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Thursday 23 March 2023 Dublin: 12°C
Opinion Make no mistake - history shows us that Brigit was a boss
Dr Niamh Wycherley says Brigit (St Brigid) would have been a thick-skinned and defiant woman living in a misogynistic and restrictive society.

A FOCUS ON a ‘pagan goddess’ of the same name overshadows what is truly interesting about St Brigit, especially in light of her new bank holiday and the implications for modern feminism.

Like many early Irish saints, Brigit is an elusive figure. Her personality was moulded by later authors, devotees, communities, and vested interests. Following the decision to make her feast day, at the beginning of February, the much anticipated new bank holiday from 2023 onwards, many are sharing their own ‘hot takes’ on the new Irish feminist icon. I find this very reassuring.

People have been rebranding and reinventing Brigit for 1400 years since the first surviving poems and written stories in the seventh century. This popularity may later have been bolstered by the fact that she shared a name with a reputed pre-Christian ‘Celtic’ ‘goddess’.

Indeed, the then Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alison Gilliland, organised a series of events to celebrate the occasion, inviting us to focus instead on the supposed pagan deity Brigit rather than a chaste holy nun.

Any historical references to such a goddess, however, date to centuries after Brigit first became famous, across Ireland and Europe, for founding the church of Kildare.

While the miracle-working saint and the awesome goddess are both worthy subjects for veneration, encapsulating virtues such as inclusivity, feminine strength, kindness and healing, I would argue that the real ‘flesh and blood’ woman behind it all was much more extraordinary.

The real Brigit

Such was Brigit’s inspirational leadership, her original community of followers at Kildare became and remained one of the most influential institutions in the country, until the twelfth century second only to Patrick’s prominent church of Armagh.

A fight for the title of head of the Irish Church played out in the seventh century between Armagh and Kildare and was expressed as a tussle between the two saints. Brigit’s hagiographer (holy biographer), Cogitosus, described the huge crowds drawn to Kildare, ‘from every province throughout the whole of Ireland’, by the fame of her good deeds and to visit her lavish tomb next to the altar in the church.

He made bold claims that Brigit’s foundation was ‘the head of almost all the Irish Churches with supremacy over all the monasteries of the Irish’, with a jurisdiction extending over ‘the whole land of Ireland, reaching from sea to sea.’

cross Traditional St. Brigid's Day cross.

As patron and founder of the formidable church of Kildare, Brigit and the women who succeeded her, the subsequent abbesses of Kildare, were arguably the most powerful women in Ireland, for many centuries.

These women mostly hailed from aristocratic and wealthy families. But, unlike their queenly sisters, they occupied a position relatively independent of their male relatives and exercised a degree of free agency, such as it was.

Far from being a bastion of female expression and independence, medieval Irish society was overwhelmingly patriarchal. While popular images of powerful fictional ‘Celtic’ women, such as Queen Medb of the Táin, imply a level of prestige attained by certain women in early Irish society, the historical sources indicate that a woman was defined by her closest male relative.

‘Thick-skinned and defiant’

Under the so-called ‘Brehon’ laws, women had limited legal capacity and could not, generally, make independent contracts. Along with children under the age of 14, slaves and the ‘insane’, women were classed ‘legally incompetent’ and ‘senseless’ in the law-texts.

They were forbidden, in most cases, to act as witnesses, their evidence classed as ‘biased and dishonest’. The abbess or leader of a women’s religious community was often the most notable exception to this rule. She controlled land and negotiated deals, wielding comparatively significant influence in society.

Female monasticism provided one of the very few routes by which a woman could achieve some social and political authority.

To create such a massive impact in this misogynistic and restrictive society, Brigit must have been well connected, thick-skinned and defiant. The earliest sources indicate that women who chose the Church over marriage were sometimes subjected to rape or violence. Many female saints are described as having to fight hard to preserve their chastity.

One text claims that Brigit’s brothers were very upset that she had denied them the bride-price to which they were entitled had she married. Women were often valuable commodities that families were not willing to give up. Those who became the heads of major ecclesiastical foundations – such as the abbesses of Kildare – were usually members of royal dynasties, supported by powerful male relatives.

While there are, unfortunately, very few women recorded in Irish history, it is a tribute to Brigit’s lasting legacy that many of the abbesses of Kildare, often titled ‘heir of Brigit’, were commemorated in the medieval Irish chronicles.

Such was the influence wielded by the woman in this position that it was implied at the synod of Kells-Mellifont in 1152 that the abbess of Kildare had been exercising the privilege of precedence over bishops. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she was subsequently deprived of the status.

We do not need to blow Brigit up (or reduce her, depending on your perspective) into a supernatural deity in order to appreciate her power. Eschewing expected gender norms, centred on their reproductive abilities, religious women in medieval Ireland spurned marriage and devoted themselves to the church instead.

For a few, this offered a rare opportunity to establish and govern lasting institutions. The real woman who founded Kildare, therefore, would have been cool, charismatic, and determined. Brigit was a boss.

Dr Niamh Wycherley is with the Department of Early Irish at Maynooth University. 


Dr Niamh Wycherley
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