February 1 – Brigid

Painting of Brigid by Patrick Joseph Tuohy, before 1930Brigid of Ireland (ca. 451–525) (aka “Mary of the Gaels”) is one of the three patrons of Ireland (with Patrick (Mar 17) and James Joyce—kidding, Columba (Jun 9)). Many scholars think that some of the legends about her are holdovers from the Celtic goddess Brigid, but that debate is outside our remit, so we’ll let the scholars duke it out and get on with our tale.

Born in Faughart to Dubthach, an Irish chieftain, and his Portuguese slave (which greatly displeased the chieftainess), she grew up with a heart for the poor, often sneaking out of the house and giving away food from her parents’ larder (which greatly displeased the chieftainess). This kind of thing grew so irksome that Dubthach took her to the king and offered to sell her to him. While they were inside dickering, Brigid gave away Dad’s jeweled sword to a leper. The king declined, saying he couldn’t afford her.

This incident finally convinced her father to let her become a monastic, as she had long desired. She received the veil from Bishop Mel (an ancestor of the cook on “Alice”), who while doing so also read the ordination rites of a bishop over her. When his assistant objected, he replied it must have been the Holy Spirit’s doing, and let it stand. Few today, however, call her “Bishop Brigid” because it’s kind of a tongue-twister. (Go on, try to say it five times fast.) After founding a couple of small religious houses—mere essays in the craft, you might say—she finally settled down in a place she called Cill-Dare (church at the oak), now Kildare. It was a double monastery, with monks and nuns, and she ruled both with wisdom and charity and small woven crosses. Her patronage of the arts may have also included an illuminated gospel, either a rival to the Book of Kells and now lost, or the Book of Kells itself. Details have been sketchy since the card catalog was destroyed.

Although the identity of the book is lost, many stories have come down to us. One story tells of how a poor fool[1] killed a tame fox that sometimes visited the king’s court and pleased him by doing tricks. The king was livid, and vowed to kill the man and sell his family into slavery unless a similar fox could be produced as ransom. Sadly the local fox shop was fresh out, and it looked like curtains for the poor fool. But Brigid heard of this, had her chariot made ready, and was soon speeding across the countryside. (As quickly as the roads allowed; this was well before the 1919 Ministry of Transport Act.) Suddenly a fox leapt into her lap, curled up, and fell asleep. When she arrived, she begged the king for clemency for the poor fool and his family, but the king refused, again demanding a replacement fox. Brigid then pulled the animal out of her cloak with a flourish (or so we hope) and set him down, whereupon he gamboled in just the way the old fox had. The king was satisfied and released the poor fool and his family, who hightailed it out of there. Brigid went home, and the fox, soon grown weary of its treatment in the king’s court (this king presumably didn’t treat his foxes any better than his fools), escaped back to his own den. “You’re back!” exclaimed his vixen. “It must be a mighty fine town-o.”

After her death, legends like these sprang up around Brigid like poppies in Flanders. Speaking of Flanders, a church in Fosses-la-Ville (“This-Town-Is-the-Pits”), Belgium, is dedicated to her memory and holds one of her relics. Speaking of relics, her bones were early moved from Kildare to Downpatrick, where they lie with Patrick and Columba. Except of course the relic already mentioned, and one of her hands, which now resides near Lisbon in her mother’s native Portugal (I was unable to determine how the chieftainess felt about this).

[1] One imagines that if a fool were rich, they’d find another line of work. Then again, they’re a fool.