• Ali Isaac

politicising brigid

Updated: Mar 19

February 1st is known on the Irish Celtic calendar as Imbolc, the beginning of Spring, and is celebrated by Christians and Pagans alike as the feast day of Brigid. It is generally acknowledged that Saint Brigid represented the adoption and christianisation of a well-beloved pre-existing deity of the old religion which the indigenous Irish refused to give up. Indeed, there is evidence of a Brigid cult which existed in my locality well into the 1900s, much to the local priest's ire. The reality is, of course, that suppression ultimately does not work; the old Gods are flourishing in Ireland still, and all around the world.

Here are a couple of my posts about Brigid and Imbolc.

the mysterious county cavan cult of brigid

brigid, queen of imbolc

Today, I'm going to look instead at the saint, rather than the goddess. These early stories are rife with pagan imagery and symbolism, as their christian writers attempted to draw communities into their churches. However, religious conversion wasn't their only aim. As always, the church was heavily involved in political meddling and the fight for power and riches, as we shall see. The manipulation of saintly reputation was key to their goals.

Texts which tell the stories of saints' lives are a 'genre' known in academic circles as hagiography. There are three existing hagiographies on Brigid, which are believed to date to the seventh or eighth centuries: Cogitosus's Vita Brigitae, which is written in Latin, and also known as Vita II, and two anonymous texts: Vita I, which is also written in Latin, and the Bethu Brigte, which has some Latin, but is mostly written in Old Irish. I do not read Latin or Old Irish, so for the purposes of this post, I am relying on other scholar's interpretations.

Whilst most academics are understandable interested in which of the three texts is the oldest, or which uses the most eloquent Latin, I am interested in what we can glean from them of Brigid as a woman, and in fact, whether she ever existed at all. Patrick's existence is unquestioned, because there are two letters still extant, the Confessio and the Epistola, which purport to be written by him. We have no such 'evidence' of Brigid.

Herstory, whose mission 'is to give the public authentic female role models and a game-changing egalitarian education programme, inspiring countries around the world to start their own Herstory movements', are campaigning to make Brigid's Day a national public holiday; they say, 'It is time we celebrated Ireland’s triple goddess and matron Saint equally to our world-renowned patron Saint Patrick'. Read more here. Sign the petition here.

Brigid and Patrick were contemporaries in Ireland during the later half of the fifth century AD. McCone describes a line in an eighth century poem, Ultán's Hymn, in which Brigid is 'one of the two pillars of sovereignty with pre-eminent Patrick'. The Liber Angeli, a text within the Book of Armagh, also describes them as equals: 'between holy Patrick and Brigit, the pillars of the Irish, there was so much friendship of love that they had one heart and mind'; it goes on to describe an agreement in which Brigid ruled in her province, and Patrick in the east and west.

Cogitosus tells it somewhat differently; he describes Brigid as 'the head of almost all of the Irish churches with supremacy over all the monasteries of the Irish, and a paruchia which extended over the whole of Ireland reaching from sea to sea'. No mention of Patrick at all. Either way, it is clear that Brigid was a powerful woman, which is surprising given the patriarchal society and institution she was part of. And yet, although she was popular among the people, it is Patrick who receives all the glory, is appointed national saint of Ireland, and whose feast day became a public holiday. Why?

Brigid's sphere of influence covered Leinster, Munster, Connacht, and the territory of the Uí Néills, the ascending dynasty busy establishing its dominance at the time, and in whose disputes she was involved from time to time, despite being allied with with the ruling Laigin, after whom Leinster is named.

Although she was the daughter of a Leinster chieftain, Dubhtach, her mother was a Christian slave girl named Brocca. Cogitosus, however, describes both parents as 'Christian and noble... belonging to the good and most wise sept of Echtech', and names her mother as Broicsech. Either way, Brigid was fostered out, as tradition of the time dictated.

Her foster father was a pagan druid, which rather suggests her own father may have also been pagan. As an infant, she fails to thrive, presumably because of her un-Christian upbringing, until she is fed the milk of a red-eared white cow, a creature with magical connotations in Irish myth. This is surprising, as you would expect a baby to have been wet-nursed, and both Bethu Brigte and Vita I mention two Christian foster-mothers. These women are also described as virgins, so it may be that they were also nuns, so they couldn't have functioned as wet-nurses. The fact that they milked the magical cow extended their Christian virtue over the milk and made it safe for Brigid to drink.

As a child, Brigid was already performing miracles, but hers are of a very different sort to those performed by Patrick. Hers involved the practical and domestic, the churning of vast quantities of milk and butter which magically regenerated itself, no matter how much she gave away; the same with clothing; her mastery over animals both domestic and wild, her protection of the harvest, of turning water into ale, of changing stone into salt, and strange tales of healing: how she 'opened' the eyes of a blind man, restored the speech of girl who was dumb, and intriguingly, performed abortions.

Patrick's were more impressive: battles with demons, destroying pagan armies, smashing pagan idols with his crozier, driving snakes into the sea, raised men from the dead, clashes of magical powers with pagan druids, and such like.

Comparing the two, it becomes obvious why Brigid became so well- loved by the populace. Respect for Patrick may well have come about through fear, rather than love.

Brigid's miracles demonstrate a concern and compassion for the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, and the unfortunate, even at great risk to herself. Her willingness to give away food and clothing was so great, that according to the Bethu Brigte, it led to her father trying to sell her to Dúnlang, the King of Leinster. The story goes that while the two men were bartering over her, she gives the King's jewelled sword to a beggar to sell so he could feed his family. Instead of being angry, the King realises her holiness and sets her free. She then goes on to found her monastery in Kildare, and the hagiographies describe five great journeys she undertakes in which she establishes her control over Ireland.

Except for Cogitosus. His text is sparse of detail. There is no chronology, no geography, no genealogy, no mention of her birth, a scant line of her death. Each miracle is given a bare paragraph, at best. This is hardly the life story of an important saint. One almost gets the impression that Brigid is not what is important in this text, that her story has been used to score some other message.

And there is. You only have to look into what else was going on in the same period as the texts were written to see that there was a huge power struggle for supremacy going on between the church of Armagh, founded by Patrick, and the church of Kildare, founded by Brigid. The 'winner' would assume control overall, bringing with it land and riches. This was all tied up with the politics of the island at the time; aligning oneself with the dominant clan guaranteed success.

As a mascot, Brigid was a perfect choice for Kildare; the widespread worship pf the pagan Goddess had imprinted her name in the landscape and the hearts, minds and memories of the populace. Not only that, but according to McCone, there were many other Brigids with whom she may have been conflated; one text, the Comainmnigud nóem nÉrend lists ten different St. Brigits and fourteen St. Brígs (a derivation of the name Brigid).

The strength of Cogitosus's text lies not in its portrayal of Brigid, but in his skills of manipulation with regard to her reputation safeguarding the power of the church of Kildare. His prologue is a masterful piece of propaganda supporting Kildare's claim to the primacy, and as Connolly says, his emphasis throughout rests on the theological values of faith and charity, Brigid's great strengths.

Although Cogitosus's agenda is so clearly and flagrantly politicised in his text, I really like it as an object in which the reader is able to connect with the author. We have his name, he makes sure of that. And whilst he is so self-deprecating of his own skills as a writer, it is obvious that he is really rather proud of himself and his abilities, and comes across as quite pompous.

But do we get a sense of the real woman behind the facade of Brigid he presents? Not really, beyond that her supremacy was vast, and her faith was strong. The Bethu Brigte is more detailed, and sketches more of her life, but the first page which probably recounted her origins is missing, and it ends somewhat abruptly, and intentionally, with a 'finit' at a mid-point in her story. The Vita I is certainly longer and more detailed and follows a logical narrative, however, McCone believes that the main concern of both these texts is to demonstrate the extent of Brigid's paruchia and influence beyond the province of Leinster itself. In other words, they too were written in support of maintaining the church of Kildare's power, rather than in support of teaching the remarkable life of a female saint.

So, with all this material supporting Brigid as head of the church of Kildare and therefore the rightful candidate for the primacy, yet it was Armagh and Patrick which came out on top. They looked beyond the borders of their own province to the Kingship of Tara for support, to the powerful Uí Néills. As McCone succinctly puts it, 'Armagh and and the Tara kingship were in cahoots from... the middle of the seventh century'.

Patrick's hagiographer, Muirchú, describes the King thus: 'a certain great, fierce and pagan king, emperor of the barbarians reigning in Tara, which was the capital of the Irish, named Loegaire son of Níall, founder of the royal line of almost all this island'. That Patrick was able to convert this fierce pagan showed mighty power. It is clear that the two institutions shared a common aim: to claim ecclesiastical primacy for Armagh, and political hegemony for the Uí Néill.

Back in Leinster, the province was unsettled by disputes between two families, the Uí Dunlainge and the Uí Cheinnselaig over the provincial kingship. Armagh slipped in under cover of this, to support Crimthann, the Uí Cheinneslaig king in return for a grant of land. More grants followed, on which churches were built, leading to the church of Armagh gaining quite a foothold in Leinster. Eventually, and agreement was reached between the two churches in which Kildare relinquished all power outside their own province. Armagh, however kept all their lands in Leinster. Armagh had achieved its goal, and Patrick became patron saint.

This is my simplified and potted version of historical accounts, and I apologise for the brevity of such a complex series of events, but I hope it gives an idea of how church and politics were interlinked in early Ireland, and how the fates of women, even holy women, were appropriated. And yes, of course I signed the petition for Brigid to get her public holiday; Christian or pagan, I think she earned it.


BETHU BRIGTE: You can find translations by both Whitley Stokes and D. Ó hAodha on The Corpus of Electronic Texts at UCC.

Connolly, Sean, and Picard, J.M., 'Cogitosus's "Life of St Brigit" Content and Value', The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 117, 1987, pp. 5-27.

McCone, Kim. 'Brigit in the Seventh Century: A Saint with Three Lives?', Peritia vol.1, 1982, pp. 107-45.

Sharpe, Richard. 'Vita S Brigitae: The Oldest Texts', Peritia Vol1, 1982, pp. 81-106


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I hope that you've enjoyed the post, and that you're keeping well and safe, wherever you are in the world, lockdown or not. Imbolc is, for me, a time of renewal, of looking forward, of optimism, and regeneration. Often, it snows here on Imbolc, and indeed, it already has, as I've been writing this, but it hasn't settled. However, if the weather continues in this way, I will be lighting candles to celebrate, rather than a bonfire! We are living in challenging times, but I firmly believe we have so much to look forward to. Stay positive, and I wish you the happiest of Imbolc blessings.