The fate of the early Irish Brigitine church

We know from the earliest surviving hagiographic literature from Ireland (written by Cogitosus, Abbot of Kildare some time in the 7thC) that the original Irish ‘Brigitine’ monastic movement was probably one of the first forms of organised christianity that flourished in Ireland, sociologically interesting in that their communities or ‘abbeys’ apparently combined chapters of both male and female ascetics. These abbeys and their leaders are generally accepted to have been places where the children of the local aristocracy would be fostered to the care of the new political and spiritual forces influencing Ireland and Britain in the period, offering opportunities for learning and travel. It appears to have preceded the ‘Patrician’ movement which established its retrospective dominance in the ensuing four centuries of Uí Néill ascendancy, leading to Patrick becoming seen as the main patron saint of Ireland. Even by the 12th century, monastic writer Gerald of Wales was able to comment (perhaps to highlight in his eyes its need for reform) upon the strange setup at Kildare with its holy enclosures, sacred meadows and sanctuary with its eternal flame.

Cogitosus claimed that there had been an explosion of Brigitine missions and Abbeys in his own lifetime that had spread across Ireland, yet it is somewhat difficult to ascertain what and where all of these were. We can be certain that some of these were taken over by the subsequent movements of the male-centred order of Finnian and his students, perhaps in continuity of the Brigitines’ probable appropriation of goddess-centred sanctuaries for their own establishments. Indeed, the language and forms of popular legend and hagiography about characters such as Cóemgen (St Kevin of Glendalough) and Senán mac Geircinn (St Sennan of Scattery Island) contain coded references to deposed female characters and conquered ‘beasts’ – typical motifs used in dealing with indigenous paganism. It is very likely that these Irish early-christian religious institutions were established at the sites of former pagan shrines, and that many if not most of these were associated with well-springs, islands in sacred lakes and rivers and river-crossings, as well as fertile meadowlands – the typical sites of earthly goddess-worship and legends. The attributes of <Christian Brigit> in the accounts by Cogitosus and from later texts such as the Bethu Brighde were loquaciousness, fecundity, hospitality, healing powers, associations with fire and light, and some mechanical miracles.

With this in mind, Cormac’s Glossary (probably 10thC) had this to say about Brigit (trans. by John O’Donovan, Ed. Whitley Stokes):

“Brigit i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets, by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician (woman of leech craft), Brigit the female smith (woman of smith work), from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit.”

The passage is remarkable as it makes a specific reference to a pagan Brigit and claims this was the name by which all the goddesses of Ireland were once called by the Irish! She is referenced as a creatrix through the Smith-association, a mistress of nature’s healing bounty, and an exciter of the human imagination in expressing the things of the world. Explicitly in the Sanais Chormac, she is a triple goddess of the sort seen in the characters of the Matronaes depicted in some of the statuary and bas-relief traditions of late Iron Age Atlantic European cultures: Mother goddesses perhaps representing the three generative seasons of the year…

Brigitine monasticism is likely to have taken over the reigns of traditional goddess-worship in Irish society during the 5th/6th centuries (if not earlier), and then to have been supplanted by a male-centred order under the acolytes of her supposed contemporary Finnian of Clonard (attrib. 5th/6thC) who promoted a non-feminine regime magnifying the missions of Palladius and Patrick (sometimes now referred to as the ‘two Patricks’) as the main forebears of Irish christianity. Finnian is the character that the ‘second wave’ of Irish saints depend upon for their education at his great school. However, we must necessarily question whether these religious establishments that began to cascade as far as Ireland’s westernmost extremes and into Scotland, Mann, Wales and Cornwall before leaping to the continent, were based upon pre-existing (possibly syncretic) Brigitine sites.  There is no explicit evidence to demonstrate this, but much that is oblique or indirect, as formerly commented on.

One particularly interesting piece of literary evidence from the 15thC Book of Fermoy (roughly contemporary with Chaucer) contains an explicitly Christianised version of an older tale also known as ‘The Wooing of Etain’ (earliest surviving version is from the early 12thC), but referred to in this context as Altram Tige Da Medar (‘The Fosterage of the House of the ?Two Pails’). It is set in the pseudo-historical world of the ‘Gebala Eirenn’ mythos, and tells of the warrior tribes of Tuatha De Danann and their ruler Manannan who settles them in various Sid mansions and governs them with the laws of the Otherworld. In this tale, the fairy Eithne (apparently the same character as the earlier Etain, possibly also a version of the name ‘Aine’) has an inverted ‘otherworldly’ encounter with a christian priest and his church after being abstracted from her friends while batheing in the Boyne and becomes fostered by him and becomes a Christian!

You can read a copy of it here: @MaryJones

Readers may recognise ‘Eithne’ or ‘Ethniu’ (‘Enya’) as a character who makes a number of appearances in the mythological cycle tales – as the mother of the hero Lugh. Here she is daughter of a minor Tuatha Dé Danann (TDD) noble called Dicu, fostered by Aengus, and Manannan is portrayed – curiously – as the (Christian) god-fearing ruler of the TDD who tries to bring a new rule of law and order to the fairy tribe to whom he grants their Sidhe mansions or hills. The narrative hands to Eithne (for which we might also read (C)ethlinne or ‘Aine’) the role as the first TDD to become a Christian – fostered by one of Patrick’s priests. It is almost analogous to the early Bridget hagiographies in this regard – building a sympathetic or syncretic bridge between the pagan past and the Christian future which the Book of Fermoy’s 15thC aristocratic patrons must have enjoyed.  Manannan also fulfils the function of ‘Christian Godsend’ that Charles MacQuarrie suggests in his ‘Waves of Manannan’ thesis – an acceptable pagan analogy of the Christian god, who the narrator has Manannan hail and recommend in his role as benevolent otherworld leader of the TDD:

‘…The nobles inquired of Manannan where Ealcmar would find rest. ‘I know not’, said Manannan, ‘and no prophet or sage in the whole world knows, but the one God almighty knows.’ …. ‘

The displacement of Brigitine syncretism became a significant ambition of narrative traditions from the 6/7thC and therefore appears to have continued as late as the 15th century. After all, heresy was always the main home enemy of western christianity and from the 15th century would evolve into something known as the ‘witch craze’ where pagan folk-traditions would eventually under intense scrutiny by both the religious AND secular authorities and become a victim of the polemic of popular culture.

One thought on “The fate of the early Irish Brigitine church

  1. Pingback: The epiphany of Bride – Delphic and Eleusinian aspects of the goddess Brigit | The Atlantic Religion

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