In their new book, bestselling authors Colm Keane and Una O’Hagan describe the life and legacy of one of Ireland’s best-loved patron saints.
A few miles from Dundalk, overlooking Dundalk Bay, there is a lofty hill with spectacular views over the surrounding terrain. In the distance, to the north and east, lie the Cooley Mountains, while below and away to the far horizon can be seen the plains of the south and the sparkling waters of the Irish Sea.
Fifteen hundred years ago, this site, Faughart Hill, marked the home of a chieftain named Dubthach – known as Duffy today – and one of his slaves, Brocessa. It was here, around the year 450, their daughter Brigid was born. Legend tells us that the child was predicted to become ‘celebrated throughout the entire world.’ That prediction would come to pass in so many ways.
In time, she became an abbess, monastery founder, miracle worker and saint who, in the fifth and sixth centuries, wielded more power in the Catholic Church than any woman has wielded before or since. Not only did she set up one of the most successful and innovative monasteries in history, but her convents were scattered all over Ireland. Her fame also spread down through the centuries.
Hundreds of thousands of girls and women ended up bearing her name. There have been, and still are, a lot of them about – many named Brigid or Bridget; others named Bridie, Breege, Bríd, Bride, Biddy, Breda, Bid, or even Bee and Beesy. There was a time when you could hardly round a corner in Ireland without bumping into one of them.
Her name was also commemorated abroad – at St. Brides Bay in Wales, St. Bees Head in Cumbria, even in the Hebrides in Scotland, whose name is said to derive from hers. There is a St. Brigid’s school in Tasmania, a Bride Peak in the Himalayan Mountains, and an island named Bride off the coast of Japan. And all this for a child who was born at the modest location of Faughart Hill, located about three miles from Dundalk, County Louth.
By all accounts, Brigid grew up to be a beautiful girl, both physically and in spirit. Her figure was moulded with an unusual gracefulness, and she was of bright mind, according to early accounts. She had a ready smile and angelic looks. Many people remarked on her propriety of speech and her interest in holy practices.
Despite these endearing qualities, she was headstrong and independent. Like the later saints Thérèse of Lisieux and Bernadette of Lourdes, she knew her own mind and never deviated. In this respect, she was true to her name, which meant ‘power,’ ‘strength’ and ‘vigour.’ No one was more determined to achieve her goals than the future Abbess of Kildare.
From an early age, strange things happened around Brigid. On one occasion, when she was minding her father’s pigs, they broke apart as a herd and dispersed over a wide distance. Two unscrupulous men noticed what was happening, stole two of them, and began to lead them away.