St. Brigit (or Brigid) (3)

Patrick Weston Joyce

Late in life Brigit's influence over young people was unbounded: for her very gentleness gave tenfold power to her words. Once, seeing a young man, a student of the neighbouring college, running very violently and in an unbecoming manner in presence of some of her nuns, she sent for him on the spot and asked him why he was running in such haste. He replied thoughtlessly and half in jest that he was running to heaven: on which she said quietly: "I wish to God, my dear son, that I was worthy to run with you to-day to the same place: I beg you will pray for me to help me to arrive there." And when he heard these words, and looked on her grave kind face, he was greatly moved; and telling her with tears in his eyes that he would surely pray for her and for many others besides, he besought her to offer up her prayers for him that he might continue his journey steadily towards heaven and arrive there in the end. That young man, whose name was Ninnius, became in after-life one of the most revered of the Irish saints.

But with all her gentle unassuming ways, St. Brigit was a woman of strong mind and great talents. She not only governed her various establishments in strict accordance with her own Rules and forms of discipline, but she was a powerful aid in forwarding the mighty religious movement that had been commenced by St. Patrick half a century before. She set an illustrious example to those Irish women who, during and after her time, entered on a religious life; and though many of them became distinguished saints she stands far above them all. No writer has left us a detailed account of her last hours, as Adamnan has done for St. Columkille. (See farther on.) We only know that she died at Kildare on the first of February, in or about the year 523, and that she received the last consolations of religion from the grateful hand of that same Ninnius whom she had turned to a religious life many years before.

She was buried in Kildare where her body was entombed in a magnificent shrine ornamented with gold, silver, and precious stones. We may be sure it was a very beautiful work of art, for we know that there was a noted school of metal workers in Kildare under the direction of St. Conleth, who was himself a most skilful artist; but this tomb was plundered by the Danes three hundred years afterwards, and not a trace of it now remains.

According to some accounts the bones of St. Brigit and St. Columkille were brought to Downpatrick many centuries after the death of both, and buried in the same tomb with the remains of St. Patrick. Whether this was so or not, the matter has been commemorated in a Latin verse of which the following is a translation:—

Interred beneath one tomb in Down, a single vault doth hold

Patrick and Brigit and Columkille, three holy saints of old.

A well known Welshman, Gerald Barry (Giraldus Cambrensis), who was in Ireland in 1185, and who wrote an account of it, says that he found "at Kildare in Leinster, celebrated for the glorious Brigit, the 'Fire of St. Brigit' which is reported never to go out." This fire was kept up day and night by the nuns in his time, and for centuries before—how long no one can tell—probably from the time of the saint herself—and was continued for centuries after: but it was finally extinguished when the monasteries were closed by Henry VIII. in the year 1536. Thomas Moore, in one of his songs, refers to it in the following words:—

Like the bright lamp that shone in Kildare's holy fane,

And burned through long ages of darkness and storm.

St. Brigit is venerated in England and Scotland as well as in Ireland: for in both these countries churches were built in her honour, and many convents were established under her name and rule. She was also well known and honoured on the Continent. We need not wonder that her life has been written by many Irishmen: but English, Scotch, French, Italian, and German writers have also written about her and have commemorated her as one of the most eminent saints of the West.

Convents and monasteries were maintained in Kildare for hundreds of years after the time of St. Brigit; and "Kildare's holy fane" is still venerated as much as ever. On the very ridge where the humble little church was erected fourteen hundred years ago, there is a group of fine old church buildings, with a tall round tower that overlooks the splendid plain of Kildare.