Ireland celebrates ‘matron saint’ with prayers, new holiday
KILDARE, IRELAND >> St. Patrick has long received the attention and the big parades, but another patron saint of Ireland is making a 21st century comeback.
St. Brigid of Kildare, a younger contemporary of St. Patrick, is quietly and steadily gaining a following, in Ireland and abroad. Devotees see Brigid, and the ancient Irish goddess whose name and attributes she shares, as emblematic of feminine spirituality and empowerment.
For the first time this year, Ireland is observing a public holiday in honor of St. Brigid’s Day and Imbolc, an ancient pagan holy day associated with the goddess Brigid and heralding the coming of spring. The official holiday is Monday, but celebrations began in earnest this week.
The holiday designation, the first honoring a woman in Ireland, comes 120 years after St. Patrick got his holiday.
“The legacy of St. Brigid and its relevance for our world today is not about going back to the fifth century and staying there, but looking at the needs of the world today,” said Sister Rita Minehan, a Roman Catholic sister and one of the founders of Solas Bhride, a center that opened here in 2015 to welcome pilgrims and foster the spirituality inspired by Brigid.
“Does Brigid have something to say to us today?” said Minehan. “We believe she does.”
Some are calling Brigid the “matron saint” of Ireland.
She is seen as embodying women’s empowerment, environmental care and peacemaking in an Ireland that is increasingly casting off traditional forms of Catholicism.
“I think Ireland is ready to celebrate our women and our goddess and our saint,” said Melanie Lynch, founder and CEO of Herstory, which advocated for the holiday. The organization uses arts and education programs to celebrate female exemplars. “You’re talking about a great role model for young girls.”
Herstory has been sponsoring celebrations around Ireland in recent days — complete with fire dances and light shows — and a traveling exhibit highlighting women peacemakers in Northern Ireland.
The holy day also starts the countdown to the 1,500th anniversary of Brigid’s death in 2024. The coming year will include a conference and other events marking the milestone.
“St Patrick’s Day is obviously iconic around the world,” said the Rev. Philip McKinley, curate of St. Brigid’s Cathedral, an Anglican church that was a derelict medieval ruin until restored in the 19th century. “But now St. Brigid offers this whole new dynamic. She’s a very, very modern saint that speaks to the really cutting-edge issues of our day — gender equality, environmental issues, social care, poverty, peacemaking.”
He said pilgrims come to walk on the ground where Brigid walked and founded an earlier wooden sanctuary — a “church of the oak,” or “cill dara” in Irish, giving the name Kildare to this town where she was a prominent abbess of a monastic settlement of men and women.
On Tuesday evening, to the backdrop of traditional Irish music played on a concertina and tin whistle, about 150 people gathered around a fire pit and a display of candles in a darkened parking lot in Kildare.
Many came from the surrounding area, others from as far as Italy and the United States, to mark the eve of the feast day.