February 1st is the feast day of Saint Brigid of Kildare (or Ireland). I first discovered this saint when we were looking for names for Lily. Because she is the patron saint of midwives, I asked for her intercession during the last stressful months of my pregnancy.
Since then, I’ve been learning more about this fascinating woman, also known as Brigit, Bridget, or Bride and Mary of the Gael. She lived in Ireland during the fifth century. While it’s hard to find much information about her life, it is clear that she was a holy woman who had a great impact upon the country of her day.
Saint Brigid’s Childhood
Brigid was born in about 450 in Ireland. Her father was an Irish chieftain or king and her mother was a slave in his court. Her parents may have been baptized by Saint Patrick and she herself likely heard the great saint preach. She was interested in the religious life from a young age.
Brigid likely worked in her mother’s dairy, which prospered under her hand, despite the fact that she gave much of its produce away. She was known as a generous, kind-hearted girl who tried to help anyone in need.
Saint Brigid’s Life as a Nun and Abbess
Brigid became a nun as a young woman and lived for a time with seven other young nuns at the foot of Croghan Hill. Later, she moved to Meath. In 470 she founded a double-monastery (for both men and women) at Kildare (from Cill-Dara or “church of the oak” because it was located under an oak tree). Because a priest was necessary to ordain the monks and priests, Brigid appointed St. Conleth as the first Bishop of Kildare. Together, he and Brigid lead the nuns and monks and for many years this tradition of an abbess and bishop continued at Kildare.
At Kildare, Brigid also established a school of art that became famous for its illuminated manuscripts, in particular the Book of Kildare which has unfortunately been lost.
She was known for her travel around Ireland, preaching and healing. Her early biographers described many miracles worked by Brigid’s prayers or intercessions, including blind and dumb children made well and lepers cured.
Saint Brigid and Celtic Traditions
Some have suggested that the traditions associated with St. Brigid come from older traditions about Celtic deities. For example, St. Brigid’s feast day is also the day of the pagan festival of spring and Brighid was the name of a well-known pagan goddess. Oak trees were sacred to the Druids. In Ireland, Christianity melded itself with the traditions already present, rather than trying to destroy those traditions. A uniquely Celtic Christianity thus developed.
Saint Brigid’s Cross
One popular story about Saint Brigid is how she went to visit a dying pagan chieftain. While she sat by his bed, she picked up some rushes from the floor and began fashioning them into a cross. The sick man asked what she was doing. She responded that she was making a cross in honour of Jesus, who died on a cross to save humankind. Her explanation of her faith caused the chieftain to request baptism before his death.
After Brigid’s death, a tradition developed of making crosses to celebrate her feast day.
Saint Brigid’s Legacy
She died in Kildare on February 1 and was buried in the Kildare Cathedral. Her grave for years was a site of pilgrims, especially on her feast day. In 878, her remains were moved to Downpatrick and interred with the remains of St. Patrick and St. Columba, the other great saints of Ireland. Her name became the most popular Christian name in Ireland and many places around the country are still named for her (e.g., Brideswell, Templebride).
In the centuries after her death, several other saints wrote biographies of her life. Cogitosus, a monk at Kildare, wrote the first “Life of Saint Brigid” in the century after her death. Later, St. Broccan Cloen (died 650) wrote a biography in Celtic verse.
Feast Day and Patronage
Her feast day is February 1. Saint Brigid is the patron saint of Ireland (along with St. Patrick), as well as babies and children, blacksmiths, boatmen, cattle, dairymaids, chicken farmers, mariners, midwives, poets, nuns, sailors, scholars, printing presses, and travelers.
Some ideas for celebrating Saint Brigid’s feast day with children: