February 1 is the feast of St. Brigid of Ireland, often called Mary of the Gael. Her feast day is one of the official holy days of the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, Inc. Hibernians throughout the country gather annually for celebrations in her honor. St. Brigid's life was a remarkable one, next to St. Patrick she is the most revered saint in all of Ireland.
At about 453 AD, a child was born out of wedlock between Dubhtach and one of his Christian slaves named Brocca. The slave girl was sent to a cabin at the foot of the Cooley Mountains near Dundalk, Co Louth, to have the child. The baby was a healthy girl, which was no great joy to Dubhtach who wanted a son. The mother was sold to a Chieftain in Connaught, and the child was given to a Druid to be raised and educated. The child was named Brigid, perhaps to seek the blessing of the Goddess, from the very beginning, there were indications that she was special. It was reported that she was born at sunrise, and that the cottage in which she was born glowed with flames.
Brigid was born in a society ruled by the old Gaelic Order and the Druidic religion. St. Patrick had already reached Ireland, and was in the process of changing all that, but though his message had reached the court of Dubhtach, the powerful Leinster Chieftain held firm to the old religion. In his religion, one of the most powerful Goddesses was Brid or Brigid, the Goddess of Fire whose manifestations were song and poetry, which the Celts considered the flame of knowledge. Her feast day was the first festival of the year and was held on February 1. It was the beginning of Spring; the working season for farmers and fishermen, and a time of husbanding of animals, and the Celts called on Brid to bless their work, and bonfires were lit in her honor.
Brigid grew in beauty, and her love for all of God’s creatures knew no bounds. After her fosterage, she returned to her father’s house as a slave, although she enjoyed the privileges of family. She was given to solitude, and loved to wander the woods befriending the animals. She was renowned for her generosity, giving much of her father’s wealth away to the poor. Many are the stories attributed to this remarkable lady, including her journey on foot from Leinster to Connaught to find her mother, whom she freed from bondage, and returned to the house of Dubhtach.
The exact circumstances of her conversion to Christianity are unknown, though it is certain that her Christian mother was a guiding influence. Some claim that she personally met St Patrick, which is possible since she was ten years old before he died. Whatever the circumstances, Brigid and her companions in service to Brid, all accepted the Christian faith, and formed Ireland’s first Christian religious community of women. Legend tells that upon her acceptance of her vows, fire appeared above her head.
Even as a young girl Brigid evinced an interest for a religious life and took the veil in her youth from St. Macaille at Croghan and probably was professed by St. Mel of Armagh, who is believed to have conferred abbotial authority on her. Needing a place to establish the first community of religious women in Ireland, Brigid settled on Kildare, and about the year 470 she founded a double monastery at Cill-Dara (Kildare) and was Abbess of the convent, the first in Ireland. Her monastery was at the site (coincidentally) of a shrine to the Celtic Goddess Brigid. In time the eternal flame that virgins had guarded for the Goddess was tended instead by nuns who dedicated it to Christ. She extinguished the ritual fire of the Druids, and lit a flame dedicated to Christ which was thereafter maintained by her followers until it was doused by the forces of Henry VIII. The monastery that became a joint facility for nuns and monks under Brigid’s leadership also became a center of learning and school for the arts. The monastery developed into a center of learning and spirituality, around it grew up the Cathedral city of Kildare. She founded a school of art at Kildare and its illuminated manuscripts became famous, notably the Book of Kildare, which was praised as one of the finest of all illuminated Irish manuscripts before its disappearance three centuries ago. Brigid was one of the most remarkable women of her times, and despite the numerous legendary, extravagant, and even fantastic miracles attributed to her, there is no doubt that her extraordinary spirituality, boundless charity, and compassion for those in distress were real.
Brigid’s wisdom and generosity became legend, and people traveled from all over the country to share her wisdom. Her monastery at Kildare became one of the greatest centers of learning in Europe. She continued her holy and charitable work until her death. Brigid died at Kildare on February 1 in 525 AD, she was laid to rest in a jeweled casket at Kil Dara. In 835, her remains were moved to protect them from Norse invaders, and interred in the same grave that holds the remains of St Patrick and St Columcille at Downpatrick. She is sometimes known as Bridget, Bride and Mary of the Gael. Her feast day is February 1.
So strong was the respect and reverence for this holy lady that she became the patroness of parishes, towns, and counties, not only in Ireland, but all across Europe and the America’s. She even had a symbol. As the shamrock became associated with St Patrick, a tiny cross made of rushes was linked with St Brigid. Woven by her while she explained the passion of Christ to a dying pagan, he was baptized before he died. Similar crosses are fashioned to this day as a defense against harm, and placed in the rafters of a cottage on the feast day of St Brigid – February 1.