Pagan goddess or Christian saint, Brigid’s spirit lives on in Ireland today

The traditions of the feast of Brigid have been unchanged for what may well be thousands of years. This is despite all the social changes that have taken place in that time.

Before Christianity came to Ireland, the people here had a long tradition of pagan worship. They carried out rituals at sacred sites and believed that certain wells had the power to heal. Their important festivals marked 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 say spring starts in March.

In pagan terms, ‘Brigid’ means ‘Exalted One.’ It seems that the name was used as a general term for goddesses as well as being a title for Brigid herself. She was closely associated with learning and poetry, both of which were highly thought of in ancient Irish society. 

Brigid 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. This is perhaps the strongest link between the stories from pre-Christian times and the belief in the Christian saint.

St Brigid

The Christian St Brigid was 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. The story goes 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.©Siobhán McNamara 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 Chieftain. He wanted to convert to Christianity so Brigid wove a cross of rushes for him. The simple cross was as much a symbol of humility and a condemnation of materialism as it was of religion. Despite being born into a noble household, Brigid was a strong advocate for the poor.

Beyond Ireland

The fame of ‘both’ Brigids spread far beyond Irish shores. The term ‘bride’ was first used 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 fulfil a personal agenda. Though of course, that is the very core of the Irish bardic tradition and it remains alive and well today.

Each year on the eve of St Brigid’s Day I join over 100 people in a former parish church, making crosses, drinking tea and catching up with friends and neighbours. Perhaps best of all is seeing the youngest members of the community enjoy the occasion every bit as much as the older generation. Skills are passed on, stories are told, songs are sung. These gatherings could be taking place at any point in history.

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. And happy first day of spring.

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Eye of the Beholder – a 100w story

This week’s photo prompt comes from Dale Rogerson.

The challenge is to write a fictional story in 100 words.

To find out how to get involved, click here

To read other contributions from some excellent writers, click on the Blue Frog


Eye Of The Beholder

Mamma fussed over the wedding veil.

‘Oh child,’ she said. ‘I will miss you but my heart soars at the freedom you will have. The world will know your beautiful soul.’

Anna remembered these words as she wrote:

Dear Mamma,

I am very lucky. Rich people come to my husband’s gallery and pay the price of a house for my paintings.

Anna couldn’t tell Mamma she saw little of her new life through the narrow, netted slit. She asked her husband why she had to cover herself, here where women were free. He got so angry that afterwards she was glad her shameful, broken face was invisible.

©Siobhán McNamara

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Daily Post photo challenge – ambience

The theme for this week’s photo challenge from the Daily Post is ‘Ambience’

To get involved or to see other contributions, click here

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What’s in a name? A 100-word story

Below is this week’s 100-word story for Friday Fictioneers.

The photo prompt comes courtesy of ©C.E. Ayr

To find out how to join the challenge, click here

To read other contributions, click on the Blue Frog


What’s in a name?

Something nagged Stanley through the maelstrom of bloodied faces, shattered metal and broken corpses.

He had been certain they had the right man. All intelligence led to Dhern Riger.

Damn it, Riger even spouted foreign incantations while being arrested at the train station.

The explosion came anyway – from a small plane overhead.

When Stanley finally got home he tried to focus. He wrote down the suspect’s name.

His wife looked over his shoulder.

‘Doing a crossword to take your mind off things?” she asked. ‘Only, I’d say that’s an anagram and …’

But Stanley was already rearranging the letters to spell R-E-D  H-E-R-R-I-N-G

©Siobhán McNamara




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My #50HappyThings 2016 for #BloggersUnite

Thanks to Dawn Quyle Landau for inviting me to take part in this much-needed exercise – to take time for gratitude and positivity. It felt at first like I would struggle to reach 50 in the allocated time, but in the end, I probably could have added lots more. It’s a great exercise for taking stock of where you’re at and of what matters in your life right now.

My list of #50HappyThings for #BloggersUnite is:

1.       20 years of motherhood – my eldest daughter turns 20 today

2.       Blog friends – a bonus I never could have imagined when I tentatively started my blog

3.       Blackstar – David Bowie’s perfect parting gift to his fans

4.       Nature on my doorstep – I love where I live

5.       Being a dragon – or at least, a member of the Donegal Dragons dragon boat club and being inspired and supported by the amazing breast cancer survivors and supporters who make up this club dragon-boat

6.       People – those who are there in so many ways, from close friends to the people who serve me my coffee with a smile

7.       Kindness – being on either the giving or receiving end of an act of kindness

8.       Work – sometimes I love it and sometimes it drives me mad but a mid-life career change was the right choice and I wouldn’t change it

9.       Friday Fictioneers – that wonderful weekly flash fiction writing challenge and all the writers who take part, give feedback and are generally a great bunch of people. I’m so glad I stumbled into this group

10.   My garden – it’s been a bit neglected this last year or two but I still ljamove it

11.   Continuing the practical skills I learned from my mother, like how to make jam (from the fruits of my garden!) and how to knit

12.   Memories – and learning to smile through the memories of those no longer with me

13.   My Fitbit – for reminding me that I’m doing OK

14.   My home – secure and warm, even if its constantly in need of a little bit more organisation

15.   Beaches – blessed with choice, whether it’s a long walk to the sound of crashing waves or the peace of a quiet inlet, all within a short drive

16.   Writing supports – the various groups, classes, books and mentors that continue to help me develop as a writer and get my work up to publishable standard

17.   Radio – for always being there


18.   Travel – what a great time to be alive for those with the travel bug. In 2016 we enjoyed a great week in Italy taking in three very different cities and we also spent two days in beautiful Sweden visiting my daughter, not to mention numerous camping trips here in Ireland

19.   Family – my immediate and extended family, those I managed to spend time with in 2016 and those further afield

20.   People who trust me to tell their stories – and who in doing so, remind me why I like being a journalist in a local newspaper

21.   Friendship – especially from unexpected sources in difficult times

22.   Photographs – snapshots of moments in time

23.   My Kayak – my escape, my me-time, my means of switching off from life’s challenges

24.   Magical places – those favourite views or retreats to return to time and time again, or newly discovered places that are destined to become favourites frosty garden.jpg

25.   Music – where do I start ….

26.   Camera – for capturing those special moments and places and for helping me to focus on what matters

27.   Outdoor furniture – because everything tastes better outside

28.   Skilled people – woodturners, stone masons, sculptors, weavers, musicians, storytellers for their commitment to their art

29.   Learning to let go of past hurts

30.   Fridge Magnets for reminding me of all the places we’ve beenWater drops

31.   Water – taken for granted by some of us but an unattainable luxury for far too many people in the world

32.   Fruit trees – even if the raspberries are taking over the garden!

33.   Inhalers – for giving me a quality of life not available to asthmatics in past generations

34.   The internet for all the people with whom I would never otherwise have connected

35.   Wonder –  for the pleasure it adds to travel and to life

36.   Surprise – to keep me on my toes

37.   Conservationists –  for painstakingly keeping so much of our heritage intact

38.   Hospice care – and for learning that it’s not about dying, it’s about living in the moment

39.   Books – too many to mention

40.   Laughter – especially the uncontrollable kind

41.   Photoshop – because sometimes it helps!

42.   Car – because I like to choose my own route and set my own pace

43.   Skechers – the most comfortable walking shoes ever

44.   Imagination – because life would be dull without it

45.   Learning – formal and informal

46.   Creative energy from a writing group

47.   Gratitude itself

48.   Dawn Quyle Landau for giving me a nudge to take part in this exercise – a good call for me right now

49.   Everyone else who shared their gratitude list

50.   You, for taking the time to read this list

51.   Last but by no means list, my children for giving me reason to get up every day and face the world


If you’d like to take part, Dawn’s instructions are as follows:
Set a timer for 15 minutes; timing this is critical. Once you start the timer, start your list. The goal is to write 50 things that make you happy, or 50 thing that you feel grateful for. The idea is to not think too hard; just write what comes to mind in the time allotted. You may find that if you use numbered mode, and just type what comes to mind, like me you will have enough time for more than 50. When the timer’s done, stop writing. Finish whatever sentence you’re on, but don’t add more. If you haven’t written 50 things, that’s ok. If you have more than 50 things great; you can’t feel too happy or too grateful! Add the photos, links, instructions, etc after you finish the list––the timer doesn’t matter for getting these details down; it applies to the list only. 

When you’ve finished your list, pop over to Dawn’s blog Tales From The Motherland and follow the instructions to add your link to the Blog Party List.

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Curtain Call – a 100w story

Below is this week’s contribution to Friday Fictioneers. ff20161230
The challenge is to write a piece of fiction in 100 words based on a weekly photo prompt. This week’s photo is courtesy of Shaktiki Sharma

To join the fun, click here

To read other contributions, click on the Blue Froggy


Curtain Call

George envied the lives extinguished by the curse of 2016.
He yearned for their glory, their effervescence and their adoring, heart-broken fans.
He’d met most of the stars. Not that they noticed George, the man who made the curtain go up and down.
The New Year’s Eve performance ended. Someone cracked a joke about surviving into 2017.
Everybody laughed.
Except George.
He lowered the curtain.
If only his big break had come, he could have stepped on to the stage, soaked up the applause and poured heart and soul into song that filled the theatrical hush.
Instead, emptiness loomed.

©Siobhán McNamara

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Horse and Trap – a 100w story

This week’s 100-word story photo prompt comes from Friday Fictioneers host Rochelle Wisoff-Fields.

The challenge as always is to write a piece of flash fiction inspired by the photo. To join the fun, click here

To read other contributions, click on the blue frog


Horse and Trap

When Susie was little, she dreamed of owning lots of horses, endless fields and her own paddock.
Jack’s horses were nasty, like their owner.
Had he seen her outside Women’s Aid? They said Jack mustn’t know she was leaving.
She thought of Poppy, the one horse she loved. With heavy heart she pulled on her boots to go and say goodbye.
Susie stopped in shock in the kitchen. Jack never cooked.
His face writhed in smug malevolence as he lifted a lump of bleeding meat from a bucket onto the stove.
‘Medium rare?’ he asked, adding a handful of salt.

 ©Siobhán McNamara

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Pictures on Twitter of children smeared with blood and dust,

being dragged from piles of rubble

are as familiar in 2016 as the television images

of Ethiopian children 30 years ago.


People said back then that sending food wouldn’t solve

the problem but it kept those skinny kids with huge sad eyes

alive – and at least it was something we could do,

even if we couldn’t change their world.


What of the children of Aleppo? Victims of grown up wars

the whole world struggles to understand?

Children whose only lifeline is the weary hand

of a White Helmets volunteer, or a doctor far from home.


Remember the children of Aleppo, smeared with blood, dust

bewilderment and fear as they sit among the piles

of orange body bags that continue to mount even when we’re not

checking social media updates on our phones.


Tomorrow’s Twitter trend might be a pop-star’s baby news,

a dead celeb, an epic sporting fail.

In Syria the hashtags do not change. Tonight in Aleppo

they are Tweeting goodbye.

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Dance Me To The End of Love – a 100w story

From the moment I looked at the picture prompt courtesy of ©Björn Rudberg, I couldn’t get the title song out of my head. I had to sleep on it to work it into a 100-word story for this week’s Friday Fictioneers challenge.

To join the fun, write your own 100-word story based on the prompt. More info here

To read other contributions, click on the blue frog


Dance Me To The End of Love

“What’s the song for your first dance?” asked Peter

Johnnie fumbled with his cuff-links.

“Some moody old thing Olivia likes.”

Olivia stood alone in her mother’s bedroom, the mirror’s reflection showing a beautiful figure in sparkling white.

She tried to smile but couldn’t as she realised her dream of marriage was too different from Johnnie’s.

Olivia walked to her place of solace, the shore path where surging waves caught her dress. Leonard Cohen hummed in her head as she shed tears of burning grief and shame.

Everyone would be at the church. Waiting.

She stood and watched the tumultuous turning of the tide, then braced herself and rang Johnnie.

©Siobhán McNamara

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From magic and dreamscapes to the desperate plight of the poor – No poet captured 19th century Ireland quite like William Allingham

He is best known for writing The Faeries but William Allingham’s influence was far-reaching and can still be felt today.
The Allingham name is synonymous with the Donegal town of Ballyshannon and is celebrated for good reason. William Allingham was cited as an inspiration by greats such as William Butler Yeats and the Irish revivalists as well as writers of the modern era.

The son of a bank manager, Allingham was born in Ballyshannon in 1824. Though of English nationality Allingham considered himself to be first and foremost a Ballyshannon man, referring to it always as his hometown. In his poem Adieu to Belshanny he wrote:

“Yet dearer still that Irish hill than all the world beside;
It’s home, sweet home, where’er I roam, through lands and waters wide.
And if the Lord allows me, I surely will return
To my native Belashanny, and the winding banks of Erne.”
Port na Marbh main pic.jpg

The young William Allingham was the eldest of five surviving children. As a boy, he loved life on the banks of the Erne, recalling in his poetry the carefree days of fishing and exploring the hills and lakes of the area.
Tragedy struck the household with the death of his mother when William was only nine years old.
Some years later he was sent to boarding school in Killeshandra, Co Cavan but it was reported that he was very unhappy there.
With his father in poor health, he returned to Ballyshannon and took a job in the bank. A plaque on the wPlaque at Bank.jpgall of the AIB in Ballyshannon tells that it was in that building that Allingham worked.
He didn’t particularly like working in the bank and left to take up a role in the Custom’s House. He would remain a Customs Officer for much of his adult life.

The outdoors and the local way of life held great appeal for Allingham and had a lasting impact on him. So too did music and folklore. Even before he began writing his own poetry, Allingham was a great admirer and collector of folk ballads. He was captivated by the manner in which they survived and evolved, carrying their stories and themes through generations.

“But in the sun he sang with cheerful heart,
Of coloured season and the whirling sphere,
Warm household habitude and human mirth,
The whole faith-blooded mystery of earth;

And I, who had his secret, still could hear
The grotto’s whisper low through every part.,”

(from The Singer).

Allingham’s poetry suggests that he was very much a part of the community in Ballyshannon. He writes of attending dances, of being in love, of friends in town and the exotic charm of those living in the heather-coated hills.
He left this life behind when he moved to London but it is clear that it remained very much in his heart and at the core of his sense of self.

One particular element of his work that sets him apart is the strong sense of place that roots even the most fanciful verse in solid ground.
In The Faeries, the reader follows the old king as he troops from the Rosses to Slieveleague, two familiar regions on the west Donegal coast. Other poems refer to well-known townlands and landmarks in Ballyshannon and the surrounding countryside, such as the Knader and Kilconey.
His poetry is also defined by his ability to convey such simple pleasures as a garden of flowers in full bloom or the joy of an unexpected encounter with the natural world.

Here, too, the darting linnet hath her nest
In the blue-lustered holly, never shorn,
Whose partner cheers her little brooding breast,
Piping from some near bough. O simple song!”

(from In a Spring Grove).

Despite his relatively comfortable existence, Allingham was not oblivious to the trials and tribulations of the less well-off around him.
The Eviction tells of despair arriving on the hillside as the sheriff and his hired men approach. It echoes the cries of women, the curses of men, the frightened children and the utter sorrow of one member of the household in particular:

“One old man, tears upon his wrinkled cheek,
Stands trembling on a threshold, tries to speak,

But, in defect of any word for this,
Mutely upon the doorpost prints a kiss”
(from The Eviction)

Allingham’s poem The Girl’s Lamentation shows another dark side to Irish society, that of a young unmarried woman who becomes pregnant. Told in the voice of the woman, her shame, anguish, fear and loneliness are heart-breaking.

“And what, O what will my mother say?
She’ll wish her daughter was in the clay.
My father will curse me to my face;
The neighbours will know of my black disgrace.”

The poem tells of how the man has gone off without a thought, leaving the narrator to deal with the burden of her plight alone.

Although best known in Donegal for his poetry, Allingham is acclaimed in England for his work as an editor and as a diarist.
His posthumously published diary tells of his years in London, where Allingham was acquainted with Leigh Hunt and members of a group of poets known as the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood that included Thomas Carlyle, Alfred Tennyson and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

His first book of poems was published in 1850. At this time, Allingham was still working as a Customs Officer. His postings in the British Isles included the Isle of Man, Coleraine, New Ross, Ballyshannon and London.
He continued to write and publish, building his reputation and eventually securing a civil list pension for his poetry.

Allingham’s father died in 1866. William travelled home for the funeral in what is thought to be his last visit to Ballyshannon.
He retired from the Customs soon afterwards and became sub-editor of Frazer’s Magazine. In 1874 he was appointed editor.

In the same year, Allingham began another significant chapter in his life with marriage to the English water colour helen-allingham-2artist, Helen Paterson. She was highly regarded as an illustrator but turned her attention to painting under her married name, Helen Allingham.
Helen shared her husband’s sharp awareness of the characteristics of the people and places around her. She knew the world was changing and through her painting she documented the old cottages and houses as well as the ways of life of their occupants. Her foresight in doing so helped create a visual record of an era now long gone.
The couple had three children together, moving to Surrey in 1879 following Allingham’s resignation from Frazer’s Magazine. There followed a productive period for Allingham with his poetry. A number of collections were completed and published and his civil list pension was significantly increased.

The family moved to Hampstead where William Allingham died in 1889. His ashes were brought back to Ballyshannon and buried in the grounds of St Anne’s Church.
A six-volume collection of his poetry was published posthumously, as was a collection of prose. William Allingham: A Diary was published in 1907.

As previously mentioned, W.B. Yeats was greatly influenced by Allingham, both poets being equally enthralled with the folklore, the people and the landscape of Ireland’s north-west.
He also inspired Walter de la Mare, in particular for his 1923 collection Come Hither.
Ulster poet John Hewitt was deeply influenced by Allingham. With the publication of The Poems of William Allingham in 1967 which he edited, Hewitt ensured that the Ballyshannon poet’s work and influence lived on.

Modern day references to Allingham’s work include lines from The Faeries quoted in the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and in the 1990 science fiction novel Dare To Go A-Hunting by Andre Norton.
Fans of the late great novelist Terry Pratchett will not be surprised to learn that The Wee Free Men featuring the tiny, ferocious The Foroige Garden based on 'The Faeries' in Allingham Park, Ballyshannonbut big-hearted Nac Mac Feegles was written with the working title ‘For Fear Of Little Men.’
And as recently as last weekend, hundreds of visitors that included writers, musicians, artists and artisans converged in Ballyshannon for the Allingham Festival.
The annual four-day celebration of creativity held in the poet’s honour is a fitting tribute to the Ballyshannon boy who saw the extraordinary in the ordinary and shared it with the world.

The Boy

The Boy from his bedroom-window 
Look’d over the little town,
And away to the bleak black upland
Under a clouded moon.

The moon came forth from her cavern,
He saw the sudden gleam
Of a tarn in the swarthy moorland;
Or perhaps the whole was a dream.

For I never could find that water
In all my walks and rides:
Far-off, in the Land of Memory,
That midnight pool abides.

Many fine things had I glimpse of,
And said, ‘I shall find them one day.’
Whether within or without me
They were, I cannot say.

–      By William Allinghamallingham

The above article written by myself ©Siobhán McNamara originally appeared in the Donegal Post newspaper on November 9, 2016 

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