Saint Brigid of Kildare, also known as, Brigid of Ireland was an Irish nun, abbess, and founder of several convents and a school. Considered one of Ireland’s three patron saints along with Sts Patrick and Columba. February 1 is traditionally the first day of spring in Ireland.
Brigid was a disciple St Mel and worked as a missionary and teacher, and by the time of her death, the Abbey at Kildare had grown into a cathedral that became famous throughout Europe as a center of learning.
St Brigid’s story is recorded in Vita Brigitae by St Cogitosus of Kildare. Another account is attributed to Coelan, an Irish monk of the eighth century.
Brigid was born around 453 at Faughart near Dundalk, Ireland.
Whether she was raised a Christian or converted is uncertain. She is said to have been inspired by the preaching of St Patrick. Despite her father’s opposition, she was determined to enter religious life. Numerous stories testify to her piety. She reportedly had a generous heart and could never refuse the poor who came to her father’s door, dispensing milk and flour to all and sundry. Her charity angered her father, however, who thought she was being overly generous to the poor and needy. When she finally gave away a jewel-encrusted sword to a leper, her father realized that her disposition was indeed best suited to the life of a nun. Brigid thus finally got her wish and she was sent to a convent.
Brigid professed vows dedicating her life to Christ about 468. Brigid is believed to have founded her first convent in Clara, County Offaly. Other foundations followed. Around 470 she founded Kildare Abbey, a double monastery, for both nuns and monks, on the plains of Cill-Dara where her cell was made under a large oak tree.
According to the legend, the elderly Bishop Mel, as he was blessing Brigid as abbess, inadvertently read the rite of consecration of a bishop, which could not be rescinded under any circumstances. The story spread that Saint Mel was inspired by God to make her a bishop. Whether the legend is true or not, Brigid and her successor abbesses at Kildare held an authority equal to that of a bishop until the Synod of Kells-Mellifont in 1152, which reformed the administration of the Irish churches.
Brigid’s small oratory at Cill-Dara (Kildare) became a center of religion, learning and eventually developed into a cathedral city. She appointed the future St Conleth as pastor over the monastery. Thus, for centuries, Kildare was ruled by a double line of abbot-bishops and of abbesses, the abbess of Kildare being regarded as superioress-general of the convents in Ireland.
Brigid also founded a school of art, including metal work and illumination, over which Conleth presided. The Kildare scriptorium produced the lost Book of Kildare which elicited high praise from chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis (c. 1146 – c. 1223). According to Giraldus, nothing that he had ever seen was at all comparable to the book, every page of which was gorgeously illuminated, leaving the impression that “all this is the work of angelic, and not human skill.”
Brigid died around 525 and was buried in a tomb before the high altar of her abbey church. When dying, she was attended by St Ninnidh, who was afterward known as “Ninnidh of the Clean Hand” because he supposedly had his right hand encased with a metal covering to prevent it ever being defiled after administering the last rites to “Ireland’s Patroness.”
According to tradition, a new cross is made each Saint Brigid’s Day (February 1), and the old one is burned to keep the fire from the house, yet customs vary by locality and family. Many homes have multiple crosses preserved in the ceiling, the oldest blackened by many years of hearth fires. Some believe that keeping a cross in the ceiling or roof is a good way to preserve the home from fire, which was a major threat in houses with thatch and wood roofs.