Many historians have asked, and continue to ask, whether the stories about Brigid of Kildare are merely slightly colored facts, or whether the Christian nun is a shadow of another figure. This doubt arises from reading her hagiographies, which are full of paraphrases from Celtic mythology, especially myths that speak of the goddess Brigit/Brigid/Brig. Not surprisingly, because this name, which has a root with the meaning of ,,sublime, magnificent,” in Celtic simply meant a female deity. So which of the Brigid rallies is the real one?

About the one from Kildare we know that she was a nun, although she was not formed in Benedictine spirituality. Monastic life in that era had many facets, some consecrated virgins lived alone or in a small group of other women, and often, after taking the veil, they also founded their own communities based on constitutions they wrote. Such was the case with Brigid.

She came from a wealthy pagan family, but some of the hagiographies state that the mother of the future saint was her father’s slave. Born around 451, the girl became enthralled with Christianity after becoming independent. This is a time of intense activity of missionary monks sent to Ireland, including St. Patrick. The characteristic feature of the evangelization carried out by them was that, unlike on the Continent, they did not destroy the existing pagan religion, but reinterpreted it. They extracted Christian meaning from the symbols and practices present in it, which meant that Irish Christianity was born quickly and relatively uncontroversially, through evolution rather than revolution. At the same time, pagan customs found refuge in its practices, and St. Brigid and her live are, one might say, a flagship example of this symbiosis.

She received the veil of a consecrated virgin from the hands of St. Bishop Mel, and was witnessed by St. Bishop Macaille of Croghan, a disciple of St. Patrick, who had prepared her earlier for the ceremony. Already during the consecration, an event was to occur that foreshadowed Brigid’s future greatness. Well, by mistake, St. Mel read from the ceremony, instead of the formula for the consecration of a virgin, the formula for the consecration of a bishop. Saint Macaille protested sharply, but then the consecrator countered that apparently there was God’s will in this mistake. Brigid, of course, was not ordained, but the act did indeed have prophetic significance. However, about this later, because first it is necessary to mention one of the most important accounts in the life of the nun.

One of her earliest biographies – and she lived to see seven, and in the early Middle Ages – links her to St. Patrick. They were supposed to have met at a meeting of Irish bishops where one of them, accused of begetting a child, was being trialled. As the legend goes, the answer came thanks to Brigid, who made the infant speak and point out its father. It was obvious to St. Patrick that she could only do this by God’s grace, so he received the nun with great respect. Moreover, he stated that she should travel everywhere with a priest so that she would have constant access to the sacraments. So he appointed one of his priests to be her … usher.

In the Book of Armagh (9th century), a center closely associated with the figure of Patrick, the relationship between these two missionaries is shown as very close: “Between St. Patrick and Brigid, pillars of the Irish people, there was such a strong bond (literal friendship) of divine love that they were both of one heart and one thought. Through both him and her, Christ did many wonderful works.” Some modern historiographers, however, see here only an indication that the two major ecclesiastical centers of the time recognized each other’s authority and gave up competition – Armagh was content with the north, while Kildare, founded by Brigid, was content with the south.

These theories are difficult to defend, since at the time of the creation of the Book of Armagh, the arrangement of responsibility still decisively prevailed on the side of the latter episcopal capital. To understand such a state of affairs, it is necessary to return to the figure and works of the founder of this place.

Some modern scholars deny her character’s historicity, among other reasons, because, unlike St. Patrick, who, in addition to his foundations, left behind writings, Brigid, instead of writing, preferred to build abbeys, establish schools, care for the development of crafts and the welfare of the people. Monk Cogitosus, the author of the earliest biography of the saint (early seventh century), describes her as one who, through her activities, transforms a wild and threatening island into a tame and friendly one, not destroying the potential hidden in nature and culture, but extracting it and giving it a framework, thus creating the seed of civilization. So we are talking about a champion of grassroots work.

Shortly after receiving the veil, she takes up residence with her companions at the bishop’s seat in Croghan. Soon, however, she moves under an oak tree near the pagan center of worship at Knockhaulin. Under this tree he establishes a monastery, which in Celtic is given the name Cell Dara (Church of the Oak) – today’s Kildare. Here again there is an element referring to pagan cults – well, in this monastery, as in the temples of the Celtic Brigid, an eternal fire was lit, which was guarded by the nuns who lived there. It was a symbol of the constant presence of God expressed in the existence of the community, but is itself a sign taken from pagan mythology, in which the aforementioned goddess was associated with light and warmth, including that of the home hearth.

The women who lived there, of course, had to take care of their own sustenance, moreover, physical labor is one of the elements of monastic life, so it’s no wonder that in one of the legends about the saint we read about her herding sheep. However, there came, as is not difficult in Ireland, a persistent downpour. Soaked to the bone, the shepherdess took refuge in one of the huts. Her coat was heavy with water, so she was happy to spot a rope running across the room through her rain-soaked eyelashes. Relieved, she hung her soaked outer garment on it and settled into a corner for a short nap. Moments later, other shepherds working nearby peeked inside and were amazed to see Brigid’s garment drying suspended from… a ray of sunlight.

But let’s return from the lands of beautiful stories to the hard historical ground. In addition to a female abbey, the nun soon established a male abbey in Kildare. In the rapidly growing village, and later town, schools were established (at the abbeys), all sorts of crafts were taught, and trained artisans produced objects of use and beauty. In Kildare there was also healing – and by no means just the gift of healing, which Brigid used, but regular hospices. Books were also transcribed: one of the island’s most famous illumination studios was established there. The Book of Kildare created there matched the fame and beauty of the Book of Kells, but unlike the latter, it has not survived to our times.

When the place founded by the nun grew organically to become one of the main religious and cultural centers, Brigid travelled around Ireland for missionary purposes. She was renowned for her wisdom, so she was listened to eagerly. In the descriptions of the miracles she performed during these journeys, as well as in the very manner in which she performed them, hagiographers likened the saint to a pagan goddess. The Abbess of Kildare was said to ride on a cart harnessed to oxen, and all animals, even wild ones, obeyed her will. She cured people, multiplied fertility to flocks, milk to cows, and even resurrected animals. Well, as part of her travels, she came to a poor woman and asked her to kill and prepare for her the only flesh she possessed. The woman momentarily hesitated, but did as the nun instructed. To her surprise, the next day she found by the side of the cow the same body as the one she had killed, only as alive as possible.

Above all, however, the Abbess of Kildare was converting, and this is the most marked difference from the story of her pagan predecessor. This is told, among other things, by the story related to the Christian significance of St. Brigid’s cross. It is woven from straw and, in terms of shape, resembles a swastika, the pagan symbol of the sun. Such a cross was supposed to have been woven by the saint at the bedside of a dying pagan chieftain, explaining with it to the dying man the meaning of the Passion of the Lord. The story so moved the heart of the listener that just before he died he was baptized. Considering that this sacrament washes away all sins, one must admit that with this decision he won everything. Such crosses are still made by the Irish to this day on the Feast of Brigid, i.e. February 1, after which they place them over the entrance to the house – this is to guard the household from lightning and all evil. The cross is one of the three symbols of Ireland, along with the clover leaf and the lyre, just as the one who was said to have first woven it is one of the three patron saints of the Green Isle (the other two being St. Patrick and St. Columban).

She was held in such high esteem that both she and her successors on the abbot throne of the female monastery in Kildare held the first place among Irish bishops, they were even referred to as  „archbishops”. This was the realization of the prophecy expressed in St. Mel’s error at Brigid’s consecration. This situation persisted until the first half of the 12th century, when King Leinster raped the then abbess of Kildare and introduced his cousin in her place. The synod of bishops, however, refused to allow the forcibly imposed superior to preside over their meetings, stating that she had no authority because her authority lacked the mandate of a community speaking with the voice of a saint.

After a fruitful and long (more than seventy years) life, Brigid, “freed from cares, threw off the burden of her body and followed the Divine Lamb to the heavenly chambers, having fallen asleep on the first day of the month of February,” as Cogitosus poetically describes it. This was in the year of our Lord 525 and took place in Kildare. In the pagan calendar it was the feast of the goddess Brigid. This day, falling midway between the shortest day of the year and the spring equinox, is considered in Ireland to mark the beginning of spring, and thus the return to more lush vegetation, milking cows and days increasingly full of light. Through the birth to heaven of a saint, it became a celebration of the one who, while sustaining the Island’s lush life, also gave it the empowering framework of Christian civilization.

I am captivated by the fact that in Brigid’s hagiography there is no cruel death, no ascetic feats, martyrdom is expressed in embracing monastic daily life with its ascetic practices, fasts and prayers, and preaching Christ, as well as service to all manifestations of life and creativity. This is one of the most cheerful stories about saints to be found in collections of lives. In it, the main character is portrayed as a good and wise mother or grandmother performing miracles to properly take care of the home, loved ones, animals on the homestead, but also taking care to pass on what is most precious to her – faith in Christ. She so effectively disappears behind her works that, as I wrote at the beginning, some historians deny her real existence.

She remained among her own, as evidenced by the miracles performed at her shrine, but also by the story of the maintenance of an eternal fire at the female abbey. Visiting them in the second half of the 13th century, Gerald of Wales describes what this guard looked like. At the time of Brigid’s death, there were a total of twenty nuns in the abbey with her. After that, a fixed number of 19 was kept, and each of them had her own night of vigil. When the twentieth night came, the nun leaving her post would pile wood by the hearth, saying: “Brigid, guard your fire. This is your night.” In the morning, the woods were usually gone, and the fire burned lively as ever.

Although it was finally extinguished in the 16th century by bishop’s order, it was reignited in 1993, and Brigid remained the holy patron saint of the Isles even after the reform of the list of saints before the Second Vatican Council, when all saints of questionable historicity were removed. I think, in fact, it was the pagan Brigit who was the shadow. Her resemblance to the Abbess of Kildare, on the other hand, is due to the fact that the latter, with her life, responded in the most perfect way possible to the longings from which the Celtic goddess was born.

Elizabeth Wiater, “Mystics and Warriors. Women Who Changed the Church,” WAM 2021, p. 19-26.