Not gonna lie: Every time I see St. Patrick’s Day decorations in the store, I gag. There is nothing in the world more inauthentically Irish to me than foam leprechaun hats, plastic emerald bead necklaces, Hello Kitty “I Feel Lucky” shirt, and crepe paper shamrocks in all shades of green. Ick.
While I hate the decorations, I’ve always loved the holiday. While it gives me a legitimate excuse to wear my “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” socks, more importantly it’s a chance to celebrate the life of a great missionary disciple: St. Patrick. He’s the Apostle of Ireland who preached Christianity to the Irish people for forty years — although he probably never banished any snakes from the island. Fun fact: Ireland doesn’t have snakes! Ophidiophobics, rejoice!
St. Patrick’s story is worth knowing, but he isn’t the only saint of Ireland. It’s time we gave some love to other holy men and women of the Emerald Isle: saints who gave everything to Christ, saints whose lives inspire us to pursue sanctity — saints who were, like, actually Irish. (Sorry, St. Patrick. You’re an England native. It had to be said.)
1. St. Brigid of Kildare
If Patrick is the patron of Ireland, then Brigid is the patroness. Her deep love for Christ was visible in how she loved and served the poor. She couldn’t help but give things away to the less fortunate. One famous instance was when Brigid gave away her father’s jewel-encrusted sword to a poor leper. Daddy was a bit upset with her for giving his sword away, but many others admired her for her heroic charity.
Brigid died on February 1, now her feast day. You can usually I.D. her in religious art by the reed cross she’s often depicted holding in her hand: a.k.a., St. Brigid’s Cross.
Favorite Tidbit: Tradition holds that Brigid was quite a beauty. When her dad made plans for her to marry the poet, it’s said Brigid prayed for God to make her ugly so no man would want her. God answered her prayer. Some sources say she got pizza-face acne, others say that she lost a whole eyeball, etc. Regardless, she didn’t marry — but once Brigid took her final vows as a nun, her beauty was restored. It just goes to show that devoting one’s life to Christ really is the most beautiful thing.
2. St. Columba (Columcille) of Iona
Columba was quite the artist. As a young man, he was a member of the Order of Bards — probably like the Knights of Columbus, but with poetry. He had a great gift for illumination (“illumination” as in book-writing — not, like, candle-making). It’s believed Columba made 300 copies of the Gospels in his lifetime. Think about it: That’s roughly 65,000 words, written three hundred times over. By hand. Without spell check. And what have you accomplished today?
Columba was highly motivated to share the Scriptures with as many people as possible. Literacy was on the rise in his day, and he believed it was vital to make copies of the Bible for people to read. That’s how he put his artistic gifts to work.
Columba set up a monastery on Iona, a tiny island near modern-day Scotland. Many illuminated manuscripts were written by Iona’s scribes, featuring detailed icons, interlacing banners and all those other Celtic-knot designs you used to draw on the covers of your fourth-grade math notebook. Columba and his fellow scribes played a critical part in sharing the written word of God with the people, and their manuscripts are some of the most precious artifacts of the medieval Western world.
Favorite Tidbit: The Book of Kells, one of the most famous illuminated manuscripts, is said to feature much of Columba’s personal handiwork. It’s long been believed this masterpiece of Scripture and art is so sacred and beautiful that demons are blinded if they look upon it. Let demons beware.
3. St. Brendan the Navigator
For the most part, Brendan was a pretty average monk. He preached the gospel and built churches like all the cool monks were doing back then. His biggest monastery was in Clonfert, near Galway, which at one time housed 3,000 monks. (For those who went to SLS16 this year: Remember how big the crowd was in Dallas? That’s how many monks were in Clonfert.)
At his core, Brendan had a strong sense of wanderlust. He loved to travel. His great ambition was to travel the world to evangelize whomever he’d encounter. While he is known to have visited Wales and Scotland, Brendan’s most famous attempted destination was to Hy-Brasil: the Isles of the Blessed.
This is why he’s called “the Navigator.” Setting off across the Atlantic with a crew of fellow monks, Brendan made several voyages in search of the holy isles. The written account of Brendan’s voyages details all the madcap adventures Brendan had with his crew — stories which influenced sailors, cartographers and many others for centuries afterward. Even Christopher Columbus studied up on Brendan’s voyages before making his trip to the West Indies.
While some of these accounts of his travels have probably suffered the flair of some medieval author’s romantic exaggeration, the takeaway here is this: Brendan was willing to go anywhere — into any danger, through any strange land and unknown sea — so that the love of Christ could be known throughout the world.
Favorite Tidbit: in 1976, a British navigation scholar named Tim Severin decided to test whether it was possible for St. Brendan and his crew of monks to have made such a journey. He built the same kind of currach boat Brendan sailed in, using the same materials (tanned hides, hand-cut wood, etc.), and set off. Severin managed to mimic Brendan’s path across the Atlantic: along the Hebrides, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and eventually to Canada. Now we know Brendan’s voyage is possible. It’s up to us to help make Brendan’s mission of evangelizing the world possible, too.
Unfortunately, there’s just not enough space for me here to write about all the Irish saints whom I love. There are so many recognized, if not canonized, Irish saints that they all have their own feast day: November 6 the Feast of All Saints of Ireland.
One of the best ways for us to continue to grow in holiness is to learn about the saints. So my challenge to you this St. Patrick’s Day is this: Take time to research the life of a saint. (If you haven’t read St. Patrick’s story, start there.) Learn about their lives. Be inspired by their example. In the same way the Lord called them, He’s calling you, too.
All Saints of Ireland, pray for us — and happy St. Patrick’s Day!