Saint Brigid Revisited

One of my most consistently viewed posts concerns a poem attributed to Saint Brigid of Kildare.  In honor of her recently celebrated feast day (February 1) I wanted to revisit this remarkable woman and her famous poem.

Kildare 081

A statue of Brigid at her sacred well in Kildare

Brigid of Kildare (451-525) is second only to Patrick in terms of both reverence and popularity.   In the town of Kildare there are a number of pubs (again to on one’s surprise) which certainly try to emphasize an association with Brigid.

She was famed for her generosity and her caring nature.  There are also several beery miracles attributed to her.  One tells of how she managed to make one blessed barrel of beer last so that it managed to supply the thirsty members of 18 churches from Maundy Thursday all the way through the Easter season (53 days in all).     That’s one magic keg!

A second and more colorful story tells that in order to meet the needs of the thirsty lepers she was caring for she transformed their dirty bathwater into wonderful beer.  A history states the following, “For when the lepers she nursed implored her for beer, and there was none to be had, she changed the water, which was used for the bath, into an excellent beer, by the sheer strength of her blessing and dealt it out to the thirsty in plenty.” There is a related story in which she transformed her own bath water into beer for a visiting delegation of clergy.

But her best known association with beer comes from a poem in which she envisions heaven as being a place of infinite hospitality and pleasure in which people join with saints and even God tippling throughout eternity.  There are a number of different versions but my favorite is below:

I should like a great lake of beer to give to God.
I should like the angels of Heaven to be tippling there for all eternity.
I should like the men of Heaven to live with me, to dance and sing.
                          If they wanted I’d put at their disposal vats of suffering                                                     White cups of love I’d give them with a heart and a half.                                                         Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer to every man.                                                                           I’d make heaven a cheerful spot,                                                                                        Because the happy heart is true.                                                                                  I’d make men happy for their own sakes.                                                                               I should like Jesus to be there too.                                                                I’d like the people of heaven to gather from all the parishes around.                                                 I’d give a special welcome to the women,                                                                                   the three Marys of great renown.                                                                                  I’d sit with the men, the women of God,                                                                                   There by the great lake of beer                                                                                       We’d be drinking good health forever,                                          And every drop would be a prayer.

It is important to understand that for Brigid heaven is not simply a celestial kegger.  Indeed, you cannot overlook the “vats of suffering” and “white cups of love” which refer to the acts of asceticism undertaken by Irish monks and nuns and White Martyrdom (voluntary exile) that was embraced by tens of thousands spiritual women and men over the centuries.  The point was to purify themselves and draw closer to God.  It is also important to note that while the poem certainly reflects Brigid’s theology, it was almost certainly written long after Brigid lived.

Yet none of this has diminished its appeal or staying power.  It has also inspired art.   Here it is as envisioned by Br. Mickey McGrath, OSFS.

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In it you can see not only the Lake of Beer, Jesus, the Three Marys and Brigid herself (shown holding her cross), but also many icons of Celtic Christianity, including a high cross, round tower, and famous saints like Kevin, Brendan, Colmcille (Columba) and Patrick.  You can buy it from Trinity Stores.

In the end, even though the stories and the attribution of the poem may be apocryphal, there is no denying that this great woman also had a great love of beer.  So although her feast day has past, please join me in hoisting a glass in honor of Brigid.  Slainte!

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