Make room, St. Patrick: Ireland celebrates new ‘matron saint’ with prayers and a holiday
St. Patrick has long received the attention and the big parades, but another patron saint of Ireland is making a 21st century comeback.
St. Brigid of Kildare, a younger contemporary of St. Patrick, is quietly and steadily gaining a following in Ireland and abroad. Devotees see Brigid, and the ancient Irish goddess whose name and attributes she shares, as emblematic of feminine spirituality and empowerment.
For the first time, Ireland is observing a public holiday this year in honor of St. Brigid’s Day and Imbolc, an ancient pagan holy day associated with the goddess Brigid and heralding the coming of spring. The official holiday is Monday, but celebrations began in earnest this week.
The holiday designation, the first honoring a woman in Ireland, comes 120 years after St. Patrick got his holiday.
“The legacy of St. Brigid and its relevance for our world today is not about going back to the 5th century and staying there, but looking at the needs of the world today,” said Sister Rita Minehan, a Roman Catholic sister and one of the founders of Solas Bhride (Irish for “light of Brigid”), a center that opened here in 2015 to welcome pilgrims and foster the spirituality inspired by Brigid.
“Does Brigid have something to say to us today?” said Minehan. “We believe she does.”
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Some are calling Brigid the “matron saint” of Ireland.
She is seen as embodying women’s empowerment, environmental care and peacemaking in an Ireland that is increasingly casting off traditional forms of Catholicism.
“I think Ireland is ready to celebrate our women and our goddess and our saint,” said Melanie Lynch, founder and CEO of Herstory, which advocated for the holiday. The organization uses arts and education programs to celebrate female exemplars. “You’re talking about a great role model for young girls.”
Herstory has been sponsoring celebrations around Ireland in recent days — complete with fire dances and light shows — and a traveling exhibit highlighting female peacemakers in Northern Ireland.
Monday also starts a countdown to the 1,500th anniversary, in 2024, of Brigid’s death. The coming year will include a conference and other events marking the milestone.
“St. Patrick’s Day is obviously iconic around the world,” said the Rev. Philip McKinley, curate of St. Brigid’s Cathedral, an Anglican church that was a derelict medieval ruin until being restored in the 19th century. “But now St. Brigid offers this whole new dynamic. She’s a very, very modern saint that speaks to the really cutting-edge issues of our day — gender equality, environmental issues, social care, poverty, peacemaking.”
He said pilgrims come to walk on the ground where Brigid walked and founded an earlier wooden sanctuary — a “church of the oak,” or “cill dara” in Irish, giving the name “Kildare” to this town, where she was a prominent abbess of a monastic settlement of men and women.
On Tuesday evening, to the backdrop of traditional Irish music played on a concertina and tin whistle, about 150 people gathered around a fire pit and a display of candles in a darkened parking lot in Kildare.
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Many came from the surrounding area, others from as far as Italy and the U.S., to mark the eve of the feast day in honor of a woman often called “Mary of the Gael.”
Brigid’s father is said to have been a ruler, her mother an enslaved person. Brigid likely was named for the goddess venerated by ancient Irish and other Celts.
Legends associate St. Brigid with healing, fertility, care for living things and peacemaking, according to Lisa Bitel, a professor of religion and history at USC.
Brigid’s moment is happening as many Irish are rejecting traditional Catholicism amid the fallout over cover-ups of sexual abuse and other scandals, and are seeking alternatives to patriarchal structures.
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“The whole disenchantment with the Catholic Church, the slow seep of women’s rights into Irish society, the idea that you have religious choices — all these things are combining with other factors to give her renewed importance,” Bitel said.
Brigid is associated with miracles and legends.
When a ruler agreed to give her land for her monastery but only enough that she could cover with her cloak, she miraculously spread the garment over vast fields, legend says. To a needy man, Brigid gave her father’s jeweled sword to barter for food.
She traveled, preached, healed. She’s often depicted with images of fire and light.
Wearing their blue-trimmed saris, nuns from Mother Teresa’s religious order, the Missionaries of Charity, excitedly led 1,500 homeless people through the gates of the Vatican.
The sisters at Solas Bhride worked with a team of lay people to open the center in 2015. The self-described Christian spirituality center welcomes “people of all faiths and of no faith.”
Brigid offers a connection for those who identify with the goddess tradition, said center co-founder Minehan.
“She belongs to both worlds,” she said. “She didn’t become a Christian until into her teens. And she would have inherited some of the folklore and some of the attributes of the pre-Christian goddess. And some of those are really lovely attributes.”
Two churches in Kildare bear Brigid’s name, a Catholic parish and the Anglican cathedral. They were scheduled to honor the saint with a joint service Wednesday.
“There’s something in the whole St. Brigid’s story that’s tapped into people’s imagination and search for spirituality,” said the Rev. Andy Leahy of St. Brigid’s Parish Church. “There’s great energy there.”
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