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St. Brigid: Early Feminist

Modern-day feminists have embraced this 5th-century Irish saint, and for good reason. Brigid was a headstrong girl who fought against the oppressive, patriarchal rules of her time. When her father picked a husband for her, she refused to marry him. Legend holds that when her father insisted that the wedding should go forward, she pulled out her own eye to prove she was strong enough to resist his plans. He backed down, and the mutilated girl joined a convent. When she took her vows, however, the bishop accidentally ordained her as a bishop rather than a nun. It is said that as soon as that happened, she was miraculously made beautiful again.

As she grew older, Brigid remained a rebel. She founded a monastery in Kildare, but insisted that it be open to both nuns and monks—something unheard of at that time. Word of the monastery, and of its unusual abbess, soon spread throughout Europe, and she became a powerful figure in European Christianity. Her followers marked their homes with a plain cross woven from river reeds. In some Irish homes, you’ll still find crosses made in precisely that way.

One of Brigid’s strangest rules for her monastery was that a fire should always be kept burning, day and night, tended by 20 virgins. Long after she died, the fire at St. Brigid’s burned constantly, tended as she said it should be. This continued as late as 1220, when the bishop of Dublin insisted that the tradition, which he viewed as pagan, be stopped. But there is still a fire pit at St. Brigid’s Cathedral ★, and a fire is lit in it every February 1, on St. Brigid’s feast day.

Local Hero: Silken Thomas

Nobleman and rebel rolled into one, Silken Thomas was an unlikely revolutionary.

More properly known as Thomas FitzGerald, the 10th Earl of Kildare, he was born in 1513 to illustrious parents—his father was governor of Ireland—and spent much of his childhood at the court of King Henry VIII in England.

Thomas returned to Ireland as a young man, all set to follow in his father’s footsteps and rule on behalf of the king. However, when word reached him that his father had fallen out with Henry and been executed, Thomas raised a rebellion.

It began with a blistering attack on Dublin Castle. Even though that failed, the English were rattled. Thomas and his men retreated to the relative safety of County Kildare, expecting a counter-attack at any moment. And indeed it came . . . but by stealth. While Thomas was temporarily absent from his garrison, a guard was bribed to let in a small group of English soldiers, who massacred everybody inside.

Despite that huge blow to the rebellion, Thomas and his remaining men fought valiantly on for a while longer. The struggle was futile, however, and Thomas eventually agreed to surrender in return for a promise that he and his closest compatriots would be spared. But King Henry wasn’t one for keeping his word. Thomas and his men were sentenced to death by hanging, drawing, and quartering.

What happened next is enough to make the blood run cold. On a bleak February morning in 1537, they were dragged through the streets of London to a site of public execution. Thomas and the others were hanged by the neck, but cut down before they died. Then they were cut open, their bowels and genitals removed and then burned in front of their eyes. They were finally killed by beheading, after which their corpses were cut into quarters and placed on spikes. Such was the wrath of kings.

Despite this most chilling end, Thomas remains a folk hero in Ireland. But why the unusual nickname? The sobriquet “Silken Thomas” comes from a wonderful footnote to history. It is recorded that Thomas was a dashing and handsome man, always dressed in the height of fashion. And when his army of 200 men rode into battle, they wore strands of silk streaming from their helmets.

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