Unruly women. Unmanageable women. Unconventional women. That is Brigid’s legacy, and it is as important as the miracle-worker legends surrounding her name. Whether abbess or goddess, rule-breaker or realpolitik operator – hers is a composite image – she is an icon for female leadership and independent thinking.
The new St Brigid’s Day bank holiday is welcome recognition of a figure who was equal parts holy woman and stick of dynamite. She looked at shortcomings in her world and proceeded to change them.
Instances of powerful women who contributed to our history, politics and culture are essential as inspirational currency – many were ghosted from the record. Brigid plugs a gap. As activist Ailbhe Smyth said: “I don’t know of any woman who doesn’t need a good dose of Brigid at some point or another in her life.” Courage and determination, in other words.
The new holiday has prompted a flowering of tributes to Brigid, including from poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, who said: “The rediscovery of an earlier Ireland was an important element in the national movements that led to independence. We can still learn from the past.” Certainly, Brigid is a teachable example, and tales of her ingenuity abound.
At this distance, it’s difficult to know which stories are true and which are grafted on from legends. But whoever she was, she must have been some woman. Shrinking violets don’t found several monasteries, including in Kildare, where a double monastery of monks and nuns was under her direction.
Reading between the lines, she appears to have been a hardy woman and a practical one who rolled up her sleeves. Stories tell of her being called in to the convent from her sheep to greet visitors, including Brendan the Navigator.
Many homes have a St Brigid’s cross, that deeply-engrained cultural marker, and schoolchildren still learn to weave them from rushes in time for her feast day every February 1. It must be one of our oldest continuous traditions – a link with our ancestors stretching back 1,500 years.
She was deselected as a saint in a Vatican purge, but Ireland continues to honour her, and rightly so. In 1969, Brigid’s name was expunged from the record of saints and her feast day discarded from the Catholic Church calendar as an early example of cancel culture.
Her existence was doubted, amid suspicions she was no Christian saint but conflated with a Celtic goddess of fertility. Scores of other early saints were removed in the same cull.
“Pagan goddess or Catholic saint, what we know of Brigid through myth, legend and history is that she was a remarkable, multi-talented woman: a visionary, a healer, a warrior, a rebel and a very astute strategist,” Dr Smyth told a Wild Women celebration of Brigid at the Lexicon library in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, on St Brigid’s Day Eve.
Not only did she defend the rights and lives of those in her care, said Dr Smyth, she was an astute strategist: “After all, you don’t end up owning half of Kildare without being clever, ambitious and – I’m speculating – probably as tough as old boots.”
The event celebrated the achievements of exceptional women, including the two female presidents, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, health campaigner Vicky Phelan and Countess Markievicz, Ireland’s first government minister in 1919.
“Sadly, so little has changed. We are lacking a legacy from Constance Markievicz,” said actor Lise-Ann McLaughlin, who played her on stage in a political satire, and noted no woman has been elected Taoiseach in a century of the Irish State. “To think we haven’t carried on the fight is dreadful,” she told the audience.
While Lá Fhéile Pádraig is a week-long celebration of Irishness, the hope is that Lá Fhéile Bríde will prove to be a celebration of the female contribution to Irish life. A snappy “I Am Brigid” video from the Department of Foreign Affairs showcased some of today’s outstanding women – and such reminders continue to be essential because some people remain tone-deaf.
A homily last Sunday by the Catholic Bishop of Elphin, Dr Kevin Doran, suggested “toxic masculinity” was linked to “aggressive feminism” in an each-as-bad-as-the-other seesaw. He said: “I may be wrong, but I wonder if toxic masculinity might be in some way related to aggressive feminism, like two sides of the same coin.”
Now, while there’s nothing wrong with calling for “gentleness” between the sexes, as he did, the rest of his argument is almost Father Ted funny – except it’s appalling.
A member of the hierarchy in a male-led institution that has exploited its power in various ways, including domination of women, is accusing women of antagonism. Those nasty feminists are to blame for male hostility. I can’t imagine such views are representative of priests or nuns on the ground, but, unfortunately, he’s part of the leadership. This is the same bishop who said voting Yes in the abortion rights referendum was a sin and urged anyone who did so to come to confession.
Brigids are a lot more useful than bishops of his calibre. If Brigid had been gentle, she wouldn’t have become a nun – she’d have done as her chieftain father instructed and mated with the man of his choice. No monasteries founded by her in that scenario.
She also established a school of art, which produced the Book of Kildare – a magnificent volume admired by the Norman scribe Giraldus Cambrensis, who said it contained almost as many drawings as pages.
“Among all the miracles of Kildare, nothing seems to me more miraculous than that wonderful book, which they say was written at the dictation of an angel during the lifetime of the virgin (Brigid),” he wrote. Unfortunately, the Book of Kildare has since been lost.
Brigid’s skull is preserved in a small church outside Lisbon, where it was taken in the 13th century by three Irish warriors after her remains were dug up. “St Brigid, Virgin, a native of Ireland,” reads an inscription there. High time we asked the Portuguese for that skull back. We need our trailblazing women right here, where we can be motivated by them.