Ireland: Top Saints

The Other Patron Saints of Ireland

Saint Brigid of Kildare and Saint Colmcille / Columba of Derry & Iona are also formally regarded as patron saints of Ireland.

A statue of Saint Bridid beside a Holy Well dedicated to her in County Kildare.

Saint Brigid / Brigit / Bridget / Bridgit / Bríd / Bride of Kildare / of Ireland (Naomh Bhríde) (c. 451 – 525 AD) was a nun, abbess, and founder of several convents. Her titles include “Ireland’s Patroness”, “Queen of the South” and “the Mary of the Gael”.

Brigid was born at Faughart near modern Dundalk (Co. Louth). According to her biographers her parents were Dubhthach, chieftain of Leinster, and his concubine Brocca, a Lusitanian woman abducted by Irish pirates and brought to Ireland to work as a slave in much the same way as Saint Patrick had been.

Despite her father’s opposition, Brigid was determined from a very early age to enter religious life. Her charity angered her father: he thought she was being overly generous to the poor and needy when she dispensed his milk and flour to all and sundry. When she finally gave away his jewel-encrusted sword to a leper, Dubhthach realized that perhaps her disposition was best suited to the life of a nun. Brigid finally got her wish and she was sent to a convent.

Brigid received the veil from Saint Mel. Her first foundation is believed to have been a convent in Clara (modern County Offaly), soon followed by several others. There is evidence that she lived in Connacht, especially in modern County Roscommon, and also in the many churches founded by her in the Diocese of Elphin.

Famous for her holiness, Brigid was regarded as a saint in her own lifetime. Her friendship with Saint Patrick is attested by the following paragraph from the Book of Armagh: “inter sanctum Patricium Brigitanque Hibernesium columpnas amicitia caritatis inerat tanta, ut unum cor consiliumque haberent unum. Christus per illum illamque virtutes multas peregit” (“Between Patrick and Brigid, the columns of the Irish, there was so great a friendship of charity that they had but one heart and one mind. Through him and through her Christ performed many miracles”.)

Around 470 AD she settled on the plains of Cill-Dara, “the church of the oak”, her cell being made under a large oak tree, and established a double monastery, for nuns and monks, appointing Saint Conleth as spiritual pastor “to govern the church along with herself”.

As Abbess of this foundation she wielded considerable power. According to legend, the elderly bishop Mel, invited to bless the Abbey, inadvertently or otherwise read the rite of Episcopal consecration, which could not be rescinded under any circumstances. Brigid was given the full honours of a Bishop, and  successor Abbesses at Kildare were regarded as superioresses general of all convents in Ireland, and had administrative authority equal to that of any bishop until the Synod of Kells in 1152. Kildare Abbey became one of the most prestigious monasteries in Ireland, famed throughout Christendom.

Brigid died at Kildare c.525 AD and was buried in an elaborate tomb before the high altar of her abbey church.

In the C9th AD her remains were exhumed to escape Viking desecration and transported to Downpatrick to rest with the two other patron saints of Ireland; all three were reinterred in Downpatrick Cathedral.

At Armagh there was a “Templum Brigidis”; namely the little abbey church known as “Regles Brigid”, which contained some relics of the saint, destroyed by William Fitz Aldelm in 1179.

In 1587 “three Irish noblemen” took her skull to La Igreja de Sao Joao Baptista (Lumiar) Lisbon, Portugal, where it remains.

In Belgium there is a chapel (C7th – C1oth AD) dedicated to Sainte Brigide at Fosses-la-Ville, and there is another relic of her at St. Martin’s in Cologne

Saint Brigid is highly venerated by many Orthodox Christians as one of the great Western saints prior to the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches.

Her feast day is the traditional first day of spring in Ireland, 1st February, also known as Candlemas and the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, formerly the Gaelic festival of Imbolc.

The Goddess Bríde

It is very significant that the saint shared the same name and feast day as one of the most powerful goddesses of the Celtic religion which her father Dubhthach practised.

Brigid was the goddess of fire, whose manifestations were song, craftsmanship, and poetry, which the Gaels considered the flame of knowledge.

Saint Brigid may be an entirely fictional creation based on the deity in order to convert locals to Christianity; the euhemerization of pagan figures and traditions was a common practice of Christian missionaries.

However, most historians say that she was a real person whose life was embellished by imaginative hagiographers.

Hundreds of place-names in honour of either Saint Brigid or her pre-Christian antecedent are to be found all over both Ireland and Britain (especially Scotland), e.g. East Kilbride, Templebride, Tubberbride, Brideswell, etc.

Places named Tubberbride / Tupperbride and Brideswell commemorate the presence of a Holy Well (“Tobar” in Gaelic).

Saint Colmcille / Colm Cille / Columcille / Colum Cille / Columba of Iona. There is more folklore and legend about this man than of any other personalities of the early Irish Church.

Saint Colmcille / Colum Chille / Columba (521-597 AD)  was born of the Uí Néill clan in Gartan, near Lough Gartan, in modern County Donegal. On his father’s side he was great-great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages. He was originally christened Crimhthann (“Fox”), and baptised at Templedouglas.

As with other sons of the nobility, he was sent for fosterage in his youth, and spent some years at the house of Cruithnechan, a holy man. In time, ‘Crimhthann’ starts to appear a pagan misnomer, as he spent so many hours praying and meditating in church. People start to call him Colmcille, meaning ‘Dove of the Church’.

His formal education began on Strangford Lough, under the tutelage of  Saint Finnian of Moville, before moving south to spend time learning from the bard Gemman. Colmcille then journeyed to Clonard, where he studied under the famous Saint Finian. His last teacher was Saint Mobhí of Glasnevin, but his time there ws cut short by the arrival of the plague in Leinster, and he was sent home to Donegal.

Colmcille built a church called Dubh Regles on a portion of land on the west bank of the River Foyle, in a place called Daire Calgach (site of the future city of  Derry). Filled with energy, he began to travel all over Ireland, founding monasteries and churches in such diverse places as Moone in modern County Kildare, Swords in modern County Dublin, and the Burren in modern County Clare. He also visited Bangor and Clonmacnoise.

According to legend, Colmcille came to Tory Island following a vision that told him to build a monastery there. One version says his journey to Tory was made easy when “God opened the waters of Tory Sound for him and he walked across to the island”. Tory folklore has a different version: Colm Cille along with Saint Finian and Saint Beaglaoch stood on top of Cnoc na Naomh (hill of saints) in Magheraroarty and tossed their croziers into the sea to decide which of them would convert the island. Colm Cille’s crozier not alone went farthest, but reaching the island made a small crater on the north east cliffs.

Tradition asserts that at the age of 40 Colmcille entered into a dispute with his old teacher, Finnian of Moville over a copy he had made of the latter’s original edition of St Jerome’s Psalter. The high king at Tara, Diarmait MacCearbhaill, decided Finnian was entitled to the copy, thus souring relations between the royal household and Colmcille. Relations were strained to breaking point by a separate incident, when Diarmait killed the son of the king of Connacht, who was under Colmcille’s protection.

Determined on vengeance, the northern O’Neills sent an army against Diarmait Mac Cearbhaill, and issue was joined in the shadow of Ben Bulben at the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne / Cooldrevny in 561 AD. Colmcille prayers for victory resulted in the high king’s army of three thousand men being massacred, with only one casualty on the side of the O’Neills.

Colmcille’s overt involvement in such worldly matters did not sit well with his religious contemporaries, who voiced their disapproval. After a period of reflection, Colmcille suggested that as penance for so many deaths he should work as a missionary to help convert as many people as had been killed in the battle. He also promised to move from Ireland and never again to see his native land.

Colmcille spent the night before departure lying on Leac na Cumha (the flagstone of loneliness) in his birthplace of Gartan. Then he  and twelve clansmen set sail to be “pilgrims for Christ”.

Colmcille travelled to Scotland, where he settled amongst the Gaels of Dál Riada. He is reputed to have first landed at the southern tip of the Kintyre peninsula, but, being still in sight of Ireland, moved further north up the west coast.

In 563 AD he founded a monastery on the island of Iona. Fertile land and a plentiful supply of timber mean that the community had all it needed to survive. The monastery soon attracted pilgrims from the mainland, and in time began sending monks ashore to convert more people to Christianity. Colmcille oversaw the operation from the vantage point of his abbacy, while also working in the scriptorium and maintaining his own unstinting prayer-life.

Aside from the services he provided as guiding the only outpost of literacy, his reputation as a holy man led to his role as a diplomat among the tribes. He was often called upon to act as a go-between for king Conall of Dal Riada, and famously made the long and hazardous journey over the Grampians to Brude Mac Maelchon, the king of the Picts, thus paving the way for their conversion.

Despite his vow, Colmcille made occasional journeys back to Ireland, taking part in a convention of kings at Drum Ceatt near Limavady in 574 AD, and founding a monastery at Durrow, in modern Co Offaly in 585 AD.

Colmcille was found slumped dead at the altar of his abbey church by monks arriving for the midnight office just after Easter 597 AD, his 76th year, and was buried on his beloved island.

Colmcille is said to have established a total of 37 monasteries and 100 churches in his lifetime. In addition, there are many stories of miracles which he performed.

The main source of information about Columba’s life is the Vita Colum Cille by Saint Adomnán, the ninth Abbot of Iona, who died in 704 AD.

The Vita is also the source of the first known reference to the Loch Ness Monster. According to Adomnan Columba came across a group of Picts who were burying a man killed by the monster, and saved a swimmer with the sign of the Cross and the imprecation “You will go no further”, at which the beast fled terrified, to the amazement of the assembled Pictsm who duly glorified his God.

Through the reputation of its venerable founder and its position as a major European center of learning, Columba’s Iona became a place of pilgrimage. A network of Celtic high crosses marking processional routes developed around his shrine at Iona. The island’s fame attracted the Vikings, who attacked it several times between 794 AD onwards, often with great savagery. The last recorded raid was by Norsemen from Dublin in 980 AD

Columba’s relics were removed from Iona in 849 AD and divided between Alba and Ireland. Relics of Columba were carried before Scottish armies in the reliquary made at Iona in the mid-C8th AD, called the Brechbennoch. His stone pillow is preserved on the holy island.

Saint Colmcille / Columba’s Feast Day is 9th June.