OpinionRite & Reason

Brigid, a thoroughly modern 1,500-year-old saint

Born of a king and a slave and raised by a druid, Brigid integrates opposites and stands as the sister of all

Well done, Ireland! Recognising Brigid’s Day as an official holiday – the first commemorating an Irish person, and a woman at that. (Nothing against Patrick, the Brit.) True to her transcendent nature, the holiday celebrates her as both a saint and a Goddess, since the saint’s feast day (February 1st, the day she died and entered heaven) is also Imbolc, the pagan spring festival.

Her patronage befits an Ireland that honours bodily autonomy, as her miracles include rescuing a woman from an unwanted pregnancy. She offers inspiration especially for Ireland’s Catholics, who have urged reform on multiple fronts, with 96 per cent favouring female ordination. Brigid isn’t just a saint, or a goddess, but a bishop to boot.

Some have tried to erase the saint to emphasise the goddess, but evidence for St Brigid predates evidence for the Goddess Brigid by centuries. Indeed, her biography by Cogitosus is Ireland’s oldest. Patrick’s earliest biographer, Muirchú, calls Cogitosus his father, whereas Cogitosus doesn’t even mention Patrick, let alone Muirchú. Rather, he claims all of Ireland for his saint and her monastery, Kildare, declaring their jurisdiction extended “from sea to sea”.

Swaggering assertions made by Armagh, Patrick’s chief church, about its own authority still had to make room for Brigid, ceding part of the island to her.


Yet boundaries can’t confine her. Born of a king and a slave and raised by a druid, Brigid integrates opposites and stands as the sister of all, regardless of class, ethnicity or religious affiliation. She fights especially for the vulnerable and oppressed and helps the abused heal as she holds abusers to account.

As Cogitosus says, she provides “the safest refuge in all the lands of the Irish”, offering an empowering, inclusive image of holiness for “a multitude of people from various ranks and classes and sexes and places […] separated by partitions and differing in rank, but one in spirit”.

Brigid bridges the greatest divide, between heaven and earth, between God and humanity. The sixth – or seventh – century priest-poet Broccán describes her as “a marvellous ladder for pagans to visit the kingdom of Mary’s Son”. From childhood on, she simultaneously embodied the highest Christian and indigenous Irish ideals, integrating attributes exemplified both by Christ at Cana and the Sea of Galilee and by native goddesses of fertility and sovereignty.

Her performance of Christ’s first miracle has a distinctively Irish flavour, beer instead of wine, while her similarities with Ireland’s goddesses reflect profoundly Christian commitments to the poor and leprous.

Female vulnerability

She shows particular sensitivity to women’s needs. A slave’s daughter whose royal father and half-brothers tried to force her into marriage, she knew female vulnerability under patriarchy. She burst her eye to avoid being anyone’s bride but Christ’s and her beauty was restored upon her ordination.

Her biographies commemorate her delivering a woman from an unwanted pregnancy, so that “what had been conceived in her womb disappeared. Without childbirth and without pain Brigid restored her to a pristine state.” Another woman “fled to St Brigid, as to the safest city of refuge” when a nobleman tried to force her to become his sex-slave. She not only rescued the woman but helped the man repent and reform.

Brigid also broke the stained-glass ceiling, although before the 12th century women were ordained to various offices, with some called presbytera and episcopa, female forms of priest and bishop. Such titles’ specific meaning remains unclear, but Brigid’s biographies insist that she was ordained as a bishop and that consequently all of her successors as abbess of Kildare held episcopal status – that is, until the Synod of Kells-Mellifont ended the practice in 1152.

The Vatican is currently preparing for another synod for which it invited Catholics around the world to reflect collaboratively on the state of the faith and hopes for the future. Ireland’s Catholics unflinchingly criticised the Church’s “patriarchal, hierarchical, and feudal” power structures and advocated for what former president Mary McAleese described as “explosive, life-altering, dogma-altering, church-altering” reforms, including female ordination and married clergy.

Ireland’s patron saints remind us that “progressive” values often reflect a return to principles. Catholic clergy commonly married before the Second Lateran Council banned the practice in 1139. Patrick himself came from at least two generations of married clergy, his father a deacon and his grandfather a priest. Brigid was a bishop whose miracles included abortion, and neither honour was unique to her. Women evidently shared in her episcopal status for centuries and several other Irish saints are credited with miraculous abortions.

But Brigid isn’t just for Christians, or for pagans. She is for everyone who values kindness, courage and integrity, everyone who revels in the glory of creation and the mystery behind it all. This holiday, established a few years after Ireland affirmed bodily autonomy and marriage equality and inspired partly by Covid’s devastation, represents hope for healing from inequities and illnesses of all kinds.

So thank you, Ireland. You haven’t just given yourselves another holiday; you’ve given it to the world.

Maeve Brigid Callan is Professor of Religion at Simpson College, Iowa, and is author of Sacred Sisters: Gender, Sanctity, and Authority in Medieval Ireland and The Templars, the Witch, and the Wild Irish: Vengeance and Heresy in Medieval Ireland.