Last year the Irish Government designated Saint Brigid of Kildare as an official Patroness Saint of Ireland, and declared February 1, 2023, as the first bank holiday in her honor. A bank holiday is the American equivalent of a national holiday here in the United States, where all businesses and schools are closed, and everyone enjoys a day of special celebrations.
But like St. Patrick, Brigid not only represented the complexities of sainthood and established monastic centers with far-reaching impact, but is also represented in symbol and story that reach legendary heights. Just as the shamrock is hailed as Saint Patrick’s teaching tool for explaining the Trinity, so too, is the four-square folded cross of Saint Brigid her tool for describing the Crucifixion.
Multiple stories of healings and miracles abound for both Brigid and Patrick. A statue of St. Brigid is on display in St. Mary’s Church in Westport, Co. Mayo. Her love for God’s creation, nature and animals is emphasized in large proportion. Notice the image of St. Patrick blessing her covered head as the foundation of the artwork. Co. Mayo is home to the most concentrated collection of stained-glass art produced by Harry Clarke and The Clarke Studios in Dublin.
Here in Pittsburgh, there is a spectacular vision of St. Brigid to see inside Old St. Patrick’s Church, on the corner of 17thStreet and Liberty Avenue. Hailed as the first Catholic Church established in Pittsburgh, according to the Shrines of Pittsburgh, it was founded in 1808.
These stained-glass windows of the famous saints and their hallmark symbols were created by local glass artist Nicholas Parrendo and Hunt Stained Glass Studios over a decade ago. The artwork was commissioned by the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
The installation of the windows was blessed by Bishop Paul Bradley of the Pittsburgh Diocese on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2006. Learn more at pghshrines.org.
The Irish Nationality Room commissioned Manuelo “Manu” Froehlich, an artist based in Co. Waterford, Ireland, to create a beach-sized image of Brigid’s Cross last February in honor of the announcement of St. Brigid being elevated to Patroness Saint of Ireland, and in celebration of The Irish Room’s 65th Anniversary. The room was dedicated at The University of Pittsburgh in 1957. The Irish Room Committee has offered scholarships for students to study abroad in Ireland for over sixty years.
“This was my first attempt at sketching a Brigid Cross,” said Manu. Originally from Germany and trained as an architect, who lives with his wife and two children in Waterford, where he frames his Celtic art carvings within the beaches, cliffs and shores of Ireland’s rustic coasts. He has created dozens of original designs in the sand in the last six years.
The Brigid images and video dropped on social media on February 1st last year reached over 350,000 views, a record that is second only to his work reflecting images of St. Patrick every March. Manu has an online presence of more than 25,000 followers. See more at: https://www.facebook.com/Ballydan
I spent time last summer with field educators and tour guides in Kildare Town, trying to get a grasp of the local story of this local woman, who was a contemporary of St. Patrick, an abbess who established a large monastic settlement, and was named for an ancient Celtic Goddess. There is a swirl of stories and legends about Brigid and images of her in various forms can be seen in Kildare, Mayo and across Ireland.
The well that Brigid was known to frequent is located on the edge of a private farm on the outskirts of Kildare Town, marked only with a small sign and simple sculpture of her, posed with the famous flame in hand and her eyes turned upward in a prayerful state.
While across the Midlands and in Co. Mayo, she is depicted as a warrior nun, unsheathed sword in hand and head bowed, on the campus of Knock Shrine and Basilica. And over most doorways and perched on shelves in nearly every corner of Ireland you can find the twisted rushes of a Brigid’s Cross.
The official elevation to Patroness Saint does not make Brigid second fiddle to the famous Patrick or the beloved Columkille. In fact, Ireland is one of only thirty-one countries in the world to identify a female patroness saint and, given Brigid’s long-lasting legend of faithfulness, it is cause for great celebration. That celebration has led to the Brigid – A Musical Celebration event, launching this year on February 4th.
“We performed online [in honor of St. Brigid’s Day] for two years during the pandemic. This year we put together a group called ‘The Brigideens,’” said master fiddler Eileen Ivers, one of the bands that will be performing at the celebration. “We are so excited to come to Pittsburgh for a live event and to be working with Mairin Petrone and the family at the Pittsburgh Irish Festival.”
The BRIGID event is the first of its kind. Petrone explains that it is her vision to expand the efforts into a three-day long festival celebrating the arrival of Spring, women in Irish traditional music, and all aspects of the identity of Brigid.
Whether she be a warrior goddess, a sainted keeper of an ancient flame of Ireland or a simple girl braiding rushes together to fashion a symbol of faithfulness to comfort her dying father… May the blessings of Brigid be over your door, about your home and among your family this spring.
*Elizabeth Myers is a freelance writer with a special interest in Irish culture. She recently completed a two-year program in Irish Studies at Galway University and graduated with class honors in November. Elizabeth spent several weeks last summer abroad in Ireland, researching cultural tourism and Irish language learning programs. She lives in Castle Shannon, a former Irish settlement in the South Hills region of Pittsburgh. [email protected].