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Saint Brigit.

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From The Wonders of Ireland by P. W. Joyce, 1911
 

OF all the Irish saints, Brigit and Columkille are, next after St. Patrick, the most loved and revered by the people of Ireland.

Like many others of our early saints, Brigit came of a noble family. Her father Dubthach [Duffa] was a distinguished Leinster chief descended from the kings of Ireland. For some reason which we do not know he and his wife lived for a time at Faughart near Dundalk, which was then a part of Ulster: and at Faughart Brigit was born about the year 455. The family must have soon returned however to their own district, for we know that Brigit passed her childhood with her parents in the neighbourhood of Kildare.

She was baptised and carefully instructed and trained both in general education and in religion: for her father and mother were Christians. As she grew up, her quiet gentle modest ways pleased all that knew her. At the time of her birth, St. Patrick was in the midst of his glorious career; and some say that while she was still a child she met him, and that when he died she made with her own hands a winding sheet in which his body was laid in the grave; which may have happened, as she was ten or twelve years of age at the time of his death.

When Brigit came of an age to choose her way of life, she resolved to be a nun, to which her parents made no objection. After due preparation she went to a holy bishop of the neighbourhood, who at her request received her and placed a white robe on her shoulders and a white veil over her head. Here she remained for some time in companionship with eight other maidens who had been received with her, and who placed themselves under her guidance. As time went on she became so beloved for her piety and sweetness of disposition that many young women asked to be admitted; so that though she by no means desired that people should be speaking in her praise, the fame of her community began to spread through the country.

This first establishment was conducted strictly under a set of Rules drawn up by Brigit herself: and now, bishops in various parts of Ireland began to apply to her to establish convents in their several districts under the same rules. She was glad of this, and she did what she could to meet their wishes. She visited Longford, Tipperary, Limerick, South Leinster, and Roscommon, one after another; and in all these places she founded convents.

At last the people of her own province of Leinster, considering that they had the best right to her services, sent a number of leading persons to request that she would fix her permanent residence among them. She was probably pleased to go back to live in the place where she had spent her childhood; and she returned to Leinster where she was welcomed with great joy. The Leinster people gave her a piece of land chosen by herself on the edge of a beautiful level grassy plain well known as the Curragh of Kildare. Here, on a low ridge overlooking the plain, she built a little church under the shade of a wide-spreading oak tree, whence it got the name of Kill-dara, the Church of the Oak, or as we now call it, Kildare. This tree continued to flourish long after Brigit's death, and it was regarded with great veneration by the people of the place. A writer of the tenth century—four hundred years after the foundation of the church—tells us that in his time it was a mere branchless withered trunk; but the people had such reverence for it that no one dared to cut or chip it.

We are not quite sure of the exact year of Brigit's settlement here; but it probably occurred about 485, when she was thirty years of age. Hard by the church she also built a dwelling for herself and her community. We are told in the Irish Life of St. Brigit that this first house was built of wood like the houses of the people in general; and the little church under the oak was probably of wood also, like most churches of the time. As the number of applicants for admission continued to increase, both church and dwelling had to be enlarged from time to time; and the wood was replaced by stone and mortar. Such was the respect in which the good abbess was held, that visitors came from all parts of the country to see her and ask her advice and blessing: and many of them settled down in the place, so that a town gradually grew up near the convent, which was the beginning of the town of Kildare.

Brigit, although now at the head of a great community, and very strict in carrying out her Rules, still retained all her humility and gentleness of disposition. With such a large family there was plenty of work to do; and it was all done by the nuns, as they kept no servants and called in no outsiders. The abbess herself, so far as she was able to withdraw from the cares of governing the establishment, took her part like the rest in most of the domestic occupations. In some of the old accounts of her Life we are told that she often, with some companions, herded and tended her flocks of sheep that grazed on the level sward round the convent. And sometimes she was caught by the heavy rain-squalls that occasionally sweep across that shelterless plain, so that her clothes were wet through by the time she returned to the convent: showing that she took her own share of the rough work.

Not far from the convent, another establishment was founded later on for men, which afterwards became one of the great Colleges of Ireland. As the two communities and the population of the town continued to grow, it was Brigit's earnest desire that a bishop should be there to take spiritual charge of the whole place. A holy man named Conleth, who had hitherto spent his life as a hermit in the neighbourhood, was appointed bishop by the heads of the Church. He was the first bishop of Kildare and he took up his residence in the monastery. The name of that good bishop is to this day held in affectionate remembrance, with that of St. Brigit, by the people of Kildare and of the country all round.

While the parent convent at Kildare continued to grow, branch houses under Brigit's Rule and subject to her authority were established all over Ireland; and many establishments for monks were also founded in honour of her.

Brigit had such a reputation for wisdom and prudence, that the most eminent of the saints and many kings and chiefs of her day visited Kildare or corresponded with her, to obtain her advice in doubtful or difficult matters. Visitors were constantly coming and going, all of whom she received kindly and treated hospitably. All this, with daily alms to the needy, and the support of a large community, kept her poor: for the produce of her land was not nearly sufficient to supply her wants. For a long time in the beginning she and her community suffered from downright poverty, so that she had often to call on the charity of her friends and neighbours to assist her. But as time went on, and as the reputation of the place spread abroad, she received many presents from rich people, which generally came in the right time and enabled her to carry on her establishment without any danger of want.

Among Brigit's virtues none is more marked than her charity and kindness of heart towards poor, needy, and helpless people. She never could look on distress of any kind without trying to relieve it at whatever cost. Even when a mere girl living with her parents, her father was often displeased with her for giving away necessary things belonging to the house to poor people who came in their misery to beg from her. It happened on one occasion that her father drove her in his chariot to Naas (in Kildare) where then lived Dunlang king of Leinster; and dismounting, he entered the palace, leaving his sword behind—a beautiful and valuable one—while Brigit remained in charge of horse and chariot. A wretched looking poor man with sickness and want in his face came up and begged for some relief. Overcome with pity she looked about for something to give him, and finding nothing but the sword, she handed it to him. On her father's return he fell into a passion at the loss of his sword: and when King Dunlang questioned her reproachfully she replied:—"If I had all thy wealth I would give it to the poor; for giving to the poor is giving to the Lord of the universe." And the king turning to the father said:—"It is not meet that either you or I should chide this maiden, for her merit is greater before God than before men": on which the matter ended: and Brigit returned home with her father.

Her overflowing kindness of heart was not confined to human beings: it extended even to the lower animals. Once while she lived in her father's house, a party of guests were invited, and she was given some pieces of meat to cook for dinner. And a poor miserable half-starved hound limped into the house and looked longingly at the meat: whereupon the girl, quite unable to overcome her feeling of pity, threw him one of the pieces. And when the poor animal, in his hungry greediness, had devoured that in a moment, she gave him another, which satisfied him. And to the last day of her life she retained her tenderness of heart and her kindness and charity towards the poor.

Late in life Brigit's influence over young people was unbounded: for her very gentleness gave tenfold power to her words. Once, seeing a young man, a student of the neighbouring college, running very violently and in an unbecoming manner in presence of some of her nuns, she sent for him on the spot and asked him why he was running in such haste. He replied thoughtlessly and half in jest that he was running to heaven: on which she said quietly: "I wish to God, my dear son, that I was worthy to run with you to-day to the same place: I beg you will pray for me to help me to arrive there." And when he heard these words, and looked on her grave kind face, he was greatly moved; and telling her with tears in his eyes that he would surely pray for her and for many others besides, he besought her to offer up her prayers for him that he might continue his journey steadily towards heaven and arrive there in the end. That young man, whose name was Ninnius, became in after-life one of the most revered of the Irish saints.

But with all her gentle unassuming ways, St. Brigit was a woman of strong mind and great talents. She not only governed her various establishments in strict accordance with her own Rules and forms of discipline, but she was a powerful aid in forwarding the mighty religious movement that had been commenced by St. Patrick half a century before. She set an illustrious example to those Irish women who, during and after her time, entered on a religious life; and though many of them became distinguished saints she stands far above them all. No writer has left us a detailed account of her last hours, as Adamnan has done for St. Columkille. (See farther on.) We only know that she died at Kildare on the first of February, in or about the year 523, and that she received the last consolations of religion from the grateful hand of that same Ninnius whom she had turned to a religious life many years before.

She was buried in Kildare where her body was entombed in a magnificent shrine ornamented with gold, silver, and precious stones. We may be sure it was a very beautiful work of art, for we know that there was a noted school of metal workers in Kildare under the direction of St. Conleth, who was himself a most skilful artist; but this tomb was plundered by the Danes three hundred years afterwards, and not a trace of it now remains.

According to some accounts the bones of St. Brigit and St. Columkille were brought to Downpatrick many centuries after the death of both, and buried in the same tomb with the remains of St. Patrick. Whether this was so or not, the matter has been commemorated in a Latin verse of which the following is a translation:—

Interred beneath one tomb in Down, a single vault doth hold
Patrick and Brigit and Columkille, three holy saints of old.

A well known Welshman, Gerald Barry (Giraldus Cambrensis), who was in Ireland in 1185, and who wrote an account of it, says that he found "at Kildare in Leinster, celebrated for the glorious Brigit, the 'Fire of St. Brigit' which is reported never to go out." This fire was kept up day and night by the nuns in his time, and for centuries before—how long no one can tell—probably from the time of the saint herself—and was continued for centuries after: but it was finally extinguished when the monasteries were closed by Henry VIII. in the year 1536. Thomas Moore, in one of his songs, refers to it in the following words:—

Like the bright lamp that shone in Kildare's holy fane,
And burned through long ages of darkness and storm.

St. Brigit is venerated in England and Scotland as well as in Ireland: for in both these countries churches were built in her honour, and many convents were established under her name and rule. She was also well known and honoured on the Continent. We need not wonder that her life has been written by many Irishmen: but English, Scotch, French, Italian, and German writers have also written about her and have commemorated her as one of the most eminent saints of the West.

Convents and monasteries were maintained in Kildare for hundreds of years after the time of St. Brigit; and "Kildare's holy fane" is still venerated as much as ever. On the very ridge where the humble little church was erected fourteen hundred years ago, there is a group of fine old church buildings, with a tall round tower that overlooks the splendid plain of Kildare.

 
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