The stories of the goddess Brigid and the later St. Bridget are so intertwined as to be nearly inseparable. The ancient feis of Imbolc was co-opted as St. Bridget’s Day, one of the most-popular saints days in Ireland and the Irish diaspora.
Bridget’s Early Life
Born c.451 near Faughart in Co. Louth, Bridget was the daughter of Dubtacht, a druid, and Brocca, who was either his wife or a slave, and possibly a Christian. Bridget eventually became a Christian (probably after absorbing druidic teaching from her father) and founded a number of monasteries, including the famous one at Kildare. It’s possible she entered religious life after losing the sight in one eye (although some stories hold that she put her own eye out rather than enter into an unwelcome marriage, and once the marriage had been called off — Celtic tradition would not allow one to marry somebody disfigured — she put it back in and was miraculously healed).
Monastery in Kildare
The monastery she founded in Kildare was notable for several features: it was mixed, accepting both men and women called to do God’s work. While this was not unheard of at the time, the Roman authorities in the Catholic church were steadily turning against married religiuse and towards the celibacy of the clergy. Indeed, the corruption of some monasteries, including mixed houses and some where the authority was passed from Abbot to son, was one of the motivations for the reforming zeal of the Cistercians in the mid-twelfth century (which left its mark on Ireland with some of our most beautiful abbeys).
St. Bridget’s Fire House
One of the unique aspects of St. Bridget’s Kildare Abbey was that a flame was kept burning night and day, a flame only women were allowed to tend, and that legend says produced no ash despite consuming logs. The remains of St. Bridget’s Fire House can still be found in the grounds of Kildare Cathedral, and male tourists are cautioned against entering lest their manhood be affected. It’s thought that this was a Pre-Christian tradition associated with the site.
Kildare as an Ancient Druidic Site
The name Kildare comes from the old Irish Kil — an important place or height — and dara — oaks. The oak was a sacred tree to the druids, so the grove of Kil-dara is assumed to have been of importance to the Druids. Bridget, being druid raised, if not fully trained, appears to have protected the old tradition of keeping the flame alive, although we do not now know the reason or what the flame meant to the druids. Although, some believe it was sacred to the goddess Brigid.
The explanation has been Christianized over the centuries, and it’s now said that later generations of nuns kept the flame burning in St. Bridget’s memory. It is known that the flame caused intense disagreement with the church authorities in Rome, and so this explanation may simply be another account of the church incorporating a local practice that they could not stamp out. Finally, the tradition of the flame was stamped out — along with so much more — during the dissolution of the monasteries. In 1993 the ceremonial flame was re-knidled, and it can now be seen burning in the Kildare town square. The Brigidine Sisters, the modern-day descendants of St. Bridget’s original fire-tenders, operate a small hermitage and Christian Center in Kildare, and continue St. Bridget’s tradition of religiuse being actively involved in their community.
The Book of Kildare
The Kildare monastery Bridget founded housed a scriptorium which was reputed to produce beautiful books, among them the now legendary Book of Kildare, an apparently supreme work of the scribe’s art, which disappeared during the Reformation. Some 500 years after Bridget’s time, Gerald of Wales discussed seeing the book during his travels in Ireland, although there is some discussion that he may have been viewing the contemporaneous Book of Kells and mis-remembered his location. Gerald recounts the legend of the book’s creation: “In this way was the book written, the angel showing the pattern, St. Brigid praying and the scribe copying”; thus placing it firmly within Saint Bridget’s lifetime. More hagiographical dissembling or further evidence of the singular impact of the saint’s life or the goddess’s still powerful hold over the Irish imagination?
The saint was often believed to have supernatural ability rivaling that of any other Irish saint — probably as a result of her associations with the goddess. Another story tells that when she received permission to found her monastery from the local king, he said she could have as much land as her cloak would cover. Magically, it grew to cover vast acres of the best grazing land in the midlands (the modern-day Curragh, some of the last common land in Ireland). When you visit the sites associated with St. Bridget in Kildare today, you will likely have to stop several times to give way before grazing sheep.