Ireland’s own 5th-century female bishop: Brigid of Kildare
Diarmaid MacMurrough is infamous for initiating Ireland’s invasion but he also abducted and raped Brigid’s successor
St Brigid: “was referred to as a bishop not out of courtesy or metaphorically. She was really ordained.”. Image: Cuala Press
In March, Mary McAleese, the former President of Ireland and a devout Catholic, declared the Catholic Church “an empire of misogyny” that has “kept Christ out and bigotry in”, and denounced women’s exclusion from the priesthood as “pure codology”. Of those polled by Amarách Research, 78 per cent agreed with her sentiments. Similarly, surveys show strong support for female ordination among Catholics in various countries, including Ireland.
No wonder, then, that Channel 4’s Jesus’ Female Disciples’s recent announcement of the discovery of Cerula, a late fifth- or early sixth-century female bishop in Naples, caused excitement. Many claimed it would rewrite our understanding of Christian history. Several articles noted that Cerula was unlikely to have been the only female bishop of her day, but didn’t mention that Ireland also had a female bishop at that time, Brigid of Kildare (d.524).
Some sources deem Brigid’s ordination accidental. Mél, the presiding bishop, was literally drunk in one version, “intoxicated with the grace of God” in another. Yet a bishop Brigid remained, according to multiple medieval accounts.
A third text voices patriarchal objections through Mél’s assistant, MacCaille, who insists “a bishop’s order should not be conferred on a woman”. Mél replies, “No power have I in this matter. That dignity has been given by God to Brigid, beyond every (other) woman.” Thus Mél serves merely as God’s instrument, lessening his blame, but strengthening the ordination’s divine origin: Brigid was a bishop because God himself ordained it, and her.
Increasing the story’s significance, these texts all use Brigid’s ordination to explain how Kildare’s abbesses came to hold episcopal rank for centuries. Brigid’s historicity can be elusive, with some claiming she never existed but was a pagan goddess repackaged as a Christian saint. These accounts show an actual succession of women, and not only one semi-mythical saint, with episcopal status – that is, until the Synod of Kells-Mellifont ended the practice in 1152.
Darlugdach, Brigid’s closest disciple, became Kildare’s second abbess, and thus the first to share Brigid’s status as bishop. According to Brigid’s biography, a love affair briefly sidetracked Darlugdach, who atoned for her lapse by wearing fiery clogs. Her sexual indiscretion was otherwise forgotten, but sex was weaponised against Brigid’s second-to-last such successor, Mór, by Diarmaid MacMurrough, King of Leinster. Diarmaid’s greatest infamy is generally regarded as initiating Ireland’s invasion, after being ousted from Ireland by rival kings in 1166 and allying with Normans like Richard de Clare, better known as Strongbow. Yet Diarmaid was a man of many atrocities.
In what has been likened to his crech ríg, or raid inaugurating an Irish king’s rule, Diarmaid began his reign in 1132 with Mór’s abduction and rape, replacing her as abbess of Kildare with his niece Sadb. Sadb held the office until her death in 1171; thus she was the abbess who saw her status demoted in 1152. That same year her uncle abducted Derbforgaill, another king’s wife, which is often claimed as the cause of Diarmaid’s exile and thus Ireland’s invasion nearly two decades later. Derbforgaill’s abduction perhaps reminded Sadb of her own path to power and her vulnerability when men like her uncle ruled.
Diarmaid took his revenge upon those who ousted him, but neither he nor his chosen successor lived long enough to enjoy it. Diarmaid died in 1171 and Strongbow five years later, both said to be brought down by saints’ curses, including Brigid’s, whom, the Annals of the Four Masters reports, Strongbow saw killing him.
Strongbow’s supposed beliefs often get scorned as superstition and Brigid’s episcopal ordination hasn’t fared much better. Yet examples such as Cerula’s suggest female bishops may have been more common than previously thought. Perhaps Brigid actually ruled as an ordained bishop, a status that eventually became honorary for her sister successors, until even the honorifics were abruptly ended at the insistence of an Italian representing the pope at the Synod of Kells-Mellifont. Such synods were part of larger church reform throughout western Christendom, demanding greater conformity and insisting ordination ought to be exclusively male.
Prior to this reform women were ordained to various offices, with some recognized as presbytera and episcopa, the female forms of priest and bishop. What such titles specifically signified remains unknown, but the Brigidine sources are comparatively clear. According to Prof Gary Macy, author of The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West, Brigid “was referred to as a bishop not out of courtesy or metaphorically. She was really ordained.” Moreover, the texts that proclaim her episcopal status extended it to all abbesses of Kildare, ultimately ending with Sadb in 1152.
Contrary to common assumption, medieval history is not monolithic. Multiple medieval Irish texts celebrate female agency and authority, the power of female saints, and the strength of bonds between religious men and women and especially among sisters. By the 12th century, however, as Mór’s rape and Sadb’s demotion demonstrate, female religious authority experienced relentless opposition, and Ireland wouldn’t see another female bishop until 2013. Fittingly, this bishop, Patricia Storey, is Brigid’s heir, Bishop of Meath and Kildare.
Bishop Storey is of course Protestant, the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion in the British Isles, followed by Libby Lane, Bishop of Stockport, in 2015. The Church of England now has 13 female bishops, while the Church of Ireland holds at its one – one more than the Roman Catholic Church is likely to ever officially recognise. Despite all that has changed between then and now, Catholic women remain largely where the 12th-century reform left them, denied access to ordination. In 2016, Pope Francis pronounced the door to the priesthood perpetually shut to women, citing his papal predecessors.
Catholics generally prefer a more progressive approach to gender issues than what the all-male celibate hierarchy allows and some, such asw President McAleese, are tired of waiting for the Magisterium to catch up. Yet, as multiple texts attest, such approaches are less a radical innovation than a return to certain medieval Irish Catholic roots.
Maeve Callan, associate professor of religion at Simpson College in Iowa, is the author of The Templars, the Witch, and the Wild Irish: Vengeance and Heresy in Medieval Ireland, published by Cornell University Press and Four Courts Press. She is working on a book on gender, sanctity and power in medieval Ireland