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.
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. 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.
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.