The feast of St. Brigid, often called the Mary of the Gael, is celebrated in Ireland alongside that of Saint Patrick, and Our Lady of Knock. At about 453 AD, a child was born out of wedlock between the pagan Dubhtach, one of the most powerful Chieftains, and one of his Christian slaves named Brocessa. The slave girl was sent to a cabin at the foot of the Cooley Mountains in County Louth to have the child. The baby was a healthy girl, which was no great joy to Dubhtach who wanted a son. The mother was sold to a Chieftain in Connaught, and the child was given to a Druid to be raised and educated. The child was named Brigid, perhaps to seek the blessing of the Goddess Brid, one of the most powerful goddesses for the Druids. From the very beginning, there were indications that this child was special. It was reported that she was born at sunrise, and that the cottage in which she was born burst into flame when she left it.

Brigid grew in beauty, and her love for all of God's creatures knew no bounds. After her fosterage, she returned to her father's house as a slave, although she enjoyed the privileges of family. She was given to solitude, and loved to wander the woods befriending the animals. She was renowned for her generosity, giving much of her father's wealth away to the poor. Many are the stories attributed to this remarkable lady, including her journey on foot from Leinster to Connaught to find her mother, whom she freed from bondage, and returned to the house of Dubhtach.

In keeping with the life planned for her, she became a vestal virgin in service to the Goddess Brid, and eventually high priestess at the Kil Dara (the temple of the oak), a pagan sanctuary built from the wood of a tree sacred to the Druids. There she and her companions kept a perpetual ritual fire, in honor of Brid.

The exact circumstance of her conversion to Christianity are unknown, though it is certain that her Christian mother was a guiding influence. Some claim that she personally met Saint Patrick, which is possible since she was ten years old before he died, but there is no proof of that. Whatever the circumstances, Brigid and her companions in service to Brid, all accepted the Christian faith, and formed Ireland's first Christian religious community of women. Legend tells that upon her acceptance of her vows, fire appeared above her head. Brigid changed the pagan sanctuary of Kil Dara into a Christian shrine, which gave its name to the present County Kildare. She extinguished the ritual fire of the Druids, and lit a flame dedicated to Christ which was thereafter maintained by her followers until it was doused by the forces of Henry VIII.

Brigid's wisdom and generosity became legend, and people traveled from all over the country to share her wisdom. Her monastery at Kildare became one of the greatest centers of learning in Europe. She continued her holy and charitable work until her death in 525 AD, when she was laid to rest in a jeweled casket at Kil Dara. In 835, her remains were moved to protect them from Norse invaders, and interred in the same grave that holds the remains of St Patrick and St Columcille at Downpatrick. So strong was the respect and reverence for this holy lady that she became the patroness of parishes, towns, and counties, not only in Ireland, but all across Europe. During the age of Chivalry, she was so revered as a model for women of every age, that gentlemen, knights, and nobles began the custom of calling their sweethearts, their Brides - a custom that has come down to this very day. As the shamrock became associated with Saint Patrick, a tiny cross made of rushes was linked with Saint Brigid. Supposedly woven by her to explain the passion of Christ to a dying pagan, similar crosses are fashioned to this day as a defense against harm, and placed in the rafters of a cottage on the feast day of Saint Brigid - February 1.

Excerpts from "Saint Brigid of Ireland," by Mike McCormack