Brigid, St. Bridget, and Kildare, Ireland

“Bridget” is the name that was bestowed upon me at birth. It’s not such an unusual name that people give you some quizzical look when you say it, but it’s rare enough that, in the course of my lifetime, I’ve only ever met a handful of other people who share it.

I suspect that those of us who enter the human community with uncommon names wonder about their monikers’ origins a little more often than the Johns and Jennifers of the world might.  I know I, for one, have always been curious about where my name came from and who else (besides Bridget Fonda, Brigitte Bardot, and the fictional Bridget Jones) has carried it for a lifetime.

This curiosity recently led me to Kildare, Ireland – home of St. Bridget and the monastery she founded in 480 CE.

 

I was raised Catholic, and in that religious tradition, children are supposed to be named after saints. These saints all have their stories, and, when I was young, I dug up a book of them. In it were profiles of all the major canonized figures, including St. Bridget. I vividly recall the version of the tale told in that volume; it recounted the history of a beautiful woman who was firmly and wholeheartedly committed to God.  Her good looks attracted the attention of so many men that she was consumed with warding them off and unable to maintain her devotional practices. According to this rendition of her life story, Bridget prayed to God to be made ugly so that she could worship him without distraction. Evidently, God answered her prayers, and she was left in peace.  As a young girl, I was left to wonder if all of us Bridgets out in the world were named after the pre- or post-disfiguration version of St. Bridget. I wasn’t sure I liked either option a whole lot, and for a while, I wasn’t sure I wanted to carry the baggage of this name around with me.

Fast forward a decade or so, to when I discovered that St. Bridget was more than likely a Christianization of her predecessor, the Celtic goddess Brigid. After a little research into her, I quickly decided Brigid was cool. She was the goddess of fire (and thus of transformation), metalworking (a craft that combines fire and transformation), and poetry (fire and transformation are not foreign to this art either). She represented spring and the renewal that comes with it.  Brigid’s feast day is February 1 and is also called Imbolc.  It marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox and celebrates the eventual return of the sun to a sometimes gloomy country (for more on that holiday, see a previous blogpost of mine here).  Additionally, tenth century writings suggest that Brigid was thought of as having had two sisters – both also named Brigid – making her a trinity.  All of that worked well for me.

The historic Irish woman known as St. Bridget, meanwhile, was supposedly born in the year 451 to a Druid father and a recently-baptized Christian woman. Bridget showed “miraculous” behavior in her youth, regularly healing people and animals. As an adult, she founded and oversaw two monasteries in Kildare (or Cill Dara, “the church of the oak,” in Gaelic) – one for women and one for men. In doing so, she may have been the first person in the Christian tradition to create a structure for a female community of worship.

Today, in Kildare, Ireland, St. Bridget’s Cathedral stands on the site of her former monastery. It has been destroyed and reconstructed many times during its sixteen centuries of use; however, the building that stands there today was built between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and has a Gothic flavor. Adjacent to the church is a classic Irish round tower, and just beside it is a depression marking a shrine to the goddess Brigid that existed in that location for centuries prior to the founding of the monastery.

While I can’t say that I felt any particular magical or spiritual connection to this place, there is something powerful about standing on a hilltop that has been the site of intense spiritual devotion for close to two millenia. While I walked the church grounds engulfed by mossy Irish cross headstones and freshly cut grass, I had to wonder if these women after whom I was named were real or mythological – or both.  Clearly we’ll never know.

And maybe we don’t need to.

Human beings seek inspiration in all sorts of places: hero worship and tales of great accomplishment are two of those sources. It is possible that we create these heroes and their stories from pure imagination; but, it is also possible that we fashion our narratives loosely on people we have known and admired.  It may not actually matter how “true” they are.

After all, we pick and choose the parts we like anyway. Take my telling of this tale, for example.  Brigid, the Celtic goddess, is also considered the be the goddess of fertility, midwifery, and livestock. It’s no coincidence that I didn’t mention those details earlier; they don’t fit my personal narrative all that well, so I left them out.  St. Bridget is also the patron saint of newborn babies and Irish nuns. You’ll note that I omitted those facts as well.  When crafting identities, we spin our yarns selectively.

As I left the church grounds and headed to the pub for a plate of curry and pint of cider, I passed a statue of a flame. It stands outside of the visitors’ center, right in the middle of downtown Kildare. The artwork is meant to represent the maintenance of an eternal flame for Bridget, a tradition that existed in both Celtic and early Christian times. While walking past storefronts, I passed numerous representations of “Bridget’s cross” – a variation of the traditional cross configuration that is characterized by a more square layout and an overlapping woven effect in its elements. The popularity of both of these symbols suggest that people find strength, solace and resolve in their iconography as well as in the meanings they store.

Perhaps that’s good enough.

 

 

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