Bridget (c. 453–c. 524)

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Bridget (c. 453–c. 524)

Patron saint of Ireland who founded the first Irish nunnery at Kildare and ruled there as abbess until her death. Name variations: Brigantia, Brigid, Brigid of Kildare, Brigida, Briget, Brigte; also called Bride. Pronunciation: BRIDGE-it. Born at Faugher or Faughart (then Fochart), near Dundalk, Ireland, around 453; died at Kildare, now in County Louth, on February 1 (her saint's day) in, or around, 524; daughter of Dubhthach (a pagan chieftain) and Broicsech (also spelled Brotsech or Broseach, his bondwoman and concubine); became a nun, reputedly in 467.

Shrouded in the historical obscurity of the early Middle Ages and steeped in centuries of accumulated legend, the life of St. Bridget as it has come down to us must be regarded, beyond its vaguest outlines, more as legend than as biography. Our earliest knowledge of Bridget derives from three saint's lives all written at least a century after her death, making it doubtful that any first-hand recollection of the saint survived to be recorded. In any case, the authors of these narratives were less concerned with elucidating Bridget's life for its own sake than with advancing her cult and thus elevating the prestige of her monastery at Kildare, in the service of their later spiritual and political preoccupations. Our image of the historical Bridget is further clouded by the likelihood that stories about Bridget the Christian saint drew upon the attributes of a Celtic fire goddess of the same name, thereby producing a syncretic figure having both Christian and pagan origins. Whatever her strictly historical standing, however, Bridget ranks with Patrick and Columba as one of the three patron saints of Ireland.

The traditional story of St. Bridget begins with her birth to Broicsech , a Christian bondwoman and concubine of Bridget's father Dubhthach, a pagan chieftain. The attention Dubhthach had manifestly bestowed upon Broicsech aroused the envy of his wife, with the result that he was compelled to remove Broicsech from his household while she was still pregnant. He sold her, though reserving his rights to her child, to a druid of Fochart, where Bridget was born around the year 453. Druids were influential priests, soothsayers, or sorcerers of a Celtic religious order who had a passing knowledge of geometry and philosophy, handled affairs of religion and morality, and performed the office of judges. Bridget spent her girlhood in the druid's household, and legends speak of the young Bridget's unexampled goodness and of the miracles that attended her. One such, doubtless conflated with the properties of Bridget the pagan fire goddess, relates how on a certain occasion when Broicsech had left Bridget alone at home, the neighbors noticed the house ablaze, "so that the flame reached from earth to heaven." Yet when they assembled before the house to rescue the child, the fire mysteriously vanished.

As a more mature girl, Bridget expressed a desire to return to her father, and Dubhthach accordingly took her back into his household. There she primarily cared for her stepmother but also displayed to all a characteristic benevolence for which she would be known throughout her life. She nursed the blind and gave to the needy freely of her household's goods, whether sheep from her father's flock or a piece of bacon from his larder or even his costly sword. The scope of her liberality is told in one story of a hungry dog's coming to the door and receiving from Bridget a large share of the family's dinner. Yet Bridget's generosity did not deplete the family's resources, for her energy and industry, which she devoted to good works and the reverence of God, made everything she touched prosper.

This was especially evident when, after some time living with her father, she asked his permission to return to her ailing mother. Though he denied her request, Bridget, displaying a willfulness that seems to have been indelibly etched into her character, departed anyway. She relieved her mother of the task of running the druid's dairy, and under her stewardship it flourished. Apparently impressed by the worldly success that flowed from Bridget's service to God, both the druid and his wife converted to Christianity. The wizard thereupon offered to Bridget not only her freedom from bondage but also the butter and cattle from the dairy. Bridget replied that the druid might keep his cattle if he would only set her mother free as well. Ultimately, the druid gave her Broicsech's freedom; he also tossed in the dairy cattle and butter, which Bridget duly distributed among the poor.

Bridget and her mother then returned to Dubhthach, but his annoyance at Bridget's continued dispersal of his household goods and livestock eventually determined him to sell his daughter, and he offered her to the king of Leinster. When Dubhthach brought Bridget before him, the king asked Dubhthach why he sought to sell his own daughter. He answered, "She stayeth not from selling my wealth and giving it to the poor." The king then inquired of Bridget whether if he bought her she might give his wealth away as she had her father's. To this, Bridget responded that even had she so much wealth and power as the king she would indeed give it all away "to the Lord of the elements." Struck by the assurance and magnanimity of her reply, the king declared that Bridget's merit was too great for mortal bargains, and he freed her from her father instead.

Dubhthach then attempted to secure a marriage for Bridget, but she refused to consider any of his proposed matches and finally prevailed upon her father to consent to her becoming a nun. Bridget, aged about 14, reportedly took the veil from Bishop Macaille in 467, although there seems to be no evidentiary basis for this date. At this early stage of Irish Christianity, monastic foundations did not yet exist, so monks and nuns lived unimmured among their kin, whose frequent retention of pagan customs and beliefs made living the life of a Christian religious all the more difficult. It was Bridget's foremost (and her best attested) achievement to organize, sometime in the late 5th century, the first monastic house for nuns in Ireland, under a large oak tree; thus, the place was called cill dara or Kildara, "the church of the oak." The city of modern Kildare in the province of Leinster is supposed to have derived its name from St. Bridget's cell. Bridget reputedly traveled the countryside gathering together both bondwomen and freewomen into her protected community, although it has been suggested that the nucleus of the Christian community at Kildare originated from the conversion of a pre-existing college of pagan priestesses. Although no concrete evidence can be cited to support this assertion, hints of continuities between pagan and Christian worship lend the idea plausibility. It happens, for example, that Bridget's saint's day (February 1) coincides with Imbolc, one of the four annual pagan festivals. In addition, Geraldus Cambrensis, writing in the 12th century, noted that the religious community at Kildare kept a perpetual flame, surrounded by a fence no man was allowed to enter, for the protection of pilgrims and travelers as well as to honor Bridget, though whether it was the saint or the pagan goddess who was originally honored remains unclear.

Much more certain is that Bridget ruled as an abbess over her monastery at Kildare. Legend has it that at Bridget's consecration Bishop Mel ordained her by invoking a formula used for ordaining bishops, the implication being that Bridget was invested with an authority corresponding to that of a bishop. She continued to rule Kildare even after the addition of a community of men, though eventually she felt that the enormous increase in the size of the community required the presence of a bishop, and consequently her friend Conleth (or Condlaedh) was appointed as bishop and abbot and ruled the monastery jointly with Bridget until his death in 520.

Bridget's youthful vivacity and unstinting benevolence reportedly continued through her adulthood. She habitually made gifts to the poor of the money and goods bequeathed to the monastery, much to the consternation of her fellow sisters and brothers of Kildare. Her energy could also take the form of great emotional warmth: she was known both for her hospitality and love of entertainment as well as for her occasional vehemence when confronted by behavior of which she disapproved. Once during a widespread famine, Bridget, accompanied by a few of her sisters, traveled to a neighboring monastery to beg food for their convent. The nuns were treated to bread and bacon even though it was Lent and those in religious orders customarily refrained from eating meat. Bridget at once began to eat the bacon, but when her sisters demurred she grew angry at their over-tender scruples and put them out of the room. Bridget is also reputed to have traveled widely throughout Ireland. The early lives of St. Bridget speak of at least five journeys around Ireland, chiefly through the provinces of Leinster, Connacht, and Munster. She is even supposed to have met with St. Patrick, though this event is probably a symbolic figuration of a later administrative relationship worked out between Kildare and the rival community at Armagh dedicated to St. Patrick.

Bridget is said to have died in her 70th year on the first of February in the year 523, 524, 526, or 528; the precise date is unknown. Contrary to a later legend that placed her burial in Downpatrick with Saints Patrick and Columba, she was in fact interred at Kildare in a splendid tomb described by an eyewitness in the mid-7th century as decorated with gold, silver, and jewels and situated beside the high altar of the church. On the opposite side of the altar stood the tomb of Bishop (later Saint) Conleth, similarly ornamented. The church itself was divided by a screen separating the men from the women in this dual-sex, or "double" monastery. The women's community at Kildare continued to flourish after Bridget's death, while the community of monks seems to have declined and then become defunct sometime around the 12th century. Perhaps reflecting these contrasting fortunes, the co-equal authority of Conleth and Bridget gave way to the subordination of the bishop's authority to that of the abbess. The nunnery at Kildare survived until 1540–41, when it was closed during the general suppression of the monasteries by Henry VIII of England. The cult of St. Bridget has spread beyond Ireland to neighboring Scotland and England (under the name Saint Bride), and even to northern Italy, Brittany, Wales, Australia, and New Zealand.


Coulson, John, ed. The Saints: A Concise Biographical Dictionary. NY: Guild Press, 1958.

Gwynn, Aubrey, and R. Neville Hadcock. Medieval Religious Houses: Ireland. London: Longman, 1970.

Hughes, Kathleen. The Church in Early Irish Society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966.

McCone, Kim. "Brigit in the Seventh Century: A Saint with Three Lives?" and "Vitae S Brigitae: The Oldest Texts," in Peritia. Vol. 1, 1982, pp. 81–106 and 107–45.

Sharpe, Richard. Medieval Irish Saints' Lives. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

suggested reading:

O hAodha, D., ed. and trans. Bethu Brigte. Dublin, 1978.

Geoffrey Clark , Assistant Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

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Bridget (c. 453–c. 524)

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