Some people may be wondering why St Brigid is so hot right now. It's partly because we are celebrating the 1,500th anniversary of her supposed death in 524 - and partly because we now have a new public holiday in her honour, around her traditional feast day of February 1.
Past generations loved Brigid so much that the name became synonymous with Irishness in places like America. You will love her too, now that you get a much-needed day off in time for the Six Nations or when you’re at your most seasonably depressed after a dry January.
More fun-loving than her austere contemporary St Patrick, who comes across in his own writings as very earnest and boring, Brigid would undoubtedly have been handing out the drinks and hospitality (or, as in the earliest texts about her, ham, butter and beer!) on the first weekend in February.
The current celebrations across Kildare, and further afield, recreate a tradition which dates back to at least the middle of the 7th century. One of the earliest, most popular and most copied literary texts surviving in Irish history is The Life of Brigid by a Kildare cleric called Cogitosus.
This text, written about year 675, is famous for its depiction of Kildare as the hotspot in seventh century Ireland. On the feast of St Brigid countless crowds were drawn to Kildare, ‘some for the abundant feasting, others for the healing of their afflictions, others to watch the pageant of the crowds, others with great gifts and offerings’.
He describes Kildare as a royal, 'vast and metropolitan city', an idyllic holy utopia which was home to ‘numberless people of varying status, rank, sex and local origin’. This exaggerated description has provoked much debate amongst scholars who correctly point to archaeological and written evidence indicating not only that there were no towns at this point in Irish history, but that the sheer magnitude of the community was unlikely.
But we must bear in mind Cogitosus' perspective. He describes an ideal Christian community, deeply rooted in biblical parallels. Furthermore, was Kildare likely to have been the largest community and church in Ireland at the time he was writing? Hard it is for us to imagine now but this was a pre–Dublin Ireland.
Most importantly, Kildare was made truly great by the presence of the tombs of St Brigid and her bishop Conláed. Cogitosus' description of the grandeur of the tombs, their prime positions on either side of the altar and the sumptuousness of the adornments, leave us in no doubt that the veneration of the corporeal remains of both was crucial to the church of Kildare.
This is explicitly stated by Cogitosus who marvelled at the large crowds drawn into Kildare by the tombs of its patrons: 'and who can count the different crowds and numberless peoples flocking from all the provinces?’ The presence of the bodily remains of the founder drew many pilgrims and much revenue into the church, which was vitally important for the monastery's political position.
The veneration of the relics of the saints became a cornerstone of medieval Christianity and had a deep impact on the develop of church architecture. Early Christians had adopted the Graeco-Roman practice of holding meals at graves, especially on the deceased's birthday.
However, this ritual gained newfound significance for early Christians, believing as they did in eternal life, so they celebrated the anniversary of the martyr’s death as a true birthday. Routes were established across Europe facilitating pilgrims’ journeys to visit the shrines of the saints. The most well-known today is the Camino of Santiago de Compostela. In the world of Cogitosus, it was the great metropolitan of Kildare.
One scholar has suggested that Cogitosus may also have been describing the crowds drawn into Kildare for the pre-Christian quarter-day festival of Imbolc and, indeed, that he intentionally chose February 1 for Brigit’s feast day to coincide with this pre-existing tradition. While there is no actual historical evidence for this, it might make sense.
While the veneration of the saint is widely attested and there is little evidence for a goddess of the same name, it would certainly seem natural for people to combine their seasonal spring trip ‘into town’, so to speak, with a visit to the tomb of Brigid. Either way, February 1 quickly became associated with the death date of the real woman who founded the powerful church of Kildare and the most influential women’s community in the country.
To find out more, listen to a special St Brigid’s Day episode of The Medieval Irish History Podcast, with guest Prof Catherine McKenna from Harvard University. We reveal the long history of Brigid’s fame and popularity and how she inspired people from 7th century monks to Maud Gonne and the 19th century Gaelic revival movement to modern school children. Stay tuned to the end for discussion of where some of our most famous stories about St Brigid come from, including the perpetual fire in Kildare and her miraculous cloak over the plains of Leinster.
For more scholarly debates and research, please come to Brigid's World, a conference at Maynooth University this September, exploring the life and times of Brigid and her early church of Kildare.
This piece originally appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm
Main image credit: Markiemcg1, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons