Recalling the Inextinguishable Fire of Saint Brigid

On the first day of February, somewhere in Ireland, a ewe is born and peacefully nestles at its mother’s side, warmed by her body, nourished by her milk. This is a pleasing sign of spring, as are the days which are visibly lengthening. In Ireland, the first day of February is widely celebrated at St. Brigid’s Day for the Christians, and as Imbolc for present-day pre-Christians, with some similarities to Ground Hog Day when we pause to speculate on the imminent or distant arrival of spring.

Most of us are familiar with Saint Patrick as the patron saint of Ireland, but Saint Brigid is the sole woman who also carries this honor. Brigid, who was born around 525 A.D., established a religious house for women in Kildare. There are remarkable stories about this woman, but the one I like the most is that from a very young age, she gave things away. If someone needed something, food or whatever, and she had some, she just gave it to them. Apparently this annoyed her father, but Brigid persisted. The mystery in it, though, and the part of the story that I like the most, is that, in spite of her giving food away to the poor, her pantry was always full. Isn’t this love, too, in that the more love you give away, the more you have in your heart, your “pantry” for love?

Brigid is also associated with fire, although this association seems to date back to the pre-Christian goddess Brigit. There was an inextinguishable fire at Brigid’s religious house in Kildare which burned for 500 years but produced no ashes. I think most of us can relate to the idea of an inextinguishable fire, be it burning in a fireplace or in our hearts. But the lingering mystery for me in this story is that men were not allowed near this certain fire in Kildare.

Brigid is also said to have wailed the first keening in Ireland upon the death of her son. I was familiar with keening from Irish literature, but I was not aware that the origin of this in Ireland was a woman mourning her son’s death. But this should come as no surprise that this dreadful sound, a direful moaning chant, would come from the heart of a woman who has lost her son.

My final story about Brigid rests with what is known as a St. Brigid’s Cross. The story tells us that St. Brigid converted a man on his deathbed. In the process of conversion, she held a cross over him that she had made of rushes found on the floor around her. Women in Ireland still plait rushes into a cross, as St. Brigid did, and these women hang their creations in their kitchens. The St. Brigid’s cross I have, which is pictured above,  was plaited by an extraordinary Irish woman, Nancy Stevens, a woman whose pantry was always full in spite of her endless giving to her family, friends, and strangers who crossed her threshold. She was also the first one up each morning to tend to the fire that was always burning in her kitchen, a fire that warmed me on many days and in as many ways.

The story of Brigid resonates with women, which is why I wanted to post her story on the first day of February. In honoring her today, we honor all women who have showered us with both tangible and intangible gifts from their pantry, stoked those inextinguishable fires which burn in all women’s hearts, and taught us to wail like a banshee should a child be taken from us.

Views: 1148

Tags: Faith, Feminism, Folklore, On This Day, Philanthropy

Comment by Daniel M. Foley, Jr. on February 1, 2016 at 11:10am

Thanks for sharing that. I had heard the story about the cross but not the others.

Comment by michael dunne on February 8, 2016 at 5:39am

Thank you Susan.

Was there ever a Catholic Church named after St. Brigid or any other female Irish saint? Oddly enough our local Catholic Church is St Philomena's, but she was beatified and part of Roman History. The Ultramontaine and first Irish Cardinal Paul Cullen was a disciple of reforming the Gallician Irish version of Catholicism. It was thought to be too local in its culture and not conforming to the Vatican. Religious practice in Ireland included waking the dead, patterns, stations Christenings  marriages and even confessions and was frowned upon by Rome, with an inference that these traditions were of a pagan nature, largely because of where they took place. A major row existed between the bishops in Ireland headed by Archbishop John McHale in the West and Archbishop Murray in Dublin. This row came to a head over education, queens universities and the British governments control over Irish affairs including religion. So Cullen called together the Synod of Thurles for the overhaul of the Catholic Church. Catholic Emancipation had been reluctantly conceded in 1829 and after the Synod, a rigorous campaign of Church building commenced throughout the land. Of all the Churches built then and to date, I am not aware of any of them being named after an Irish female saint. And I wonder why?

Comment by Gerry Regan on February 8, 2016 at 9:27am

Michael, there are two St. Brigid's parishes in metro NY that I know of, one in Manhattan, the other in Westbury, on Long Island. I'm sure there are others.

Comment by michael dunne on February 8, 2016 at 6:16pm

Hi Gerry,

That may well beregarding St Brigids and Ny and Manhattan,  but what I am suggesting is that I am thinking that few Catholic Churches in Ireland are named after home grown Irish women saints like St Brigid. And if what I'm thinking is in fact true, I wonder if its to do with the ultramontaine policies of reforming the Catholic Church in Ireland in the 19th Century. Since the arrival of the Normans to Ireland in 1169 the erosion of the Brehon laws and the status of women in our society commenced. Prior to their arrival Ireland had earned itself a place in Europe as the Island of Saints and Scholars. The offensive Gallicism which may also have influenced our earliest home grown saints was also put under pressure with the arrival in Ireland of the large Monastic orders Franciscans Dominicans Cistercians etc. These orders more or less coincided with the arrival of the Normans, who were Roman Catholics.They were more under the direct influence of Rome than the Irish saints were. So the subjugation of women and their status may or may not be a factor in why we may not have Churches or even chapels named after our home made women saints.

Comment by Gerry Regan on February 10, 2016 at 3:07pm

Interesting observation, Michael. I'd love to see you flesh this out in a longer post.

Comment by michael dunne on February 13, 2016 at 9:17pm

Hi Gerry,

Like St Patrick,  St Brigid is revered by Irish people as a very important saint. I am just thinking as I write and I wonder why women were written out of the religious from a canonization perspective. Nuns became popular in mid 19th Century but were also under the direction of the bishops the parish priests and even the local curate. I dont see the need to flesh out what I am suggesting and putting forward as questions based on the limited knowledge I have from living here in Ireland all my life as a lapsed Catholic and an admirer of women and nuns in particular.

Comment by Bruce (B.D.) MacMahon on January 29, 2017 at 10:56am

Brigid (Bre-ga) was a Druid tribal Goddess from ancient times. She is therefore not a nun nor would ever be such a thing. The early Christians representing Rome created a St. Bridgett to lure the people away from worshiping her. This did not entirely work so they came up with stories of Mary. Later they came with bible in one hand a sword in the other.The cross is NOT a Christian cross but rather a Druid circle like the zodiac.

Comment by Mike McCormack on February 1, 2017 at 5:25pm

St. Patrick's success in Ireland was due to the fact that he did not condemn the Celts as idolatrous pagans, but explained their customs in Christian terms and gradually Christian saints began to replace the Celtic Gods and Goddesses on the Irish calendar. However, the personalities of some of the Celtic deities was so strong that were hard to replace; one of these was Brid, and the rites associated with her continued to be practiced each February 1 right into Christian times. Several authors record that Brigid, who was named for Brid, later became a vestal virgin in service to Brid and eventually high priestess at Kil Dara (the temple of the oak), a pagan sanctuary built from a tree sacred to the Druids in which a perpetual ritual fire to Brid was maintained.

How or why Brigid became a Christian is unknown. It is certain her Christian mother was one influence. Whatever the circumstance, it is recorded that Brigid and her companions in service to Brid all accepted the Christian faith and formed Ireland's first religious community for women. Brigid transformed the pagan sanctuary of Kil Dara into a Christian Shrine and monastic school, which gave its name to the present Co. Kildare. She extinguished the ritual fire of the Druids; and lit a flame dedicated to Christ which was thereafter maintained by her nuns.  There is no reference to her ever being a mother and the Catholic Encyclopedia maintains that she was ever a virgin.

So strong was the reverence for this holy lady that she became the patroness of parishes, towns, and counties, not only in Ireland, but all across Europe. During the age of chivalry, she was so revered as a model for women of every age, that gentlemen, knights, and nobles began the custom of calling the girls they married their Brides - a custom that has come down to this day.  In Ireland, the people likened her to Brid, the old Goddess of fire and wisdom - for she maintained the perpetual flame at Kill Dara and as for wisdom, that was undisputed. Her symbol – a tiny cross made of rushes woven by her as she explained the passion of Christ to a dying pagan – are fashioned to this day as a defense against harm, and placed in cottage rafters on the feast day of St Brigid - February 1. So it was, that this holy child of Ireland, known as the Mary of the Gael, grew so loved that she not only eclipsed the Celtic Goddess for whom she was named, but she took her feast day.

When Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) a Welsh Chronicler, visited Kildare in the 12th century, he reported that the fire was still burning and being tended by nuns of St. Brigid. It survived up to the sixteenth century when the Monastery was destroyed and the flame was extinguished by the forces of the Crown.  No longer did the flame of knowledge burn at Kildare.

However in 1993, the town of Kildare hosted a conference entitled, Brigid: Prophetess, Earthwoman, Peacemaker.  To open the conference, Sister Mary Teresa Cullen, the then leader of the Brigidine Sisters, kindled a symbolic flame in the Market Square of Kildare.  The flame was hailed as appropriate for the theme, the time and the town.  At the close of the conference, the flame was moved into Brigidine Sisters Center, Solas Bhride, where it has been maintained ever since.  Each year, the flame was returned to the town square on February first for Feile Bhride (the Feast of Brigid) where it remained burning during the month of February and was returned to the safety of Solas Bhride.  The Kildare County Council commissioned an artist to create a sculpture to permanently house the flame in the town square. It was a tall column of oak, which flourishes at the top into large oak leaves, nestled into which there is a bronze acorn cup holding the flame.  The use of oak is symbolic and a fitting tribute to this historic flame.

On St. Brigid’s Day, February 1st, 2006, the flame was permanently moved to its new location in the town square from the one tended in Solas Bhríde for the previous fourteen years.  Irish President Mary McAleese opened the ceremony in the Market Square saying she was pleased to present to the people of Ireland and the diaspora beyond, a flame that once more shines out from Kildare, with the hope it would once again be a beacon of light, hope, and peace for all the world.

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