St Brigid is Ireland’s most loved female saint. Her feast day is celebrated every year on the 1st February which also co-incides with the start of Spring on the old Celtic calendar. It may be wild co-incidence, but in all my time in Ireland, no matter what the weather on the 31st January nor on the 2nd February, St Brigid’s day is always a bright day – the winter sun shines down offering the promise and reward of Spring to come. It is always such a hopeful day. Not only are a few brave daffodils emerging but the days are slowly lengthening again, giving that special feeling of revival and newness.
Traditionally, on St Brigid’s day, children weave a cross, known as a St Brigid’s Cross. It is woven out of rushes. It is said that Brigid, in an attempt to convert a dying man, had gathered reeds and rushes and woven them into a cross which she placed in his hand on his deathbed. Having the cross in your home is said to ward off fire and in some cases, where needed, bring fertility.
Brigid was born around the year 450 in Faughart, Co. Louth. Her childhood was spent doing chores for her father on the family farm where she herded sheep, did household chores and helped with churning the cream into butter. Her father, Dufach (you don’t want to hear a five year old pronounce this!) was an important chieftain and her mother, Brocessa, was a slave woman who served in the Chieftain’s du’n.
Brigid had a tremendous love for poor people and was always giving everything she could to the needy, including her own food and clothes. She often gave meat from her fathers kitchen and milk from the dairy which would infuriate her father who promptly decided to sell her to the King of Leinster.
When they arrived at the Kings fort and were waiting for an audience, a beggar passed by – having nothing to give him, Brigid gave the man her fathers jewelled sword. Dufach was furious when he discovered what had happened but the King took kindly to Brigid and instructed Dufach to give her her freedom.
Brigid had always admired the work and teachings of St Patrick and gave her life to Christianity. When she took her final vows, it is said that St Patrick accidentally used a priest’s enrolment form for her and when notified of his error was heard to say, “Leave be, she is destined for great things.”
St Brigid travelled across Ireland building convents and teaching the word of God. There are many many legends about St Brigid and her escapades but a beautiful story is of a convent which she built at Cill Dara, beside an oak tree, where the town of Kildare now stands.
Legend has it that the land belonged to the King of Leinster and as Brigid was standing under the tree, wishing to build a convent there, the king himself rode by on his return from a hunt. Brigid hailed him and asked if she could have this bit of land. The king asked how much land Brigid needed and she replied that she only needed as much as her cloak could cover. Amused by the strange request, the king granted Brigid her wish. As Brigid laid her cloak down on the ground, the king and his assembled horsemen, watched in amazement as the garment spread and spread and covered many acres. Today, those acres are known as St Brigid’s pastures.