St Brigid’s Day

written by Anne Newman 2019

Beannachtaí lá fhéile Bríd dhiabh go léir - First of February is St Brigid’s day.

(photo taken during Imbolc ceremony 2008 - fond memories of the bucket!)

The Celtic goddess Brigid is one of the most venerated Goddesses in Ireland. The name Brigid means exalted one, and her ancient Gaelic name, Breo-Saighead, means fiery power or fiery arrow. She embodies the element of fire as she is a solar goddess and is commonly depicted with rays of light or flames coming from her head.

It is said that she was born at sunrise from the union of Dagda, the earth god, and Boann, the goddess of fertility, from the ancient tribe of Tuatha Dé Danann (people of the Goddess Danu), who practiced magic. After they lost their mysterious islands in the west, they traveled to Ireland in the misty clouds and settled there.

She is sometimes called Brigid the 'Triple Goddess', for her fires of the hearth, inspiration, and the forge. She is a powerful patroness of healing arts, fertility, poetry, music, prophecy, agriculture, and smithcraft.

She is also called Goddess of the Well. The well is sacred because it stems from the womb of the earth, and Brigid is also the Earth Mother Goddess.

Her association with the sacred cow reflects the Celtic reliance on the animal for sustenance; milk was an important theme throughout the year, especially during the cold winter months when hardship threatened. As a baby, Brigid drank the milk of a sacred cow that came from the spirit world.

Worship of the Celtic goddess Brigid was widespread among Ireland, the highlands and islands of Scotland, the Isle of Man and also of Western Europe. Brigid was a unifying theme and common bond. However, in the 5th century, the goddess faced an immense wave of religious change and pressures that swept through her devotees. She had to evolve, otherwise, her followers would have to banish her from their lives.

As Christianity spread throughout the Celtic lands rather than illiminating the older relegions many properties of the older religions were Christianised. Brigid was an integral part of the lives of Celts, and the solution was to create a version of her that would fit into the Catholic religion. Hence, a new story emerged of St Brigid.

Saint Brigid was born Brigit, and shares a name with a Celtic goddess from whom many legends and folk customs are associated.

It is said that she was the daughter of Dubthach, a Leinster chieftain and Brocca who was baptized by Saint Patrick, Brocca was a slave, therefore Brigid was born into slavery. When Dubthach's wife discovered Brocca was pregnant, she was sold to a Druid landowner.

There are many stories of Brigid's childhood. One story says Brigid once gave her mother's entire store of butter, that was later replenished after Brigid prayed.

When she was about ten-years-old, Brigid was returned to her father. Her charity did not end when she left her mother, and she donated Dubthach's possessions to anyone who asked. Eventually, Dubthach became tired of her charitably nature and took her to the king of Leinster, with the intention of selling her. As he spoke to the king, Brigid gave his jewelled sword to a beggar so he could barter it for food for his family. The king was a Christian, recognized her kind heart, and convinced Dubthach to grant her freedom by saying, "Her merit before God is greater than ours."

Dubthach, who had arranged for Brigid to marry an Ulster nobleman. She refused and made a vow to always be chaste. Legend has it Brigid prayed that her beauty be taken so no one would want to marry her, and the prayer was granted. It was not until after she made her final vows that her beauty was restored.

Little is known about Saint Brigid's life after she entered the Church, but she founded a monastery in Kildare, the Church of the Oak. It was built above a pagan shrine to the Celtic goddess Brigid, which was beneath a large oak tree. She later founded a school of art that included metalwork and illumination, It was at this school that the Book of Kildare was written and illuminated, but this was lost three centuries ago.

Saint Brigid died on February 1 525. Her body was initially kept to the right of the high altar of Kildare Cathedral, with a tomb "adorned with gems and precious stones and crowns of gold and silver," but in 878, during the Viking raids, her relics were moved to Armagh and buried with Patrick and Columba.

In 1185, John de Courcy had her remains relocated in Down Cathedral.

Today, Saint Brigid's skull can be found in the Church of St. John the Baptist in Lumiar, Portugal. The tomb in which it is kept bears the inscription, "Here in these three tombs lie the three Irish knights who brought the head of St. Brigid, Virgin, a native of Ireland, whose relic is preserved in this chapel. In memory of which, the officials of the Altar of the same Saint caused this to be done in January AD 1283." A portion of the skull was relocated to St. Bridget's Church in Killester.

Saint Brigid's likeness is often depicted holding a reed cross, a crozier, or a lamp. In addition to her totemic animals of the cow and the ewe, she is also associated with the cockerel, the herald of the new day and the snake, symbol of regeneration.

The dandelion was known as St. Brigids flower as it is one of the first wild flowers to bloom after her festival.

The Oyster Catcher is known as Giolla Brid or Brigid's Page, a name also known in the Scottish Islands. At around this time, in years past, large wintering flocks of oystercatchers would start to disperse along the coastline, and tradition was that the time of St Brigid was at hand.

Brigid’s wells

There are Irish wells dedicated to St. Brigid. Those wells were originally connected with the Celtic goddess Brigid, who is also the Goddess of the Well, from which flows life-giving waters. They flow from the womb of Mother Earth.

I have visited many wells dedicated to Bridget over the years. The two Bridget’s wells at Kildare, St.Bridget’s Well Liscannor, St Brigids well near Mullingar (shown in the photo), St Brigid’s Well at Killare near Uisneach, Brigids well at Faughart, Co. Louth to name but a few. All are beautiful sacred places to visit.

Brigid day Customs

Brigid’s day is the day for bringing in the Brat Bríd which was out out the night before.

Another custom is to visit a Well to gather healing water for the year. Water is also used to bless the Bridget’s crosses that were made either last night or today, depending on the tradition of the local area.

Many people got water from a well dedicated to Brigid and sprinkled water on their fields, livestock and homes to invoke the blessing of the saint.

Hoare frost gathered from grass on the morning of St. Brigid's day is said to be an infallible cure for headache.

On this Day, the light from the rising sun shines into the Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara. The other time it does this is at Samhain, 1st November. Interesting that these times mark the beginning and end of the growing season.

Also worth noting that the Brideog is made from the straw of last year's harvest, again linking the harvest and the sowing of the crops. Indeed in Scotland, their Brideog is made from the Cailleach, the last bundle of the harvest of the previous year and is then spread on the fields to bless the crops for this year.

The Cycle of Life continues, the Wheel turns.

Beannachtaí la fhéile Bridget oraibh go léir.

More information on these celebratory days of Imbolc - click here for 31st January, click here for Candlemas (2nd February) and click here for St.Blaise and the Blessing of the Throats.

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Anne is sharing a series of events throughout the year - you can find them listed by clicking to the link Other Notable Dates and Festivals.