(b. 453, Fochard, Northern Ireland; d. 523, Kildare, Ireland)
Saint Bridget of Ireland was a determined, faithful Catholic who was responsible for starting convents and monasteries throughout Ireland. Bridget’s Celtic name, Brigid, which means “fiery arrow,” can be traced back to the goddess of the same name with whom Bridget is often conflated. Also known as Bride, Bridget of Ireland, Bride of the Isles, and Mary of the Gael, she now reigns as one of the most recognized saints in Ireland; she and Saint Patrick are the only Irish saints to hold a place on the celebrated Catholic Calendar of Saints. (Bridget’s day is February 1st.)
She was born to a Pagan Scottish king and his Christian slave; her mother raised her as a Christian. At a young age she was returned to her father who arranged a marriage for her, which she refused, desiring to keep her virginity.
During her early life, there were no convents or religious houses for women in Ireland, and the local bishop, St. Mel of Armagh, gave St. Bridget permission to start one with seven other nuns. She established what would become known as Kildare, or “the church of the oak,” in 470 at the foot of Croghan Hill, building her own room under a large oak tree. As it was the first of its kind, it was soon filled with like-minded followers. Illuminated manuscripts were also created there, including The Book of Kildare, which was eventually destroyed in religious conflict.
At the invitation of bishops throughout Ireland, Bridget soon founded other convents, as well as the first double monastery, a house with separate lodgings for both nuns and monks called Kildare on the Liffey. Bridget is credited for having initiated the monastic movement, which spread across Ireland, allowing for monks and nuns to live devotional lives of solitude, prayer, and physical labor. The movement would help to define Irish Christianity with convents and monasteries throughout the nation serving as the administrative, legal, intellectual, cultural, and agricultural centers for their areas.
The lore of Bridget is particularly interesting because it demonstrates the adaptation of Celtic and Pagan beliefs to Christianity. Bridget is equated with her Pagan counterpart, Brigid, who was the Celtic goddess of poetry, healing, and metal arts. Christian hagiographers, or biographers, transformed one figure into the other by embellishing the details of Bridget’s life and stressing her virginity and community-building qualities in an effort to appeal to Celtic Pagans and to draw them into the fledgling religion. She eventually developed into the Christian saint of learning, healing, and domestic arts.
Saint Bridget at The Dinner Party
In an early drawing for the plate, Chicago refers to Saint Bridget as a “goddess of milk and fire.” She is represented as a flame in the plate imagery; on the back of the runner, surrounding the Celtic cross; and on the runner’s front, in the illuminated letter “S” in her name. The flame is a literal translation of her Celtic name, which means “fiery arrow.” It also represents the fire that nuns kept lit in honor of Saint Bridget after her death.
The flame appears on the plate as an abstract form in reds, oranges, and yellows interwoven with the greens and blues. The flame and plant imagery coexist on the plate, complementing each other; the leaves are not singed from the fire. The overlaying of the imagery suggests the Christian Saint Bridget emerging from the Pagan and Celtic goddess Brigid.
The runner’s iconography also suggests the Celtic and Christian derivation of Bridget/Brigid. The front border is a wooden panel carved in a Celtic knot motif popular in Northern Europe. On the back of the runner, there is a stylized wooden Christian cross, based on a Muiredach cross, a symbol of Irish Christianity. The oak used for the Celtic and Christian images and the bark-colored silk in the runner represent the first convent Bridget founded, Kildare, or “the church of the oak.”
Life of Brigid. 8th century MS. Archived at the Dominican friary, Eichstatt, Germany.
“Lives of the Saints” from The Book of Lismore. Privately archived at Chatsworth, the Derbyshire seat of the Duke of Devonshire.
Translations, Editions, and Secondary Sources
Bitel, Lisa M. Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.
Condren, Mary. The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion, and Power in Celtic Ireland. 1989; rev. ed, Dublin: New Island Press, 2002.
Green, Miranda. Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins, and Mothers. New York: Braziller, 1996.
—-, ed. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992.
Harrington, Eileen M. Brigit: Goddess and Saint. MA thesis. Berkeley, Cal.: Pacific School of Religion, 2000.
MacKillop, James, ed. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Ó Catháin, Séamas. The Festival of Brigit: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman. Blackrock, Co. Dublin: DBA Publications, 1995.
Preston, James J., ed. Mother Worship: Themes and Variations. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.
Stokes, Whitley, ed. and trans. Lives of Saints from the Book of Lismore. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1890.
Voaden, Rosalynn. God’s Words, Women’s Voices: The Discernment of Spirits in the Writing of Late-Medieval Women Visionaries. Rochester, N.Y.: York Medieval Press, 1999.