How St. Brigit became a powerful feminist symbol in Ireland
Regardless of how she’s viewed, Brigit of Kildare's influence on Irish feminism is undeniable
In the first week of February 2023, festivities all across Ireland marked a brand new national holiday — St. Brigit's Day.
But as popular as she is in the country, Brigit means different things to different people. And depending on what you believe, she's either a Celtic goddess or a Catholic saint.
"There was a hunger for a representative of divinity who can empower female people, and who can counteract the violence that is perpetrated in the name of Christianity. Brigit is a figure who bridges all of those things," Mary Condren told Tapestry host Mary Hynes.
Condren is the director of The Institute for Feminism and Religion in Ireland, and one of the world's foremost authorities on Brigit. For over 20 years, she has organized Festivals of Brigit both in Ireland and abroad.
She says it makes sense that Brigit's moment has arrived, because so many people have become disenchanted with traditional religion.
Condren spoke to Tapestry host Mary Hynes about why Brigit is a powerful feminist symbol.
Tell me what you saw on Brigit's day, a whole public holiday for the first time in Ireland. How was Brigit celebrated?
I wish I could tell you because it was absolutely overwhelming. Some people got a campaign together a couple of years ago to make Brigit a public holiday, but I don't think anybody had any idea as to what was actually going to happen. All the local councils took it on that this was their duty to do something and they made money available for all kinds of musical events for poetry, for dancing [and so on].
How do you see this ancient figure coming to the surface again in the 21st century?
I think it's very important because over the past 10, 20 years — and even before that with all the violence that was happening in Northern Ireland — religion had a very, very bad press. People were very disheartened and dissatisfied.
So there's been a hunger, a real hunger, to find an authentic icon, a figure who could empower and nurture the spirits of women — and Brigit has been identified as that person. And some people relate to her as goddess, some people relate to her as saint, some people relate to her as poet or as weaver or smith worker. It's almost like whatever you have in yourself, she will provide.
What is it in Brigit that might satisfy this particular hunger that you've identified in Ireland?
Brigit is the person who has taken over all of the female qualities of the old indigenous divinities, who are related to the wealth of Ireland. She became an abbess in the monastery of Kildare. So there have been no female representations of divinity in Ireland apart from the Virgin Mary, although people would be very quick to say she's not a goddess.
And there was a hunger for a representative of divinity who can empower female people, and also who can counteract the violence that is perpetrated in the name of Christianity or in the name of republicanism and loyalism. So Brigit is a figure who bridges all of those things, and she's a peace-weaver.
Is there a Brigit equivalent to St. Patrick driving all the snakes out of Ireland? Some powerful legend connected to her for people who are only familiar with Patrick?
If you ask a child, they'll tell you that she wanted land to build her monastery, and she went to a rich man and the rich man said, "I'll give you as much land as your cloak can cover." And she said, "Thank you very much." And she took off her cloak and it spread and spread and spread and spread until it covered the whole Curragh of Kildare, which was a very ancient site which had also accommodated pre-Christian figures.
So it was already a sacred site before Brigit is said to have spread her cloak. The reality is the notion of spreading one's cloak is a very ancient symbol of female divinity. And around the world it's attached to many other figures. In Ireland it is attached to a figure called the 'cailleach' or the old woman.
Where do you think Brigit fits into this moment in Ireland and Canada and elsewhere, when so many people have turned away from organized religion, and yet they still might be feeling a yearning for something?
One of the interesting things I've learned in my research on Brigit is that she belongs to the lower orders. In other words, she belongs to the religion of the hearth, not to the religions of empire. And so I think when we start to reclaim Brigit, we have to do away with words like altar and sacrifice and worship, and all of those items that belong to religions of empire and which are so devastatingly destructive. Like the image of the patriarch of Russia blessing young men as he sends them out for cannon fodder to be killed in Ukraine, to me, is a total desecration of anything to do with Christianity.
Unless we go back to the religions of the hearth around the fireside in the homes and in our local communities, and rediscover what it is to be regenerated — rather than to be redeemed —I think we don't have a future. Because the worldview, that is the religions of empire, in so many different ways, is bringing us to the verge of destruction.
Q&A edited for length and clarity. Written by Tayo Bero.