|St Brigit in Melbourne, Australia|
One of the most interesting aspects of the hagiography of Brigit is, therefore, its variety, rooted in particular places and enjoying different audiences. Cogitosus's life was addressed initially to the bishop and other educated clerics within the double monastery of Kildare and then to their equivalents in the other major churches; to meet the expectations of such a readership it had to be, and is, a polished piece of writing; Read More...
For Cogitosus, therefore, Conlaíd was important as the first archbishop; a different aspect of his character is
One possible source of Brigit's status as one of the three principal saints of Ireland (together with Patrick and Columba)
|Leabhar Breac: Speckled Book|
The differences appear in the character of the miracles the saints are said to perform. Patrick (that is, in his late seventh-century guise; the original Patrick was very different) is the saint who defeats the magi, the druids, of the pagan king; he is also the saint who by his blessings and curses decrees the fates of dynasties; the habitat of this Patrick is thus as much the royal household as the church. Brigit, on the other hand, never dictates the course of dynastic politics. Her power is expressed in ‘helping miracles’, healings, feeding the hungry, and rescuing the weak from violence. The contrast can be seen most directly in the different treatments of a single theme, the conflict between two branches of the Uí Néill, Cenél Coirpri and the descendants of Conall Cremthainne, for control of the midlands. In Tírechán's Collectanea, Patrick intervenes directly: he curses Coirpre and mingles with his curse a prophecy of the decline of his lineage; he then goes on to bless Conall Cremthainne and so grants him hegemony over his brothers. Tírechán was here playing the tune of a contemporary high-king of Ireland, Fínsnechtae Fledach, who ruled between 675 and 695. The Vita prima has Brigit intervene in the same quarrel, but she does so in order to save the rivals from each other, not to give one of them the victory. Her concern is to avert violence, not to legitimize anyone's triumph.
The mode of action is as different as the objective: Patrick acts as an Irish Samuel, taking kingship from Coirpre and his descendants, confronting proud kings in their own halls and places of assembly. Brigit, on the other hand, is sought out by the rival brothers, approached on the open road, and she saves each of them from the other. Whereas Patrick deals in the ambitions of kings, Brigit reacts to their fears. When Conall Cremthainne's childless queen sought Brigit's prayers so that she might have a child, Brigit only communicated with her through a nun. The latter asked Brigit: ‘Why is it you don't ask the Lord for the queen to have a son, whereas you often ask him on behalf of the wives of the common folk?’ And Brigit said:
For Brigit's actions, the determining model was more often the New rather than the Old Testament. Most of her miracles are humble affairs for people of low rank and poor circumstances. Unlike Patrick, she has a concern for animals, dogs, and wolves; so too does Columba, but significantly his concern was for a bird that had been driven by the wind from his native kingdom, ruled by his kinsmen, Cenél Conaill. Whether or not there is any historical truth in the claim that she was a slave by birth—something which cannot be known—she was certainly presented by the Vita prima and Bethu Brigte as a saint for the poor. Nor was she a saint only for the Irish: the cult reflected in the Welsh place names is already suggested by a story in both the Vita prima and Bethu Brigte according to which two blind Britons came to her guided by a young leper belonging to her own people, the Fothairt. They complained, ‘You have healed the infirm of your own people and you neglect the healing of foreigners. But at least heal our boy who is of your own people’ (Bethu Brigte, ed. Ó hAodha, §27). In response to their plea, Brigit healed both the boy of his leprosy and the Britons of their blindness: as Christ began with the Jews but extended his teaching and his miracles to Samaritans and Gentiles, so Brigit might begin with the Fothairt but she came to be a saint also for the Britons.
|Circa 900, by Erikas|
The beginning of Brigit's life according to the Vita prima was played out against the background of the jealousy felt by Dubthach's wife towards Broicsech, her husband's slave woman and concubine. The wife brought pressure on Dubthach to sell Broicsech to someone from another country. In telling this story, theVita prima uses the model of Abraham, Sarah, and his Egyptian slave woman, Hagar, adopting for its own use the words of Sarah, ‘Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac’ (Genesis 21: 10). Yet it reverses the implications of the Genesisstory, for it includes a prophecy that the descendants of the wife would serve the offspring of the slave woman. As Hagar was driven out into the desert, so Broicsech was sold to a poet from the lands of the Uí Néill. She was subsequently sold on to a druid, in whose household Brigit was born, either in 439 or in 452, according to different annalists' guesses. This druid was to prove crucial for Brigit's early life. His paternal lineage was in Munster, in the northern Munster kingdom of Uaithne Tíre according to Bethu Brigte; his mother's family came from Connacht, while he himself was then resident in the north of Ireland. In this way Brigit made her first journey, from Leinster to the lands of the southern Uí Néill, then to the north, and on to Connacht and Munster. This journey has been seen as an assertion of ecclesiastical lordship, a theory supported by the statement made by the infant Brigit in Connacht, ‘This will be mine; this will be mine’ (Connolly, ‘Vita prima’, §11). Yet there are clear differences between Brigit's journey and the circuit around northern Ireland made by Patrick, according to Tírechán. Part of the journey was made by Brigit when she was still in her mother's womb; moreover, whereas Patrick's circuit went sunwise, deisel, Brigit's went widdershins, tuaithbiul. Because of her association with a poet and a druid, her journeyings were more directly linked with the circuits of poets and other ‘people of art’ than with the circuits of kings. Brigit's journeys were hagiographical conventions that, in this instance, expressed connections and alliances more often than lordship. Later she was made to visit Armagh and Downpatrick, two pre-eminent Patrician sites. This can hardly have been because the hagiographer wished to claim that they belonged to Brigit. It is much more likely that behind the visit to Armagh lay the fact that a branch of the Fothairt was settled nearby.
Another difference between Brigit's first journey and Patrick's circuit is in the attitudes expressed to druids. Patrick consistently opposed and defeated druids, perceived as the embodiment of Irish paganism. The druid of Munster parentage who bought Brigit's mother, Broicsech, is treated much more gently. The ambiguities are well brought out by an anecdote concerning their stay in the druid's Munster home. Brigit had difficulty eating:
|Plains of South Kildare by Sarah777|
Kildare was also an important centre of scholarship, which helped to make it the most important church of northern Leinster; moreover, Mag Lifi, the plain of the Liffey, on the western edge of which Kildare is situated, was the principal centre of power in the whole province of Leinster. Kildare thus became the pre-eminent church of the province. In Irish law, a church of such importance conferred a status on its head equivalent to that of a bishop. The abbess of Kildare, the heir of Brigit, was thus far and away the most important woman in Ireland. Abbesses of Kildare were the only women whose obits were often recorded in the annals, more frequently commemorated even than queens of Tara.
In the late seventh century Kildare was especially open to English and continental influence. In the period after it had embraced the Roman Easter (probably in the 630s) and before Armagh followed suit (probably in the 680s), Kildare had the opportunity to take the leadership of the Roman party within the Irish church. Cogitosus's life of Brigit was principally written to further this ambition. Its depiction of the shrines of Brigit and Conlaíd within the church of Kildare is the earliest evidence for the elevation and enshrinement of relics in Ireland. This practice, already popular for more than a century in Francia, was also spreading in England in the late seventh century, as illustrated by the translation and enshrinement of Cuthbert's body in 697. The exact date of Cogitosus's life is uncertain, but his text may well be the earliest evidence for the practice in either Ireland or Britain. As in Cuthbert's case, so also in Brigit's: this enhancement of the visible status of the saint had a background of ecclesiastical politics. Cogitosus's life consists of a series of largely humble, down-to-earth miracle stories related to those in the last section of the Vita prima, but these are framed by two major political statements. The passage on the two shrines comes at the end; at the beginning there is a preface in which it is asserted that Kildare is the see of an archbishop whose authority extends over the whole island. In Irish terms, this was a novel assertion soon to be countered by Armagh's claim to such an island-wide archiepiscopal status in the Liber angeli (‘Book of the angel’). The model for such claims is likely to be the authority given to Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury, by Pope Vitalian: from 669 until 735 the archbishops of Canterbury were entitled ‘archbishops of the island of Britain’. Kildare, therefore, was the quickest of all Irish churches to react to developments on the continent and in England. Yet its ambitions were never to be realized: Armagh, threatened by Kildare and by Northumbrian power, itself adopted the Roman Easter, whereupon the prestige of Patrick as the apostle of Ireland, to which the Vita prima of Brigit is one of the earlier and more eloquent (because independent) witnesses, gave Armagh a decisive advantage. In the twelfth-century reorganization of the Irish church, Kildare became the see of a diocese for north-west Leinster, but it was the nearby Hiberno-Norse city of Dublin that became the seat of an archbishopric.
T. M. CHARLES-EDWARDS
© Oxford University Press 2004–14 All rights reserved
T. M. Charles-Edwards, ‘Brigit (439/452–524/526)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/3427, accessed 23 July 2014]
Brigit (439/452–524/526): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/3427
Conlaíd (d. 518/520): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/6060
Dar Lugdach (d. 525/527): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/7160