Friday, 9 February 2018

Saint Brigid: completing the work of Saint Patrick?

To mark the octave day of the feast of Saint Brigid, we bring to a close the reading of St Brigid: Patroness of Ireland, published in 1907 by Irish Augustinian, Father Joseph A. Knowles. One of the themes which struck me as I read this book was the author's frequently-repeated wish to link the mission and career of our national patroness with that of our national apostle. He returns to this theme in Chapter VIII in which he describes the death, burial and relics of Saint Brigid. As he attempts to paint a picture of her final hours on earth, Father Knowles gives free rein to both the romantic imagination and the triumphalist vision which has characterised his entire book:
As she cast her eyes over the fair plains and upon the green hills of her native land, in those last hours of her life, what a tidal wave of spiritual joy and hope must have inundated her soul. Her monasteries were spread over the whole extent of the land. Churches were raised in towns and hamlets to the honour and glory of the Most High. King and peasant knelt at the same altar, and were linked in a common brotherhood of faith and worship. The altars of the Druids were destroyed, and their false gods banished forever. The preaching of St. Patrick and his disciples had given the death blow to superstition and idolatry. The standard of the true faith was planted on every hill, and waved triumphantly over every valley of regenerated Ireland. And when our Saint recalled how much her labours contributed to this happy consummation, she must have rejoiced and blessed Him Who made her the instrument of such apostolic work for the land of her birth and love. St. Patrick and St. Brigid are ever associated in the minds of Catholic Ireland with the evangelisation of our country. It has been well said that St. Brigid was chosen by God to complete the work of Ireland's Apostle, whilst, at the same time, she in part reaped the fruits of his labours. The "one sowed, the other came when the harvest was ripe; the one watered with tears, the other gathered with joy; the one passed on to his reward, when the other culled the most blooming flowers to decorate his festive offering on the day of his departure." Yes, truly does St. Brigid merit to be placed on a throne beside our National Apostle.

Rev. J.A. Knowles, O.S.A., Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, (Dublin, 1907), 178-180.

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Thursday, 8 February 2018

Father Knowles and Hagiography

Today as we continue to read the 1907 book Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland by Father J.A. Knowles, we turn to his view of hagiography. At this time writers of devotional works tended to take at face value the attributed authorship and dating of Lives of the saints. Father Knowles lists some of the reputed authors of Lives of Saint Brigid, seeking to take us right back to the days of Saint Patrick himself with the inclusion of Fiech. Interestingly, he does not mention the mid-seventh century Life of Cogitosus, now hailed as one of the most important.  For Father Knowles, the purpose of hagiography was entirely devotional:
Little wonder is it that we find so many saintly and learned writers employing their graphic pens to record, in elegant verse, or flowing period, the heroic deeds, the numerous miracles, and the many virtues of their beloved Abbess of Kildare. St. Ninnid, her chaplain, faithfully placed on record the miracles he had witnessed during the time he had spent in her blessed and edifying company. Fiech, a disciple of St. Patrick, wrote her life, while St. Brigid was still performing her noble mission amongst the children of old Ireland. St. Brendan, Bishop of Clonfert, wrote her life in verse. The poet-saints, Columba and Kilian of Inis-Keltra, sang her praises in sweetest poesy. These metrical lives of St. Brigid were chanted by the cloistered children of the sanctuary. The multitude devoted themselves to the task of committing each verse to memory, so that they might share in the universal chorus of praise and thanksgiving which daily ascended to heaven from millions of Irish hearts.
Modern scholarship, of course, views hagiography as rather more complex in character. In the case of Saint Brigid, for example, Cogitosus was writing at a time when Armagh hagiographers were claiming primacy for their foundation thanks to Saint Patrick. His work may, therefore, be seen as an attempt to counter these claims on behalf of Kildare and its founder, Saint Brigid. Another of the central principles of hagiography accepted by modern scholars is that any piece of hagiography will always tell us more about the time in which it was written rather than about the time of its subject. This is true of Father Knowles too as in his account of the survival of these written records of Saint Brigid he reflects the ethos of the national revival of his own day. It is one in which Ireland is viewed as a long-suffering Catholic nation, valiantly withstanding centuries of oppression and the ravages of the likes of Cromwell:
From the number of these ancient records preserved from the ravages of time and the destroying hand of the heretical bands, who would gladly have given them to the flames, it is not too much to say that an all-wise Providence exercised a special care and watch over them to save them from decay and destruction. It certainly appears providential that many of the earlier lives and copies of them, made by conscientious and faithful scribes, found their way to safe refuge in the archives of Catholic countries abroad. Had they been left at home, they would not have escaped the rigorous search made for such invaluable and priceless documents by Cromwell and his followers. There can be no doubt that they would have served to light the fires that consumed the bodies of our noble martyrs, put to death by the cruel and relentless enemies of their creed and race. The preservation of this store of inestimable value, which enshrines and catalogues the doings, the sayings, and the miracles of St. Brigid, is the one consolation left us amidst the ruin and desolation caused by the burning and destruction of our ecclesiastical archives. This treasure is — and let us fervently thank God for it— the one great inheritance that the children of the early Church have left us to perpetuate and strengthen us today in our loyalty and devotion to St. Brigid, the Patroness of our Land.
Father Knowles goes on to suggest, however, that we should not be too hasty to dismiss the many legends regarding Saint Brigid which have also survived:
It may be advisable, before coming to the events of our Saint's life, to say a word or two regarding those beautiful garlands of legendary and traditional lore woven round the stately and enduring monument of authentic facts, which the hands of reliable and saintly biographers have erected to her blessed memory... In a life of the Saint, such as this purports to be, many legends and traditions must be introduced to stimulate the devotion of the reader, and to relieve the monotony which would inevitably ensue from a mere studied recital of historical detail. Having read the extracts given at length, the reader will be the better enabled to judge between what he can reasonably believe as true, and what he may safely set down as mere pious tradition. Thus does the late Canon O'Hanlon write of the legends and traditions so thickly strewn through the authentic writings of learned and holy authors who have treated of the life and miracles of St. Brigid: — "The truly religious and disciplined spirit of an enlightened and a pious Christian will not too readily reject the various interesting legends contained in the acts of our National Saints, when he is free to receive them on the weight, or set them in abeyance on the want of sustaining evidence. Many sceptical or over-fastidious critics undervalue the force of popular traditions, and regard such attested miracles as incredible or legendary, but while those persons desire to remove the cockle from the field of Irish hagiology, they possibly incur some risk, at the same time, of rooting up good seed with the tares." 
 In another place his remarks on the same subject are worthy of attentive consideration: — "Religious feeling and Christian Faith do not require for their preservation and growth, the the production and publication of many legends to be found in special acts of our National Saints. Those narratives, however, were consonant with a prevalent taste and with the sentiments of our ancestors in past ages. Even yet, when received with due caution, and with a just, discriminating spirit, such legends may be found not altogether devoid of edification, granting their authenticity to be very questionable. A well- regulated mind will regard them chiefly as emanations of a former period, and as illustrations of popular opinion, national feeling, or religious impressions which widely prevailed during times when those narratives had been written."
Now 1907 was also the year of publication of an English translation of the Legends of the Saints by Father Hippolyte Delehaye. This was the first work to undertake a scholarly examination of hagiography and revolutionised the understanding of medieval saints' Lives. The miraculous signs and wonders with which hagiography abounds were finally able to be placed within a context which could be explained and understood. No longer would the reader be asked to believe that Saint Brigid literally hung her cloak on a sunbeam or that the historical/biographical material contained within her various Lives was necessarily any more authentic than the miracle stories. Hagiography is not history, it is a distinctive genre of literature with its own rules and internal logic. We cannot fault Father Knowles or Canon O'Hanlon for not sharing this understanding as Delehaye's ideas took some time to filter through and become the accepted academic view. 

Rev. J.A. Knowles, O.S.A., Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, (Dublin, 1907), 11-15; 20-21.

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Wednesday, 7 February 2018

What would happen if Ireland ever forgot Saint Brigid?

Continuing the reading of the 1907 book Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland by Father J. A. Knowles with a follow-up to yesterday's selection on the devotion of the people of Ireland to their patroness. Today the author lays out what he sees as the dire consequences for the country should it ever forget to honour her:
Should they, which God forbid, ever grow cold in their devotion to her, or become forgetful of her benefits to them, their crime would truly be an unpardonable one. A terrible change would come over the fair face of our country, every acre of which holds some sacred memorial of a life devoted to the spiritual regeneration of a people she loved next to Him, in Whose service her days were spent. The ivy-mantled walls of the temples erected by our forefathers in her honour would totter to the ground in indignant protest. The holy wells that bear her name would cease to give their blessed waters to an ungrateful nation. The fertile soil of the four provinces, consecrated by her missionary footsteps, would cease to yield their rich golden harvests. 
Fortunately, Father Knowles does not foresee any immediate danger of ruined churches collapsing, holy wells drying up or harvests failing, for which we can only be thankful: 
There is no indication of such untoward events happening in our generation. St Brigid still holds her high place in the hearts of Irish Catholics. Her consecrated virgins still assume her name when entering the cloister. Mothers are found to give her name to their children at the baptismal font and to place them under her protection. Churches are raised, year after year, in her honour. Fervent prayers ascend from Irish hearts, not only on her feast-day, but hourly, that God, through her intercession, may protect the Irish nation from the evils of the day, may bless and shield us from the enemies of our Faith, and send down on our Island the twin-gifts of righteous liberty and enduring peace.
Tomorrow I want to look at how Father Knowles views the written sources for the life of Saint Brigid.

Rev. J.A. Knowles, O.S.A., Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, (Dublin, 1907), 18-20.

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Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Is Irish devotion to Saint Brigid written into our DNA?

Yesterday we looked at how Irish devotion to Saint Brigid is described in the pages of the 1907 book Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland by Father J. A. Knowles. Following this section, the author goes on to discuss the writings of the various Lives of Saint Brigid, of which more anon. But he cannot help returning to the theme of Irish love for the national patroness and suggests that reason for it lies in our DNA:
If we seek the key to the intense love and veneration for St. Brigid that rules and sways the Celtic heart to-day, as in the centuries gone by, we must look for it in one of the noblest traits of the Irish character. No matter what our faults may be, we, the children of the Gael, can never be charged by our bitterest enemies with ingratitude to our friends and benefactors. Wherever, in our chequered history, a hand has been held out to bestow a favour upon our race, we treasure up the memory of the good deed and pour benedictions on the head of the giver. St. Brigid, after our National Apostle, was the truest and best friend Ireland has ever had, or ever will have.
At this time it was commonplace to claim that one could identify racial traits from which a 'national character' could be deduced. The 'Celt' was dreamy and otherworldly, in sharp contrast to the hard-headed Anglo-Saxon who had his feet firmly on the ground. This sort of racial stereotyping may seem like harmless bunkum but one might argue that it did have an impact in what was an age of imperialism. The campaign for Irish self-determination, for example, begged the question of whether the naive, childlike 'Celt' was capable of ruling himself without the paternalistic guiding hand of the imperial family of which the solid Anglo-Saxon was the head.

I have also previously referred to another idea, common to writers of this time, that Saint Patrick's mission to convert the pagan Irish was a single-handed heroic endeavour of epic proportions. We have already seen Father Knowles liken it to a 'triumphal procession'.  He now applies some of the same thinking to Saint Brigid whom he credits with having 'infused a vigour and energy into the Irish Church, which it maintains down to the present day':
During her long life she, like her Divine Master, "went about doing good." She marked out the path of perfection which many an Irish virgin has since trodden, with happiest spiritual results. She infused a vigour and energy into the Irish Church, which it maintains down to the present day. Her works of charity relieved distress in many an Irish home. Her prayers strengthened and nurtured the infant Church, left by St. Patrick, into a vigorous manhood. Her example stimulated the guardians of the sanctuary to renewed effort to evangelise those not reached by the Apostle, St. Patrick, and to spread the Faith in lands beyond the seas. Her intercession has guided and preserved the Irish Church through many a storm of persecution and bloodshed, chronicled in the annals of our country. Her protecting hand is still extended over our Isle, that no spiritual harm may befall the Church which her blessed hands so laboriously toiled to extend and establish on a firm and lasting foundation. How, then, considering such a record of favours bestowed, could the children of this favoured land ever forget their benefactress and patroness — St Brigid?
Although I have read a good deal of Victorian devotional literature on Irish saints over the past few years I find this approach by Father Knowles one of the most memorable. Tomorrow we will continue with what he sees as the dire consequences for Ireland should we ever try to cast off our devotion to our benefactress and patron.

Rev. J.A. Knowles, O.S.A., Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, (Dublin, 1907), 16-18.

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Monday, 5 February 2018

Father Knowles on Irish Devotion to Saint Brigid

We continue with the reading of the 1907 book, Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, with a look at how the author, Irish Augustinian Joseph Knowles, viewed devotion to Saint Brigid in her own country. As I noted in the previous post, he is determined to make sure that Saint Patrick receives his share of the credit for Saint Brigid's greatness. Also, as we saw yesterday, Father Knowles believes that pagan Ireland was uniquely responsive to the Christian message and thus he sees the wonder that was Saint Brigid as a heavenly 'reward for the warm-hearted and generous welcome extended to the Apostle' sent to us. That said, he also claims that 'St. Brigid received from her people a worship which history accords to no other saint', which sounds like yet another demonstration of the supposed uniqueness of Early Christian Ireland:
Devotion to St Brigid is not a matter of to-day or yesterday. It began during her earthly life, growing in intensity as the shadows closed in around her mortal career. The fame of her sanctity and her miraculous power rang during her days from end to end of her Island-home. After the National Apostle, she was proclaimed by all the greatest and best beloved of the Saints whose names enrich the Calendar of the Irish Church. St. Brigid received from her people a worship which history accords to no other saint. The nation fell prostrate at her feet, offering to her the sweet incense of a tender and deep-seated love and devotion. The people beheld in her the noblest and best type of womanhood, raised to the most elevated plane attainable by the children of men this side of the grave. They recognised in her the realization of that blessing, which the Almighty had specially bestowed on their race, as a reward for the warm-hearted and generous welcome extended to the Apostle He had sent to teach them His heavenly doctrines. A people who had so readily opened their hearts to the teachings of their Apostle could not but rise to the highest pitch of enthusiastic devotion to her, who was the brightest and most exalted product of St. Patrick's ministry. She typified the perfect woman, nurtured and fed on the word of God. She was the light that shone over their Island to direct the footsteps of the daughters of Erin in the paths of virtue and sanctity.
 And how did the devotion of the Irish people to this 'perfect woman' manifest itself?
In speaking of her they discarded the prefix Saint, and called her, in homely, yet reverent fashion, "Mo Brighe" — or "My Bride." The children received her blessed name at the baptismal font. The sturdy sons of the Irish race added her name to those usually adopted by their sex. With one chorus of acclamation, she was proclaimed the Patroness of their land, the Protectress of their daughters' virtue, and the strength of their warrior sons in defence of Faith and Fatherland. 

I think that in his final sentence Father Knowles has encapsulated the entire spirit of the Irish national revival of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Rev. J.A. Knowles, O.S.A., Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, (Dublin, 1907), 7-8.

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Sunday, 4 February 2018

Saint Brigid: 'the pride and glory of the Irish Church'

The opening chapter of Father Knowles' book Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, sets the scene for the career of its subject. He opens, naturally enough, with the coming of Saint Patrick and it is clear that Father Knowles views the fifth-century Ireland to which Patrick came as a place of special holiness, unique among the pagan nations:
Never, in the history of the propagation of the Catholic Faith, was there found a soil more ready for the reception of the blessed seed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, than that of our own dear Isle. In the wide expanse of the dominions of the Catholic Church, Ireland stands alone as a Nation whose conversion, from the darkness of paganism to the full light of the true faith, was accomplished without the shedding of one drop of a Martyr's blood. St. Patrick went from end to end of our Island preaching the Gospel of peace and good will, without encountering any of the obstacles and trials experienced by the Apostles of other nations. His apostolate partook more of the nature of a triumphal procession than of a fierce combat with the powers of darkness and superstition.
This view of Saint Patrick as an all-conquering hero who singlehandedly evangelized the entire island of Ireland was a common one at the time. And despite the fact that he is writing in English, Father Knowles approvingly notes the national apostle's use of the national language:
Wherever our Apostle went, crowds flocked round him to hear the doctrines and practices of the New Law preached to them in their own sweet Gaelic tongue.
The superiority of Saint Patrick's new teachings are particularly manifested to upper-class Irish women: 
Ladies of royal and noble birth sat at the feet of the Apostle, to learn the true dignity of womanhood, attained only by the knowledge and practice of Christian virtue.  
And, attracted by this message, women begin to enter the religious life, as the quotation from Saint Patrick's own Confession records:
...And there is one blessed Irish maiden, of the Scottish race, of noble birth, most fair, of adult age, whom I baptised; and soon thereafter she came to us on some business, and informed us that God's will had been revealed to her, admonishing her to become a Virgin of Christ and draw near to God. Thanks be to God, on the sixth day after that, she worthily and most eagerly embraced that state of life. And indeed all the Virgins of God act in like manner, not at the bidding of their parents — nay, they endure reproaches and persecutions from their parents — and, nevertheless, their number goes on increasing, so that I know not the number of the natives who thus have become of our kindred, besides the widows and those who observe continency.
There is one Irish nun though who stands out from all the innumerable and anonymous others:
At the head of this noble band of consecrated virgins, St. Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, takes her rightful place. She, of all the spiritual children of St. Patrick, was the brightest jewel in his apostolic crown. She is, and always will be, the pride and glory of the Irish Church, the most honoured and venerated on the bead-roll of her Saints, the joy and the crown of the womanhood of holy Ireland.
It is interesting to see Father Knowles take some pains to establish Saint Patrick as the inspiration of Saint Brigid's later career. I will continue with his view of Saint Brigid in tomorrow's post.

Rev. J.A. Knowles, O.S.A., Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, (Dublin, 1907).
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Saturday, 3 February 2018

Father Knowles on the Writing of Saint Brigid

We begin the exploration of Father Joseph Knowles' 1907 work on Saint Brigid with a look at the author's preface in which he explains his reasons for writing the book. His purpose is twofold - first to satisfy a public demand for such works and secondly to commemorate the centenary of the founding of the Order of Saint Brigid. What I found particularly interesting is the author's attribution of the perceived public demand to 'the untiring zeal and efforts of the Gaelic League and other kindred organizations'. Fr Knowles thus quite self-consciously places his endeavours squarely within the national revival movement, which he credits with having created 'this sound and desirable condition of our literary tastes.' Finally, he hopes that a greater knowledge of our national patroness will lead to a greater devotion to her 'whom a nation's voice has proclaimed "the Mary of the Gael."'


 IN this volume the Author has endeavoured to place before his readers a concise and popular narration of the life and labours of St. Brigid, the Patroness of Ireland. The facts and legends, which abound in its pages, he has carefully selected from the most reliable and authentic sources. The present time seems to him opportune and propitious for the publication of the class of literature to which this volume claims to belong. There exists amongst the Irish reading public a marked preference for books that deal with the religious or national history of our country. This sound and desirable condition of our literary tastes is mainly attributable to the untiring zeal and efforts of the Gaelic League and other kindred organizations. 

 The joyous occasion which has called forth this volume may not be passed over in silence. This year the Order of St. Brigid celebrates the centenary of its foundation. To mark with greater emphasis the glorious event the Brigidine Nuns decided to publish a life of their special Patroness. They were pleased to ask the assistance of the Author in carrying out their pious and laudable design. Conscious of many obligations of gratitude to the spiritual daughters of St. Brigid, he could not do otherwise than interpret their wish as a command. Hence the appearance of his name on the title page of this volume. 

 The Author takes this opportunity of returning his sincere and respectful thanks to the illustrious Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin for his gracious letter of approval, which forms an appropriate and valuable introduction to this volume. May these pages, the Author fervently prays, tend to deepen the knowledge of the exalted sanctity of St. Brigid amongst her children, and strengthen their faith in the powerful advocacy of her whom a nation's voice has proclaimed "the Mary of the Gael."

Rev. J.A. Knowles, O.S.A., Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, (Dublin, 1907), ix-xi. 

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