It’s not often we discuss Brigid, or indeed any Irish deity, and political power, but here we go. In researching for the upcoming Brigid in Cormac’s Glossary class (and you can get a $15/€15 discount if you sign up to the mailing list and buy the class before 6:30pm Irish time on Saturday), I’ve been diving deep into the political power of the church/religion in Ireland in the 10th century. It’s wild – like the Cormac of Cormac’s Glossary? Described as a king-bishop. No separation of Church and State here!! He was off on war campaigns and all sorts. And his chief advisor? An abbot…
So, really it’s no wonder our own Brigid was used for various purposes over the generations as well. Now at some point, I want to look at the political power she herself would have wielded as an abbess of a major religious institution in her own right. Today, I want to look at how she was used and the way women deemed as “powerful women in politics” have operated in this country throughout the ages.
Irish history time…
In the mid-7th century, there was a bit of a disagreement (or potentially all-out ecclesiastical war, depending on what source you’re reading) between Armagh and Kildare for the Primacy of Ireland. It’s down to money really, money and political power. The winner (ended up with St. Patrick’s home patch of Armagh) would essentially rule the clerical portions of Ireland and be in direct contact with the Holy See. We’re heading for a lot of power and control through religion here. But sure, that’s no strange thought to any of us.
Religion is a great way to wield political power – just look at all the bishops in the House of Lords in England! So, this is when Cogitosus started writing his Vitae. It’s propoganda to increase the visibility of Brigid of Kildare and to show how awesome and wonderful the place was. Talk about power politics? Basically, no more than some of the writers we’ll mention later, Cogitosus was running a PR campaign for Kildare and promoting the life of St. Brigid as such a great holy woman, and an awesome leader, even after her death, was all part of the gig.
Now, don’t worry – the lot in Armagh were doing the same for St. Patrick (I still think it was pure patriarchy that got him the win in the end, but that’s only my own opinion). But Brigid wasn’t 2 centuries dead and her followers were using her legend for alternative purposes.
Just after the Norman’s arrived in the 12th century, they sent a lad call Giraldus of Wales or Giraldus of Monmouth (which is in Waltes) around Ireland to present some more propaganda back home. This time – the goal was to paint the Irish as barbarians of the worst sort. He goes through a whole list of ways the Irish are less than human, setting the tone for centuries later. It’s ridiculous how often this text is quoted in following centuries.
In saying that though, we remember this man in his descriptions of the sacred fire in Kildare. He wrote of the priestesses tending the holy flame in Kildare. He also wrote of the punishments facing men who tried to enter. So, he probably wasn’t all bad. He was definitely a Norman though. And he strongly encouraged his audience to pop over to take advantage of the natural resources of the island to their west. (#nevernotatit)
The fact that women appeared to hold political power was another problem. St. Brigit wielded much power as an abbess. Her successors in the abbey were also women who wielded a lot of power. This continued until the attack on the abbey in the 13th century, when the attackers raped the abbess to strip her power from her. And then, the local ruler appointed his niece as abbess. Somehow, after that, the abbess was just another abbess… Wonder how that happened? This was definitely not one of the powerful women in politics!
In medieval Ireland, no more than in the rest of Europe, women didn’t hold political power, or much other power either. There are lots of tales of the convoluted marriages, with first, second and third or higher wives fighting for precedence, inheritance for children etc. Powerful women in politics worked more behind the scenes than in public. Brigid and her successors really stood out in this sense, and had to be removed. No woman could be seen to wield political power as a norm.
More modern times
Brigid really started to come to prominence again in Ireland during the #Repealthe8th campaign. Ireland’s move from the 1983 referendum to ban abortion to removing said amendment in 2018. Grainne Griffin, Orla O’Connor, Ailbhe Smyth, Co-Directors of Together for Yes campaign showed a new mode of leadership during this campaign. All three were joint leaders, wielding power in a new way. This grassroots campaign worked very differently from previous political campaigns in Ireland. From the start, the focus was on individual conversations, people talking to each other, sharing stories… This was not a campaign won with posters, with traditional political power, with power politics.
This campaign, much like Brigid herself, worked differently. It wasn’t the behind-the-scenes “powerful women in politics” seen in the 10th century and later. It wasn’t the traditional domination type of politics either. The political power wielded here was the power of the people. Brigid was invoked as the first abortionist in Ireland, even if there are at least 2-3 other saints that have similar miracles attributed to them. She has remained as a feminist icon since then as well. The move to gain 1st February as a bank holiday is a further sign of Brigid’s growing popularity. Although there were complaints from all types of religion at that as well!
In the end, St Brigid had political power as the abbess of a major religious establishment. Her legacy has been used in power politics to support or belittle according to the whims of the person telling the story. And they’re all stories – even what I’ve said here is a story, of sorts. So what do you think? Of Brigid, of power, of the story I’ve told here?