Updated: Sep 8, 2020
What we know of Saint Brigid comes from a few books - The Life of St Brigid by Cogitosus and and the First Life of Vita Prima of St Brigid by an unknown author (but likely Saint Broccan Cloen). We believe she was born in 451, at Faughart in Couty Louth Ireland to a Christian Pict slave mother (Brocca) and a chieftain of Leinster father (Dubhthach). When Dubthach learned of the impending pregnancy, he sold Brocca to a druid, thus Saint Brigid was born into slavery. One legend tells of this time that due to the Druid's impurity, any milk she gave Brigid was immediately thrown up and so God sent a white cow with red ears to sustain the baby.
Saint Brigid was famous for her extreme concern and generosity for the poor, and as one legend tells she gave away her mother's entire store of butter for the poor. When she prayed with her mother, the butter in the pantry was miraculously renewed. Around the age of 10, she was allowed to live in her father's house as a half-slave. When her father tried to marry her to the King of Leinster, she gave away his jeweled sword to a beggar. The king was so moved by this act of Holiness and graciousness he persuaded her father to grant her freedom. She took vows before Saint Mel, the abbot and bishop of Longford.
A famous story told is the story of the founding of her own Abby. She came to the King of Leinster asking for land to found the abbey, stating that she had found the perfect spot beside a forest and next to a lake. The king laughed, and after much prayer, Saint Brigid returned saying:
"Will you give me as much land as my cloak will cover?"
After believing it to be a jest, the king agreed. She and three sisters took the cloak to the spot, each taking a corner facing North, South, West, and East. When they sprinted in their respective directions, the cloth grew until it covered several acres. The legend holds that after the land was given, anytime the King grew stingy with aid to the poor, Saint Brigid would come before him holding the cloth to change his mind. Because the convent was known for making blueberry jam, on February 1st of each year a tradition began to eat jam to honor the miracle of the cloth.
The convent she founded was at Kildare (Cill Dara: church of the oak) which was originally a Pagan shrine to the Celtic Goddess Brigid. She is credited with organizing communal life (monasteries and convents) for consecrated life in Ireland. She formed two monastic institutions - one for women and one for men, and so for centuries Kildare was ruled by a double line of abbot-bishops and abbesses. The Abbess of Kildare was generally held as the Superior General of monasteries in Ireland. Kildare continued to grow and eventually became a Cathedral city.
Saint Brigid's cross is another famous story from her life time. A pagan chieftain from a nearby town (from Kildare) was dying of illness. Saint Brigid was called for to help try and convert him before his death, but upon her arrival she found him raving and delirious. Saint Brigid sat next to the bed and began weaving a cross from the straw on the floor. When the chieftan asked what she was doing, she began to explain the cross. The more she spoke, the more he quieted, and eventually converted and was baptized before his death. Saint Brigid's cross is extremely famous in Ireland, it was used until the 1990s for RTE television, the former symbol of the Irish Department of Health, and currently the logo of the Irish Nursing Board. It is customary on February 1st of each year to place Saint Brigid's crosses around the house to protect it for the year ahead. The old cross is burned to ward off fire. It is also a common gift for new homes.
There are also 15 holy wells (documented, though many likely remain undocumented) across Ireland that were established by Saint Brigid to baptize pagans. Rosary beads and candles are often left as offerings at these sights, as the water is believed to have curative powers.
In one tradition (the Book of Armagh) it is written she was friends and mentored by Saint Patrick:
Between St Patrick and St Brigid, the pillars of the Irish people, there was so great a friendship of charity that they had but one heart and one mind. Through him and through her Christ performed many great works.
While dying, Saint Ninnidh performed her last rites. When the rites were completed, he would be known as Ninnidh of the Clean Hand because he had his right hand encased in metal so that it would never be defiled. Her dedicated student Darlugdach wished to die alongside her, but Saint Brigid told her that she would die on the anniversary of her (Brigid's) death.
Saint Brigid had a tomb adorned with gems, precious stones, and crowns of gold and silver laid over her to the right of the high altar at Kildare Cathedral. When the Norse raids began, her relics were reburied in the tomb of Saint Patrick and Saint Columcille before being reburied again in Down Cathedral.
Saint Brigid's feast day is set for February 1st, replacing the pagan festival of Imbolc which marks the beginning of Spring. Many other miracles are attributed to her beyond those we have written in our article today!