Saint Brigid reviewed in The Irish Examiner

Saint Brigid reviewed in The Irish Examiner

In a recent article entitled ‘A sweet victory for all mná’: Why we should celebrate St Brigid’s Day Clodagh Finn from The Irish Examiner took the time to question the origins of our most famous female saint and her history. Citing several recent publications as required reading, Lorraine Mulholland’s Saint Brigid & Other Amazing Irish Women made the cut as the perfect guide for young people to learn the stories of some iconic female saints from the annals of Ireland’s history.

Read her review below!

It is genuinely exciting to find ourselves here; on the threshold of a new public holiday that celebrates a powerful woman from Irish history. There are so many possibilities. There is so much promise.

Unlike St Patrick’s Day, which comes encrusted with existing traditions — and much paddywhackery — St Brigid’s Day is still something of a blank canvas. True, we have marked the feast day of the matron saint of Ireland on February 1 for centuries, but this year is different.

For a start, Monday’s public holiday is the first in Ireland to be named after a woman. Shocking as that is, it is still a “sweet victory for all mná”, said Herstory, the organisation that led a spirited campaign for a Brigidine holiday.

The success of that campaign is reason to cheer in itself, but now the exciting work of building a new tradition begins. The first question, however, is not so much how we will celebrate, but whom? Revered saint or pagan goddess? Or both?

It was interesting that Brigit 2022, the excellent festival inaugurated last year by Alison Gilliland, then Lord Mayor of Dublin, opted to focus on the goddess Brigit — note the ‘t’ — who is associated with creativity and wisdom, and Imbolc, the beginning of spring. Her aim was to provide the space and opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions and achievements of women — all women. It was a city-wide initiative. It was free and it was a roaring success.

The festival, which is running again this year, also gives us some idea of the shape of St Brigid’s Day celebrations to come.

There are talks, walks, readings, tours and the now-familiar lighting up of buildings with images of Brigid — saint and goddess — and other inspirational women.

The theme of ‘inspiring women’ is a thread that runs through many of the events that have marked St Brigid’s Day up to now, and that fits with several of those planned for next week.

But there is so much more. A cursory glance at the programme for Brigid 1500, which will mark the 1,500th anniversary of the saint’s death in 2024, shows that this is a public holiday with dizzying potential.

There will be a Herstory light show, a GAA blitz, a celebration of women artists, another celebrating women in business, cross-making workshops, singing, music, poetry. And that is just a partial list. It goes to show that there is widespread interest in our new public holiday and the woman/women who inspired it.

The Woman Behind the Myth

It would be a shame, however, to allow the goddess to eclipse the saint. Both are fairly elusive, but what we know about the real Brigid of Kildare is that she was “cool, charismatic, and determined”, to quote Niamh Wycherley, lecturer in medieval Irish history at Maynooth University.

Saints might be out of fashion — in the secular mainstream, at least — but the real Brigid was a woman of power and influence in a world where women generally had little agency. 

To return to Ms Wycherley: “As patron and reputed founder of the dominant Church of Kildare, she and the women who succeeded her, the subsequent abbesses of Kildare, were arguably the most powerful women in Ireland, for many centuries.”

She would have controlled land, negotiated deals and wielded comparatively significant influence in society. In short, says Ms Wycherley, “She was a boss”. And her reach extended to every corner of Ireland, and very probably beyond. Her seventh-century biographer, Cogitosus, wrote that she was greeted with the “tumultuous applause of the multitudes” who venerated her “outstanding and innumerable miracles”.

I remember being astounded to read that one of them included miraculously ending a pregnancy. Her biographer records that the saint once met “a certain woman who, after taking a vow of virginity, had lapsed through weakness into youthful desire of pleasure, and her womb swelled with child”.

Brigid, then, “exercising the most potent strength of her ineffable faith”, blessed her and “caused what had been conceived to disappear”. The woman was returned “to health and to penance”.

In an Ireland that so recently repealed the eighth amendment to the Constitution to allow the termination of pregnancy, that miracle has particular resonance. And it has been much quoted, but it would be entirely misleading to claim Brigid as a poster saint for Repeal. Her miracle was intended to restore a sinner to the fold, within which virginal women were almost on a par with men.

Elva Johnston, associate professor at the School of History in University College Dublin, puts it into context: “There was a belief in the early church that women could be freed from a defective femaleness through virginity… Some of the Church fathers believed that ascetic virgins could transcend the feminine state and be transformed, in a spiritual sense, into men.”

Projecting modern concerns and sensibilities onto people in the past is fraught, yet Brigid, the saint and indeed the goddess, has much to offer in the 21st century.


One timely example is an inspiring new book for young readers by Lorraine Mulholland, Saint Brigid, & Other Amazing Irish Women, just published by Columba Books. It focuses not only on the woman of the moment, but 22 other Irish female saints who have been forgotten or relegated to the footnotes of history. Mulholland writes in the kind of engaging, friendly and didactic style that will do for Irish saints what Ellen Ryan did for Ireland’s mythical goddesses in Girls Who Slay Monsters.

The author’s love for these “wonder women”, as she describes them, shines through in the fitting adjectives she applies to her subjects, such as Astounding Attracta, the saint who finished off St Patrick’s work and banished the last few snakes from Ireland to save a village. It doesn’t really matter if you believe their miracles.

In the same way, this Monday, it does not really matter whether you opt to recall Brigid the saint, or the goddess. Or indeed which spelling you choose (here are some of the variations: Brighid, Bríd, Bride, Bridget). What matters is that now, at last, the wonder women of Irish history are taking up their rightful place to inspire a new generation.

Saint Brigid & Other Amazing Irish Women is available to purchase at Columba Books.