In Ireland for the festivities surrounding Brigid’s Feast in 2018. I was staying with Dolores Whelan, organizer of the Festival, who had invited me to take part as a storyteller. My first event was at a Theatre Arts venue with a group of school children. As fifty little boys in school uniforms filed in to take their seats, I smiled to myself thinking “Fifty little Harry Potters…” I had brought them a Scots Celtic tale of courage, “The Young Tamlin”.
However, the man who welcomed the boys and their teachers told them I would be speaking of Brigid! To gain time, I asked them, “What is your favourite story of Brigid?” Eager hands shot into the air, one boy looking ready to burst if I did not let him speak. With glee he proclaimed “She popped her eye out!”
Ouch. Well. Yes. Not wishing to disillusion him, I said carefully, “Well she didn’t wish to marry, so she made herself ugly, but I do believe the eye was later healed….”
So there it is. Brigid’s story has been magnified into legends wondrous and terrible, the seeds of truth growing into a gigantic beanstalk much as Jack’s few beans did in the fairy tale.
Legend says that Brigid’s mother gave birth to her on the doorstep of their home, one foot within, one foot outside the door. This would seem to be a prophecy for a life that would become a threshold, bridging pagan and Christian, woman and man, rich and poor….Goddess and Saint. For the story of Brigid, founder of the Christian Monastery of Kildare, is interwoven with the ancient Irish goddess who shares her name. As goddess, Brigid is known as maiden, mother and crone. And the Feast of Saint Brigid, February 1st, coincides with the ancient Celtic Festival of Imbolc, the beginning of spring. It is Brigid who “breathes life into the mouth of dead winter”.
Now I recall my first encounter with Brigid’s story.
It was still dead winter on that February day, more than twenty-five years ago, the air a raw biting cold, as I set out to explore Edinburgh. The National Gallery of Scotland lured me within, down a narrow staircase to an explosion of beauty, wildly out of proportion to the size of its modest rooms, its small wall space. I hold vague memories of standing in awe before landscapes, clusters of children in a garden, beautiful women, solemn men whose painted faces gazed back at me.
But one image remains etched in rich detail in my mind. I stopped, breathless, before John Duncan’s 1913 painting called, “St. Bride”. Two angels in gloriously patterned robes, whose miniature tapestries held scenes from Celtic mythology, were carrying a white-robed maiden, her hands joined in prayer. One angel supported her back with his hands, as her golden hair fell in great waves towards the sea. The other angel held her ankles while her knees rested on his shoulders. The angels’ wings were a symphony of colour from scarlet to rose to pale pink, shaded with greens, golds, midnight blues. The angels’ toes just brushed the surface of the sea where a seal swam ahead of them.
St. Bride by John Duncan
I had no idea what I was seeing.
That evening, in the home of the priest friend with whom I was staying, I learned the story of Brigid. Legend tells that she was carried by angels across the seas from Ireland to Bethlehem in Judea, to be present at the birth of Jesus, and that she became his foster mother. Other tales add that Brigid served Mary as mid-wife, and that when Herod was seeking the Child to destroy him, Brigid distracted the soldiers by running through the streets, allowing Mary and Joseph to escape with Jesus.
As I am sure you recognize we are back in the realm of story. But as I hope you realize, it is the story that matters, that lures us, inspires us, teaches us what we need to understand about the life of Brigid. Brigid was born in Ireland in 457 AD and founded a double monastery in Kildare sometime before her death in 524 AD. A wealth of stories about her were carried in oral tradition until Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare, wrote his “Life of Brigid” around 650 AD. At the time of his writing, Cogitosus noted that in the Kildare monastery, the nuns still guarded Brigid’s sacred fire.
According to Cogitosus, Brigid was the daughter of Dubhthach, a pagan noble of Leinster, while her mother, Brocseach, was a Christian. Baptized at an early age, Brigid was fostered by a Druid.
The stories of Brigid reveal her spirit of compassion for the poor: one day when she was a child, after she had milked the cows, she gave away the milk to some poor persons who were passing. She feared her mother’s reproof, but when she arrived home, her milk pail was found to be even fuller that that of the other maidens.
The adult Brigid approached a rich landowner (some stories say it was the King of Leinster) asking for land where she might grow food for the poor. The landowner agreed to give her as much land as she could cover with her cloak. Brigid lay down her cloak and it expanded until it covered many, many acres.
Another story tells of Brigid’s father preparing for her marriage to a nobleman while Brigid herself wanted to become a nun. Through the intervention of the Christian King of Leinster, Brigid’s desire was granted. With seven other young women Brigid was consecrated to Christ.
Here is the story I love best: during the Ceremony for Consecration of a Virgin to Christ, the very old Bishop Mel of Ardagh mistakenly read for Brigid the words for Consecration of a Bishop. When his mistake was pointed out to him by co-presider Bishop MacCaille of Longford, Mel insisted that the Consecration would stand, as it must have been the work of the Holy Spirit. Brigid would be the only woman to hold the episcopal office in Ireland.
During my time in Ireland in 2018, I travelled to Kildare, to the new Retreat Centre Solas Bhride. Outside the Centre in an open field stands a towering statue of Brigid, robed as a Bishop holding a crozier in her left hand. I stood still before the image, my heart seeking her guidance for my journey.
Did I really expect a response? Yet, I was suddenly aware of her right hand raised, two fingers joined in what I recognized as a Bishop’s blessing, gesturing towards her right. Deep within, I heard her words clearly: “Keep on your journey. Go on with your work. Don’t look back.”