How St Brigid became a queer icon for the Irish LGBTQ+ community

Although queer folk can feel alienated when it comes to religion, Brigid's hidden history helps many feel represented.

A stained glass portrait of St Brigid in multiple colours.
Image: Andreas F. Borchert via Wikimedia Commons

It is rare to grow up in Ireland unaware of St Brigid. Her feast day is celebrated on February 1, with school children encouraged to weave straw crosses. With 2023 marking the first bank holiday in her honour, Alice Linehan did some digging on a saint who was more connected to the LGBTQ+ community than you may have thought.

Although retellings of her story vary, Brigid is said to have been born in Dundalk in 451 AD to a Pagan father and Christian mother. Named after one of the most powerful Celtic goddesses, Brigid is thought to have lived up to her name’s reputation during her time on earth, becoming one of Ireland’s earliest trailblazing women in history. The saint established herself during a time when women had little to no autonomy in Irish society and were likened to slaves.

Various sources say that Brigid spent the early years of her life alongside her mother, cooking, cleaning, washing and tending to the farm. When she turned 18, she stopped this work, and despite pressure from her father to marry, she refused, instead wishing to dedicate her life to God and looking after poor, sick and elderly people.

Rumour has it that in order to avoid being desired as a wife, she prayed that God would take away her beauty, a wish that was granted and ultimately led to her father’s compliance. After entering the convent and making her vows, it is said that Brigid regained her beauty, becoming even more attractive than she was before.

Throughout her life, she founded many monasteries, the most famous of which was in Kildare and renowned throughout Christian Europe. It was a double monastery, housing both men and women, and it also contained a school of art, including metalwork and illumination.

One of the most famous myths in association with Brigid is how she acquired the site on which to build this Abbey. According to the legend, she approached the King of Leinster asking for land, and he denied her request. After praying for God to soften the monarch’s heart, Brigid then proposed that the King grant her whatever land her cloak covered, a seemingly ridiculous request considering the small size of the garment. He agreed smugly, but before he knew it, Brigid’s cloak expanded to cover many acres.

The above are the tales that are most familiar to those who grew up in this country and were reared through the teachings of Catholicism or Protestantism. However, Brigid also boasts a fascinating, lesser-known history. One that has captured the interest of the LGBTQ+ community. But just how did this beloved figure claimed by Christianity become a queer icon?

To begin, at the aforementioned dual monastery in Kildare of which Brigid was an Abbess, there was also a younger nun named Darlughdach who served as her ambassador. The pair are said to have had an incredibly close relationship, even sharing a bed, and many accounts refer to them as “anam cara” or soul friends. With history books having a tendency to refer to female lovers of the past as simply good pals, it’s no wonder that many speculate that Brigid and Darlughdach were in fact lesbian partners.

“They did everything together. Wherever Brigid travelled, Darlughdach went with her,” explains Ger Moane, an Irish Professor of Women’s Studies and writer on themes of feminism, gender and sexuality, colonisation and the Irish psyche.

Well-informed on the life of the saint, she says, “Apparently, Darlughdach was so devoted to Brigid that when Brigid was on her death bed, Darlughdach wanted to go with her and die with her.”

However, Brigid objected, instead wishing that her companion would succeed her as the Abess of the Kildare monastery, “putting her down in the annals of Ireland,” Moane continues.

Darlughdach agreed to stay on and run the Abbey, before dying on the same day as Brigid one year later, on February 1, ensuring the two women share the same feast day.

These accounts come from pieces written about the pair roughly 100 years after Brigid’s death, and although it is impossible to be entirely certain of their accuracy, “there was still some reality to it, Darlughdach was definitely a lifelong companion,” Moane expresses.

But this relationship is not the only reason why Brigid has become a queer icon. She is described by Moane as “liminal” and a “threshold figure,” existing between different spaces. She was born between night and day, to parents of Pagan and Christian religions and ran an Abbey for men and women, to name but a few examples.

“That kind of liminality I think means that she’s a very open space, that you always feel that she would welcome anybody into that open space… And openness is part of what makes her an appealing figure in terms of queerness.”

Moane also associates Brigid with liberation, being “a strong woman of her time” defying various standards and expectations to live her own authentic life – something LGBTQ+ folk can certainly relate to.

“She was also totally for the poor and totally anti-establishment,” she adds.

Furthermore, there are reports of Brigid having performed the first-ever abortion in Ireland. According to a letter written by Galway-based historian Lorraine Grimes to The Irish Post in 2018, “She is claimed to have performed many miracles, the most interesting being the story of a young woman who had broken her vow of chastity and fell pregnant as a result.

“Brigid, exercising with the most strength of her ineffable faith, blessed her, caused the foetus to disappear without coming to birth, and without pain,” Grimes writes.

With other sources citing similar stories, Brigid has been established not only as a figure of the marriage equality campaign, but also the Repeal the 8th movement in Ireland as well.

This version of Brigid is rarely heard of in mainstream circles, with LGBTQ+ people having to dig around before finding these fascinating tales. As a result, one can’t help but wonder what it could mean for Irish queers and their identities, both national and sexual, to know that the country’s only female patron saint was likely to have been a lesbian.

This question becomes especially pertinent now that a new annual occasion has been established in Brigid’s honour. From 2023 onwards, the first Monday in February will be an Irish public holiday, celebrating the legendary woman and Imbolc – the beginning of spring, a time of rebirth and rejuvenation.

This is the first time ever that Ireland has had a public holiday named after a female icon, with many seeing it as an opportunity to recognise the role of women through Irish arts and cultural heritage. Others will see it as a religious celebration, with the country still holding on to its Catholic roots in many circumstances.

Oftentimes, queers can feel alienated when it comes to religion and Christianity, but perhaps with Brigid’s hidden history, the community can also feel represented in this occasion honouring the saint.

Instead of simply seeing an idol of an institution that has inhibited LGBTQ+ rights and enabled hatred of our community for decades, queer folk can find solace in seeing a feminist, a woman who was ahead of her time dedicated to helping marginalised groups, celebrated by wider society. While some may remain ignorant of aspects of her radical past, the stories of Brigid and Darlugdach, two nuns sharing a bed in a historic Irish convent, can live on in the minds of the LGBTQ+ community.

This article originally appeared in Issue 376 of GCN Magazine.

© 2024 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

This article was published in the print edition Issue No. 376 (March 1, 2023). Click here to read it now.

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Issue 376 March 1, 2023

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This article was originally published in GCN Issue 376 (March 1, 2023).

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