Noel Kissane, Saint Brigid of Kildare: Life, Legend, and Cult, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-84682-632-0. €24.95 (paperback), pp. 360.
Reviewed by Gillian Kenny, Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies, Trinity College Dublin, May 2018.
This is an expansive book on an elusive woman. No other Irish saint except Patrick has had as many biographies devoted to them as has Brigid. Although we have very little evidence of her life St Brigid is, especially by early medieval standards, an extremely well documented individual. Yet despite the many words devoted to her, the problem we face is: was there ever really even such a person as St Brigid? Was she, as many scholars suspect, a Christianised version of a pre-Christian goddess, perhaps adopted into Christianity to appease a people desperate to hold on to her? Or was she a real woman, a religious pioneer who was inspired to become a renowned saint and teacher? In this book, Noel Kissane decides that to advocate the latter theory but the doubts remain. Brigid’s archetypal nature, her association with cattle and dairying, the ever-living flame that was tended by her adherents at her monastery in Kildare all conjured up the attributes of an immortal. Certainly today a resurgent Paganism in Ireland and abroad has reclaimed the goddess Brigid and worshipped her as a figure of some importance in the Irish pantheon. This book does not settle this continuing debate, despite its comprehensive treatment of the goddess vs woman argument.
What is undisputed though is that for a millennium and a half Brigid has been a part of the living Irish (and European) imagination. As Kissane demonstrates her name is everywhere in the Irish landscape — from the names of GAA clubs to ancient churches and townlands. Kissane’s detailed listing of literally anything Brigid appears in is impressive — not only do we see her shadow on the landscape but also her presence in literature, liturgy, folklore, hymns and poems. Wherever the Irish went so did Brigid, and thus her fame spread far and wide. Mary of the Gael was a figure venerated in other parts of Europe. As in Ireland, she was associated with dairying and women in Belgium for example, invoked her before they started their milking. Countless Irish women have been named after Brigid — so much so that the term ‘Bridget’ was shorthand for a servant in the nineteenth century. The book is full of such extraordinary nuggets of information which deepen and contextualise Brigid’s place in the Catholic hierarchy of medieval Europe.
Kissane is scrupulous in tracing Brigid’s cultural influence to the present day. Chapters devoted to her position within Irish literary culture remind the reader that she is of continuing interest. A thirteenth century Irish poet hailed her as ‘Maiden of Europe’ when he sought her help, while seven hundred years later she was invoked by another Irish poet, who imagined her watching over scholars as ‘her blue eyes smile, her proud lips murmur praise’. The most notable sign of her continuing influence on the Irish psyche is visual: the making of Brigid’s crosses, a practice which is still maintained in some Irish schools today around her feast day of February 1st. Kissane shows she is not a figure abandoned to time, a saint who is hardly thought of any more — indeed, quite the opposite.
Brigid has even, somewhat unusually and controversially, been invoked in the debate surrounding the upcoming abortion referendum in Ireland. Who knew that she would feature in a thinkpiece in the Irish Times in 2018, but here it is. Her hagiography has thus reached a new audience who may otherwise have never been concerned with the doings of a medieval saint, thanks to her status as one of the four ‘abortionist’ saints of Ireland who (as was consistent with belief around ensoulment at the time) saw no problem in ridding a woman of a foetus in the early stages of pregnancy. As described by Cogitosus — whose biography of her Kissane usefully supplies in an appendix — she ‘blessed a woman who, after a vow of virginity, had lapsed through weakness into youthful concupiscence, as a result of which her womb had begun to swell with pregnancy. In consequence what had been conceived in the womb disappeared and she restored her to health and to penance without childbirth or pain’.
Saint Brigid of Kildare: Life, Legend, and Cultis particularly timely when interest in this patron saint of Ireland and certain of her actions has risen. This book, based on a lifetime of research, is testament to the enduring power of the essentially protean figure that Brigid is, and her continuing power to provoke debate and inspire the imagination. Her actions as told to us in ancient sources continue to resonate today, and Noel Kissane has expertly detailed the remarkable and enduring impact of this woman on Irish and European faith, folklore and literature over hundreds of years. The devotion to his subject is admirable and this book is a handsome and exhaustive tribute to Brigid whether the reader decides to see her as woman, goddess or saint — or perhaps all three.