St. Brigid, one of the three patron (and only matron) saints of Ireland, apparently had a special place in her heart for beer brewers. As cute and inconsequential as such an anecdote might be, there is nothing insignificant about the mystery and wonder surrounding St Brigid of Kildare.

Dissecting the complexities involving St Brigid draws to mind the famous quote from English Prime Minister Winston Churchill about enemy advances during WWII – “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Likewise, seekers of the truth about St Brigid may struggle with a similar sentiment.

Explorations into the historical reality of Brigid the Christian saint are regularly conflated with inconsistent tales of her Celtic mythological namesake – creating a confusing, albeit compelling paradox. Part goddess, part Christian saint, the varied depictions of one of the most famous Celtic figures reveal aspects as diverse as the many legends attributed to her.

Guardian of the poor and poets, protector of the land and its livestock, and maiden of medicine and metal workers, St Brigid was renowned for her determination and single-mindedness – typically masculine qualities during her time – yet also recognized for her devout and compassionate nature.

Despite the contradictions, one thing is clear – Brigid of Kildare evolved through the ages to become a feminine archetype who not only transcended the limitations of her gender but generated a collective perception that combined human virtue with mythical magnificence sparking a modern-day revival of the standards she stood for.

Her high-minded influence is evident throughout the extensive folklore that blends the most alluring aspects of Celtic mythology with more accessible Christian ideals and also extends to neo-pagan adherents.

The result is an elevated yet accessible female paradigm that exists beyond the confines of ancient myth or any organized faith and resonates with the modern human experience.

Such acclaim is supported by hazy, but nonetheless, historical, evidence of St Brigid’s steady influence that spans from the 5th century onward, leaving a legacy of miracles, landmarks, charitable works, and the establishment of religious, art, and educational institutions. From water wells to a humble handwoven cross; heritage religious sites, and many sisterhoods created in her name, Brigid’s presence permeates Ireland and far beyond.

Weaving through the many threads that make up the tapestry of her life, however, often leads to more questions than answers.

How did a 5th-century girl of humble beginnings attain such enduring influence that she managed to remain relevant in modern times?

St Brigid was prophesied to attain greatness from birth. Described as being “full of grace” while still an infant, it was predicted by the bishop (who would later confer her) that she “would be celebrated throughout the world.” Such claims have been refuted by some historians who deny that she ever existed as a person. Others cite parallels to Roman and Egyptian goddesses that may explain the many names she is known by: Bride, Bridey, Brighid, Brigit, Briggidda, Brigantia, and Breet, which only add to the mystery of her true identity. Indeed, most research into St Brigid is often a painstaking process of separating folklore from fact.

Nevertheless, detailed accounts of her life derive from several existing ancient manuscripts, including The Liber Hynnorum (6th century), Bethu Brigte (9th century), and the Book of Linsmore (15th century).

Despite this, verifiable facts on St Brigid of Kildare – named for the county where she established one of the most impressive religious settlements in ecclesiastical history – can vary, according to either a pagan or Christian source, sometimes rendering her almost indistinguishable from her goddess counterpart.

Ninth-century Christian scribes recorded her birth at Faughart, in the province of Leinster, around the year 450 AD at the very threshold of the establishment of the Christian Church in Ireland. Her father, Dubhthach, a pagan chieftain, purportedly sold Brigid and her mother Brocessa – a Christian slave – to a druid whom they later converted to Christianity – a possible allusion to her function as a metaphorical bridge between the pagan and Christian domains.

A recurring narrative during her adolescence involves a fateful intervention by the King of Leinster who prevented her father from selling her into slavery at 16. Authors Colm Keane and Una O’Hagan, in their novel titled simply, The Book of St Brigid, reveal that when her father realized that Brigid had given one of his coveted swords to a beggar he brought her before the king to be banished and sold. According to the monk and scribe Cogitosus – as written in his 7th-century manuscript – young Brigid apparently “Regularly (gave) the lot (of butter and milk) to the poor without a thought of the morrow” and was compelled to “comfort the poor and to banish all distress.”

Perceiving Brigid’s virtues, the King declared that she was “too holy and exalted to be either bought or sold,” and her father was ordered to take her home, along with a replacement sword to appease him.

Following this pivotal encounter, Brigid devoted herself to religious life and embarked on a journey with seven female companions, trekking the treacherous trails of Croghan Hill in County Offaly in search of Bishop Mel – a nephew of St Patrick – to receive official entrance into the Church. As fate would have it, young Brigid, destined for distinction, and, supposedly due to a clerical error, was consecrated as a bishop instead!

According to the Liber Hymnorum, her granting of the episcopal order made her the first female Abbess of Kildare despite protests from Mac Caille – Abbot of Cruachán Breg Éilehat, – that “such a title should not be conferred on a woman.” Luckily his protests were ignored. Brigid of Kildare went on to travel and establish the first double monastery for both monks and nuns, numerous convents, and was revered as a miracle worker, a woman of peace and hospitality who provided tireless outreach to the poor.

Becoming a bishop despite the conventions of the time is rather representative of her life as a whole.

St Brigid frequently faced and overcame the very prevalent patriarchy of her time through not only mere acts of virtue but by virtue of her sheer determination, as well.

The paradox at the core of her persona is evident in both the truth as well as the tales that are written about her.

Revered for her unremitting compassion, she was equally capable of commanding authority. As exceedingly generous to the poor as she could be, she could also ruthlessly rebuke those who thwarted her work. Legends reveal that she once turned a manipulative merchant’s salt into rock, and reversed her cure of a leper who would not pay it forward and help others. Blind to royalty or rank and committed to relieving the oppression of the peasant class, one of her most celebrated triumphs involved a request to the King of Leinster for land to build a monastery. He snidely agreed to grant her as much as her small cloak could cover. When her followers stretched the four corners of her cloak across the terrain, it miraculously expanded to cover such a wide mass that the incredulous King quickly granted her wish on the spot.

Accordingly, he converted to Christianity shortly thereafter.

Unlike typical female biblical characters who shamelessly worshiped patriarchal male gods and kings, Brigid managed to maintain a measure of the divine sacred feminine within the male-dominated Christian autocracy. The result was a legacy that forever linked her with her powerful goddess namesake, blurring the historical lines between them.

The debate as to whether Brigid the Goddess, and Brigid the Christian saint were actually separate beings is as enduring as her centuries-old religious settlement in Kildare. Numerous historians claim that the saint was merely a Christianized version of her folkloric predecessor which makes historical sense. It is widely recorded that the religious conversion of the ancient Celts was strategically achieved through the infusion of Christian traits into the existing pagan pantheon. The Trinity was made more accessible when introduced using key components of the triple goddess theories, and monasteries and convents were often erected atop former pagan prayer sites including Brigid’s in Kildare.

The merging of paganism with Christianity is evident in the common characteristics and connections that have forever linked the saint and the goddess through the centuries.

The feast of St Brigid, held on February 1 in Ireland, is also the commemoration of Imbolc – a celebration in honor of the pagan Goddess, worshipped long before the

Christian saint was born. The profound significance of Imbolc – deeply rooted in Irish history and culture – involves the lighting of fires and purification of well water, symbols attributed to both the goddess and the saint.

According to folklore, Brigid the goddess came into being on February 1st as the daughter of Dagda, the head of the Tuatha de Danann – a mythological grouping of deities said to be the descendants of the original Irish race – the Nehmed. Alternately classified as a triple deity honoring birth, life, and death in the forms of Maiden, Mother, and Crone, some historians claim that Brigid is actually made up of three sisters, with two representing smithwork and medicine, adding even more realms to her reign.

The Goddess Brigid is also strongly associated with poetry, protection, and domesticated animals, as well as the seemingly opposing elements of fire and water – prototypical symbols of masculine and feminine. The healing properties of bodies of water found in nature, combined with the regenerative power of fire (much like the transmutational process of the blacksmith’s forge – yet another association), reveal the scope of her divine influence as a sacred feminine deity who rules over and integrates diverse natural realms.

Interestingly, her Christian counterpart is also noted for bringing together the divergent theologies of the ancient Celts with organized religion – forming a somewhat blended folkloric faith, accessible to to the people of her time, and ultimately, ours, as well.

Psychiatrist and Jungian psychoanalyst Dr. Máirín Ní Nualláin explains that the goddess “isn’t any one person, it’s everyone. The collective unconscious is the element of human beings that we all share in common. Myth is important because it comes from the collective unconscious.”

The myth of both the goddess and the saint appears to extend to those of many different faiths and values even today.

An eternal fire still burns brightly today at St Brigid’s monastery in Kildare tended to by the Brigidine sisters who remain as devoted to the saint as the pre-Christian followers were to the goddess. Hundreds of Christians, neo-pagans, and followers of other faiths (or no faith) visit the site for an annual pilgrimage that begins at Faughart where the goddess was worshipped, and the saint born. Following the path of “Brigid’s Way” they visit many historical landmarks, tracing the celestial path of the Northern Cross until they reach her monastery in Kildare.

The continued popularity of such a pilgrimage reveals a legacy that goes beyond the mere terrain that bears her name. The path of “Brigid’s Way” may also reflect the noble associations of the mythical figure and the mortal woman gently persuading us to embark on a journey of healing – both inner and outer – as a much-needed remedy for the modern masses.

Phil O’Shea and Rita Minehan, caretakers of the Solas Bhride Centre and Hermitages in Ireland, reflect on the significance of St Brigid within the contemporary collective.

“From our experience, the people who visit our hermitages devoted to Brigid are interested in creating a more caring and compassionate world.”

Relating the story of St Brigid, giving away the apples she received from a wealthy orchard owner who became angered by her act of charity, Minehan muses “Brigid was the earliest of any of our Irish saints to deal with outreach to the poor. Those values are still needed today – the values of peace and justice. She speaks to the main. That is why she is still relevant today. Everybody can find a space under her cloak.”

Even those in political office would agree.

Imbolc/St Brigid’s Day was made a public holiday in Ireland in 2023, honouring both the saint and the goddess. Even more recently in February 2024, a large program of festivities took place in-and-around Kildare, across Ireland, and beyond to mark the 1500th anniversary of the year of her death. The multitude of events held in her honor included concerts, art exhibits, workshops, and spectacular light displays, highlighted with a “pause for peace” at noon, consistent with the saint’s message and enduring symbols.

Arguably her most iconic symbol – St Brigid’s cross – woven from straw and hung over

entryways to invoke her blessing and protection against hunger and evil, is still widely recognized today. In keeping with her recurring association with fertility and protection of the land it may also be linked to one of her many contemporary incarnations as a divine patron of environmental sustainability and biodiversity.

Yet another of her long-standing relics – the Brideog – a doll or effigy that was passed from house to house and played out in “Biddy Boy” ceremonies in some regions of Ireland during modern times, is also linked to the Hebrides islands, a particular stronghold of devotion to the saint during the Middle Ages during which time no less

than 19 churches dedicated to Brigid of Kildare were found across Scotland, Wales, England, and the Isle of Man. Today many churches bear her name across Canada and the United States.

As devoted as Ireland remains to another of its patrons, St Patrick – esteemed for his conventional and orderly theology – St Brigid of Kildare has evolved beyond Ireland’s established theological and physical borders to reach a wide range of souls. Her uniquely accessible brand of spirituality that blends the sacred feminine qualities of nurturing, healing, collaboration, and compassion, is a testament to the much-needed resurgence of such values today. Her continued influence subtly invites us to embrace our own inner divinity, transcend religious formalities, and hopefully manifest her hallmarks of hospitality and concern for the common man and woman.

Much like her melding of pagan and Christian traditions, Brigid the Goddess, and Brigid the Saint, have together become the ideological lodestar urging us to bridge the gaps that separate us as men and women, Christian and pagan, us and them, and ultimately, integrate our inner conflicts as well. If she were here in the flesh, she might very well remind us that such a collaboration is never a compromise but merely an expansion that makes the whole much greater than the sum of its parts. ~ Story by Lillian Holt