The Life of Saint Bridgid, Abbess and Patroness of Ireland

[Saint Brigid of Ireland]“O how beautiful is the chaste generation with glory! for the memory thereof is immortal: because it is known both with God and with men: and it triumpheth, crowned for ever.” – Wisdom 4:1

Next to the glorious Saint Patrick, Saint Bridgid, whom we may consider his spiritual daughter in Christ, has ever been held in singular veneration in Ireland. Even in the neighbouring kingdoms of England and Scotland, as a foreign writer affirms, this great Saint has, after the glorious Virgin Mother of God, been singularly honoured and revered. A pity then it is, that we have known so little of her hitherto, and that our means of knowing much are still so scanty. We are not able to give more than a biographical sketch; but the facts are so interesting, and above all so edifying, as in some measure to compensate for their fewness.

Birth of Saint Bridgid. Her Early Piety. She Embraces the Religious State. Founds Several Monasteries. Her Saintly Death.

About the year of our Lord 453, was Saint Bridgid born. The place of her birth was Tochard or Taugher in the vicinity of Dundalk, though her illustrious father Dubtach, and her mother Brocessa or Brotseach, of the noble house of O’Connor, usually resided in Leinster. During her youth every attention, which parents of distinguished rank and eminent piety could employ, was assiduously paid to her education. Great things were expected from her; during her infancy her pious father had a vision, in which he saw men clothed in white garments pouring, as it were, a sacred unguent on her head, thereby prefiguring her future sanctity. While yet very young, Bridgid, for the love of Christ our Lord, whom she chose for her spouse and to whom she was closely united in heart and spirit, bestowed every thing at her disposal on his suffering members, the poor, and was the edification of all who knew her. She was surpassingly beautiful; and fearing that in consequence efforts might be made by her many suitors to dissolve the sacred vow by which she had bound herself to our Lord, she besought him to render her deformed and to deprive her of that gracefulness of person which had gained for her such admiration. Her petition was instantly heard, for her eye became swollen, and her whole countenance so changed, that she was permitted to follow her vocation in peace, and marriage with her was no more thought of.

After a short interval, and when she was about twenty years old, the age required by the Irish Church for making the monastic vows, the young virgin made known to Maccaille, a bishop and a disciple of Saint Patrick and who had seen over her head a pillar of fire, her determination to live only to Jesus Christ, her heavenly Bridegroom, and he quite approved of her pious resolve, and consented to receive her sacred vows. On the appointed day the solemn ceremony of her profession was performed after the manner introduced by Saint Patrick, the bishop offering up many holy prayers, and investing Bridgid with a snow-white habit and a cloak of the same colour, after she had put off her secular ornaments. While she inclined her head on this happy occasion to receive the sacred veil, a miracle of a singularly striking and impressive nature occurred; that part of the wooden platform adjoining the altar on which she knelt recovered its pristine vitality, and put on, as all the bystanders witnessed, its former greenness and verdure, retaining it for a long time after. At the same moment Bridgid’s eye was healed, and she became as beautiful and lovely as ever.

Encouraged by her example three or, as some say, eight older ladies made their vows with her, and in compliance with the wish of the parents of these her new associates, the Saint agreed to found a religious residence for herself and them in the vicinity. A convenient site having been fixed upon by the bishop, a convent, the first in Ireland, was erected upon it; and in obedience to the prelate Bridgid assumed the superiority. Her reputation for sanctity became greater every day, and in proportion as it was diffused throughout the country the number of candidates for admission into the new monastery increased. The bishops of Ireland, soon perceiving the important advantages which their respective dioceses would derive from similar foundations, procured that the young and saintly abbess should visit different parts of the kingdom and, as an opportunity offered, introduce into each one the establishment of her institute.

While thus engaged in a portion of the province of Connaght, a deputation arrived from Leinster to solicit the Saint to take up her residence in that territory; but the motives which they urged were human, and such could have no weight with Bridgid. She was insensible to every argument founded on friendship and family-connections (for, as we have already said, she was of Leinster descent, and had spent in that province a great portion of her youth); it was only the prospect of the many spiritual advantages that would result from compliance with their request (hat induced her to accede, as she did, to the wishes of the respectable body which had petitioned her. Some time after, the Saint taking with her a number of her spiritual daughters, journeyed to Leinster, where they were received with many demonstrations of respect and joy, the people exulting at the great spiritual good which they were about to confer on the province. The site on which Kildare now stands appearing to be well adapted for a religious institute, there the Saint and her companions took up their abode. To the place appropriated for the new foundation some lands were annexed, the fruits of which were assigned to the little establishment. This donation indeed contributed to supply the wants of the community, but still the pious sisterhood principally depended for their maintenance on the liberality of their benefactors. Mercy having grown up with Bridgid from her very childhood, she contrived out of their small means to relieve the poor of the vicinity very considerably, and when the wants of these indigent persons surpassed her slender finances she hesitated not to sacrifice for them the moveables of the convent. On one occasion, when their distress was unusually grievous, the spouse of Christ, imitating the burning charity of Saint Ambrose and other great servants of God, sold some of the sacred vestments that she might procure the means of relieving their necessities. She was very generous and hospitable too, particularly to bishops and religious, and so humble that she sometimes attended the cattle on the land which belonged to her monastery.

The renown of Bridgid’s unbounded charity drew multitudes of the poor and necessitous to Kildare; the fame of her piety attracted thither many persons of distinction also, who were anxious to solicit her prayers or to profit by her holy example. In course of time the number of these so much increased, (and what an additional proof does it not afford of the thirst for spiritual improvement indulged by our ancestors!) that it became necessary to provide accommodation for them in the neighbourhood of the new monastery, and thus was laid the foundation and origin of the town of Kildare.

The spiritual exigencies of her community and of those numerous strangers who resorted to the vicinity having suggested to our Saint the expediency of procuring the locality to be erected into an episcopal See, she represented it to the prelates, to whom the consideration of it rightly belonged. Deeming the proposal just and useful, Conlath, a recluse of eminent sanctity, illustrious by the great things which God had granted to his prayers, was at Bridgid’s desire chosen the first bishop of the newly erected diocese. In process of time it became the ecclesiastical metropolis of the province to which it belonged, probably in consequence of the general desire to honour the place in which Saint Bridgid had so long dwelt. Over all the convents of her institute established through out the kingdom a special jurisdiction is said to have been exercised by Conlath and his successors in the See of Kildare; but the evidence supplied by historians on this point is by no means of a conclusive character: the only inference that can be deduced from their statements is, that, in virtue of his dignity as Metropolitan, the bishop of Kildare was specially charged with the care of the Bridgidine convents established within the province. (Kildare got its name from there being a very high oak-tree near Saint Bridgid s habitation, Kil signifying cell, and Dara, oak tree.)

The desire of the holy abbess for the permanent residence of a prelate at Kildare being accomplished, she applied herself unreservedly to the care of the community over which she immediately presided, and was to them in her every act what a devout author means by “a mirror of life and a book of holy doctrine.” Her sanctity was attested by many miracles. She was constantly occupied in promoting the good of others; she often cleansed the lepers, healed the sick and languishing by her prayers, and obtained sight for one blind from his birth. Nor was the spirit of prophecy wanting to her: numerous were her predictions of future things.

The most eminent persons of her time either visited, or corresponded with, Saint Bridgid. Besides several others, Saint Alheus, bishop of Cashel or Emly, and Saint Brendan of Clonfert, conferred with her on religious subjects; and the celebrated Gildas is said to have sent her, as a token of his esteem, a small bell cast by himself.

After seventy years devoted to the practice of the most sublime virtues, corporal infirmities admonished the Saint that the time of her dissolution was nigh. It was now half a century since by her holy vows she had irrevocably consecrated herself to God, and during that period great results had been attained, her holy institute having widely diffused itself through out the green Isle, and greatly advanced the cause of religion in the various districts in which it was established. Like a river of peace, its progress was steady and silent; it fertilized every region fortunate enough to receive its waters, and caused them to put forth spiritual flowers and fruits with all the sweet perfume of evangelical fragrance. The remembrance of the glory she had procured to the Most High, as well as the services rendered to dear souls ransomed by the precious Blood of her divine Spouse, cheered and consoled Bridgid in the infirmities inseparable from old age. Her last illness was soothed by the presence of Nennidh, a priest of eminent sanctity, over whose youth she had watched with pious solicitude, and who was indebted to her prayers and instructions for his great proficiency in sublime perfection. The day on which our abbess was to terminate her course (1 February 523) having arrived, she received from the hands of this saintly priest the blessed Body and Blood of her Lord in the divine Eucharist, and, as if would seem, immediately after her spirit passed forth, and went to possess him in that heavenly country where he is seen face to face and enjoyed without danger of ever losing him. Her body was interred in the church adjoining her convent, but was some time after exhumed, and deposited in a splendid shrine near the high altar. Cogitosus, who lived two centuries later, thus describes the church which then contained this valuable treasure: “The church of Kildare enclosed an ample space of ground and was of a height proportioned to its extent. The building was divided into three compartments, each one of them remarkable for the vastness of its dimensions, yet by the ingenuity of the architect one roof, skilfully adapted, covered the entire. The eastern division of the structure terminated at North and South by two of its exterior walls, while a wooden partition extending to the North and South, and separated by a small interstice from the eastern extremity of the church, formed the enclosure of the sanctuary. Adjoining the altar, and at its northern and southern points, were two doors, by one of which the bishop and his assistants entered to celebrate the holy Mass and perform the other public offices; while by the other the nuns were admitted on the days on which they were to receive the holy Communion. The nave of the church was again divided into two parts with separate entrances. One division was appropriated to the male portion of the congregation, the other was exclusively reserved for females. The appearance of the edifice was very pleasing, continues the same author, by the number of windows distributed through the entire building. On the eastern extremity, the limit of the sanctuary, was a variety of sacred images, which met the eye the very moment one entered the porch of the church, and the interstices were filled up with suitable decorations. At both sides of the altar stood the sacred shrines of Saint Bridgid and Saint Conlath, which were adorned with a profusion of precious metals, exquisitely wrought, studded with costly gems and stones of great price, and surmounted by diadems of gold and silver, types of the glory with which the Lord rewards his faithful servants.”

In the following (the 9th) century, the country being desolated by the Danes, the remains of Saint Bridgid were removed in order to secure them from irreverence, and being transferred to Down were deposited in the same grave with those of the glorious Saint Patrick. The Bridgidines, the order founded by this holy virgin and her most precious memorial, continued to flourish for centuries after her decease and gave many saints to Ireland.

– from The Holy Isle, published by J B Holland et Fils, Montreal, Quebec, 1870