Three names stand out pre-eminent in the first days of Irish Christianity - those of Patrick, Brigid and Columcille. Patrick was the apostle of the Irish people; Columcille was a missionary to Scotland; but it was Brigid who build on the foundations of Patrick and who became the organiser of religious life for women in Ireland. The history of Kildare goes back to the devotion of this remarkable woman. In a barbarous age, her faith and acts of charity made the town a home of true religion and a refuge for all who were in distress.
Very little factual information about Brigid is to be found. Many "lives" of the saint exist but they are hardly biographies, more hagiographies or stories and legends of the wonders and miracles wrought by her. They are not, however, to be totally dismissed. Behind every story, however far-fetched, there is nearly always to be found an element of truth.
Brigid, we are told, was born about eight years before the death of Saint Patrick - in 453 AD. Her father was a chieftain of Offaly, named Dubhtach; Broicseach, his handmaid (but not his wife), was Brigid's mother. Dubhtach, because of his wife's jealousy, sold Broicseach to a Druid from Faughart, near Dundalk, and hence tradition generally has it that Brigid was born in county Louth.
Despite her up bringing in a pagan household, Brigid received the teaching and example of her Christian mother and this influence obviously had great bearing on the formation of her character. From childhood days she is said to have devoted herself to charitable acts, caring for the poor and the blind. Through her influence the Druid and his family were converted to Christianity and Brigid and her mother were given their freedom. They returned to Offaly and to the house of Dubhtach. There Brigid's acts of charity so provoked her father that he complained he would soon be a pauper. It may, indeed, have been these gifts at his expense that caused Dubhtach to try to marry Brigid to a relative who was keen to have her as his wife. Neither, however, had counted on the total opposition of Brigid to the match and eventually all ideas of marriage had to be abandoned.
It may have been soon after this incident that Brigid resolved to follow the religious life and to give herself entirely to the service of God. She was joined by seven others and together, in about 470, they received the veil from Saint Mac Caille of Croghan, County Laois, later bishop and patron of the Isle of Man. Each nun is said to have chosen one of the eight Beatitudes to represent the grace she specially desired. Brigid's choice was "Blessed are the merciful".
Their first religious house was near Ushnagh in County West¬meath and this was followed by a move to a district near Elphin in County Roscommon. But on being besought by the people of Leinster to return to her native province she decided on Drum Criadh (the ridge of clay) rising above the Curragh plain. There, under a great oak tree, she built her "abbey" and hence the name of the present town of Kildare - Cill Dara, the cell or church of the oak.
Abbey is perhaps far too grand a name to give to Brigid's first establishment for the early Celtic abbeys were very simple struc¬tures. Much more would it have resembled a collection of huts than the elaborate complex of buildings designated by such a title in medieval times. But in those huts Brigid founded a community of women in which slave and free, serf and noble, met in equality, and worked under wise and experienced guidance to nurse the sick, relieve the poor, teach the ignorant, care for the orphan and tend the aged.
As the fame of Brigid spread there was added to her establishment a community of men and over both she ruled as abbess. With this growth in numbers it became necessary, according to the Irish custom of the age, to obtain the presence of a bishop to consecrate churches, confer orders and confirmation, as well as to admit new members to the community. Brigid, therefore, "elected" an anchorite from Old Connell near the present town of Newbridge and procured his consecration that he would "govern the church with her in episcopal dignity that nothing of the sacerdotal order might be wanting in her churches". The very words "her churches" throws a striking light on the characters of bishop and abbess and suggests that poor Conleth must soon have discovered that his best chance of peace and quietness lay in submission in all things lawful to this remarkable partner in authority. Legend, indeed, relates that, on one occasion, Conleth procured splendid vestments from the continent, but that Brigid, without hesitation, cut them up to make clothes for the poor!
Brigid died in 523 and was buried, probably contrary to what she would have wished, in a costly shrine in the abbey church. To this shrine came great crowds every first day of February, her feast day, "the day she cast off the burden of the flesh, and followed the Lamb of God to the heavenly dwelling". Three centuries later her relics are said to have been removed to Downpatrick to protect them from the ravages of the Danes, a calamity Kildare was to suffer repeatedly for centuries. When, at the reformation, such relics were destroyed on account of the superstitions attaching to them, what is supposed to have been Saint Brigid’s head was saved and brought to Neustadt in Austria. Later, in 1587, it was presented to the Jesuit church in Lisbon where, it is to be greatly hoped, it still rests from its wander¬ings.
Extraordinary veneration for the name of Brigid was displayed by Irish people throughout the middle ages. She was called "one of the mothers of the Lord" "the queen of the true God", "the queen of queens and "Mary of the Gael". Her feast day was said to have been celebrated throughout Europe and nearly thirty religious houses for women were under her obedience in ancient times. In Ireland her name is commemorated in churches convents, schools, hospitals, streets and holy wells. In the Ordnance Survey list of townlands there are thirty-six Kilbrides. Indeed wherever Irish men and women have settled her name has spread and been honoured.
This “factual" material about Brigid's ecclesiastical establishment is in marked contrast to the early medieval material and miraculous stories about Brigid herself. She gives away butter but the deficiencies are made up; water is conveniently turned into beer for the visit of a bishop; stone becomes salt; and so on. Brigid can hang her cloak on a sunbeam and animals follow her bidding. In all such events Brigid has more the attributes of a pagan goddess. And indeed Cormac's Glossary, written about 950 AD, says that there was a goddess named Brigit; and there may have been other sister goddesses of this name as well. Then again, Brigid's feast day is 1 February, Imbolg, the old pagan festival of spring. It would have been easy for Brigid to have become confused with the goddess of the same name in the minds of the ordinary people of those times. Even so scholarly a writer as Cogitosus, writing in the mid seventh century, admitted the difficulties facing him in his Life of Saint Brigid, and he may genuinely have found it difficult to translate some of his material into a Christian context.
But, in truth, apart from the exaggeration arising from any national prejudice, there was much in the history and character of Saint Brigid to stir the imagination. In estimating her character and work we must consider the times and the circumstances in which she lived. No ordinary woman could have left such a mark; still less one who, like Saint Brigid, was the illegitimate and 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 to a successful issue everything she touched, the great power of organising and of ruling, and a sound and clear judgment - these are apparent in what we read of her; and they raised her to a position that no other woman attained in Ireland until modern times.
Let her character be proclaimed by this poem supposed to have been written about one hundred years after her death
Brigid did not love the pride of life.
She was not querulous, not evil-minded;
She did not love fierce wrangling such as women practise,
She was not a venomous serpent or untruthful,
Nor did she sell the Son of God for things that fade.
She was not harsh to strangers,
She used to treat the wretched lepers kindly;
She built her dwelling on the plain
Which was frequented by vast crowds after her death.