On 1 February each year, Ireland celebrates the feast of ‘Mary of the Gael‘, St Brigid (Also pronounced Breege or Bríd.) Most people of my generation will recall going to school on the day before St Brigid’s day armed with lots of rushes that had been carefully pulled from their sheaths. There we would fold and turn the soft green stems until we had a swastika shaped St Brigid’s Cross. The ends would be tied, the rough edges straightened up and cut and then we had it! A really simple pleasure that was very easy for even the youngest child. The Cross was then brought home and placed over the front door (on the inside) or behind a picture, and there over the coming year it would gradually dry out and turn a straw colour as it acted as a talisman to protect the house and all those within.
Brigid we learned, was born in Faughart, County Louth in the 6th century and one of my abiding memories as a boarder in the St Louis Convent in Dundalk County Louth was the annual pilgrimage to her Faughart birthplace on cold wet god forsaken February days! Bridget we also learned was a great friend of the other great Irish saints – Patrick and Colmcille – and is reputedly buried with these two in Downpatrick in County Down – an unusual enough occurrence I suspect that a female would be buried alongside two holy men.
According to tradition a sacred fire has burned in Kildare since pre-Christian times and priestesses gathered on the hill of Kildare to attend to the ritual fires dedicated to the goddess Brigid in return for protecting their animals and their crops. St Brigid is also associated with Kildare as it was there that she founded her monastery and church and where she kept alive a tradition of keeping a fire burning on a hill. For her and her nuns the fire represented the new light of Christianity, which reached Irish shores early in the fifth century.
There is definite convergence then between St Bridget, the Christian Abbottess and the pre Christian goddess, Bridget and their symbolic use of fire.
Imbolg or Imbolc is a Celtic festival marking the arrival of Spring. It falls half way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. It is one of the fire and light festivals in the Celtic tradition and marks new beginnings longer days, return of the sun and animals preparing to breed.
The Christian festival of Candlemas also occurs at this time – so-called as this was the day of blessing for all church candles for the coming year. On Candlemas night, people lit candles in their homes to ward off evil spirits.
St Brigid, the goddess Bridget, Imbolg and Candlemas are all celebrated at this time of new beginnings. Whether pagan or Christian is arbitrary… what is certain is that here in the Northern Hemisphere our days are lengthening – we are pulling away from the darkness of the winter solstice, towards new beginning, new life, a new season.
Lá fheile Brighid fe mhaise daoibh!