid is a thinly disguised pagan goddess. In that post I quoted from and linked to a wonderful article by Lisa Bitel—‘ St Brigit of Ireland: From Virgin Saint to Fertility Goddess’ (the article was also published as ‘Body of a Saint, Story of a Goddess: Origins of the Brigidine Tradition’, and is available as a pdf here [6]). Even the far from credulous Oxford Dictionary of Saints laments that ‘some critics . . . identify Brigid unconvincingly with this heathen goddess’. [7] Furthermore, the inimitable Irish Orthodox blogger, Brigit, at Under the Oak, has a number of posts dealing with the various points typically cited as evidence of this claim, drawing on Christina Harrington’s Women in a Celtic Church: Ireland 450-1150 (Oxford: Oxford U, 2002). The ones that I found there were ‘Saint Brigid and Imbolc’, ‘Brigid the Fire Goddess?’, ‘An Analysis of the Perpetual Fire at Kildare’, and ‘The Oak of Kildare’. I would also strongly suggest anyone interested in St Brighid perusing all of the Under the Oak posts under the label ‘St Brigid’ (here). Just as a sampling of the many wonderful things this blogger has to offer, here, first, is a passage from a book by Alice Curtayne, treating the connection of St Brighid with agriculture:

Saint Brigid is supremely the saint of agricultural life. She is the genius of our Irish homesteads and every farm is in a sense her shrine. She is the tutelar spirit of meadows and gardens. Throughout all her career, she was never dissociated from farm work. She is found milking cows and making firkins of butter, rounds of cheese, and tubs of home-brewed ale until the end. Not even when she was Mother Abbess of all the nuns of Ireland, did she relinquish her rural occupations: we still find her coming in from shepherding, her garments saturated with rain; or supervising reapers from dawn to sunset in the fields around her convent settlement. The Irish missionaries who went to Europe in the succeding centuries carried with them the enthusiastic cult of Brigid and gained for her immense popularity in all the countries they evangelised. But the pastoral character of her cult remained unchanged. Her feast day on February 1st ushers in the springtime and her blessing was always invoked that day on the crops, the flocks and the herds. [8]

Then, Brigit the blogger follows this up with a poem by Michael Walsh (1897-1938), according to Brigit, ‘the “poet of the Ben of Fore” in County Westmeath’:

St Brigid

Thou art the saint of Eire’s farms and hills,
Her hawthorn fields, her lanes of singing birds—
The saint who tended Spring’s green growing things,
The heavenly sheperdress of flocks and herds.

I think of thee as one with quiet scenes
Of rock and stream, of marshes white with flower,
Of children at an open cottage door,
Of rosary-voices in the evening hour.

I link thy name with homely craft and trade,
The wheel that spins, the loom, the milk-maid’s pail;
The very memory like a sweetness dwells
Around the hearth and homestead of the Gael! [9]

By contrast, here is my own poor effort at some lines for St Brighid, conceived as a gift to my wife for her nameday, 2002:


I commend thee to thine Artist’s model—
The Mary of the Gael—
Blessing her hallowed name,
Those pagan sounds baptised
In Erin’s cool waters,
Rivers renewed at God’s unveiling.
And as above, so below;
In imitation is our virtue learnt.
So fix thy gaze
On this image of woman holy,
And lowliness learn,
And detachment.
And stand on the threshold
Of the sleeping world,
Tending purity’s flame in constant vigil,
That they may find a waking undreamt of,
And the life thou livest
Hinted in story and stars.

Finally, I would just mention that one of the best places for sources on St Brighid is this site, but Hieromonk Ambrose in New Zealand has also posted an extensive collection of links on this forum at monachos.net. In conclusion, here are the Troparion and Kontakion of the Holy Abbess:

Dismissal Hymn of the Righteous One. Fourth Tone

Having learned of things divine by the words of Patrick, thou hast proclaimed in the West the good tidings of Christ. Wherefore, we venerate thee, O Brigid, and entreat thee to intercede with God that our souls be saved.

Kontakion of the Righteous
One. Third Tone

At the Church of the Oak, thou didst establish thy sacred monasteries for those that took up the Tree of life, even the Precious Cross, upon their shoulders. And by thy grace-filled life and love of learning, thou didst bear fruit a hundredfold and didst thereby nourish the faithful. O righteous Mother Brigid, intercede with Christ, the True Vine, that He save our souls. [10]

Many years on their nameday to my dear wife, to my fellow blogger, and to my friend Owen’s second. May the prayers of St Brighid be with you all.

[1] Oliver Davies, tr., with Thomas O’Loughlin, Celtic Spirituality (NY: Paulist, 1999), pp. 122, 124.

[2] Edward C. Sellner, Wisdom of the Celtic Saints illust. Susan McLean-Kenney (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria, 1993), p. 69.

[3] Michael Staunton, The Voice of the Irish: The Story of Christian Ireland (Mahwah, NJ: HiddenSpring, 2003), p. 47.

[4] The Great Horologion, tr. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: HTM, 1997), p. 406.

[5] Bishop Christopher (Constantine Commodatos) of Telmissos, Οι Άγιοι των Βρεττανικών Νησών (Athens 1985)—unfortunately, the page number is illegibile on my photocopy.

[6] Lisa M. Bitel, ‘Body of a Saint, Story of a Goddess: Origins of the Brigidine Tradition’, Textual Practice (London: 1987-), 16 (2002), pp. 209-228. When I tried to access the link from my post earlier today, there was a glitch and it wouldn’t load. The author, however, kindly e-mailed me another URL for the site, and also pointed me to the pdf I linked to above.

[7] David Hugh Farmer, ‘Brigid of Ireland’, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford U, 2004), p. 79.

[8] Alice Curtayne, Saint Brigid of Ireland, rev. ed. (Dublin 1955), pp. 67-8 (qtd. here).

[9] Michael Walsh, Walls in the Grass in Michael Walsh—Collected Poems (Dublin 1996), p.110 (qtd. here).

[10] Horologion, p. 407.


Ian Climacus said...

Many years to your wife and all named for St Brighid of Kildare!

Sophocles said...

Many Years to your wife!

(and your poetry was not bad at all)