Ireland is called the “Isle of Saints and Scholars,” but only three saints are its official patrons: Patrick, its apostle; Columba of Iona (Colmkille), its leading missionary monk; and Brigid or Bride, its most influential nun. (Brigid is often spelled incorrectly “Bridget.”)
As with many popular saints, St. Brigid’s life story has become so romanticized by legend that it is difficult to sort out her biographical data. Her traditional birthplace is located near Dundalk in County Louth, Leinster province. Her mother is said to have been a slave woman, but the father acknowledge Bride as his own, and trained her to read, write, embroider and run a household. She had many suitors, but she had already decided to embrace the religious life. Having secured her father’s grudging permission, she took the veil.
We next find Sister Brigid establishing a convent of nuns at Kildare (“Church of the Oak”) in County Kildare, farther south in the Province of Leinster. The date of the foundation is uncertain, but Brigid’s monastery was unusual. She built one church that was used jointly by a monastery of men and by Brigid’s monastery for women. The men were headed by St. Conleth, who was both abbot and bishop. Brigid seems in some sense to have been the head of both the men’s and the women’s monasteries. At all events, she had the status of superior of all the women’s convents in Ireland.
The monastery of Kildare became a center of learning. As abbess, Bride founded a school of art noted for its metal work and the copying of manuscripts. The “Book of Kildare,” now lost, is said to have been a most splendid illuminated manuscript of the Gospels.
Brigid was also a missionary. She often rode forth from Kildare on works of charity far afield. Thus, like her friend St. Patrick, she became well-known throughout Ireland, and well-recognized for her good deeds. Irish monks who later on went abroad as missionary monks, spread to the European continent devotion to her as well as to Ireland’s apostle, Patrick.
The holy respect in which Bride was held is no better expressed than in the lyric Irish lines of the “Book of Lismore.” “It is she that helpeth every one who is in straits and in danger; it is she that abateth the pestilences; it is she that quelleth the rage and storm of the sea. She is the prophetess of Christ; she is the Queen of the South; she is the Mary of the Gaels.”
If the legendary lore of St. Brigid obscures her biographical facts, at least it has recorded such lovely stories as the one about the saint and a blind nun named Dara.
“One evening, as the sun went down, Brigid sat with Sister Dara, a holy nun who was blind, and they talked of the love of Jesus Christ and the joys of Paradise.… Then the sun came up from behind the Wicklow Mountains, and the pure white light made the face of earth bright and gay. Then Brigid sighed when she saw how lovely were earth and sky, and knew that Dara’s eyes were closed to all this beauty.”
“So Brigid prayed to God, and then touched the sightless eyes of Sister Dara. Dara was cured, and was able to look at the sun, the trees and flowers `glittering with dew in the morning light.’”
Sister Dara looked on for a while, charmed by the vision. But then she turned to the abbess and said, “Close my eyes again, dear Mother, for when the world is so visible to the eyes, God is seen less clearly to the soul.”
The saint understood. So she prayed to God once more, “and Dara’s eyes grew dark again.”
It is easy to see in this story itself why the Irish so reverenced the “Mary of the Gaels.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara