Before Christianity arrived in Ireland there existed a long tradition of pagan worship. This involved rituals at sacred sites, wells believed to have the power to heal and important festivals spread throughout the year to mark the changing seasons.
Rather than fighting against such traditions and beliefs, Christianity became another layer, another chapter in the history of Ireland. It is small wonder then that the stories about pagan deities and Irish Christian saints became somewhat blurred. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of Brigid.
The feast day of St Brigid is celebrated on Imbolc, the pagan festival of spring. February 1 is still considered the first day of spring in Ireland, in variance to many of our close neighbours who celebrate the beginning of spring in March.
In pagan terms, ‘Brigid’ means ‘exalted one’ and it would seem that the name was a general term for goddesses as well as being associated with Brigid herself. She was closely associated with learning and poetry, both of which were highly thought of in Irish society. She was also linked to a mythical creature that transformed from an ugly hag into a beautiful woman at the mid-point between the winter solstice and spring equinox, symbolising the change of season from winter to spring. The healing power of the goddess Brigid was invoked in times of illness and many of these attributes are also linked to the Christian Brigid.
Saint Brigid was said to have been born in Louth in 457AD and was the daughter of Dubtach, a nobleman. Her mother is thought to have been a slave in Dubtach’s household. The young Brigid became a nun along with seven other women and it is said that she was mistakenly consecrated a bishop. Brigid was certainly a powerful, determined woman who became an Abbess in County Kildare and was linked to many miracles.
One of the most recounted is the tale of when she asked the King of Leinster for land to build her monastery. He agreed but later changed his mind. Brigid then asked him for as much ground as her cloak would cover. The king agreed. As Brigid laid out her cloak it grew and grew until it covered the whole of the Curragh, an area of grassy plains in Kildare famous for horseracing and horse breeding today.
The tradition of weaving crosses from rushes relates to a story of Brigid’s visit to a dying chieftan who wanted to convert to Christianity. Brigid is said to have woven a cross of rushes for the Chieftan. The cross was as much a symbol of humility and a condemnation of materialism as it was of religion. It is said that despite being born into a noble household she was a strong advocate for the poor.
The fame of ‘both’ Brigids spread far beyond Irish shores. It is thought the term ‘bride’ was developed by the medieval Knights of Chivalry for whom Brigid was a patroness. For others, Brigid is seen as the goddess of poets and an inspiration for lifelong learning and betterment, particularly for women.
We will most likely never know if there really were two Brigids or if both traditions competed to claim her, though many people have a strong belief in one or the other. Folklore by its nature evolves, grows, and while this makes for great stories there is always the risk of manipulation to fulfill a personal agenda. Though of course, that is at the very core of the Irish bardic tradition and one only has to read versions of the same story in different newspapers to see that it remains alive and well today.
Yesterday evening I sat with over 100 people in our old parish church, making crosses, drinking tea, catching up, enjoying the sense of community and tradition. I think it’s fair to say that whatever version of Brigid you choose, she lives on today as a symbol of the very essence of life – the power and the determination to leave the darkness of winter behind and grow towards the light. Happy St Brigid’s Day. Happy imbolc. Happy first day of spring.