Beliefnet
First published in the May 2003 issue of Atlanta Celtic Quarterly.

To the average American, Irish spirituality pretty much boils down to one towering figure: Saint Patrick, the fifth-century Christian evangelist who supposedly evicted the snakes from Ireland and today is commemorated on a day associated more with parades and pub crawls than with piety. But American knowledge of Celtic spirituality and culture is too often limited to the basics. Sure, Patrick may be Ireland's most prominent patron saint, but he's not the only one. Of the three (!) patrons affiliated with Ireland, one is a woman who has a powerful and fascinating history that links her not only with Christian spirituality but with the ancient mysticism of the pagan Celtic past. This figure is Brigit, the Abbess of Kildare.

Understanding Brigit-you'll see her name spelled in a variety of ways, including Brigid, Brighid, Bride, and Bridget-means understanding two different figures who may in fact be the same persona-although they are seen in very different ways by different groups of people. The holy abbess and premiere Irish woman saint is only one aspect of Brigit. She shares her name, characteristics, and personality with an ancient goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a mythic race of ancestral or spiritual beings who gave Ireland her rich heritage of mythology (as well as her pantheon of pagan deities). To fully know Brigit, therefore, means getting to know the pagan goddess as well as the Christian saint.

Brigit the Goddess

Brigit means "Sublime One" or "Exalted One," suggesting that the name may have originally been a title for a major goddess of the pagan Celts. Goddess Brigit ruled over poetry, magic, the healing arts, and smithcraft; she was associated with fire, water, cattle and milk, dandelions, and agriculture. Her role as a fire deity is reflected in her name (for fire, of all the elements, is the most exalted) and in her attributes: for poetry comes out of the "fires" of inspiration, smithcraft relies on the fires of the forge, and healing takes place in the vicinity of the hearthfire.

Saint Brigit

There are actually several Irish saints named Brigit, but the most famous is clearly the abbess of Kildare, said to have lived from approximately 450 CE to 525 CE. The earliest written records of her, from about the year 650, contain almost no verifiable biographical information, but instead features legends and stories that are remarkably similar to the lore of Brigit the goddess. Like her divine namesake, the saint of Kildare was associated with cattle and agriculture as well as with fire and holy wells. Indeed, to this day countless wells in Ireland are dedicated to Brigit, while her connection with fire manifested in a most unusual way.

Brigit means "Sublime One" or "Exalted One," suggesting that the name may have originally been a title for a major goddess of the pagan Celts. Goddess Brigit ruled over poetry, magic, the healing arts, and smithcraft; she was associated with fire, water, cattle and milk, dandelions, and agriculture. Her role as a fire deity is reflected in her name (for fire, of all the elements, is the most exalted) and in her attributes: for poetry comes out of the "fires" of inspiration, smithcraft relies on the fires of the forge, and healing takes place in the vicinity of the hearthfire.

Saint Brigit

There are actually several Irish saints named Brigit, but the most famous is clearly the abbess of Kildare, said to have lived from approximately 450 CE to 525 CE. The earliest written records of her, from about the year 650, contain almost no verifiable biographical information, but instead features legends and stories that are remarkably similar to the lore of Brigit the goddess. Like her divine namesake, the saint of Kildare was associated with cattle and agriculture as well as with fire and holy wells. Indeed, to this day countless wells in Ireland are dedicated to Brigit, while her connection with fire manifested in a most unusual way.

For centuries, the nuns of Kildare tended a sacred fire dedicated to Brigit on a 20-day cycle. Each of nineteen nuns would watch over the fire for a day, while on the twentieth day the fire was left for Brigit to tend herself. The practice continued until the seventeenth century, when nervous church officials attacked it as a pagan practice. Although the flame was extinguished for some 260 years, a small community of Brighidine nuns returned to Kildare in the early 1990s, and relit the flame, where it continues to burn as a beacon of hope and peace.

The Festival of Brigit

As a figure of significant spiritual import, Brigit is honored each year with a holiday known in Gaelic as Lá Fhéile Bríde (the Festival of Brigit). This event is associated with the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc (or Oímealg), which marked the beginning of spring. Etymologically, the word "Oímealg" is related to "lactation," and indeed the festival occurred when pregnant ewes began lactating: a sign not only of impending lambs, but also of the coming of spring (and an honoring of the milky nature of Brigit). Lá Fhéile Bríde has been Christianised as the feast of St. Brigit on February 1, the eve of the feast of the presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas.

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