A-Z of Saints: Brigid

St Brigid of Ireland (c453-c523), also known as St Bride or St Bridget, or indeed Mary of the Gael, was present when St Patrick himself was teaching.

Her mother, Brocca, was a Pictish slave whom Patrick had baptised. Brocca had been sold to a Druid landowner and put in charge of his dairy.

Brigid took charge and, despite giving away much of the produce, the dairy became such a success that her mother was freed.

Her father, meanwhile, was Dubtach, the pagan Scots King of Leinster. He had tried to sell his daughter, who often gave away his possessions too, but while he bargained with the Christian King of Leinster, she gave Dubtach’s prized sword to a leper.

The Christian King forbad her father from punishing her and declared “Her merit before God is greater than ours”. She was then given her own freedom. Legend has it that St Patrick (or perhaps his deputy St Mel) made a mistake when hearing her final vows, using the form for ordaining priests.

On realising his error, he observed that “she is destined for great things”. Another legend says that she prayed for her beauty to be taken away from her, and it was only restored after she had taken these vows.


Her great works began with the founding of a small convent, with just seven nuns at the foot of Croghan Hill. She gradually travelled across all of Ireland and started many convents elsewhere as well as the first ‘double monastery’ for both monks and nuns, in Kildare.

This became the “Church of the Oak” on account of the tree where it was built. Kildare eventually became a cathedral city and for centuries it was governed by a double line of bishops and abbesses.

She also founded a school of art, including metalwork and illumination, which produced the highly praised Book of Kildare, sadly lost in the Reformation. When she was dying, she was attended by St Ninnidh, who became “Ninnidh of the clean hand” after having his right hand encased in metal to prevent its being defiled thereafter.


Brigid died in Kildare and her shrine became an object of veneration for pilgrims, especially on her feast day of 1 February. After Viking raids, her relics were later taken to the tomb of St Patrick and St Columba in Downpatrick, where they remain, although apparently a hand was removed to a Jesuit church in Lisbon.

Brigid’s name means ‘arrow of fire’ and she has often become conflated with the Celtic goddess of fire of the same name. One intepretation suggests that Brigid was in fact a pagan priestess who built a sanctuary at the oak of Kildare, and later converted to Christianity.

She is also known as the keeper of the Sacred Flame of Kildare, a fire that was kept burning for centuries and was later described by the historian and hagiographer Gerald of Wales.

Place names across Ireland and Britain such as Kilbride and Brideswell commemorate her, including London’s ‘printers’ and typographers’ church’ of St Bride.

As a result of her voyages she is a patron of travellers, sailors, nuns and even fugitives. She is also the patron saint of chicken farmers!

Other notable ‘B’ Saints

  • St Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. Little is known about him but tradition has it that after witnessing the Ascension, he travelled to India where he left a copy of Matthew’s Gospel. His feast day is 24 August. He is believed to have been flayed alive in Armenia and thus became the patron saint of tanners.
  • St Benedict of Nursia (c480-543) is remembered as the founder of Western monasticism. Son of a Roman noble, he sought solitude but attracted others and established the Benedictine order through his famous Rule, dividing the monastic life into periods of sleep, prayer, reading, rest and labour. Among many others he is the patron of farmers and schoolchildren.
  • St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was a French abbot and scholar who became a leading figure of the Cistercian order of monks. He drew renown for his preaching and healing. He encourage King Louis VII to go on the Second Crusade and had considerable political influence at the time. He is the patron of beekeepers and candlemakers.