Breda O’Brien: Brigid of Kildare is not a Rorschach inkblot

Brigid can be revered as a goddess and as a saint but the abbess of a powerful monastery cannot be erased in favour of a goddess with scant sources

Brigid’s role in contemporary Ireland seems like a kind of Rorschach inkblot. This projective psychological device tells you more about the views of the person interpreting the image than it does about the original source.

Take the tendency to declare the saint to be simply a Christianised, inferior version of a goddess.

Apparently, a figure on whom you can project Celtic romanticism, fertility rites and benign general approval and blessing of contemporary mores is more appealing to 21st-century Ireland than a powerful Christian woman.

Funny, one of the few scant sources we have for Brigid the goddess is Christian and another was probably influenced by Christians. The reference to Brigid being a triple goddess (or three sister goddesses all named Brigid) is found in Sanas Cormaic, attributed to Cormac mac Cuilennáin, a bishop and King of Munster early in the 10th century.


There is also a brief reference to a goddess, Brig, in the Battle of Moytura, whose grief after her son’s death is so great she is seen as having inspired the Irish tradition of keening in mourning.

The Norman priest Gerald of Wales writes in the 12th century of a perpetual fire associated with St Brigid. This supposedly seals the deal that Brigid the goddess is the real Brigid.

Cogitosus, the first biographer of Brigid, who wrote some five centuries before Gerard of Wales, has four homely references to fire, none perpetual and tended by virgins, but the fire he is most interested in is “the inexhaustible fire of her faith”.

According to Mark Williams’s book Ireland’s Immortals, the conflation of St Brigid with a goddess probably dates only to the 1880s, to a French scholar, Marie Henri D’Arbois de Jubainville. The veneration of Brigid the saint existed for centuries before this speculation and spread right across Europe.

Odd, isn’t it, that the male saints contemporaneous to Brigid don’t get accused of simply being transmogrified versions of Celtic gods?

Ireland, which once used to just have a problem with women in general, now seems to have a problem specifically with committed Catholic women. Does that explain some of the attempts to erase Brigid of Kildare, abbess and saint?

Some of the most influential strong women in the last 200 years of Irish history have also been completely sidelined because they were committed Catholics and were founders of religious orders or brought orders to Ireland – Nano Nagle, Catherine McAuley, Mary Aikenhead and Teresa Ball.

Similarly, laywoman Edel Quinn is virtually forgotten. She trundled around five African countries in a rattling, battered old car in the 1930s and 1940s, despite being terminally ill. She involved hundreds of Africans in the Legion of Mary with all its essential services and prescient focus on lay Catholics. She is more honoured in Kenya and Nigeria than in Ireland.

St Brigid worked just fine as a role model for earlier generations. Constance Markievicz is rightly celebrated as a suffragette and socialist. Who talks about her conversion to Catholicism, or love of the rosary or that St Brigid’s story made an indelible impression on her, as she told her sister Eva Gore-Booth?

Union exemplar

Colm Keane and Una O’Hagan’s charming book on St Brigid recounts how the Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU) took the saint as their inspiration. The IWWU was central to the 1913 lockout when Jacobs workers walked out after being asked to remove their union badges.

In its manifesto, IWWU declares that it took St Brigid as its “exemplar” as she was “born of poor and simple people and was herself a simple worker”. Her existence reinforced the union’s faith that it could lead its country to “the same high place in the world that she held in olden times”.

An annoying trope circulating about St Brigid is that she is not even recognised as a saint, having allegedly been expunged from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar in 1969.

It could have been fact-checked by asking any priest, or anyone who attended mass last Wednesday. Since 1969, there is no saint celebrated on the general Roman [liturgical] calendar on February 1st, but in Ireland, with full Vatican approval, it is the feast of St Brigid, our patron saint.

Dr Margaret MacCurtain was a pioneering champion of women’s history and a Dominican sister. Known affectionately to generations of UCD history students as Sr Ben, she saw the recovery of the historical St Brigid as “central to the retrieval of Irish women’s history these years”.

She comments on the sense of Brigid emerging from modern scholarship: “serene, very capable, drove a chariot with great style, was obviously a very strong character [and] a wonderful model really for women”.

There is room in modern Ireland both for those who prefer Brigid as a goddess and those inspired by a woman as powerful, compassionate, caring and faithful as the abbess of Kildare. Treating Brigid the saint, however, as a Rorschach inkblot on which you can project anything you choose does women no favours and is hardly feminist.