As Ireland’s Church Retreats, the Cult of a Female Saint Thrives

A local committee is planning a major celebration of the saint for 2024, the 1,500th anniversary of her reputed death. And the Irish government announced in January that starting next year, there will be a new annual holiday, on or near Feb. 1, to mark both Imbolc and Saint Brigid’s Day. It will be, the government said, the first Irish public holiday to honor a woman.

For some Catholic feminists, the new interest in Brigid reflects the liberalizing Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which appeared to signal an end to the subservient and cloistered role of women in the church.

“Many nuns, like the Brigidines, became much more engaged with ecological and social issues, and they are also in touch with feminist groups around the world,” said Mary Condren, the director of Trinity College Dublin’s Center for Gender and Women’s Studies.

Margaret Hebblethwaite, a leading English writer on Catholic matters, attended this year’s vigil at Saint Brigid’s Well.

While she had heard the name of Saint Brigid as a child, Ms. Hebblethwaite had only recently learned that, unusually, Brigid and her female successors governed not only nuns but male monks, as well. Moreover, it is believed that Brigid, despite being a woman, was ordained as a bishop.

“She is such a model, so badly needed by the church of today because of the issues of gender equality,” Ms. Hebblethwaite said.

In many other Christian churches, those issues have already been addressed. The Church of Ireland voted in 1990 to permit women to become priests, and in 2013, it appointed its first female bishop. In December that year, the Most Rev. Pat Storey became bishop of Meath and Kildare — possibly the first woman to hold such a title since Brigid herself.