St Brigid would vote No if faced with this referendum
The Catholic Church's current position on abortion dates just from the 19th century, writes Judith Maas, who also claims that ancient documents show that St Brigid once performed an abortion
St Brigid would vote No to the proposed amendment in the abortion referendum. Brigid, the goddess of fertility and patroness of Ireland, was willing to help women in a crisis pregnancy. According to the first record of her life, she made the foetus in the womb of a nun "disappear".
She was a feminist avant-la-lettre. Born the daughter of a landowner and his slave, Brigid founded the double monastery of Kildare and became the first abbess of Ireland. According to legend, she was accidentally consecrated a bishop, instead of receiving the sacrament of an abbess.
She was a good negotiator too: a local king would not give her more land for her monastery than her mantle could cover. She laid her mantle on the ground, and it spread and spread, covering a large domain.
Most importantly, Brigid is the saint of fertility. She made cows produce more milk and she multiplied food if there was not enough. Women who suffered from infertility would drink water enriched with Brigid's blood.
A symbol of motherhood, Brigid is also known as Muire na nGael - Mary of the Gael. However, if necessary, she did not hesitate to interfere with nature.
In the first Life of Saint Brigid, written by Cogitatus around AD 650, a woman in crisis pregnancy came to her for help:
"A certain woman who had taken the vow of chastity fell, through youthful desire and pleasure, and her womb swelled with child. Brigid, exercising with the most strength of her ineffable faith, blessed her, caused the foetus to disappear, without coming to birth, and without pain. She faithfully returned the woman to health and to penance."
This account of an abortion cannot be found in current translations of the book. In the 19th century it vanished from the official version of St Brigid's life.
The late Liam de Paor, historian and archaeologist, translated this unpublished part from Cogitatus's original writings. Also Prof Kim McCone, of the National University of Ireland Maynooth, has referred to this story of the "disappearance" of a foetus.
Dr Mary Condren, researcher at Trinity College and author of the book, The Serpent and the Goddess, cannot tell if this event actually took place or not. "In that time, people recorded what they thought had happened, or what they thought might have happened if people had thought about it", she says. "But the fact that the story survived until the seventh century shows its importance."
In her book, Dr Condren places Brigid's life in the context of Ireland in the early Middle Ages. "The process of bringing a child to the world was a social event, not only biology," she says. "Men would also be punished if they procreated life against the will of the tribe. Giving life and taking life was considered equally serious. Now, the discussion is based on a rigid sense of when life begins."
Mary Condren bases the valuation of abortion on Penitentials, lists of sins and penalties from the sixth century. In the early Middle Ages, abortion wasn't considered a serious crime.
The Penitential of St. Finnian states that "if a woman by her magic destroys the child she has conceived, she shall do penance for half a year". This is mild compared to other penalties and compared to the proposed 12 years' jail in the current proposal for the abortion referendum.
In the seventh and eighth centuries, the church divided the development of foetus to child into three stages. First, the foetus is established; then it develops into flesh; and finally the foetus is infused with a soul.
The Life of Brigid is the only account of an abortion in Celtic history that Mary Condren knows of. This does not mean that there were no other occasions. "Many of the 'Lives' of Irish women have not been translated", she says. "They weren't considered important enough."
She thinks this story of the "disappearance" of a foetus should be included in Brigid's hagiography again.
• Judith Maas is a journalism student at Dublin City University