Certainty attaches to Irish records only from the coming of Saint Patrick. Before that, all is cloudy surmise; after it, the nation begins to emerge in a clear light. In that early clarity of record three names linked together will stand out for all time. No one can write our Irish history without reference to them. No account of our native literature can be presented if they be ignored, for the three have been our abiding inspiration through the ages. No account, even of native art, can be written without explaining them. Archaeologists work backwards and arrive at them. Geographers have to consider them, for these three names are everywhere woven into the topography of the country. If, therefore, through some mystery of iniquity the Church were silenced in Ireland and there were an end to native literature and art, still the very stones would cry out those names; wells, ruins, raths, and town-lands would tell their story. Mountains would have to be levelled to blot out their memory. These three upon whom abut all our history, literature, art, building and topography are: Patrick, Brigid, and Columcille (or Columba). Their memory is our spiritual banner. When that flag is surrendered, the Gael is no more.
Saint Patrick, before he died, wrote his “Confession,” a precious document, enshrined in the “Book of Armagh”. It is brief, capable of being read attentively in half and hour; it is accessible to all in Doctor J. B. Newport White’s translation, a rendering not only accurate, but having the higher merit of reproducing something of the original’s deep spirit. In this “Confession”, Saint Patrick speaks chiefly of his missionary work in Ireland, and of the stupendous success that crowned his labours. He does not try to minimize his success — such not being the way of truth — but he humbly ascribes it directly to God. He tells us that what most astonished him among his converts were: the rapid emergence of a strong native clergy, and the firm rooting of monasticism in a soil miraculously congenial.
A native clergy and a native monastic impulse are indeed the two factors that give a sort of divine guarantee of permanence to the evangelization of any country. Patrick, son of a Roman decurion, trained through the long, slow years at the famous centres of Marmoutier, Lerins, Arles, and Auxerre, with rigid Roman-Empire notions of what was civilized and what barbarian, confesses himself astonished at the aptness and the quick spiritual insight of his Irish converts. But the most amazing unexpected blossom that unfolded in the garden planted by Patrick was — Brigid. If the Apostle envisaged the rising up of even a Columcille in Ireland, I do not think he had dared dream of such a portent as Brigid.
Every one of her nine or ten first biographers assigns a different date to her birth, but no date is very far distant from the year 450. One must, therefore, be content with saying that she was born about the middle of the fifth century. The new chronology of Patrick’s life, outcome of extensive research, places his death in the year 461. This makes it impossible for Saint Patrick to have known Brigid in her maturity. As a fact, in the oldest “Lives” of the Apostle, she is mentioned only once. She can have been little more than a child when he died.
If I begin by saying, Brigid was a flame, I risk the charge of taking a caption from the cinema, yet that is the term used by her first biographers in describing her. Her singularity must be emphasized. The idea of perpetuating her memory by keeping a fire constantly burning as a symbol of her was strictly appropriate. All who approached her in life testified that she communicated a sort of illumination and warmth. She stood out luminously against a background of gloom. Some authorities affirm that her name means “fiery arrow”. She certainly shot up like a dart of fire out of utter darkness.
To appreciate the unique and dramatic nature of such a portent as she was, one must see her in sharp contrast with the women of her day. I do not say that these were not emancipated. There are many senses in which the women of early Christian Ireland were far more emancipated than we. They had special assemblies of their own to discuss matters of feminine interest, and no man was permitted to be present. They had games of their own at fairs. There is evidence that ladies of rank learned how to read and write. A woman aimed not merely at knowing all feminine crafts, but at possessing all the utensils necessary for them — to wit, a hand-mill, sieve, loom, distaff, spindles; if she possessed all these, she had a special status, that of a “great worker”, as it was quaintly termed. A prospective husband in those days had to pay a dowry to his bride’s father, so that someone, I think it is O’Curry, remarks that Ireland was the only place where the wife rather than the husband was bought. After marriage, a wife was allowed separate owner-ship of property, and her position was practically equal to that of her husband. In the early Christian Ireland that produced Brigid, there is no hint of injustice or subjection in the normal status of woman.
I say “the normal status”, for there was a second grade of women, bond-maidens or slave-women, who were much less fortunate. They had no rights. They were frequently grossly treated. Ancient Irish literature is full of anecdotes illustrating the miseries of their position. Saint Patrick pitied them sincerely. The fact that he makes special mention of them in his “Confession” shows that their plight was on his mind:
“The women who are kept in slavery suffer especially; they constantly endure even unto terrors and threats. But the Lord gave grace to many of His handmaidens, for, although they are forbidden, they earnestly follow the example (set them).”
The state of affairs is very clear from this brief reference. When the slave-woman of pagan masters became a convert, she had not much to hope for by way of sympathy or facilities to practise her religion, unless her masters, too, were converted. It was unheard of that a slave-woman should have ideas, or even a will of her own. The moment she was suspected of possessing such, her lot was “suffering, terrors and threats”. Now the miracle of Brigid is that she belonged to this despised and downtrodden class. Two points must be remembered. First this: among free women there was no possible sphere of usefulness, no status, no avenue of honour thinkable outside of family life. The idea of leadership, of organization by women among women, was absolutely unknown. Secondly, neither within nor without the family was emancipation even dreamed by slave-women. But Brigid arose from among them, and straightway the whole framework of the feminine world was altered, its horizons enlarged, and on those horizons there dawned Vision. She was not the first nun in Ireland, but among the first, and she was the very greatest. She was a captive, destined to hold captive for all time the imagination of her people. She opened to free women a gate into a new land, but to bondwomen she opened the very gates of Paradise. In one gesture, she taught them to mount what a stairway of escape! Immunity from ill treatment, liberty, status, vocation, and the chance of pursuing it in a dedicated life.
As Doctor Healy has pointed out, the full weight of evidence is in favour of the account stating that Saint Brigid was the daughter of a Leinster chieftain named Dubhthach — lineal descendant of a High King of Ireland — and of a bondwoman in his household. Brigid was not born in her father’s house, but at Faughart, a village some two miles from Dundalk, in the house of a Druid to whom her mother had been sold before the birth of the child.
Having royalty on one side and slavery on the other, Brigid grew up with an inborn comprehension of all classes of society. Frequently, in after-life, we find her claiming kinship with slaves, but while making almost a regal gesture. She had what is called a bad start, indeed a very bad start, in life. If there was any happiness in her childhood, no gleam of it has been transmitted in the “Lives”. Probably no one today could find a childhood so unhappy as Brigid’s. If Dubhthach had sold her mother, he had reserved for himself the offspring. Shortly after her birth, therefore, the child, who had been baptized a Christian, was taken back into her father’s household to receive her own initiation into drudgery. She had there a stepmother who detested her, and who made her the object of persecution. From that sordid background, her individuality began to emerge uniquely, like rare blossom. She perplexed her chieftain father because she had two undeniable gifts hardly ever found in combination: extreme beauty and the quickest intelligence. She could not be ignored. But her gifts hardly recommended her to her stepmother. In the end, Dubhthach, to promote the peace of his household, determined to be rid of Brigid.
One of the charges brought against her at this period was her habit of giving away her father’s property in “indiscriminate” charity. Her bounty was always of that sweeping and even devastating kind, disconcerting to those about her. Traits of royalty seem to have come out most inconveniently in the slave girl. She was incapable of refusing a beggar. When set minding sheep, she would even hand one of them away — to a leper, perhaps! She might indicate even a cow as his portion. . . . Her exceptional strong- mindedness is evident at this early age; her dogged determination to right some of the injustice of the world. For we may be sure that “suffering, terrors and threats” were employed very freely in her case to deter her from taking her Christianity with such literalness. No punishment had the least effect on her (after all, she was Dubhthach’s daughter). Hence, the reason she was called away one day from her domestic drudgery and placed in a chariot by her father. He had made up his mind to sell her to Dunlaing, the son of his overlord, the King of Leinster.
The story of what ensued is full of human interest. Brigid, being a wholly normal child, beamed with delight at the prospect of a drive. But her father was in a towering rage, and said roughly to her: “It is not to give you a treat that I am taking you in the chariot, but to sell you. You are going to grind the corn for Dunlaing now.” When they arrived at the latter’s fortress, Dubhthach left her sitting in the chariot, while he went in to make a bargain. The unhappy man left his sword, too, in the chariot. A beggar seems to have come on the scene immediately and Brigid serenely handed him her father’s sword! This to show how very incorrigible she was. . . . I leave to the reader’s imagination the scene that followed her father’s return.
Dunlaing, her prospective buyer, was a Christian, fortunately for Brigid. Of her bountiful giving, he took an altogether different view from her father. Also, he appears to have remonstrated with Dubhthach for trying to sell his own daughter. He gave him a new sword to placate him. The upshot was that Brigid was not sold, but taken home again. After this, she seems to have gradually slipped out of a condition of bondage. She started then from absolute nothingness, and all the help she received in her career came not from her family, but from such Christian bishops as she had the good fortune to encounter. Patrick had set the example of purchasing the manumission of slaves wherever possible, so as to enable them to practise their religion, and his disciples followed his example.
It was probably through some such assistance that Brigid became a nun while yet in her early teens, sixteen or seventeen. Two names of bishops stand out as her counsellors: Saint Maccaille, by whom she was professed, and Saint Mel, who was her constant adviser.
It was the practice in those early days for nuns, or “consecrated virgins”, as they were called, to remain in their own home, or in small and usually unorganized groups. Brigid, in the beginning, did likewise. Then she ventured living with eight or nine companions, and thus became the pioneer of community life, and the patroness of all the hosts innumerable of Irish nuns. The site where her first community made their convent settlement is unknown. But Brigid’s example was followed so rapidly and by such numbers that other foundations became imperative. She was forced to lead a life of constant travel to respond to the demand for new settlements. Of these, the greatest and most famous was at Kildare, where she chiefly had her residence, in her “Cell- of-the-Oak.”
As a nun, Brigid appears to have dressed in a white woolen habit and cloak, with a white veil, and her hair was not cut. She wrote a rule, which is no longer extant, but it is said to enjoin a severe mode of life, in which mortification entered largely. None of her nuns, however, led an enclosed life. Brigid, as we have said, was of necessity an indefatigable traveller, constantly driving in a chariot around the country. In these journeys, it was her practice to take some of her sisters in religion to accompany her. Before her death, she was the Mother Abbess of thirteen thousand nuns.
Many times in her life, we find Brigid securing the freedom of slaves, always with an interest that amounted to passion. One of these was a woman whom she found her father ill treating; another was a girl who was being cruelly beaten by her mistress, who was nevertheless unwilling to part with the slave at any price because she was “a weaver of very fine stuffs”.
Around the little community, established at her “Cell-of-the-Oak”, Kildare, there soon grew a mighty institution, even a settlement as large as a city. Brigid founded a monastic house for men as well as for women and it was probably for that reason she was granted the favour of nominating a bishop for Kildare. These monks, who lived according to Brigid’s rule, founded in their turn a school, which speedily rivalled the famous school of Armagh. The Kildare school specialized in artistic metal work, so that from Brigid’s “family” there originated one of the strongest impulses to Christian native art. Beautifully ornamented chalices, patens, book-covers, crosiers and bells were supplied from Kildare to all the churches in Ireland.
Illumination was another branch of art in which this school excelled. There existed at one time, now alas, no longer extant, a Book of Kildare which is said to have surpassed in beauty even the Book of Kells. Giraldus Cambrensis, who appears to have seen it in the twelfth century, praised it at great length as the most beautiful book he had ever beheld.
Brigid’s exceptional powers of construction and administration naturally attracted the notice of contemporary ecclesiastics, and all who were of note appear to have sought her counsel in the organization of the areas under their jurisdiction. Her strong-mindedness, a quality rare in woman, has given rise to many legends: one of these represents her as having episcopal powers conferred upon her, and another has Brigid, herself, conferring episcopal powers, both legends being manifestly absurd. That, from taking counsel of bishops, she developed into the counsellor of bishops is certain; that she even had a voice in the appointing of bishops is probable.
Great stress is laid in the “Lives” on her material charity. The hugeness of her bounty was a perpetual embarrassment to her community, as a few examples will show. Once, she and her companions were driving in a chariot on a long journey, when they encountered a poor family, with heavy burdens, toiling along the road, apparently moving house. The saint immediately alighted, bade her nuns do likewise, and handed their vehicle over to the pedestrians. Then she and her sisters sat down by the roadside to consider the position, for their destination was too far away to reach it on foot. We read of her community frequently losing patience and railing at her. They are even represented as saying this: “Much good your compassion does us, when we are often without bread and clothing!” Who can blame them? The terrific example given by Brigid seemed too hard for mortals. Once it devolved upon her to entertain a bishop and his retinue. Her nuns assiduously collected provisions and prepared a feast, which they considered fairly adequate for the occasion. But, almost on the eve of the event, a crowd of beggars came to the gates, importuning alms, and Brigid dispensed among them every item, down to the last crumb, of what had been prepared for the feast!
This must have been a great personal sacrifice, for if the saint had a recreation it was the exercise of hospitality. Everyone who came to her doors was entertained. In this lavish dispensing, she was frequently disturbed by misgivings of an insufficient supply. Would the butter last out? Or would the beer go round? These were the anxieties known to Brigid the hostess. But all earthy feasts come to an end. This great-souled woman always thought the backs of departing guests a sad sight. Did they have enough? And would they be fed tomorrow? These were her recurrent troubles. There is an Irish poem ascribed to her in which she is supposed to envisage heaven as a stupendous feast, shared by countless guests and going on forever, replenished from inexhaustible supplies; even a “lake of ale” is mentioned. Though the authenticity of the poem is dubious, the idea is just. It is strictly true of Brigid that her heaven would be a state in which she could have all the pleasures of hospitality without its solicitudes.
Her visions were as characteristic of her as that notion of heaven. Professor Gardner, extending a thought of Shelley, has remarked somewhere that “the mystic’s representation, the language that he uses, must all be coloured by his previous education and mental equipment.” It is, indeed, highly interesting to observe that when the saints attempt to describe their visions they invariably end by describing some daily scene, but to which they attach an allegorical meaning. Thus, when Saint Catherine of Siena, pursued with questions about her ecstatic experience, attempted a stammering description, what emerged, in fact, was no more than a description of an early Sienese painting! How characteristic in this respect were the visions of Brigid. In that one described in the Lebar Brecc, she “saw” ploughmen and sowers, clear shining streams, oats springing up, a furrowed field, all farm animals: sheep, swine, dogs. These are the things on which Brigid’s eyes rested every day.
For Saint Brigid is supremely the saint of pastoral life. She is the genius of our Irish homesteads, and every farm is in a sense her shrine. She is the tutelary spirit of our meadows and gardens. But within the iron gates of industrial cities, she is a stranger. All her legends are about farm life, milking cows, making firkins of butter, calling home the sheep in the rain. She was at home in a dairy. The legends evoke discomfitures that are very familiar: the dairymaid’s confusion when a superior worker sneers at her butter, as insufficient in quantity or indifferent in quality. Brigid was a notable butter and cheese maker, and her home-brewed ale was famous throughout the land. After her profession, even when she was Mother Abbess of thirteen thousand nuns, she still spent part of each day at those rural occupations. We read of her coming in from shepherding, her garments saturated with rain; or supervising the reapers from dawn to sunset in the harvest fields about her convent settlement; or contentedly busy over her stores of honey and wholesome brews. She was familiar with and loved all animal life. The wild duck came at her call. Once she tamed a wild fox for a pet.
Yet one finds her represented in statues — I remember one notably, at Saint Gerans holding a book in one hand and a quill pen in the other. This is because she was the patroness of learning, too. I have said that the school founded by her inspiration at Kildare became one of the two most famous in Ireland. She fostered culture equally with pastoral occupations. Therefore, in order to describe her adequately, one must associate words commonly — and perhaps wrongly — dissociated. One must call her an intellectual dairymaid, a cultured cowherd, a field-labourer who promoted art and literature, a shepherdess who had learning. In considering Brigid at her rural occupations, let that statement in the Book of Lismore be always remembered too:
“Wherefore thence it came to pass that the comradeship of the world’s sons of reading is with Brigid, and the Lord gives them through Brigid’s prayer every perfect good they ask.”
An epigrammatic mode of speech and a certain imperiousness are attributed to her. Once, a visitor brought her a basket of choice apples, which Brigid immediately began to distribute among lepers. “I did not bring them for those,” cried the visitor, chagrined, “but for you.” “What is mine is theirs,” answered Brigid.
Once, an Abbot with some companions came to her convent to preach. They had come a long journey and, on their arrival, told her they were hungry. “So are we hungry — for instruction,” said Brigid. “Go into the church first and preach and then you shall eat.” She was vehement by nature, and her method in intercourse was to cut an argument short by swift and emphatic action. She practised personal mortification to an extent that would be frightening to detail, yet never lost hold of practical common sense. See how these traits emerge from the following anecdotes.
Once in a period of bad harvests, a little settlement she had founded was without food, and Brigid with two companions set out to procure some. They finally arrived in a starving condition at a neighbouring monastic settlement. The Abbot set before them bread and bacon, which Brigid began thankfully to eat. But it was Lent, and her two companions refrained from the bacon, as though to say: “We’re going to keep the fast, even if you’re not!” When Brigid noticed their attitude, she was so indignant at what was but Pharisaical formalism under circumstances of such stress, that she jumped up from the table, and, taking the sisters by the shoulders, ran them out of the room.
Leprosy, or some form of it, must have been common at the time in Ireland, for lepers throng the old “Lives”; prowling around the convent in search of alms, living permanently on Brigid’s bounty, obtaining miraculous cure from her, or quarrelling among themselves, for they were an obstreperous class, and appeared to think their affliction gave them the privilege of lawlessness. We see Brigid in her white woolen dress and white veil constantly labouring in a circle of these for their relief. Once, she told one of them, who was but slightly afflicted, to wash another, who was a mass of scurvy. The leper surlily refused. Whereupon Brigid, without comment, dragged forward a tub of water and did it herself.
For all her fiery vehemence, she had an abiding gentleness, too, as is seen in that story of the blind nun, Dara. Once, during her round of visitations, she came upon this old, blind sister and sat beside her to talk. Like many who are similarly afflicted, Dara’s mind was exceptionally bright, and her conversation very good. Brigid forgot the passage of time while they talked in complete absorption. She realized it with a start when she saw through the open doorway dawn breaking over the fields, and found that the night had passed in discussion. The saint sat looking silently at the beauty of the sunrise, and the freshness of the world it revealed. Artist that she was, it profoundly affected her. And suddenly it seemed an intolerable thing that her companion could not see it too. Turning to Dara, she touched her eyes and the blind nun saw. Dara looked long at the daybreak without speaking. Then she said to Brigid: “Give me back my blindness, for if I were to behold this every day, my powers of contemplation would be scattered.” Brigid touched her eyes again and left her enveloped in welcome darkness.
There is in all the stories, legendary and authentic, concerning Brigid, a surprising ring of familiarity. The miraculous apart, those simple episodes of everyday occurrence sound as though they had happened yesterday to some nun of our acquaintance. It is worthy of note about this saint that she held the affections not only of her own communities, but of the laity too, who always enjoyed visiting her.
We read of a girl coming to see her and the hours passing in a flash. The visitor was exceedingly sorrowful when she found it was time to go.
“Stay here for the night,” said Brigid.
“But there is no one at home to milk the cows,” said the girl, “no one to feed the calves, or drive in the cattle unless I go.”
“Leave all that to me,” said Brigid. So the girl, persuaded, remained. Of course, when she got home next day, her property was safe and all had been done for her by miracle. The same occurred with another girl, whose heart seemed to break when the moment of departure came, “Stay here for the night,” said Brigid.
But this girl had an aged, paralysed father waiting at home, and she insisted with anguish that she should return or his anxiety would be intolerable.
“Leave all that to me,” said Brigid. When the girl returned home in the forenoon of the following day, her father welcomed her with a tranquil smile.
He said the sun had never ceased shining during her absence, which he believed to be but of an hour’s duration. I like that picture of the old man, dozing off in full sunshine, his eyes sealed at Brigid’s prayer so that he knew nothing of the torturing passage of lonely hours. When he opened them again, he saw the same full sunshine and his daughter coming towards him.
Physical courage entered largely into Brigid’s work of organizing convent settlements all over Ireland. She had to drive immense distances, often over rough roads, and over rivers, and with mettlesome horses. We read of her being twice thrown from her chariot, and on one occasion her head struck a stone and was cut open. Once her horse bolted, and stopped by miracle on the edge of a precipice. Once, in order to avail of a short cut, her charioteer insisted on driving her through a field that was private property, and in the process of being hedged. There ensued a fight between him and some labourers, in which Brigid incurred considerable danger.
It was a time of lawlessness too. The protection of her little settlements was one of her problems. We read, more than once, of robbers plundering the property of her communities. Brigid, in her abounding charity, was frequently victimized, even by the rich, although, in such event, she usually scored signally in the end.
She suffered always from an infirmity of the eyes, said to have originated in a blow dealt by her step-brother when she was a child. She showed a distaste for consulting a physician in order to procure relief, but was persuaded to do so by Bishop Mel. It is curious to note that Brigid’s mother appears to have suffered also from some affection of the eyes.
She was sought out by all the foremost figures in the ecclesiastical world of her day. Those meagre first “Lives” of her are interspersed with great names. Two have already been mentioned: Maccaille and Mel. She travelled Munster with Bishop Saint Erc, that “sweet-voiced” Brehon, who was the first to acclaim Patrick at the court of King Laoghaire, and who was Saint Brendan’s preceptor, teaching him even as he himself had been taught by Patrick; Erc, of whom it is written, “everything that he did was just.” The famous Saint Gildas the Wise sent Brigid a bell from his retreat in Brittany. Saint Brendan, the Navigator, came to her when he returned from his first voyage, to lay his renown at her feet. Saint Ailbe of Emily consulted her on his Rule.
One of the most beautiful legends about Brigid represents her hurrying in out of the fields from a shower of rain, her garments soaked. It must have been an April day, for when she reached her cell the sun was shining again, and a sunbeam, strong and golden, shone through her door. Brigid took off her wet cloak and hung it on the sunbeam to dry! It is thus I should like to see her represented by an artist. The legend is a convenient symbol. Brigid did something even more marvellous than causing the sun to stand still over the Valley of Jehoshaphat. Before its radiance could be dimmed, she arrested the first sunburst of Christianity, causing its beams to shine strongly and forever. All the light of Ireland’s conversion is bound up in her name.
She died about the year 523 in the convent settlement of her predilection, Kildare. She was then in the seventies. She received the Last Sacraments from Saint Ninnidh, who, on that account, has gone down into history as Ninnidh-of-the-Clean-Hand. The legend goes that Saint Brigid had prophesied to him he would assist her at the hour of her death, and he ever afterwards wore a gauntlet on his right hand in order that nothing should defile it before he had administered the last rites to her. It may be an extreme way of stating how the prophecy impressed Ninnidh, and of how carefully he bore himself in order to be not too unworthy of the honour. Tradition has it that the remains of Saint Brigid were finally interred in the same grave with those other two who are the pride of the Irish race — Patrick and Columcille. The doubt, therefore, that attaches to the grave of Patrick surrounds, too, the burial-place of Brigid.
The fame and popularity accruing to her in life became phenomenal at her death. The first Christian missionaries who left the shores of Ireland carried her name with them like a banner of conquest. In the Book of Lismore, there is a hymn to her, but the authorship is dubious. Some notion of what Saint Brigid meant to her contemporaries and immediate followers can be gained from the speculations about the authorship of this hymn. The scribe makes five guesses: he says perhaps it was Saint Columcille wrote it, when he was caught in a storm at sea, and prayed to Brigid for a calm; perhaps it was Brocan Cloen; perhaps it was three of her disciples who went to Rome, and prayed to her when they found themselves in great danger there; perhaps it was Saint Brendan, who heard her name honoured by the very-monsters of the deep; or perhaps it was Saint Ultan. The strength of her cult is testified by the ubiquity of her name in Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Devon, France, and particularly Brittany. Her remarkable influence still speaks plainly in those dedications of churches too numerous to be counted. There is a beautiful panegyric of Saint Brigid at the end of her “Life” in the Book of Lismore. In the translation by Whitley Stokes, its beauty has been preserved. Here is an abridgement of the passage:
“Everything that Brigid would ask of the Lord was granted to her at once. For this was her desire: to satisfy the poor, to expel every hardship, to spare every miserable man. None was ever more retiring, more modest, more gentle, more humble, more wise, or more harmonious than she. She was abstinent, innocent, prayerful, patient; she was glad in God’s commandments; she was firm, humble, forgiving, loving; she was a consecrated casket for keeping Christ’s Body and His Blood; she was a temple of God. Her heart and her mind were a throne of rest for the Holy Ghost. She was simple before God; she was compassionate towards the wretched; she was splendid in miracles and marvels; wherefore her name among created things is Dove among birds, Vine among trees, Sun among stars.
“She helps everyone who is in strait and danger; she banishes pestilence; she quells the anger and the storm of the sea. She is the prophetess of Christ, she is the Queen of the South; she is the Mary of the Gael.”
It is not known how early in our history that tribute to her was written. The Book of Lismore was copied in the latter half of the fifteenth century from a collection of ancient manuscripts now lost.
The Brigidine Order
During her own lifetime Saint Brigid, foundress of monasticism in Ireland, saw convents spread throughout the country, convents which continued to flourish down the centuries — even after the so-called Reformation. It took the clean-sweep of the Penal Days to deprive Ireland of practically all her religious institutes and Ireland, as we know, was an unhappy land without them.
Even before the Emancipation (1829), however, God inspired some holy men with the idea of restoring, or trying to restore, the Religious Orders. Among these was the Right Rev. Daniel Delaney, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, whose residence, then, was in the town of Tullow, County Carlow. Here he established the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament — composed of the most exemplary of his people, whom he enrolled as teachers of Catechism and Christian Doctrine. From this Confraternity grew two religious institutes, which have rendered priceless service to the cause of Catholic education: the Sisters of Saint Brigid and the Brothers of Saint Patrick. The Bishop constituted himself the spiritual director of these religious, for whom he was already preparing a set of Rules when the Rebellion of 1798 put an end, for the time being, to his plans. No sooner was peace restored, however, than the good work began again.
On the Feast of Saint Brigid, 1807, the first Brigidine Convent was established at Tullow. The name of a pious lady, Miss Judith Browne, who was educated at the Benedictine Convent, Ypres, is bound up inseparably with the history of the earliest beginnings of the Brigidine Order. She came to Tullow to place herself under the spiritual direction of Doctor Delaney, and her coming was most opportune, for, with her experience and thorough knowledge of religious life and discipline, she was able to render invaluable assistance to the young community. The remainder of her days was spent in the peaceful retreat she had chosen, though she never became a member of the Community.
The Brigidine Nuns are, in point of fact, a very ancient Order reborn, and their spirit is the spirit of their holy foundress, Saint Brigid. Though their work in a modern world has necessarily altered, they still devote themselves, first to their own sanctification and, next, to the education of Catholic youth. The acorn sown by Doctor Delaney has grown into a mammoth oak, whose branches have spread over two hemispheres. From Mountrath, Ireland, the first members of the Order came to Australia and had their first foundation at Coonamble, N.S.W.
At the request of Doctor Crane, Bishop of Sandhurst, Bendigo, the first foundation was made from Tullow to Echuca in 1886. In the same year, a foundation was made to Beechworth from Abbeyleix. In the following year, Goresbridge sent a little band of missionary Sisters to open a foundation at Wangaratta. And two years after the Beechworth foundation, a second band of missionary Sisters left Abbeyleix for Ararat at the request of the Right Rev. J. Moore, Bishop of Ballarat.
In 1889, all the Brigidine convents were amalgamated under a Mother-General, whose residence is at Tullow. Each Province has a Novitiate House under a Mother-Provincial. At the present time there are Brigidine convents — affiliations of the first foundations in the State of Victoria — at Redcliffe in Queensland, Rochester, Berwick, Kyabram, Maryborough, Horsham, Mentone, Albert Park, Hawthorn, Homebush in N.S.W., Springvale, Ardeer, Geelong, Tugun and Toowoomba in Queensland and Traralgon and elsewhere. The head house in the Victorian Province, established in Malvern in 1917, is also the Novitiate House. The New South Wales Province has its headquarters in Clovelly.
Cardinal Moran’s Prayer to Saint Brigid
O Glorious Saint Brigid, Mother of the Churches of Erin, Patroness of our missionary race, wherever their lot may be cast, be you our guide in the paths of virtue, protect us amid temptation, shield us from danger. Preserve to us the heritage of chastity and temperance; keep ever brightly burning on the altar of our hearts the sacred fire of Faith, Charity and Hope, that thus, we may emulate the ancient piety of Ireland’s children, and the Church of Erin may shine with peerless glory as of old. You were styled by our fathers “The Mary of Erin”; secure for us by your prayers the all-powerful protection of the Blessed Virgin, that we may be numbered here among her most fervent clients, and may hereafter merit a place, together with you and the countless Saints of Ireland, in the ranks of her triumphant children in Paradise. Amen.
Prayer to Saint Brigid
Dear Saint Brigid, brilliant star of sanctity in the early days of our Irish faith and love for the omnipotent God who has never forsaken us, we look up to you now in earnest, hopeful prayer. By your glorious sacrifice of earthly riches, joys, and affections, obtain for us grace to “seek first the Kingdom of God and His justice” with constant trust in His fatherly care. By your life of laborious charity to the poor, the sick, the many seekers for light and comfort, obtain for us grace to be God’s helpers to the utmost of our power during our stay on earth, looking forward, as you did, to our life with Him during eternity.
By the sanctified peace of your death-bed, obtain for us that we may receive the fullness of pardon and peace when the hour comes that will summon us to the judgement seat of our just and most merciful Lord. Amen.
- from the booklet , by Alice Curtayne; published by the Australian Catholic Truth Society in 1936