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The Mary of the Gaels

Ireland not only has two patron saints but also a matron saint, St. Brigit. The redoubtable Abbess of Kildare is sometimes referred to as the Mary of the Gaels, which shows how highly she has been venerated over the generations.

St. Brigitís feast day is still widely celebrated in Ireland with weaving rushes into St. Brigitís crosses on 1st February. The snowdrops that emerge at this time are also associated with her and the seasonal turn of spring. She has a wide set of occupations and issues under her prayerful consideration: cows, sheep and chickens, holy wells, mothers and their babies, the Irish hospitality industry, midwives and nurses, poets, smiths or craft workers .

Since St. Brigit built her abbey close to the Curragh I am willing to wager that many in the Irish racing and horseflesh sectors petition her. Kildare, the site of her monastic community translates as Church of the Oak. You may see stained glass and other artistic depictions of the saint with an oak motif or a nun holding a cathedral in her outstretched hands.

Above all, St. Brigit is known for her generosity to those less fortunate- the homeless, hungry and in need of peace and justice. The Irish organisation for social justice, AFRI, has been the beneficiary of individuals selling St. Brigitís crosses to raise funds for their work.

The legend of St. Brigitís miraculously expanding cloak today means that asylum seekers, relief workers and peace mediators also consider that St. Brigit watches their backs.

That miraculous expanding cloak was what got her the land in the first place, with the King of Leinster having to honour his word that he would grant her the amount of land that her cloak covered. St. Brigit is the personification of a resourceful woman, canny to changing times and willing to adapt in order to protect and give succour to those less able or fortunate enough to mind themselves.

St. Brigit is believed to been born in Co. Louth, the daughter of a Christian slave woman and a pagan noble father. Like her mother she served as a dairy maid and began to become renowned for coaxing the cows to give milk three times a day if there were unexpected guests or beggars needing nourishment.

Her prowess in the Ďbawní is partly why she is not only the matron saint of cattle but also midwives and those who look after the young. The legend says that when Mary, the mother of Jesus, was taken into labor pains in the barn in Bethlehem that St. Brigit was on hand to act as midwife. It is said that it was she who washed the Infant, swaddled him and laid him in the manger before tending to his mother. So the infant Jesus not only had angels, humble beasts, shepherds and magi in attendance pre- and post-natally, there was this capable Irish saint to act as nursemaid.

Now the current thinking is that Christ was born around 4 BCE. St. Brigit is thought to have been born in Faughart, Co. Louth around 450 CE! Donít be unduly worried by this cognitive dissonance. Remember that Ireland is a land of myth makers. Sometimes the truth is purer than literal fact.

Because of her unique role at the birth of Christ as well as her motherly care for all and sundry, St. Brigit is sometimes known as the Mary of the Gael.

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