Brigid of Ireland by Íde O'Carroll
Brigid, the ancient Celtic Goddess of smiths, fire and poetry has a special place in Irish hearts, mine especially, and rituals associated with her have continued unabated for centuries. Devotion to Brigid was so great and so much a part of the fabric of Gaelic society that during the 5th century she was incorporated into a Christian tradition and re-named St. Brigid, making her Ireland’s first native saint, after St. Patrick, the ‘blow in’ from Wales
Brigid, the ancient Celtic Goddess of smiths, fire and poetry has a special place in Irish hearts, mine especially, and rituals associated with her have continued unabated for centuries. Devotion to Brigid was so great and so much a part of the fabric of Gaelic society that during the 5th century she was incorporated into a Christian tradition and re-named St. Brigid, making her Ireland’s first native saint, after St. Patrick, the ‘blow in’ from Wales. Much of what is written about her relates to the life of St. Brigid (Bridget, Bríd, Bride etc.), her magical cloak that claimed for her lands to start a convent at Kildare (Cill Dara), her work with the poor, her great capacity for healing, her holy wells, all framed within the rich-girl-does-good scenario. However well meaning this ‘history’ it has obliterated the earlier, elemental, feisty woman whose legacy is almost like that of Sappho, only fragments of the real survive.
Brigid’s Day is celebrated on 1st February, the first day of the Celtic seasonal quarter of Imbolc (February-April), pronounced Imm’ulk. It follows Samhain, pronounced Sow’en, (November-January), the Winter quarter, which in turn follows Lughnasadh, pronounced Loo’nassa (August-October), the Autumn quarter; and finally, the summer quarter, (May-July), is Beltane, pronounced Bell’tane. Set within this context, Brigid’s Day marks the start of a Celtic festival. The fact that in the Irish language her day is simply named Lá le Bhríde, Brigid’s day, not St. Brigid’s day, is some evidence of this pre-Christian existence.
During Imbolc, a period of insight and inspiration, we are called on to “celebrate the lives of all ‘soul-midwives’ who have taught and prepared us,” according to C. Matthews (Celtic Devotional), a Celtic spiritual teacher based in Wales. Surprisingly Matthews doesn’t refer to Brigid at all, but the Irish folk song Gabhaim Molta Bríde (I give praise to Brigid) taught in Irish national schools for years, is certainly in this vein.
Mary Condren’s Serpent and the Goddess is probably the most authoritative book on Brigid – it has just been reissued. Since I don’t have a copy here, I can’t refer to it, but do strongly recommend it. And hey, it would make Mary smile – no small thing…
To me Brigid’s Day is simply bursting with significance as the start of the year, the opening of nature’s door to new growth, new life - possibility. Rituals linked to Brigid seem to connect us to this, to force us to notice nature’s cycle, to engage us in the magic of wishing for what we desire, while at the same time seeking protection during a time of change. Brigid had the right idea when she developed the ritual of cross making. It connects us in a very simple way with the earth, with life, with spirit. I smell the new growth as I walk down by the Blackwater river here in Lismore. I move out amongst the deep green-coloured reeds, bend my head to the land to gather clumps of them and again smell the earth’s sap rising.
Why a cross? There are several theories. When spun, some believe a Brigid’s cross resembles a sun. I’m not sure of this at all. The most common cross has four points outward from a square, carefully woven center. I think these points symbolize the four stages of life – for females, birth, girl, woman, crone: the whole spin of life. The cross is usually placed inside the house, either over the front door or by the fireplace, or in rooms needing special protection. I have them all around the house in Lismore, and in Amherst too. Sometimes people burn the last year’s cross and release all the experiences of that year, before placing the new cross over the doorway and inviting prosperity, health and love in. Radio Telefís Éireann (RTÉ) the national television station, used the Brigid’s cross as its logo from the outset, though it was replaced by a modern image a number of years ago.
More recently I’ve taken to the Brat Bríde (Brigid’s rag) ritual – traditionally a piece of cloth is placed outside the house on Brigid’s eve to call on Brigid’s protection for the household and also to bring prosperity in the year ahead. The rag is taken in the next day and stored for emergencies, to be rubbed on the body during illness or injury (like a relic?). Some friends and I decided to put an item of underwear on the clothesline on Brigid’s eve. Our ‘Biddy pants’ or ‘power pants’ have functioned as an excellent, covert power boost during those difficult or challenging moments in life! For some reason we’ve decided that red ninnies are particularly good for this purpose. Apparently the Celts put night before day, which is why there are Brigid’s eve rituals. I tend to prefer to gather my reeds in daylight on the day itself, not wishing to risk life and limb in the dark down by the Blackwater.
In the nineteenth century Irish women immigrants in the USA established a niche market for themselves as domestic servants within the wealthy homes of New England’s merchant class. The choice of labour was a wise one – the job offered secure income with lodgings included. Referred to collectively as “Brigids/Bridgets” many of them saved their dollars to facilitate the passage of female relatives to the New World in a unique system of female chain migration (different to that of the Italian and Jewish immigrants of the time). These Brigids also pooled their dollars to help pay for the construction of St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York – the irony here is that they were supporting the very patriarchal system that rendered them relatively powerless at home. Yet I understand their desire to have a beautiful place available to them where they could sit and be, outside their employer’s home, where the smells, sounds and rituals remained constant. And if they were in a position to pay for this, well, good luck to them!
There is one other ritual associated with Brigid, though I’ve never seen it in practice – it consists of a group of women going from house to house with a woven image of Brigid, in a ritual known as ‘Brídeog’ or ‘Biddy.’ I like the idea of women in disguise going from house to house with this female icon demanding that people acknowledge it and all that it symbolizes at this fecund time of the year, the power of growth, of reproduction, of womanhood. And not only that, I like it that Biddy’s carriers have to be shown a good time in each household (plenty of food and drink), to ensure a blessing in the year ahead. Maybe it’s time this particular ritual came back!
Well, that’s one woman’s interpretation of this Brigid’s wonderful legacy. I didn’t even get to mention Brigid’s fire (keep it going in the hearth all day), her flame brought by Noirín Ní Riain from Ireland to Bejing for the International Women’s Conference, nor how to make the cross itself. That’s for another day.
There’s an expression in the Irish oral tradition that at the end of a story you say: “Sin mo scéal díobh, agus má tá bréag ann, fá é. That’s my story and if there’s a lie there, so be it.”
May the spirit of the bold Brigid guide and protect you in the year ahead.
Íde B. O’Carroll Íde O'Carroll is a writer (short stories & poetry in Irish and English) and social researcher (www.ocainternational.com) who divides her time between her hometown of Lismore, Ireland and Amherst, Massachusetts.