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An Irish Tale: St. Brigid of Ireland and How Stories Become History

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An Irish Tale: St. Brigid of Ireland and How Stories Become History

There is little doubt that one of our newest books, Brigid and the Butter, is based on folklore about St. Brigid of Ireland rather than on fact. Does that make it any less compelling for children to read? Our tradition says no: Jesus himself used parables (stories) to illustrate what he was talking about, and folklore (stories) often tells us more about who we are than any law or date can ever do.

 

The farther back in time we go, the less we tend to know about people. Sometimes no one writes anything about them; sometimes those writings are lost or destroyed. But if over time the same stories are being told about someone, over and over again, then we can assume that the stories, even if not factual, can enlighten us to the person’s character or accomplishments.

 

St. Brigid is a mysterious figure in many ways. In the fifth and sixth centuries, during the time that Ireland was converting to Christianity, it was a common strategy to follow the example of St. Patrick by building the “new” religion onto the old one. And the truth is that one of the most powerful goddesses in the Celtic Parthenon was Brigantia—or Brigid. Her feast day, Imbolg, became our St. Brigid’s Day.

 

Born into slavery, it’s said that Brigid was "veiled" and given abbatial powers after vowing herself to Christ. According to tradition, around 480 she founded a monastery at Kildare on the site of an older pagan shrine to the Celtic goddess who was her namesake. With an initial group of seven companions, Brigid organized the first communal consecrated religious life for women in Ireland. Brigid is also credited with founding a school of art, including metal work and illumination; the Kildare scriptorium made the Book of Kildare, which drew high praise from Gerald of Wales, but which has disappeared after the Reformation.

 

Could Brigid have reached out in generosity and performed a miracle with butter, as Pamela Love’s story tells us? It’s not impossible. Take a look at some of the other miracles credited over the centuries to this saint:

  • Brigid was known to turn water into milk or beer for the celebration of Easter.
  • When she was a teenager, Brigid was trying to go see Saint Patrick but was slowed up by the crowd. To get through, she healed people along the way who were waiting for St. Patrick to heal them.
  • The prayers of Saint Brigid were known to still the wind and the rain.
  • In one story, Brigid protected a woman from a nobleman who had entrusted a silver brooch to the woman for safekeeping but then secretly threw it into the sea. He charged her with stealing it, knowing that he could take her as a slave if a judge ruled in his favor. The woman fled and sought refuge with Brigid's community. Providentially, one of her fishermen hauled in a fish which, when cut open, proved to have swallowed the brooch. The nobleman freed the woman, confessed his sin, and bowed in submission to Brigid.
  • On another occasion, Brigid was travelling to see a physician for her headache. She stayed at the house of a Leinster couple who had two mute daughters. The daughters were traveling with Brigid when her horse startled, causing her to fall and graze her head on a stone. A touch of Brigid's blood healed the girls.
  • When on the bank of the River Inny, Brigid was given a gift of apples. She later entered a house where many lepers begged her for these apples, which she offered willingly. The woman who had given the gift to Brigid was angered by this, saying that she had not intended her gift for lepers. Brigid was angry at the woman for withholding from the lepers and cursed her trees so they would no longer bear fruit. Yet another woman also gave Brigid the same gift, and again Brigid gave the apples to begging lepers. This time the second woman asked that she and her garden be blessed. Brigid then said that a large tree in the woman’s garden would have twofold fruit from its offshoots, and it came to pass.
  • One Easter Sunday, a leper had come to Brigid to ask for a cow. She said she would rest and would help him later; however, he did not wish to wait and said he would go somewhere else for a cow. Brigid then offered to heal him, but the man stubbornly replied that his condition allowed him to get more than he would if he were healthy. After convincing the leper that this was not so, she told one of her maidens to have the man washed in a blessed mug of water. When this was done, the man was healed and vowed to serve Brigid.
  • One of the more commonly told stories is of Brigid asking the King of Leinster for land. She told the king that the place where she stood was the perfect spot for a convent. It was beside a forest where they could collect firewood and berries. There was also a lake nearby that would provide water, and the land was fertile. The king laughed at her and refused to give her any land. Brigid prayed to God and asked him to soften the king's heart. Then she smiled at the king and said, "Will you give me as much land as my cloak will cover?" The king thought that she was joking and, hoping to get rid of her, he agreed. She told four of her sisters to take up the cloak, but instead of laying it flat on the turf, each sister, with face turned to a different point of the compass, began to run swiftly, the cloth growing in all directions. The cloak began to cover many acres of land. The king was persuaded, and soon after that became a Christian and began to help the poor; he even commissioned the building of a convent. Legend has it that the convent was known for making jam from local blueberries, and a tradition has sprung up of eating jam on St. Brigid’s Day.

 

Many of the stories about St. Brigid feature dairy products such as butter and milk. Dairy products were very special foods: difficult to produce and to keep fresh. Of the dairy products, milk in particular was associated with healing. It was a high prestige food that was always on the menu when there were visitors. Having her stories associated with milk and other dairy products underlines Brigid’s purity and worth in the eyes of her followers.

 

Stories are a way to teach us something, and the stories that grow up around saints can sometimes be just as valuable to us as are the actual facts pertaining to the saints’ lives.  - by Jeannette de Beauvois  

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