KILDARE – St. Patrick has long received the attention and the big parades, but another patron saint of Ireland is making a 21st century comeback.
St. Brigid of Kildare, a younger contemporary of St. Patrick, is quietly and steadily gaining a following, in Ireland and abroad. Devotees see Brigid, and the ancient Irish goddess whose name and attributes she shares, as emblematic of feminine spirituality and empowerment.
For the first time this year, Ireland is observing a public holiday in honor of St. Brigid’s Day and Imbolc, an ancient pagan holy day associated with the goddess Brigid and heralding the coming of spring. The official holiday is Monday, but celebrations began in earnest this week.
The holiday designation, the first honoring a woman in Ireland, comes 120 years after St. Patrick got his holiday.
“The legacy of St. Brigid and its relevance for our world today is not about going back to the fifth century and staying there, but looking at the needs of the world today,” said Sister Rita Minehan, a Roman Catholic sister and one of the founders of Solas Bhride, a center that opened here in 2015 to welcome pilgrims and foster the spirituality inspired by Brigid.
“Does Brigid have something to say to us today?” said Minehan. “We believe she does.”
Some are calling Brigid the “matron saint” of Ireland.
She is seen as embodying women’s empowerment, environmental care and peacemaking in an Ireland that is increasingly casting off traditional forms of Catholicism.
“I think Ireland is ready to celebrate our women and our goddess and our saint,” said Melanie Lynch, founder and CEO of Herstory, which advocated for the holiday. The organization uses arts and education programs to celebrate female exemplars. “You’re talking about a great role model for young girls.”
Herstory has been sponsoring celebrations around Ireland in recent days -- complete with fire dances and light shows — and a traveling exhibit highlighting women peacemakers in Northern Ireland.
The holy day also starts the countdown to the 1,500th anniversary of Brigid’s death in 2024. The coming year will include a conference and other events marking the milestone.
“St Patrick’s Day is obviously iconic around the world,” said the Rev. Philip McKinley, curate of St. Brigid’s Cathedral, an Anglican church that was a derelict medieval ruin until restored in the 19th century. “But now St. Brigid offers this whole new dynamic. She’s a very, very modern saint that speaks to the really cutting-edge issues of our day — gender equality, environmental issues, social care, poverty, peacemaking.”
He said pilgrims come to walk on the ground where Brigid walked and founded an earlier wooden sanctuary — a “church of the oak,” or “cill dara” in Irish, giving the name Kildare to this town where she was a prominent abbess of a monastic settlement of men and women.
On Tuesday evening, to the backdrop of traditional Irish music played on a concertina and tin whistle, about 150 people gathered around a fire pit and a display of candles in a darkened parking lot in Kildare.
Many came from the surrounding area, others from as far as Italy and the United States, to mark the eve of the feast day.
The devotees processed quietly in the dark, some holding lanterns, past a candlelit holy well associated with Brigid. They walked through a light rain up a country road, past the curious stares of horses here in Ireland’s thoroughbred heartland.
The pilgrims concluded their walk at Solas Bhride (Irish for “light of Brigid”), where they gathered in a circle for prayers for peace, for the environment, for immigrants.
All this is honoring a saint about whom no biography was written until two centuries after her lifetime, yet who was long honored as “Mary of the Gael.”
Brigid’s father is said to have been a ruler, her mother enslaved. Brigid likely was named for the goddess venerated by ancient Irish and other Celts.
Legends associate St. Brigid with healing, fertility, care for living things and peacemaking, according to Lisa Bitel, professor of religion and history at the University of Southern California.
Brigid’s moment is happening as many Irish are rejecting traditional Roman Catholicism amid fallout over cover-ups of sexual abuse and other scandals, and are seeking alternatives to patriarchal structures.
“The whole disenchantment with the Catholic Church, the slow seep of women’s rights into Irish society, the idea that you have religious choices — all these things are combining with other factors to give her renewed importance,” Bitel said.
Brigid is associated with miracles and legends.
When a ruler agreed to give her only enough land for her monastery that could fit under her cloak, she miraculously spread it across vast fields, legend says. To a needy man, Brigid gave her father’s jeweled sword to barter for food.
She traveled, preached, healed. She’s often depicted with images of fire and light.
Inspired by her example, the organizers of Solas Bhride called for a moment’s silence — a worldwide Pause for Peace — at midday Wednesday.
Lizz Pickard of Colorado is staying at one of the hermitages at Solas Bride this week, the latest of several visits.
After first learning of the saint from an herbalist in the United States, she has increasingly embraced the values of Brigid, which she sees as focused less on doctrine than on right action – “practicing acts of kindness, acts of service, acts of protection,” she said.
Solas Bhride was founded by sisters of the Brigidine order, which has largely focused on education since its 19th century founding.
By the late 20th century, the sisters began discerning their future mission. In 1993, they hosted a peacemaking conference where they ceremonially lit an eternal flame, similar to one reportedly long tended at the medieval monastery.
“People then started coming to our door,” said Sister Phil O’Shea, center coordinator. “Pilgrim groups, people wanting to sit with the flame, see the flame.”
To accommodate them, the sisters worked with a team of lay people to open Solas Bhride in 2015. The self-described Christian spirituality center welcomes “people of all faiths and of no faith.”
The one-story buildings have sparse ornamentation — the main feature is light itself, flowing through large windows even on wintry gray days. In a circular room, pilgrims meditate before the eternal flame.
“For us, it’s the symbol of what Brigid stood for, carrying that light of Christ in the fifth, sixth century Ireland,” O’Shea said.
Brigid offers a connection for those who identify with the goddess tradition, Minehan said.
“She belongs to both worlds,” she said. “She didn’t become a Christian until into her teens. And she would have inherited some of the folklore and some of the attributes of the pre-Christian goddess. And some of those are really lovely attributes.”
Two churches in Kildare bear Brigid’s name, a Catholic parish and the Anglican cathedral. They were honoring the saint with a joint service Wednesday.
“There’s something in the whole St. Brigid’s story that’s tapped into people’s imagination and search for spirituality, and there’s great energy there,” said the Rev. Andy Leahy of St. Brigid’s Parish Church. “There’s great energy there.”
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