Shane Lordan: Saint Brigit’s cult in Ireland and Europe: a comparative investigation into the adaptation, growth and success of medieval female sanctity

All saints and their cults are fascinating for what they can tell us about the past, but Brigit fascinates me the most. Along with Patrick and Columba, she has exercised a great influence on the formation of Irish identity, and thanks to the Irish Research Council I am investigating the growth of her legend and cult in medieval Ireland and Europe.

What, you might ask, has Europe got to do with one of Ireland’s most identifiable saints? Most would consider Brigit to be the quintessential Irish saint. Yet in a sense she is also the least Irish. There is, of course, the possibility that the original Brigit figure was a pre-Christian goddess, but the saint herself is as ‘European’ as any of us today. All the stories we know and love about her, her travels around the island, and her many miracles, are preserved in her medieval biographies known as ‘Lives’. Originally composed in Ireland from as early as the seventh century, all bar one survive now only in manuscripts from continental scriptoria. This is because medieval Irish missionaries took Brigit with them to the continent, where she became a figure of devotion for many who knew nothing about her island home. These new communities inherited her stories and traditions and made them their own. After all, saints are only remembered as long as they continue to mean something to people, and Brigit’s partial ‘makeover’ ensured she found a new home outside of Ireland.

As we have so little evidence from early Ireland, it’s difficult to estimate the level of change Brigit underwent and how much of her is still ‘original’, but that’s what I love about my research: investigating the ways our ancestors shaped and adapted Brigit’s identity alongside their own. For me, this is summed up in Harry Clarke’s depiction of Brigit in St. Mary’s church, Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo. As part of the early-twentieth-century Cultural Revival, figures like Clarke looked to Brigit as a touchstone for Ireland’s ancient past; reviving her for a new Ireland. In this, whether they knew it or not, they were simply taking the next step in Brigit’s long tradition of change and reinvention.