A Chapter from a pamphlet entitled ‘Some account of St. Brigid and of the See of Kildare, with its Bishops and of the Cathedral, now restored.’
By Sherlock, M.A., Vicar of Clane (Dublin, 1896)
BIRIGID. – A.D. 453.
The history of Kildare goes back to the self-devotion of a remarkable woman, whose faith and charity first made it, in a barbarous age, the home of religion, and a refuge for poor, the sick and the distressed.
Three names stand out pre-eminent in the first days of Christianity in Ireland-those of St. Patrick, St. Brigid and St. Columba – the first, the Apostle of Ireland; the second, the organizer of female communities; the third, the missionary who founded Iona, and carried Christianity to Scotland.
St. Brigid was born about ten years before the death of St. Patrick. Her mother, Brotseach, who belonged to Meath, was bondmaid to Duffach, or Dubtach, who, in consequence of the jealousy of his wife, sold her to a Druid, or wizard, who placed her on his farm near Dundalk, where she gave birth to Brigid.
As the child grew up everything she set hand to “used to increase and reverence God”. Besides her work on the farm she devoted herself to charitable acts, caring for the poor and the blind. After a time she went home to her father, and there gave herself to every useful work in the house and on the farm. Like St. Columba and other saints she seems to have been noted for her love of animals, and did not shrink from tending the swine and sheep, and would even give a share of her dinner to “a miserable, greedy hound.”
When again she returned to her mother, everything still prospered under her hand. Through her influence the Druid and his wife were converted to Christianity, and she and her mother were set at liberty. She was also given the cows that she had milked. These she bestowed in charity to the poor. On her return with her mother to the house of Duffach she so provoked her father by her gifts to the needy that he resolved to sell her to the king of Leinster, complaining that she would give away everything he had. The king asking her why she did this, she boldly answered: “The Virgin’s Son knoweth that if I had thy power, with all thy wealth and all Leinster, I would give them all to the Lord of the Elements.” Being set free by the king’s command she was able to give herself more entirely to the service of God, and a legend relates that “the form of a bishop’s ordination was read over her by Bishop Mel”-
“Posuit bonis avibus Maccalleus velum
Super caput Sanctae Brigidae
Clarus est in ejus gestis”
St. Brigid is said to have first founded a religious establishment near Uisneagh, Co. Westmeath and afterwards to have settled herself in Magh Aoi. Being besought by the people of Leinster to return to them, she fixed upon Drum Criadh, the ridge of clay. There, under a great oak tree, which she loved, she built her cell, round which were gathered the wattled huts of her community. Hence came the name Cil-darra, or Kildare, the cell of the oak. “We must not suppose that the primitive Irish monastery at all resembled the elaborate stone structures which constituted the monastery of the Middle Ages. The primitive Celtic monastery was a very simple affair, and more resembled a village of wooden huts.” Every monk, from the abbot down, had his own cell or hut of timber or wattles, where he lived. In such lowly habitations were produced those marvellous, almost miraculous, MMS., which even the art of the photographer fails adequately to represent. These manuscripts, which stand without rival in the world, were the work of the monks, who wrote, holding the roll upon there knees in the wattled huts thatched with reed, which gathered around the primitive churches built out of the trees of the surrounding forests, at a time when we are told that the axe was an almost indispensable part of a bishop’s outfit.
Milton’s picture of the “studious cloister’s pale,” with
“High embowèd roof,
With antic pillars massy-proof,
And storied windows richly dight,
Casting a dim, religious light,”
is very different from the rough quarters of the Celtic monks at Kildare or gloomy Glendalough; just his idea of the
“Pensive nun, devout and pure,
All in a robe of darkest grain,
Flowing with majestic train,”
in which he typifies Melancholy, differs from the roughly-clad, hard-working, and very likely hard-featured, nun of St. Brigid, in daily contact with sad sights of suffering and with noisome diseases.
The date of the foundation of St. Brigid’s monastery is variously given as A.D. 470, 480, or 484, just two hundred years before the birth of the great Anglo-Saxon Abbess, St. Hilda, who founded Whitby, and like St. Brigid, seems to have ruled both monks and nuns; and who, from her sympathy with the Scots or Irish in the controversy about the tonsure and the question of Easter, would appear to have drawn her Christianity from Irish resources.
The establishment at Kildare was at first a community of women, but afterwards a monastery of men was added. St. Brigid ruled both monks and nuns. As the community increased in numbers, it became necessary, according to the Irish custom of that age, to obtain the presence of a bishop to consecrate churches, confer orders and confirmation, and to admit members. Accordingly St. Brigid cast her eyes about for a suitable person. She had not far to look, for there was living at Old Connal, on the river Liffey, within a few miles of Kildare, an old anchorite, by name Conlaeth, or Conlaed. Him she “elected”, as it was called, bishop, and procured his consecration. Indeed, though she was very patient, yet once she had set her mind on the matter, he must have been a very stout person who withstood her. It is, therefore, probable that St. Conlaeth discovered that his best chance of quiet, when he had left his hermit’s cell, and engaged himself to “govern the Church with her in episcopal dignity,” † was to submit in all things lawful to his remarkable partner in authority. It throws a striking light on the characters of bishop and abbess that we are told that St. Conlaeth, having brought from Rome, or as some may say, from Brittany, splendid vestments for the divine service, St. Brigid, without hesitation, cut them up and made clothes for the poor. She had always cared more for the poor than for luxuries, whether ecclesiastical or personal.
The relation existing in Celtic Church between the heads of monasteries and the bishops who here attached to them was extremely curious and must often have been irksome in the extreme to any unfortunate bishop of an independent spirit. We read in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that all the Scottish bishops were subject to the Abbot of Iona, who was the only priest; because Columba, its founder, was a priest and not a bishop. Even in the English Church a Canon was passed at one Council, ordering that bishops who were monks should not migrate from one monastery to another, unless by permission of their respective abbots.* It is no wonder that many of them, conceiving themselves ill-treated, sought to better their condition by moving to other monasteries. A story told respecting St. Conlaeth, illustrates the subjection in which the bishops were held by the heads of their monasteries. It appears that St. Conlaeth, like many others of the time, had a strong desire to visit Rome. He was, however, unable to do without the permission of St. Brigid, and she refused. The desire still continued, and grew so strong that at last he set out without permission. Apparently he intended to have made his way across the mountains to the port of Wicklow, but he had got no further than the woods about Dunlavin when the wolves attacked and devoured him. This was, of course, put down to the credit of St. Brigid, though with much injustice, since such a death could not have been a very unusual occurrence in the wild state of the country which prevailed then and long afterwards.
St. Brigid died in 523, and was buried in Kildare. Her relics were preserved in a costly shrine in her church. To this great crowds came from all the provinces of Ireland on February 1st, her feastday – “the day she cast off the burden of the flesh, and followed the Lamb of God to the heavenly dwelling.”
It has been supposed that these relics were in the ninth century removed to Down, to escape the ravages of the Danes, from which Kildare so repeatedly suffered for centuries. When such relics were being destroyed during the deputyship of Lord Leonard Gray, on account of the superstitions attached to them, what was supposed to be St. Brigid’s head was saved by some of the clergy, who carried it to Neustadt, in Austria. In 1587 it was presented to the Church of the Society of Jesus at Lisbon by the Emperor Rudolph II., where, it is to be hoped, it rests from its wanderings.
Extraordinary veneration for the name of Brigid was displayed by the Irish of the Middle Ages. She was called “The Mother of the Lord,”or “One of the Mothers of the Lord” “The Queen of the true God,” and “The Queen of Queens.” One writer says that “the Scots, the Picts, the Irish, and those who live near them, the English, put her next after the Virgin Mother of God.” It is said that her feast was celebrated in every cathedral church from the Grisons to the German Sea, for nearly a thousand years. The Book of Leinster gives a list of some thirty religious houses of women which were under her obedience in ancient times. In Ireland her name is commemorated in churches, convents, streets, hospitals, and wells. In the Ordnance Survey list of Irish townlands there are thirty-six Kilbrides. In Australia and America, wherever the Irish People are, church, schools, and convents bear her name, no diocese without one at least; in some several, as in the Diocese of Boston, four churches. On the Continent, wherever Irish missionaries have set foot – at Amiens, Tours, St. Omer, Besançon, Aix-la-Chapelle, Cologne, Fulda, Namur, Seville, and Lisbon, her name has been honoured.
An explanation of the language of extravagant veneration used concerning the saint has been sought in “the rivalry between the Irish Church and the propagandists of foreign views. Whatever they said of the Virgin Mary the Irish would affirm of their native saint, and, if possible, out-do it.” Thus the Book of Leinster contains a list of native and foreign saints, arranged in parallel columns. In this list Brigid is placed on a level with the Blessed Virgin, as St. Patrick is with the Apostle Peter. In all this there was no idea of a divergence or independence in religious doctrine, but only the exaggeration of national pride, clinging to memories of ancient renown as a consolation in times of national reverses and humiliation. It is to be hoped that we shall soon cease to fly to such memories for the solace of an idle repining, and may use them rather as incentives to a life of high ideal and strenuous action,
But, in truth, apart from the exaggeration arising from national prejudice, there was much in the history and character of St. Brigid to stir imagination of the age. In estimating her character and work, we must consider the times and circumstances in which she lived. No common woman could have left such a mark on that age; still less one who, like St. Brigid, was the base-born child of a bondmaid. A simple faith, a courageous heart, a passionate devotion to the poor and suffering, a liberal hand, a knowledge of affairs which carried everything she touched to a successful issue, the great power of organizing and of ruling, and a sound and clear judgement – these are apparent in what we read of her; and they raised her to a position that no other woman attained in Ireland.
In the many stories told about St. Brigid one is struck with the number of lepers whom she is said to have healed. Leprosy, indeed, seems to have been a frequent and terrible scourge in those days, brought about, no doubt, by bad and insufficient food and filthy habits. Most of these stories illustrate the open-handed liberality of the saint, as well as her practical sympathy for the wretched. A leper asks her for a cow, evidently expecting to receive it as a matter of course. The community, however, had not at the time a single cow, so St. Brigid instead cures his leprosy by prayer. Another time two lepers visited her. She prayed, and blessed some water, and bade them wash each other. While one did so, his companion was healed, but being healed, and clothed decently, he shrank from performing the same act of charity for the other. Thereupon St. Brigid herself did so, and wrought his cure. Once, when she was on a journey, her pity was excited by seeing a poor man and his wife and children toiling along under heavy burdens; she forthwith gave her horses to him. Repeatedly she stripped the monastery of provisions to relieve starving applicants or hungry guests. In the old legends, of course, her charity is rewarded by supplies miraculously afforded. It is characteristic of her passion for relieving the suffering that one day, when a certain bishop was entertaining her and her nuns, and meanwhile, at her request, discoursing to them on religion, as he happened to speak of the Beatitudes, St. Brigid proposed to her nuns that each should choose one of them as a special object of her devotion, she herself selecting Mercy as her own ideal.
At the same time the legends about St. Brigid do not allow us to think that her charitable ministrations were devoid of a certain rough common sense. Pilgrims coming to Kildare were of course entertained hospitality, but they had to take the fare that was going, and if they remained were expected to do their share of the work of the establishment. She had no idea of supporting idleness, and investigated excuses with her own eye.
The influence that such a woman had over the fortunes of others of her sex in Ireland must, no doubt, have been enormous. She redeemed the sex from the position of inferiority to which it had been condemned, and she extorted respect and obedience from rude men, accustomed only to force and violence. The womanly virtues and religious devotion, exemplified in her life, raised a new ideal before her people. The community she founded neither aimed at the selfish and useless isolation affected by so many if the Irish saints who were anchorites, nor at the culture of learning, and the multiplication of students and scribes, carried on in monasteries of men. It was a female organization, devoted to works which seem specially to belong to woman’s capacities and sympathies. The organization of women into an association in which bond and free, serf and noble, met on an equality, and worked under wise and experienced guidance to nurse the sick, relieve the poor, educate orphans, and tend the aged, was a tremendous step in the civilization of the sex. The old barbaric customs, which degraded women, could not stand before it. Woman was no longer suffered to take an unnatural part in the frequent battles of the tribes. The female slave who entered the community became enfranchised. Such institutions offered a refuge to the sorrowful and the oppressed, while they proclaimed that woman had her religious mission and her due service to render to God and man.
It is no wonder, then, that the memory of St. Brigid became surrounded with a halo of veneration and affection that in superstitious ages gave birth to strange legends of miraculous signs and wonders,* that her very relics were considered sacred, and she herself was given a position second only to that of the Blessed Virgin. Grave abbots and bishops did not disdain to write themselves the servants of Brigid. She did not, indeed, like St. Catherine of Siena, correspond with Popes and Kings, for her sphere of action was limited by the circumstances of her age and position, but she seems to have been wholly free from the doubtful mysticism which was St. Catherine’s weakness, and to have been blessed with a singularly sane and practical common sense, which stamped whatever she undertook.*
Even the stories invented about her in later days bear witness to the tradition of a hard life, incessantly occupied, and unsparing of self to the end. More fortunate than St. Hilda, her Saxon counterpart, whose last years were enfeebled by ill health, St. Brigid seems to have retained her strength till her death, at the three score years and ten which the Psalmist names as the natural term for human life. Her methods were, perhaps, not our methods, yet, did she live now, the spirit in which she served her Lord and ours might teach us much, and we should recognize in her the Divine impress and likeness which belongs to the family of God.
She is long gone centuries ago! Her very ashes scattered through the world instead of resting, where no doubt she would have chosen, beneath the broad shoulders of the great oak where her cell was first built. But the memory and example of the bondmaid’s daughter, who learned for the “Virgin’s Son” to consecrate her life and strength to the service of her Lord in ministering to His afflicted members, live still; and within the Cathedral Church dedicated to her, there rises anew the worship of the Saviour in whom she believed,, and by whose Spirit she was inspired.
“Life, with all its yield of joy and woe, and hope and fear,
Is just our chance, o’ the prize of learning love.”
Re-typed by Jennifer O’Connor