St. Valentine in Ireland

In ancient Rome, February 14th was a holiday to honour Juno – the Queen of the Roman Gods and Goddesses and the Goddess of women and marriage.  The following day, February 15th, began the Feast of Lupercalia.  At the time, the lives of young boys and girls were strictly separate except for the annual custom of name drawing.  On the eve of the festival, the names of Roman girls were written and placed into jars.  Each young man would draw a girl’s name from the jar and they would then be partners for the duration of the festival.  Sometimes the pairing of the children lasted an entire year and often, they would fall in love and would later marry.  Under the rule of Emperor Claudius II, Rome was involved in many unpopular campaigns and Claudius had a difficult time getting young men to join his army.  He believed that one reason was that men did not want to leave their loved ones so he cancelled all marriages and engagements in Rome.  He also ordered the worship of the state’s idols and made it a crime punishable by death to associate with Christians.  But one man named Valentine was dedicated to Christ and not even the threat of death could keep him from practicing his beliefs.  Valentine and Saint Marius aided the Christian martyrs and secretly performed marriage ceremonies.  For this kind deed Valentine was apprehended and dragged before the Prefect of Rome, who condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs and to have his head cut off.

Another legend surrounding his martyrdom is that he was teaching a young blind girl named Julia about the faith when he was apprehended.  On the eve of his death, he wrote a last note to her, knowing his death was imminent.  He urged her to stay close to God, and he signed it “From Your Valentine.”  His sentence was carried out the next day, February 14, 269 A.D., near a gate that was later named Porta Valentini  in his memory.  When Julia opened the note, she discovered a yellow crocus inside.  As she  looked down upon the crocus she saw its brilliant color; her eyesight had been restored.  Valentine was buried at what is now the Church of Praxedes in Rome, near the cemetery of St Hippolytus.  It is said that Julia planted a pink-blossomed almond tree near his grave.  Today, the almond tree remains a symbol of love and friendship.

In 496 Pope Gelasius I named February 14 as Saint Valentine’s Day.  On each Valentine’s Day, messages of affection, love and devotion are exchanged around the world. This could be because of Valentine’s work in marrying couples against the law or because of the miracle worked for Julia and the message he left her.  Others believe that people in medieval times sent love notes during February because it was seen as the mating season of birds and that Valentine’s feast falling in the middle of the month assumed that tradition.

Throughout the centuries since Valentine’s martyrdom there have been various basilicas, churches and monasteries built over the site of his grave.  In the early 1800s as one such work was taking place, the remains of St. Valentine were discovered along with a small vessel of his blood and some other relics.  In 1835 an Irish Carmelite by the name of Father John Spratt was visiting Rome.  He was well known in Ireland for his skills as a preacher and for his work among the poor and destitute in Dublin’s Liberties area.  He was also responsible for the building of a new church to Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Whitefriar Street.  While in Rome, he was asked to preach and the elite of Rome flocked to hear him.  He received many tokens of esteem from the hierarchy of the Church and one such token, given by Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846), was a casket or reliquary containing the remains of Saint Valentine.

On November 10, 1836, the reliquary containing the remains of the saint arrived in Dublin and were brought in solemn procession to Whitefriar Street Church where they were received by Archbishop Murray of Dublin.  With the death of Fr. Spratt, interest in the relics died away and they went into storage.  During a major renovation in the church in the 1950s/60s they were returned to prominence with an altar and shrine being constructed to house them and enable them to be venerated.  A statue was carved by Irene Broe depicting the saint in the red vestments of a martyr and holding a crocus in his hand.

Today, the Shrine is visited throughout the year by couples who come to pray to St. Valentine and to ask him to bless their lives together. The feast day of the saint on February 14 brings many couples to the Eucharistic celebrations that day which include a Blessing of Rings for those about to be married.  On the feast day, the Reliquary is removed from beneath the side-altar and is placed before the high altar in the church and is there venerated at the Masses.

The Shrine to St Valentine is on the right side of the church as one enters and the casket sits beneath the marble altar in a niche protected by an ornate iron and glass gate.  Above the altar stands the life-sized statue of the saint set into a marble mosaic alcove.  The saint is also barefoot.  The casket is wooden and on top is the papal coat of arms of Gregory XVI along with two large gold plates which have the letter of Cardinal Odescalchi inscribed in English upon them.  Between these two plates and beneath the papal crest is a smaller plate with the inscription: This shrine contains the sacred body of Saint Valentinus the Martyr, together with a small vessel tinged with his blood.  These are contained within a small wooden box, covered in painted paper, tied with a red silk ribbon and sealed with wax seals. This container is inside the casket which is seen beneath the altar. The outer casket has only been opened on a couple of occasions to verify that the contents are intact. The inner box has never been opened nor the seals broken to disturb the patron saint of lovers who sleeps in Ireland.

ST. BRIGID OF IRELAND

February 1 is the feast of St. Brigid, often called the Mary of the Gael, and her feast day, along with that of St Patrick, and Our Lady of Knock, are the official holy days of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who gather annually for a Mass in her honor.  St. Brigid’s life was a remarkable one, and the places in Ireland, associated with her, are scenes of pilgrimage throughout the year.

Brigid was born in a society ruled by the old Gaelic Order and the Druidic religion. St. Patrick had already reached Ireland, and was in the process of changing all that, but although his message may have reached the court of Dubhtach, the powerful Leinster Chieftain held firm to the old religion. In that religion, one of the most powerful Goddesses was Brid or Brigid, the Goddess of Fire whose manifestations were song and poetry, which the Celts considered the flame of knowledge. Her feast day was the first festival of the year and was held on February 1. It was the beginning of the working season for farmers and fishermen and a time of husbanding of animals, and the Celts called on Brid to bless their work as bonfires were lit in her honor.

Patrick did not condemn the Celts as idolatrous pagans, but explained their druidic customs in Christian terms, and gradually, Bible heroes and Christian saints began to replace the Celtic Gods and Goddesses on the Irish calendar. However, the personalities of some of the Celtic deities was so strong that they could not be replaced; one of these was Brid, and the rites associated with her continued to be practiced each February 1 right into Christian times. But that was soon to change.

At about 453 AD, a child was born out of wedlock between Dubhtach and one of his Christian slaves named Brocessa. The slave girl was sent to a Druid priest in a cabin at the foot of the Cooley Mountains near Dundalk, Co Louth, to have the child. The baby was a healthy girl, which was no great joy to Dubhtach who wanted a son. The mother was sold to a Chieftain in Connaught, and the child was left with the Druid to be raised and educated. The child was named Brigid, perhaps to seek the blessing of the Goddess, for from the very beginning, there were indications that she was special. It was reported that she was born at sunrise, and that the cottage in which she was born burst into flame when she left it.

Brigid grew in beauty, and her love for God’s creatures knew no bounds. After her fosterage, she returned to her father’s house as a slave, although she enjoyed the privileges of family. She was given to solitude, and loved to wander the woods befriending the animals. She was renowned for her generosity, giving much of her father’s wealth to the poor. Many are the stories attributed to this remarkable lady, including her journey on foot from Leinster to Connaught to find her mother, whom she freed from bondage, and returned to the house of Dubhtach.

In keeping with the life planned for her, she became a priestess in service to the Goddess Brid, and eventually high priestess at Cill Dara (the temple of the oak), a sanctuary built from the wood of a tree sacred to the Druids, where a perpetual ritual fire was kept in honor of Brid.  The exact circumstance of her conversion to Christianity is unknown, though it is certain that her Christian mother was a guiding influence. Some claim that she personally met St Patrick, which is possible since she was ten years old when he died, but there is no proof of that. Whatever the circumstances, Brigid and her companions in service to Brid, all accepted the Christian faith, and formed Ireland’s first Christian religious community of women. Legend tells that upon her acceptance of her vows, fire appeared above her head.  Brigid changed the pagan sanctuary of Cill Dara into a Christian shrine, which gave its name to the present County Kildare. She extinguished the ritual fire of the Druids, and lit a flame dedicated to Christ which was thereafter maintained by her followers until it was doused by the forces of Henry VIII.

Brigid’s wisdom and generosity became legend, and people traveled from all over the country to share her knowledge.  Her monastery at Kildare became one of the greatest centers of learning in Europe.  She continued her holy and charitable work until her death in 525 AD, when she was laid to rest in a jeweled casket at Cill Dara.  In 835, her remains were moved to protect them from Norse invaders, and interred in the same grave that holds the remains of St Patrick and St Columcille at Downpatrick.

So strong was the respect and reverence for this holy lady that she became the patroness of parishes, towns, and counties, not only in Ireland, but all across Europe.  During the age of Chivalry, she was so revered as a model for women of every age, that gentlemen, knights, and nobles began the custom of calling their sweethearts, their Brides – a custom that has come down to this very day.

In Ireland, the people likened her to Brid, the ancient Goddess of fire and wisdom – for wasn’t Brigid’s life touched with fire, and as for her wisdom – that was undisputed.  She even had a symbol.  As the shamrock became associated with St Patrick, a tiny cross made of rushes was linked with St Brigid.  It was supposedly woven by her to explain the passion of Christ to a dying pagan.  Similar crosses are fashioned to this day as a defense against harm, and placed in the rafters of a cottage on the feast day of St Brigid – February 1.

So it was that reverence for this holy child of Ireland grew so strong that she not only eclipsed Brid, for whom she was named, but was given her feast day.  And the Irish gladly accepted their new saint, and revere her to this day in place of a forgotten Celtic Goddess.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Sadly, there is very little historic evidence – archeological or autobiographical – about this remarkable Saint.  There are many ennobling tales written after her passing, glorifying her life, but some of them are conflicting.  The Catholic Encyclopedia tried to excuse these inconsistencies by stating, “Viewing the biography of St. Brigid from a critical standpoint we must allow a large margin for the vivid Celtic imagination and the glosses of medieval writers.”  Wikipedia Encyclopedia adds that many tales exist which suffer inconsistencies common to such legends, and the only agreement between the various stories is that a girl was born to an Irish king named Dubhtach and that her name was Brigid.

However from the many stories, biographies, lives of the Saints, and other documentation we have researched – both in America and in Kildare – we compiled the beliefs that most often agree between versions, and those that we found to be the most logical.  We have presented them in this biography in the hope of increasing devotion to a most inspirational servant of God and a most remarkable daughter of the Gael. 

St. Brigid

February 1 is the feast of St. Brigid, often called the Mary of the Gael, and her feast day, along with that of St Patrick, and Our Lady of Knock, are the official holy days of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who gather annually for a Mass in her honor. St. Brigid’s life was a remarkable one, and the places in Ireland, associated with her, are scenes of pilgrimage throughout the year.

Brigid was born in a society ruled by the old Gaelic Order and the Druidic religion. St. Patrick had already reached Ireland, and was in the process of changing all that, but though his message may have reached the court of Dubhtach, the powerful Leinster Chieftain held firm to the old religion. In his religion, one of the most powerful Goddesses was Brid or Brigid, the Goddess of Fire whose manifestations were song and poetry, which the Celts considered the flame of knowledge. Her feast day was the first festival of the year and was held on February 1. It was the beginning of Spring; the working season for farmers and fishermen, and a time of husbanding of animals, and the Celts called on Brid to bless their work, and bonfires were lit in her honor.

Patrick did not condemn the Celts as idolatrous pagans, but explained their druidic customs in Christian terms, and gradually, Bible heroes and Christian saints began to replace the Celtic Gods and Goddesses on the Irish calendar. However, the personalities of some of the Celtic deities was so strong that they could not be replaced; one of these was Brid, and the rites associated with her continued to be practiced each February 1 right into Christian times. But that was soon to change.
At about 453 AD, a child was born out of wedlock between Dubhtach and one of his Christian slaves named Brocessa. The slave girl was sent to a Druid priest in a cabin at the foot of the Cooley Mountains near Dundalk, Co Louth, to have the child. The baby was a healthy girl, which was no great joy to Dubhtach who wanted a son. The mother was sold to a Chieftain in Connaught, and the child was left with the Druid to be raised and educated. The child was named Brigid, perhaps to seek the blessing of the Goddess, for from the very beginning, there were indications that she was special. It was reported that she was born at sunrise, and that the cottage in which she was born burst into flame when she left it.

Brigid grew in beauty, and her love for God’s creatures knew no bounds. After her fosterage, she returned to her father’s house as a slave, although she enjoyed the privileges of family. She was given to solitude, and loved to wander the woods befriending the animals. She was renowned for her generosity, giving much of her father’s wealth to the poor. Many are the stories attributed to this remarkable lady, including her journey on foot from Leinster to Connaught to find her mother, whom she freed from bondage, and returned to the house of Dubhtach.

In keeping with the life planned for her, she became a priestess in service to the Goddess Brid, and eventually high priestess at Cill Dara (the temple of the oak), a sanctuary built from the wood of a tree sacred to the Druids, where a perpetual ritual fire was kept in honor of Brid. The exact circumstance of her conversion to Christianity are unknown, though it is certain that her Christian mother was a guiding influence. Some claim that she personally met St Patrick, which is possible since she was ten years old when he died, but there is no proof of that. Whatever the circumstances, Brigid and her companions in service to Brid, all accepted the Christian faith, and formed Ireland’s first Christian religious community of women. Legend tells that upon her acceptance of her vows, fire appeared above her head. Brigid changed the pagan sanctuary of Cill Dara into a Christian shrine, which gave its name to the present County Kildare. She extinguished the ritual fire of the Druids, and lit a flame dedicated to Christ which was thereafter maintained by her followers until it was doused by the forces of Henry VIII.

Brigid’s wisdom and generosity became legend, and people traveled from all over the country to share her knowledge. Her monastery at Kildare became one of the greatest centers of learning in Europe. She continued her holy and charitable work until her death in 525 AD, when she was laid to rest in a jeweled casket at Cill Dara. In 835, her remains were moved to protect them from Norse invaders, and interred in the same grave that holds the remains of St Patrick and St Columcille at Downpatrick.

So strong was the respect and reverence for this holy lady that she became the patroness of parishes, towns, and counties, not only in Ireland, but all across Europe. During the age of Chivalry, she was so revered as a model for women of every age, that gentlemen, knights, and nobles began the custom of calling their sweethearts, their Brides – a custom that has come down to this very day.

In Ireland, the people likened her to Brid, the ancient Goddess of fire and wisdom – for wasn’t Brigid’s life touched with fire, and as for her wisdom – that was undisputed. She even had a symbol. As the shamrock became associated with St Patrick, a tiny cross made of rushes was linked with St Brigid. Supposedly woven by her to explain the passion of Christ to a dying pagan. Similar crosses are fashioned to this day as a defense against harm, and placed in the rafters of a cottage on the feast day of St Brigid – February 1.

So it was that reverence for this holy child of Ireland grew so strong that she not only eclipsed Brid, for whom she was named, but was given her feast day. And the Irish gladly accepted their new saint, and revere her to this day in place of a forgotten Celtic Goddess.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sadly, there is very little historic evidence – archeological or autobiographical – about this remarkable Saint. There are many ennobling tales written after her passing, glorifying her life, but some of them are conflicting. The Catholic Encyclopedia tried to excuse these inconsistencies by stating, “Viewing the biography of St. Brigid from a critical standpoint we must allow a large margin for the vivid Celtic imagination and the glosses of medieval writers.” Wikipedia Encyclopedia adds that many tales exist which suffer inconsistencies common to such legends, and the only agreement between the various stories is that a girl was born to an Irish king named Dubhtach and that her name was Brigid.

However from the many stories, biographies, lives of the Saints, and other documentation we have researched – both in America and in Kildare – we compiled the beliefs that most often agree between versions, and those that we found to be the most logical. We have presented them in this biography in the hope of increasing devotion to a most inspirational servant of God and a most remarkable daughter of the Gael.