On e would have to look through many centuries, and over a wide tract of the earth’s surface, to find a woman who possessed in her own generation so large an influence, and who so deeply impressed her personality on after generations, as S. Bridget. A woman she was, with no advantages of birth; but who by the mere force of character and her marvellous holiness, became a predominating power in the Church of Ireland after the death of S. Patrick.
It is said of the sick that the nurse is as important as the doctor; and in the spread of the Gospel and the establishment of the Church, the part of Bridget was only second to that of the great Apostle of Ireland.
The lives of S. Bridget that we possess are, 152unhappily, late, and intermixed, nay, overloaded with fable; the most grotesque and preposterous miracles are attributed to her. Nevertheless, when sifted, and the extravagances have been eliminated, sufficient of truth, of real history and biography remains behind for us to distinguish the main outline of her story, and to discern the real characteristics of the Saint.
It would seem to be a law of Divine providence, that at such periods of transformation as arise periodically, suitable persons should rise to prominence for giving direction to the disturbed minds of men in the general dislocation of received ideas.
To understand the exact position of S. Bridget, and the work she wrought, it is necessary for us to look at the condition of Ireland before it received the Gospel.
The whole political organisation was tribal, and not territorial. The chief of the clan was almost absolute, and about him, as a centre of unity, the tribesmen clung, as bees about their queen.
The chiefs had their Druids or Medicine-men, who blessed their undertakings and cursed 153their enemies, and the most unbounded confidence was placed in the efficacy of these blessings or curses. The Druids were endowed with lands, and probably in Ireland, as in Britain, constituted sacred tribes within the tribal confines of the secular chiefs.
When S. Patrick arrived he at once strove to effect the conversion of the chiefs, for without that his efforts with the bulk of the population must fail, and the conversion of a chief entailed as a consequence that of his clan. The Druids, when discredited, were disposed to accept Christianity; where they were not, the chiefs did not disestablish them, but gave to S. Patrick and his followers fresh sites on which to constitute their own ecclesiastical federations, on precisely the same system as that of the Druids. S. Patrick throughout acted in the most conciliatory spirit; he overthrew nothing that was capable of being adapted, and his wise forbearance conciliated even those at first most opposed to him.
There can be little doubt that in Ireland, as in Gaul, there had been colleges of Druidesses, as there had been of Druids. We do not 154know this by the testimony of texts, but it is more than probable. In Gaul these women were prophetesses; they lived in solitary places, often on islands. The nine Scenæ occupied an island in the Seine. The priestesses of the Namnetes lived on another at the mouth of the Loire, in huts about a temple. Once in the year they were bound, between one night and another, to destroy and replace the roof of their temple; and woe to the woman who dropped any of the sacred materials! Instantly she was set upon by her sisters, and torn limb from limb.
When S. Patrick and his missionaries entered on the prerogatives of the Druids, there was occasion for Christian women to usurp the places, and to some extent the functions, of the Druidesses. And this is precisely the line adopted by S. Bridget. The year of her birth was between 451 and 458, and she was the daughter of a slave woman, who had been sold to a Druid. Her mother’s name was Brotseach. The father, Dubtach, was a nominal Christian, but a thoroughly heartless and unprincipled man.
155The Druid and his wife were kindly people, and provided a white cow with red ears, on whose milk the little child was reared, and they allowed only one woman whom they could trust to milk the cow. As she grew up, Bridget was set to keep sheep on the moors; and there, not only did she tend them, but she also tamed the wild birds that flew about her. Soon the wild ducks and brent-geese allowed her to stroke them. When she had grown old enough to be useful, she asked leave to go and see her father, who lived in Leinster, whereas her mother was a slave in Ulster. The Druid at once gave her leave, and she left. Her father was not cordial in his reception of her, and set her to keep swine, and also at times to manage the kitchen. On one occasion, when visited by an acquaintance, he bade her boil five pieces of bacon for the entertainment. Unfortunately a hungry dog came in and carried off some of the bacon. This threw Dubtach into a fury, and he sent her back to her mother.
On her return, Bridget found Brotseach very ill and unable to attend to her work. 156It was summer, and she had been sent with the cattle to a mountain pasture, such as in Wales is called a hafod, whereas the winter habitation is the hendrê. There were twelve cows to be milked, and their butter to be made. Bridget undertook the supervision of the dairy with energy, and some verses have been preserved which it is said she sang as she churned: “Oh, my Prince, who canst do all things, and God, bless, I pray Thee, my kitchen with Thy right hand—my kitchen, the kitchen blessed by the white God, blessed by the Mighty King, a kitchen stocked with butter. Son of Mercy, my Friend, come and look upon my kitchen, and give me abundance.”
It was reported to the Druid that Bridget gave the buttermilk to the poor, and he and his wife started for the mountain dairy to see that she was not wasting their substance; but they found that the butter she had made was so good and so plentiful that they were satisfied. Indeed, the kindly old man at once gave Brotseach and Bridget their liberty, to go where they would. He and his wife had been won by their piety and 157blameless life, and gladly consented to be baptised.
Bridget and her mother left with thanks and tears, and went to Leinster to Dubtach, who was well connected and rich, but avaricious. Bridget particularly annoyed him by her readiness to give food to the poor. To what extent she was justified in this may be questioned. But it must be remembered that the period was one in which no provision whatever was made for the poor, who starved unless assisted; and the girl’s tender heart could not endure to see their sufferings and not to relieve them.
At last Dubtach could stand it no longer, and he took her in his chariot to sell her into slavery, to grind at the quern for Dunlaing, son of the King of Leinster. On reaching the king’s dun, or castle, Dubtach went within and left Bridget outside in the chariot. A squalid leper came up, begging. Bridget, whether out of impulsive charity, or more probably in a fit of mischievous cunning, knowing that her father was selling her like a calf or a sheep, gave to the leper the sword 158which Dubtach had left in the chariot. The poor man at once disappeared with the gift. Next moment the prince and her father issued from the dun; the prince desired to look at the girl before purchasing her. Instantly Dubtach discovered that his sword was gone, and he asked after it. “I have given it away for your soul’s good,” said Bridget, with a twinkle in her eye. “On my word!” exclaimed the prince, “I cannot afford to buy such extravagant slaves as this.”
Dubtach drove home in a fury, and he made his house so intolerable that she resolved to embrace the monastic life. She sought Bishop Maccaille, taking seven companions with her, all desiring to unite in the service of God and in ministering to the sick and needy.
Bishop Maccaille placed white veils on their heads, and blessed and consecrated them. Bridget was then aged eighteen.
Each of the girls chose one of the Beatitudes as her special virtue, which before all others she would seek to attain; and Bridget selected as hers “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
159An odd story was told in later times concerning this consecration. It was said that Maccaille opened his book in the wrong place, and instead of reading the office for the consecration of a virgin, read over her that for the ordination of a bishop.
This fable was invented for a purpose. As we shall see presently, Bridget became head of an ecclesiastical tribe, and had under her jurisdiction a bishop who was amenable to her orders. This was a condition of affairs not at all uncommon among the British, Irish, and Scots, but it was incomprehensible in mediæval times to those trained under another system, when bishops were sources of jurisdiction. So this story was made up to give some justification for the exercise, by the Abbess Bridget, of authority over a bishop and priests.
In the Life of S. Bridget we are assured that when she was twelve years old she met S. Patrick, and that she wove the shroud in which he was buried. According to the ordinary computation, S. Patrick came to Ireland in 432, and died in 465; but Dr. Todd has shown good reason to believe that this 160calculation rests on an error. Palladius, whose name was also Patricius, was sent to Ireland in 432 by Pope Celestine; but he failed in his mission, abandoned Ireland, and died at Fordun. Neither S. Patrick himself, in his Confession, nor the earliest notices of him, say a word of his having been sent by Celestine, and there is reason to believe that he really came to Ireland in 460, and died in 493. If this be the case, it is quite possible that there may be truth in the story of the meeting of Bridget and the great apostle, and that it was his influence which induced her to adopt the life she chose. Bridget was now at the head of her little community of eight virgins, and they at once devoted themselves to good works.
Very soon great numbers of pious women came to her from every quarter, entreating to be received into her community and placed under her direction.
We can see by the brutality of Dubtach selling the mother of his child to a heathen Druid, though he himself professed to be a Christian, and later, deliberately attempting to sell his daughter, that women at that time 161were treated as chattels, and no respect was paid to them. It was largely due to Bridget that an immense revulsion of feeling in this particular took place.
She travelled over Ireland, and, wherever she was able, planted those who placed themselves in her hands near their own relatives and in their own country. She entered into correspondence with the bishops. She was warmly seconded by Erc of Slane, by Mel of Armagh, and Ailbe of Emly.
She managed to dot her settlements through a large portion of the island, and they became not only hospitals for the sick, but nurseries of learning, for she made a point of having the young girls confided to her for education taught their letters.
King Conall visited her on his way to make a raid, and to ask her benediction on his arms; “for,” said he, “it is a mighty great pleasure cutting the throats of our enemies.”
Bridget used all her endeavours to dissuade him from an unprovoked attack against those who were at peace with him, but she could induce him to go home only on one condition—that 162she would promise him her aid in all legitimate wars.
Somewhat later he was engaged in a military expedition, and it had been successful.
As he was returning, very tired, with his men, he reached a dun or castle, and resolved to rest there. His men dissuaded him, as the enemy were in pursuit. “Bah!” said Conall, “Bridget has promised to look after me,” and he threw himself down to sleep. A great fire was lighted, and his men ranged the heads of the slain they had brought with them round the fire, and they themselves sat up talking and singing. Meanwhile the enemy came on, but they sent a spy, who crept unobserved up to the walls and looked in. When he saw the dead faces with the flicker of the red fire on them, and that Conall’s men were alert, his heart failed him, and he went back and told his fellows that they must not risk a night attack on the dun.
Many touching stories are told of Bridget’s tenderness to the sick: of a poor consumptive boy whom she nursed; of a man who carried his mother on his back for many days, that he 163might lay her before Bridget in the hopes that she might be healed of the lung complaint that afflicted her.
One day—so says the legend—two lepers came to her, and she bade the one wash the other. And he who was washed became whole. Then said she, “Go and wash thy brother.” “Not I, forsooth!” replied the man. “I, a clean man, with sound skin, shall I scrub that loathsome object?” “Then I will do it,” said Bridget; and she took the poor leper and thoroughly cleansed him.
The truth of this story would seem to be that Bridget bade a servant wash the leper, that he refused, and she herself performed the office.
But she did more than attend to the sick. She saved the lives of men condemned to death. On one occasion, a cupbearer to the King of Teffia let fall a valuable goblet, and it was dented. The king, in a rage, ordered the man to execution, though Bishop Mel interceded for him, but in vain; then Bridget got the cup, and, as she had skilful smiths under her, had the dents removed, so that it presented 164the same appearance as before, and the king was then reluctantly induced to pardon the man.
She was for a long time under the direction of Erc of Slane, in Munster. Whilst there, a certain anchorite, who had made a vow never to look on the face of a woman, started with his disciples to go to one of the Western Isles, there to establish a community. His way led near where Bridget was. Night fell, and his disciples, not relishing spending the hours of darkness on the open waste, and supperless, begged him to ask Bridget to give them food and lodging for the night. The old man absolutely refused. Bridget heard of this, and when the whole company was asleep she and one or two of her maids went on tiptoe to them and carried off all their bundles of goods and garments. When the men woke next morning everything was gone. Here was a pretty kettle of fish! Most reluctantly the old anchorite was obliged to swallow his objections and go humbly to Bridget and beg for the restitution of the packages. “Very well,” said she, “when I have fed and housed you for a couple of days, you shall have them,—and 165do not hold up your nose and despise women any more.” So she entertained the whole party, and when they departed she provided them with a couple of sumpter horses to carry their bundles for them. When the anchorite arrived at the island to which he had taken a fancy, to his dismay he found that a man lived on it with his wife and sons and daughters, and claimed it as his property, and absolutely refused to leave. The anchorite was forced to send for Bridget to arrange terms, and she with difficulty bought off the proprietor. “After all,” said she, “you can’t do without the help of women—for all your foolish vow.”
When with S. Erc, she must have been in that portion of King’s County that then belonged to the kingdom of Meath. After that she removed to Waterford, and remained for some time at Kilbride, near Tramore.
She heard that the King of Munster had a captive in chains very harshly treated. She went to his castle to beg for the man’s release, but the king was not at home. However, the 166foster-father and -mother, and foster-brothers were there. They could give her no assistance. “I will await the king’s return,” said Bridget. Time began to pass heavily. She looked round, and saw that harps hung in the hall. “Come,” said she, “let us have some music.” The foster-parents of the king expressed themselves unwilling and incapable. But Bridget would take no excuse. Towards evening the king returned, and as he neared his hall, heard the twang of harps and voices singing and laughing. He came in at the door, and when he saw his foster-father with a cracked voice piping out an old ballad he laughed till the tears ran down his cheeks. Every one was in good humour, and he could not refuse Bridget her request.
Bridget next moved into Leinster, apparently to the district of Kinsale. She had not seen her father for some time, so now she went to visit him. He was not more amiable as he advanced in years. With difficulty she withdrew from him a servant maid, whom he was thrashing unmercifully. When she left, the maid said to her, “Oh! would to heaven you 167were always here, to save us from the master’s violence!”
She—who had been a slave-girl herself—was pitiful to these poor things. Some runaway slave-girls took refuge with her, and she had hard work sometimes to reconcile their mistresses to leaving them under her protection.
Before she left her father, the old fellow asked her to get the king to let him keep as his own property a sword the prince had lent him. Bridget went to the castle. No sooner had she arrived than one of the king’s men entreated her to take him into her tribe. So she asked the king to give her the man, and give her father the sword.
“You ask a great deal,” said he. “I must have something in return.”
“Shall I demand of God for you Life Eternal, and a continuation of royalty in your house?”
“As to Life Eternal,” said the king, “I know nothing about it; and as to royalty after I am dead, the boys of my family must fight for their own crowns. Give me victory over my enemies.”
168“I will obtain that for you,” she said. And on this being promised he acceded to both her requests.
This is a very characteristic story of an Irish saint. The kings and princes firmly believed that the saints could give them a place in heaven and victory over their foes, could continue their line in power, or deprive their posterity of sovereign rights.
This king was Illand, son of Dunlaing. Soon after this interview he went into the plain of Breagh, west of Dublin, where he fought the Ulster men and defeated them. After this he waged as many as thirty battles in Ireland, and gained eight victories in Britain. He died in 506. On his death the clan of Niall, taking courage, gathered their forces to attack the men of Leinster, who actually dug up the body of the old king, set it in a chariot, clothed in his regal garments, and marched against the men of the north, headed by the corpse.
Bridget now went into Connaught, and founded an establishment there. It was whilst there that an incident characteristic of the times occurred.
169She had under her charge a poor decrepit woman who was failing rapidly. “The old creature can’t live,” said one of Bridget’s women. “Let us strip her at once. It is bitter weather and frosty, and it will be awkward to get her garments off her back when she is stiff and stark.”
“On no account,” said Bridget. And when the cripple died she with her own hands divested the body of its clothing, then laid the garments outside the door in the frost, and washed them finally herself.
Bridget and some of her spiritual daughters paid a visit to S. Ibar of Begery. He served them at supper with bacon. Bridget saw two of the girls sitting with their platters before them and their noses turned up; they would not touch the food. She was very angry, jumped up from her seat, caught them by the shoulders, and turned them out of the hall, and bade them stand there, one on each side of the door, till supper was over. She had run short of seed-corn, and had gone to beg some of Ibar. The season was probably Lent, and the scruple of the girls was on that account.
170When S. Bridget first saw the great plain of Breagh stretched before her, it was in early summer, and it was as though snowed over with the white clover, and the air that breathed from it was sweet with scent and musical with the hum of bees. She stood still, raised her hands in an ecstasy of delight, and said: “Oh! if this plain were but mine, I would give it all to God!”
“Good woman!” said S. Columba, when he was told this of Bridget. “God accepted the desire of her loving heart just as surely as if she really had made to Him the donation of all that land.”
Once a bishop and a party of clerks arrived, and began to inquire when they were to have a meal and what they were to have to eat.
“It is all very well for you to be so clamorous,” said Bridget, “for you are hungry. But can you not understand that I and my spiritual daughters are hungry also? We have no religious teacher here, and we long to hear the Word of God. Will you not give us who are hungry the nourishment of souls before you call on us to satisfy your stomachs?”
171The bishop was ashamed, and led the way to the church.
It happened that there was a couple who led a cat-and-dog life, and at last declared that they could not live together, and that they would separate. Bridget went to them, and by her charm of manner and earnest words so won them over that thenceforth they came to love each other devotedly. So much so, that one day when the husband left home to cross an estuary, without saying good-bye, the wife ran after him into the water, and would have been drowned had he not returned to kiss her.
There was a madman who wandered on the mountain—Slive Forait. Bridget was crossing it, and her companions were in deadly fear of encountering the maniac. “I fear him not,” said she; “I will go and find him.”
Before long she encountered the poor wretch. She said to him, “My friend, have you anything to say to me?”
“Yes, nun,” answered he: “Love the Lord, and all will love thee. Reverence the Lord, 172and all will reverence thee. I cannot avoid thee, O nun, thou art so pitiful to all the miserable and poor.”
The life she led with the sisters was full of simplicity. She took her turn to tend the sheep, she helped to brew the Easter ale which she sent about to the bishops as her offering.
The following is a funny story.
Certain friends came to visit Bridget, and they left their house shut without a caretaker in it. When they were well away, some robbers came, broke open the byre and stole the oxen, and drove them away to the Liffey. They had to cross the river at a ford, but the water was deep, so the men stripped themselves, and that their garments might be kept dry, attached them to the horns of the cattle. But no sooner were the oxen in the water than they refused to proceed, and, turning, galloped home, carrying away the clothing of the robbers on their heads.
Having such large numbers of women under her direction, Bridget was obliged to draw up for them a set of rules. An odd legend attaches to the rules. She sent, so it was told, seven 173men and a poor blind boy, who was in her service, to Rome to obtain a rule. But as they were crossing the English Channel, the anchor caught. They drew lots who was to go down and release the anchor. The lot fell to the blind boy. He descended, unhooked the anchor, and it was hauled up, but left him behind. The seven went on, and returned at the end of the year, and were without any rule. As they were crossing the Channel, again the anchor caught, but it became disengaged, and up with it came the boy, and he had a Rule of Life with him, acquired in the depths, and this he took to Bridget, and it became her famous rule for all her communities. Perhaps the story originated thus. It was said that she had sent to Rome for a system of monastic discipline, but as none came to her, she fished up one out of the depths of her own conscience and common-sense.
Bridget certainly to the utmost strove to show forth the grace of Mercy, which she had elected as that for which she would specially strive, when she was veiled. Poor lepers were 174kept by her attached to her convent, and fed and administered to by her.
One day a woman brought her a hamper of apples. “Oh!” cried Bridget, “how pleased my lepers will be with them!” The woman angrily said, “I brought the apples for you, and not for a parcel of lepers.”
On another occasion, when Bishop Conlaeth came to vest for the Eucharist, he found that his chasuble was gone. In fact, Bridget had cut it up and made of it a garment for a leper. Conlaeth was not overpleased. “I cannot celebrate without a proper vestment,” said he. “Wait a moment,” said Bridget, and ran away. Presently she returned with one she had made and embroidered with her own hands, and gave it to him in place of that she had disposed of to the leper.
A poor fellow who had gone to prefer a petition to the King of Leinster, saw a fox playing about in his cashel (i.e. castle). Not knowing that it was tame, and a pet of the king, he killed it. The king, Illand, was furious, threw the fellow into chains and vowed he would have him put to death. Bridget heard of it, 175and at once went to see him, and took with her a fox that had just been trapped. She offered the fox to Illand, on condition that he should let the man go. The king, supposing it was tame, consented. No sooner was the fellow released than Bridget let go her fox, when away dashed Reynard across the dun and over the walls, and was seen no more. “I have not got the best of this bargain,” said the king.
In or about the year 480 she founded her mother house at Kildare—“The Cell of the Oak.” She was granted land and a sanctuary, with jurisdiction over all who lived on her land. Thus she became a great ecclesiastical chieftainess, ruling not over women only, but over men as well. Indeed, it would seem that schools for youths were also under her. To regulate sacred matters in her tribe, she chose a bishop named Conlaeth, who was a good smith in the precious metals, and could manufacture bells.
In the great house of Kildare little children were taken charge of, either because orphans, or because given to the sisters by their parents. 176Tighernach, Bishop of Clones, was one of these. As a babe, Bridget held him at the font, and his infant years were under her care. He ever remained deeply attached to her. Perhaps it may be taken as a token of his affection that when he founded a church in Cornwall, a chapel dedicated to his foster-mother should have been planted in proximity.
One who deeply reverenced her was the famous S. Brendan, who sailed for seven years on the Atlantic in quest of the Land of Promise. Once he was in conversation with her, and he said to her, “Tell me, Bridget, about your spiritual things. For my part I may say that, since I have learned to love and fear God, I have not stepped across nine furrows without my mind turning to Him.”
Bridget thought for a moment and said, “I do not think, Brendan, that my mind has ever strayed from Him.”
As her age advanced, her influence extended throughout Ireland. Swarms of her spiritual children must have crossed to Wales, to Devon and Cornwall, to Brittany, for we find in all these districts dedications to her; and these 177dedications signify churches placed under the rule of her congregation. It may indeed be said that it was she who initiated a great upheaval of woman from being a mere slave to become a revered member of the social body.
There was no woman in the British Church, either in Wales or Alba, which we now call Scotland, who occupied the same position. In Saxon England the only woman who at all approached her was S. Hilda, and she was not, like Bridget, an originator.
Conlaeth, Bridget’s bishop, died in 519. She was sought, consulted by princes and by prelates. The sour Gildas, author of the “History of the Britons,” if he did not pay her a visit, sent her as token of his esteem the present of a small bell, cast by himself.
Nothing particular is recorded of her last illness. She received the Communion from the hands of S. Nennid, whom years before she had gently reproved for his giddiness, and she died on February 1st, 525. According to some accounts she was aged seventy, according to others seventy-four.
178There are two old Irish hymns in honour of her. One begins:
“Bridget, ever good woman,
This is variously attributed to S. Columba, S. Ultan, and S. Brendan. The other hymn is by S. Broccan, who died in 650.
Both may be found in the Irish “Liber Hymnorum,” recently issued by the “Henry Bradshaw Society.”