Legends aside the fact of the matter is the historical Brigid a contemporary of St Patrick's is considered the spiritual midwife who helped bring to birth Christianity in Ireland.
A potent symbol for Christian womanhood Brigid was born to Leinster's pagan King Dubtach and his Christian bondservant Broicesch. His jealous wife convinced him to sell Broicesch as a slave to a druid priest. At a young age Brigid chose a life of service to God and the poor.
When older Brigid returned to her father's home where she exasperated him by constantly giving away his food and goods . Disparing of her generousity Dubtach tried to marry her off. Brigid refused and her father gave her permission to become a Nun.
As time went byBrigid led a company of woman who had decided to become nuns and requested Bishop Mel to bless their taking of the viel. Various accounts tell of Bishop Mel calling Brigid forward after wittnessing the the Spirit of God light on her. Laying hands on Brigid he ordained her as a Bishop. Others present protested that a woman receive these holy orders, Bishop Mel reportedly replied "I have no power in this matter. God has ordained Brigid". (* see foot note)
At Bishop Mel's request, Brigid founded a monestary at Ardagh. Thousands came to receive instruction in the Christian faith.
Curious to see if this success could be repeated she set out on a journey around the country accompanied by a group of sisters and her mentor Natfraioch. Brigid's approach to the establishment of new foundations was hands on. She over saw the building of the wattle huts for the sisters, the staffing of the convent then headed off to repeat the work elsewhere. Munster and Connacht. Many women of noble birth left their homes and flock to enter the shelter of her communites.
Brigid's most famous foundation was at Kildare. A double monestary housing both men and women that was established on a generous grant of land given by the king of Leinster. Double monasteries were a common practice in Celtic Christianty
The Kildare community was known as a remarkable place of learning for both men and women. Art and creativity were an important part of the mix. The illuminated manuscripts originating there were highly praised. The Book of Kildare was considered one of the finest of all illuminated Irish manuscripts before its disappearance three centuries ago.
In the pre-Christian period of Celtic history, Brighid (a derivation of the word Brig, meaning "valor" or "might") the goddesses, fertility, fire and poetry was one of the most beloved. The monastery at Kildare was built in an Oak grove set aside for her worship, where a sacred flame was kept alight. A fire maintained by Brigids community burned day and night for over a thousand years. Kildare means " Church of the Oak". There has been some speculation that Brigid herself served as the last high priestess of a community of druid women worshipping the goddess Brighid and by this action led that entire community into the Christian faith.
Brigid believed that the needs of the body and the needs of the spirit were intertwined. Her generosity in adult life was legendary. Many of the stories about her relate to the multiplication of food and drink. One in particular tells of a time that she changed her bath-water into beer to for a group of visitng monks.
She insisted that a vital component of the spiritual life is having a soul friend (anam cara/ mentor): "A person without a soul friend is like a body with out a head."
Known as Mary of the Gaels, Brigid is the patron of poets, dairymaids, blacksmiths, healers, cattle, fugitives, Irish nuns, midwives, and new-born babies. Christians and pagans a like celibrate Brigid's feast day also known as Imbolic. The cermonial 1st day of spring. Ever connecting Brigid with the renewal of the earth. The promise of abundance, and the eternal cycle of new life.
After a long and fruitful life in service to others Brigid passed away shortly after her 70th birthday. Her spirit lives on in the hospitality afforded by the nuns at Kildare. She is one of three of Irelands patron saints. The other two being Patrick and Columba of Iona.
for more about Brigid of Ireland
for all things Brigid
*Another possible interpretation of this story relates to the fact that the Roman diocesan system was unknown in Ireland. Monasteries formed the center of Christian life in the early Church of Ireland. Abbots and abbesses held the rank and function that a bishop would on the Continent. Evidence of this can also be seen at councils, such as the Synod of Whitby, convened by St. Hilda. Brigid, as a preeminent abbess, might have fulfilled some standard episcopal functions, such as preaching, hearing confessions, and serving as pastoral leader for a large geographical area.