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ST. BRIGIT'S CLOAK
(an Irish tale)
adapted by Amy Friedman and illustrated by Jillian Gilliland


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On the first day of spring, just as the sun began to rise, a young girl was born in County Kildare. The angels gave her the name Brigit, which means "fiery arrow." She had a spirit full of fire and compassion, and was generous to a fault. All she had she gave away to those who were poor. She was, the people said, an angel of a child, and everyone was grateful for her presence.

Everything Brigit touched was increased and healed. When she milked the cows, they gave more milk than ever they had before; when she touched the sheep, they were healed of all their wounds. Soon stories spread about Brigit's goodness. Some people said she had tamed the birds, which talked to her in their own language. Some said she touched her fingers to ice and melted it so the poor could drink water from the springs and streams.

When Brigit breathed upon the world, the people said, winter's icy grip melted and spring arrived. People claimed that her warmth was so strong, she melted away all the cold in the world.

As Brigit grew older, princes from everywhere came to court her, for no one could imagine a more suitable bride. But Brigit had other ideas.

Brigit went to see her old friend Bishop Macaille, and she asked him if she could dedicate her life to the poor.

"If that is what you wish," the bishop said to her, "then that is what shall be." He gave her white robes, and when she asked, he gave her robes for her friends. She made her humble home under an oak tree in Kildare, and she and her friends became the Sisters of Mercy. The sisters were known throughout Ireland for their goodness and mercy and great learning. People came from all over Ireland to study with Brigit.

As time passed, so many came to live under Brigit's guidance that she had nowhere to house and teach them all.

"We'll need a church," she told her sisters. "And we need land. I've decided to see the king to ask him to give us land." And without another moment's hesitation, Brigit set off to see the King of Leinster.

"Sire," she said, "I come to you to humbly ask you to grant the sisters more land for my people to live and work and study."

The king simply laughed, for he was known as a greedy man who wished to have all the land he could to keep as his own.

"Why do you laugh, sire?" Brigit asked.

"You are asking too much of me," he said.

"But your majesty, I want only enough land so that the people can live in some comfort."

Again the king laughed. "I'll do this," he said through his laughter. "You may have all the land that you can cover with your cloak, dear Brigit." At that the king's courtiers laughed along with their king.

But Brigit only bowed and thanked the king. She ran at once to the top of a hill in the great pastureland known as the Curragh, bringing along four of her friends to help her. She spread her cloak upon the ground, and then she directed each sister to take a corner.

"Now," Brigit called, "turn your back and run," and so the sisters did. And as they ran, the cloak began to stretch. It stretched and stretched, and soon more women came to help to hold the edges off the ground. Still they ran, and still the cloak stretched.

The king and his men, watching from the palace windows, stared in wonder. The cloak had become a huge circle, stretching over more than a mile of the lush, green land.

In the king's courtyard, one of the washerwomen laughed at the sight and called up to the king, "If that cloak goes on spreading, soon all Ireland will be free." When the king heard this, he cried out to his men, "Stop her! Stop her at once!" And the courtiers ran out to stop the sisters.

Brigit and her sisters stopped running. They smiled as they laid the cloak upon the earth. By now the king had arrived. He stood over the cloak, staring glumly, and Brigit looked up at him and said, "This is the land you promised me."

"So it is," the king said, and he gave her the land, and gave her goods for the poor as well, for her magic had worked on his heart. Later, whenever he behaved in a mean or stingy fashion, Brigit had only to lift her cloak to remind him to be kind to those who lived under his protection.


Brigit is known to bring the light of spring to the world, and her festival day is actually Feb. 2, an old Irish holiday known as Imbolc, or Candlemas. Brigit is also the patron saint of teachers and of shepherds, and her flower is the snowdrop, which sometimes blooms in the snow in midwinter.


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