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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

St Brigid: True or False?



With St Brigid’s Day on the horizon I hope two facts don’t get confused.

The first is that she is an actual historical figure and an important one at that, not ‘a re-imagined legendary figure’. I have come across enough memories of her presence around the country to be sure she existed and a substantial ‘Life of St Brigid’ was recorded by the monk Cogitosus around 650.

Some of the stories in her ‘Life’ may overemphasise her powers but what comes across clearly is her concern for the ‘ordinary’ things in life: taking care of cattle,  making butter, helping at births, befriending the poor, digging a road.  Such detail not only endeared her to ‘ordinary’ people but give us valuable information about living conditions at that time. 

Her church at Klldare was reported to be ‘Of awesome height. It is adorned with painted pictures and has three chapels divided by boards all under the single roof’.  She is known to have travelled across Ireland, ‘riding on a two-horse chariot’, directing communities of women and men.

The second fact is that there was with an ancient Celtic figure named Brig, described by Christian scribes such as the 9th century Cormac’s Glossary, as a goddess and daughter of the Draga, an ancient father-figure druid. She was associated with wisdom, poetry and healing.  A temple in her honour existed in Kildare with an eternal flame burning.

Brigid and others respected the ancient recognition of an otherworldly aspect in elements such as fire, water and trees. Her community guarded that ‘eternal flame’ and kept it alive until the dissolution of monasteries.

Today her statue at her Holy Well shows her staff of office and carrying the flame forward. The site of her ‘awesome’ church is occupied by the Church of Ireland Cathedral which houses scale models of what it might have looked like originally. The Round Tower is one of the few open for climbing and dates from before the 11th century.

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