Here's the evidence which indicates that the Kildare woman was real - and why this is worth emphasising today, writes Dr Niamh Wycherley, Department of Early Irish
But since the new public holiday in her honour was announced, I have been asked many questions about her. Many of the queries centre around the ultimate question of her identity: was she from Kildare? Was she a fictional saint created by the Church to encompass the cult of a pre-existing goddess? Was she even real?
Growing increasingly frustrated with the dismissal of the important role of women in society and the Church, by authors both today and in the Middle Ages, I decided to respond to these questions sternly in the positive. Of course Brigit was real! To suggest otherwise is to perpetuate a patriarchal agenda in which women’s voices are stifled and their stories suppressed.
When my Dad laughed one day at my indignation while relating how I shared these views in the forthcoming Finding Brigid documentary, I realised that I too have been part of the problem. He bemusedly reminded me that I told him, as a naïvely cynical postgraduate, that Brigit never existed at all. I was suitably chastened.
So, let me clarify, why, on reflection, the evidence indicates that Brigit was real, and why this is worth emphasising today. It is true that we do not have much firm historical information for Brigit, such as the exact events and chronology of her life, except that she supposedly died around the year 524. But extremely few documents survive from this period in Irish history. In fact, we have little contemporary evidence for many of the early Irish church founders, who were reputed to have been active in the fifth and sixth centuries - this is not often used to argue that these, mostly, men did not exist.
Our earliest surviving written sources are two documents written by Patrick in the fifth century. Even though these preserve his own voice, we arguably know less about the historical reality of his life, such as where he was from, and when and where exactly he lived, than we know about Brigit.
However, the surviving historical sources all agree that Brigit was part of a dynasty, the Fothairt, which had branches around Leinster, including in the area of what is now Co Offaly and the diocese of Kildare. While aristocratic, the Fothairt were fairly low key, and not a major political power in the province so it is quite likely that Brigit’s association with them is credible.
Some Irish saints were given patently phony family trees by later authors keen to associate their local patron with famous kings and legendary figures from the past. If Brigit did not exist, or was a goddess, they would have invented a better story for her! If her ancestry was not verifiable, it would have been easy for a more influential dynasty in Leinster to claim her as their own - or for Kildare’s rivals outside of Leinster – for example, Armagh – to discredit Brigit's historicity during the seventh century battle for leadership of the Irish Church.
We know that a woman founded a church in Kildare, which went on to become one of the most powerful institutions on the island for almost a millennium. This woman’s name may as well have been Brigit as any other. The church of Kildare did not need to fabricate a fake female founder. On the contrary, given that women could not perform priestly duties, one of the earliest accounts of St Brigit, written by a cleric Cogitosus c.650/675, is at pains to explain that she worked in tandem with her bishop Conláed.
At a very early date, Kildare became a double church, housing monks and nuns and was led by both a man and a woman. Cogitosus describes the ostentatiously decorated tombs of Brigit and Conláed flanking the altar in the church, attracting many pilgrims and much revenue to Kildare, making Brigit one of the most celebrated women in Western Christendom.
Further compelling evidence that Brigit, as founder of Kildare, was famed at an early date, comes in the form of a little tag that was once attached to some relics in the Abbey of Saint-Maurice d'Agaune in Switzerland. The tag indicates that the relics of not only Brigit, but also her first female successor at Kildare, Darlugdach, were being venerated far from Ireland by the year c.700. This is at least a century earlier than the first mention of a 'pagan’ goddess of the same name in Ireland.
Perhaps most importantly of all, we know that there were women founders of churches and women’s communities in early medieval Ireland. While we know very little about their personal lives, it was hugely significant that these women managed to accomplish anything at all. There was no feminist idyll in medieval Ireland. The so-called 'Brehon' law was explicitly clear that women had few legal rights or status independent from their closest male relative.
I now realise that it does a disservice to Brigit to hide her real achievements behind the unattainable ideals of a wondrous goddess or miracle-working saint. Brigit of the Fothairt, the Leinsterwoman, worked hard to build an inclusive church and found a community. In doing so she captured the imagination of a nation, creating a legacy that has lasted 1500 years. That she did all this despite being a woman is something special, and worth celebrating on the new public holiday.
This article was previously published on RTÉ Brainstorm