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February 1 is the feast of St. Brigid of Ireland, often called Mary of the Gael. Her feast day is one of the official holy days of the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, Inc. Hibernians throughout the country gather annually for celebrations in her honor. St. Brigid’s life was a remarkable one, next to St. Patrick she is the most revered saint in all of Ireland.
Gaelic Order and the Druidic religion. St Patrick had already reached Ireland and was in the process of changing all that, but though his message had reached the court of Dubhtach, the powerful Leinster Chieftain held firm to the old religion. In his religion, one of the most powerful goddesses was 'Brid or Brigid,' the goddess of fire whose knowledge. Her feast day was the first festival of the year and was held on February 1. It was the beginning of spring; the working season for farmers and fishermen and a time of husbanding of animals and the Celts called on 'Brid' to bless their work and bonfires were lit in her honor.
Patrick did not condemn the Celts as idolatrous pagans, but explained their druidic customs in Christian terms and gradually, Bible heroes and Christian saints began to replace the Celtic gods and goddesses on the Irish calendar. However, the personalities of some of the Celtic deities were so strong that they could not be replaced and one of these was 'Brid' and the rites associated with her continued to be practiced each February 1 right into Christian times. But this was soon to change.
At about 453 AD, a child was born between Dubhtach and one of his Christian slaves named Brocessa. The slave girl was sent to a cabin at the foot of the Cooley Mountains near Dundalk, Co Louth, to have the child. The baby was a healthy girl. The mother was sold to a Chieftain in Connaught and the child was given to a Druid to be raised and educated. The child was named Brigid; perhaps to seek the blessing of the goddess for from the very beginning, there were indications that she was special. It was
reported that she was born at sunrise and that the cottage in which she was born burst into flames when she left it.
Brigid grew into beauty and her love for all of God's creatures knew no bounds. After her fosterage, she returned to her father's house as a slave, although she enjoyed the privileges of family. She was given to solitude and loved to wander the woods befriending the animals. She was renowned for her generosity, giving much of her father's wealth away to the poor. Many are the stories attributed to this remarkable lady, including her journey on foot from Leinster to Connaught to find her mother whom she freed from bondage and returned to the house of Dubhtach.
In keeping with the life planed for her, she became a vestal virgin in service to the goddess 'Brid' and eventually high priestess at the Kil Dara (the temple of the oak), a pagan sanctuary built from the wood of a tree sacred to the Druids. There she and her companions kept a perpetual ritual fire in honor of 'Brid.'
The exact circumstances of her conversion to Christianity are unknown, though it is certain that her Christian mother was a guiding influence. Some claim that she personally met St. Patrick which is possible since she was 10 years old before he died. Whatever the circumstances, Brigid and her companions in service to 'Brid,' all accepted the Christian faith and formed Ireland's first Christian religious community of women. Legend tells that upon her acceptance of her vows, fire appeared above her head.
Brigid changed the pagan sanctuary of Kil Dara into a Christian shrine, which gave its flame dedicated to Christ, which was thereafter maintained by her followers until it was doused by the forces of Henry VIII. Brigid's wisdom and generosity became legend and people traveled from all over the country to share her wisdom. Her monastery at Kildare became one of the greatest centers of learning in Europe.
She continued her holy and charitable work until her death in 526 AD, when she was laid to rest in a jeweled casket at Kil Dara. In 835, her remains were moved to protect them from Norse invaders and interred in the same grave that holds the remains of St. Patrick and St. Columcille at Downpatrick.
So strong was the respect and reverence for this holy lady that she became the patroness of parishes, towns and counties, not only in Ireland, but also across Europe.
During the Age of Chivalry, Brigid was so revered as a model of women of every age, that gentlemen, knights and nobles began the custom of calling their sweethearts their "Brides" - a custom that has come down to this very day. In Ireland, the people likened her to 'Brid,' the ancient goddess of fire and wisdom - for wasn't Brigid's life touched with fire and as for her wisdom, that was undisputed.
As the shamrock became associated with St. Patrick, a tiny cross-made of rushes was aligned with St. Brigid. Supposedly woven by her to explain the passion of Christ to a dying pagan, similar crosses are fashioned to this day as a defense against harm and placed in the rafters of a cottage on the feast day of St. Brigid.
So, it was that reverence for this holy child of Ireland grew so strong that she not only eclipsed 'Brid' for whom she was named, but was given her Feast Day. Second only to St. Patrick as a Patron of Ireland, Saint Brigid (St. Bride) holds a cross woven from rushes (St. Brigid's cross), which was her custom to make when she was instructing the pagans and which are hung anew in Irish homes each year on her feast day. In her other hand, she holds a bowl of "St. Brigid's fire," a miraculous fire that burned at her convent for centuries.
Prayer to St. Brigid
Saint Brigid, You were a woman of peace. You brought light downcast. May the mantle of your peace cover those who are troubled and anxious, and may peace be firmly rooted in our hearts and in our You were a woman of peace. You brought world. Inspire us to act justly and to reverence harmony where there was conflict. You brought all God has made. Brigid you were a voice for the wounded and the weary. Strengthen what is weak within us. Calm us into a quietness that heals and listens. May we grow each day into greater wholeness in mind, body and spirit. Amen
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