“Becoming Mary of the Gael”

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“Becoming Mary of the Gael” St. Brigit

The Celtic Studies Association of North America Annual Meeting – The University of Toronto, April 18-21, 2013

Dorothy Ann Bray (McGill University)

The second paper of the opening session moved away from archaeology and towards religious devotion and saint’s cults. Dorothy Ann Bray presented a paper on the background of St. Brigit’s association with the Virgin Mary in Ireland. St. Brigit is often represented as the Virgin Mary in Irish worship – this paper explored the reasons behind this phenomenon.

Texts offer a lengthy eulogy of the saint. This term, “Mary of the Gael”, has been firmly attached to St. Brigit. The Middle Irish version is based on an even earlier version and there is long tradition comparing St. Brigit to the Virgin Mary,

‘A fair both, fair dignity which will come to thee thereafter from thy children’s descendants, who shall be called from her great virtues truly pious Brig-eoit; she will be another Mary, mother of the Lord.” (‘The Old Irish Life of Saint Brigit’, Irish Historical Studies 1:2 (1938): 348)

Brigit has had a constant, insistent comparison to Mary but only in vernacular texts. The first instance appears in a ninth century biographical hymn. Naming of Brigit as the Mother of Jesus is bold and audacious but this has not received much mention by scholars. Bray has not found any women outside of Ireland so closely associated with Mary as Brigit. There was nothing heretical or especially devious about it but Bray wondered, ‘How did this arise?’. The assertion of Brigit as the mother of Christ was explained in 1955 as an Irish convention of symbolically sharing in motherhood. However, this doesn’t explain why other Irish saints are not associated with the mother of God. Some saints are associated as a sister but not Mother.




What about the laity? They would be the most likely audience of these hymns. When the cult of Mary in Ireland began is indeterminate but there is an indication that there was worship of Mary as early as the sixth century in Ireland and that a cult was well in place by the seventh century. Devotion to Mary carried Eastern influences; she was often referenced to the Queen of Sheba. Sheba became interpreted as a kind of Mary. In the East, she is celebrated more as the Queen of Heaven, in the West, she is worshipped more as the Mother of Christ. Jerome, Augustine and other theologians reinforced Mary’s role as a mother. Augustine grounded his thoughts on Mary in scripture, and the new “Eve” was the Church, not Mary. Under the influence of Ambrose, Augustine regards Mary as a model disciple. The emphasis on Mary as the Mother of Jesus is in line with earlier medieval views of martyrology. Most hymns to Brigit were heavy on praise and light on biography and in Latin hymns she is described “like” Mary but not taken to the complete level of identification as in Irish texts. Mary as the Mother of Christ was a powerful symbol in Irish devotion.

Sharan Newman