Saint Bridget of Kildare (c. 451-525) is one of Ireland’s patron saints along with Patrick and Columba. Irish hagiography makes her an early Irish Christian nun, abbess, and founder of several monasteries of nuns, including that of Kildare in Ireland, which was considered legendary and was highly revered. Her feast day is 1 February.
Birth and early life
The Vita outlined Bridget’s early life. It says that Bridget’s mother was a slave, and Bridget herself was born into slavery to a druid. From the start, it is clear that Bridget is holy. As she grows older, Bridget performs many miracles, including healing and feeding the poor. Saint Bridget is celebrated for her generosity to the poor. According to one tale, as a child, she once gave away her mother’s entire store of butter. The butter was then replenished in answer to Bridget’s prayers.
Commitment to religious lifeThe ceremony was performed, according to different accounts, by one or the other of the bishops Mel (died 487) or Mac-Caille (died c. 489), the location probably being in Mág Tulach (the present barony of Fartullagh, Co. Westmeath). Mel also granted her abbatial powers. She followed Saint Mel into the Kingdom of Teathbha, which is made up of sections of modern Meath, Westmeath and Longford. This occurred about 468. According to some sources, Bridget was ordained bishop by Bishop Mel at Mag Tulach, and her successors have always been given Episcopal honour.
Bridget’s small oratory at Cill-Dara (Kildare) became a center of religion and learning, and developed into a cathedral city. She founded two monastic institutions, one for men, and the other for women, and appointed Saint Conleth as spiritual pastor of them. It has been frequently stated that she gave canonical jurisdiction to Saint Conleth, Bishop of Kildare, but, as Archbishop Healy points out, she simply “selected the person to whom the Church gave this jurisdiction”, and her biographer tells us distinctly that she chose Saint Conleth “to govern the church along with herself”. Thus, for centuries, Kildare was ruled by a double line of abbot-bishops and of abbesses, the Abbess of Kildare being regarded as superior general of the monasteries in Ireland.
Bridget also founded a school of art, including metal work and illumination, over which Conleth presided. The Kildare scriptorium produced the Book of Kildare, which elicited high praise from Giraldus Cambrensis, but which has disappeared since the Reformation. According to Giraldus, nothing that he had ever seen was at all comparable to the book, every page of which was gorgeously illuminated, and he concludes by saying that the interlaced work and the harmony of the colours left the impression that “all this is the work of angelic, and not human skill”.
There is evidence in the Trias Thaumaturga for Bridget’s stay in Connacht, especially in County Roscommon and also in the many churches founded by her in the Diocese of Elphin. Her friendship with Saint Patrick is attested by the following paragraph from the Book of Armagh: “inter sanctum Patricium Bridgetanque Hibernesium columpnas amicitia caritatis inerat tanta, ut unum cor consiliumque haberent unum. Christus per illum illamque virtutes multas peregit”. (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.)
Miracles associated with Bridget
Miracles during Bridget’s lifetime were commonly recorded by those who had witnessed them or had some relation to a person who had. In Saint Bridget’s case, most of her miracles were related to healing and domestic tasks usually attributed to women. If Bridget wished or predicted something to occur then it came to pass. A few examples of her miracles are described below.
When Bridget was of marital age, a man by the name of Dubthach moccu Lugair came to woo her. Since Bridget offered her virginity to God, she told the man that she cannot accept him but to go to the woods behind his house where he will find a beautiful maiden to marry. Everything that he says to the maiden’s father will be pleasing to them. The man followed her instructions and it was as she said.
Several of Bridget’s miracles occurred on Easter Sunday. On this day, a leper had come to Bridget to ask for a cow. She asked for a time to rest and would help him later; however, he did not wish to wait and instead stated he would go somewhere else for a cow. Bridget then offered to heal him, but the man stubbornly replied that his condition allowed him to acquire more than he would healthy. After convincing the leper that this was not so, she told one of her maidens to have the man washed in a blessed mug of water. After this was done, the man was completely cured and vowed to serve Bridget.
On another occasion, Bridget was travellinga to see a physician for her headache. They were welcomed to stay at the house of a Leinsterman. His wife was not able to have children that survived except for two daughters that had been mute since their birth. Bridget was travelling to Áth with the daughters when her horse suddenly startled, causing her to wound her head on a stone. Her blood mixed with the water here. Bridget then instructed one of the girls to pour the bloodied water onto her neck in God’s name causing the girl to be healed. The healed sister was told to call her sister over to be healed as well, but the latter responded that she had been made well when she bowed down in the tracks. Bridget told the cured sisters to return home and that they also would birth as many male children that their mother had lost. The stone on which Bridget had injured herself cured any disease of the head one had when they laid their head on it.
One of the more commonly told stories of St. Brigid was when she went to the King of Leinster to ask for land to build a convent. She told the king that the place where she stood was the perfect place for a convent. It was beside a forest where they could collect firewood and berries. There was also a lake nearby that would provide water and the land was fertile. The king laughed at her and refused to give her any land. Brigid prayed to God and asked him to soften the king’s heart. Then she smiled at the king and said “will you give me as much land as my cloak will cover?” The king thought that she was joking and because Brigid’s cloak was so small he knew that it would only cover a very small piece of land. The king agreed and Brigid spread her cloak on the ground. She asked her four friends to hold a corner of the cloak and walk in opposite directions. The four friends walked north, south, east and west. The cloak grew immediately and began to cover many acres of land. The king was astonished and he realised that she had been blessed by God. The king fell to the ground and knelt before Brigid and promised her and her friends money, food and supplies. Soon afterwards, the king became a Christian and also started to help the poor and commissioned the construction of the convent. Legend has it, the convent was known for making jam from the local blueberries which was sought for all over Ireland. There is a new tradition beginning among followers of St. Bridget to eat jam on 1 February in honour of this miracle.
It was also said that once an elderly woman appeared at her door begging for food and Bridget turned her down as the only piece of food she had in the house was a dish of butter. The old woman replied to Brigid saying even that would do. When Brigid turned away from the door she saw on the table three dishes of butter. It seemed that the Lord had rewarded her for her kindness.
Bridget also performed miracles that included curse elements as well. When on the bank of Inny, Bridget was given a gift of apples and sweet sloes. She later entered a house where many lepers begged her for these apples, which she offered willingly. The nun who had given the gift to Bridget was irritated by this saying that she had not given the gift to the lepers. Bridget was angered at the nun for withholding from the lepers and therefore cursed her trees so they would no longer bear fruit, rendering them barren. Yet another virgin also gave Bridget the same gift as the nun, and again Bridget gave them to begging lepers. This time the virgin asked that she and her garden be blessed. Bridget then said that a large tree in the virgin’s garden would have twofold fruit from its offshoots, and this was done.
After Bridget promised God a life of chastity, her brothers were grieved at the loss of a bride price. When she was outside carrying a load past a group of poor people, some began to laugh at her and others were displeased with her choice. A man named Bacene said to her, “The beautiful eye which is in your head will be betrothed to a man though you like it or not.” In response, Bridget thrust her finger in her eye and said, “Here is that beautiful eye for you. I deem it unlikely that anyone will ask you for a blind girl.” Her brothers tried to save her and wash away the blood from her wound, but there was no water to be found. Bridget said to them, “Put my staff about this sod in front of you”, and after they did, a stream came forth from the ground. Then she said to Bacene, “Soon your two eyes will burst in your head” and it happened as she said.