The True Patron of Ireland: Saint Brigit and the Rise of Celtic Christianity
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, March 29, (2005)
When Saint Patrick landed in Ireland in 432 AD, history says that he brought Christianity to the Irish. In actuality, though, Patrick’s arrival was the beginning of a religious struggle between Rome and Ireland. Patrick’s Church was based on Roman traditions and his mission in Ireland was not just to defeat paganism, but to intercede in the foundations of an already developing Celtic Church. To challenge Patrick and his Roman ways, Ireland exalted a saint of its own. Saint Brigit (452-525 AD) and the characteristics she represented in Irish hagiography clearly illustrated the ideal Irish saint. Ireland’s reverence for nature, animals, and wisdom are all championed in the accounts of Brigit’s existence. She established Kildare, the first double monastery, and some scholars, like Liam de Paor, suggest that it was Ireland’s first monastery in a rich legacy of monasticism. When the Roman Church once again attacked the Celtic Church in 664 at the Synod of Whitby, Ireland resurrected Brigit as one of its most respected and admired leaders. Toward the end of the seventh century, Cogitosus, her first biographer, used Brigit’s life and the prestige of Kildare to bid against Patrick’s house, Armagh, for status as Ireland’s archdiocese. As Ireland passionately strove to protect the Celtic Church and preserve its heritage, Saint Brigit’s life developed mythological roots, imbuing her with a fascinating combination of enchanting goddess and praying nun. Even though Rome eventually prevailed, and absorbed the Celtic Church into Roman tradition, Ireland never lost sight of its Celtic heritage. Moreover Saint Brigit’s role as Ireland’s first saint illustrates that enduring pride.