IMBOLC / ST. BRIGID’S DAY
[Note: St. Brigid’s name is spelt this way by many people. The spelling ‘Brigit’ is also very common and this is the spelling used here, apart from those titles and websites where the spelling is ‘Brigid’.]
On 19th January, 2022 the Irish government announced: ‘From next year there will be a new permanent public holiday established in celebration of Imbolc/St. Brigid’s Day. This will be the first Monday in every February, except where St.Brigid’s Day, the 1st of February, happens to fall on a Friday, in which case that Friday 1st of February will be a public holiday.’ Tanaiste Leo Varadkar noted: ‘This will be the first Irish public holiday named after a woman. It marks the half-way point between the winter solstice and the equinox, the beginning of spring and the Celtic New Year.’
Ireland now has four bank holidays that coincide with the four major festivals of ancient times, attested in the earliest written sources, namely Samain (or Halloween, October Bank Holiday), Imbolc (St. Brigit’s Day, February 1st), Beltaine (May Bank Holiday) and Lugnasad (August Bank Holiday).
Although these festivals feature strongly in early Irish literature, three of them (Samain, Beltaine and Lugnasad) feature in a more practical way in the early Irish law texts. The value of young animals (cattle, sheep and pigs) went up at the time of these festivals, probably because demand for feasting was very high. Imbolc does not feature as strongly in the law texts as the other three festivals, probably because the young animals were only being born around this time. It was still clearly a date of major significance, marking the visible lengthening of days as spring arrived. One of the alternate names for the festival, Oímelg was explained in the 9th century Cormac’s Glossary as ‘the time when sheep’s milk comes’. The term imbolc, which Ó hÓgáin translated as ‘large-bellied’, is also associated with spring, fertility and the birth of new life.
The festival of Imbolc was strongly associated with the pre-Christian goddess Brigit and later with the Christian saint of the same name. There is much early Irish literature dealing with Brigit and a growing modern literature exploring many aspects of her cult throughout the centuries. As Briganti or Brigantia, she was known in mainland Europe and in Britain, where she gave her name to rivers and a tribe called the Brigantes. Some scholars have traced her back to ancient India, where Brihati, meaning ‘lofty or exalted one’ was an epithet of the Hindu goddess of the dawn, Ushas.
The Irish Brigit also means ‘the exalted one’, and it is clear from the earliest references to the pagan goddess that she was a figure of major significance. She is described in Cormac’s Glossary as the daughter of the Daghdha, the principal pre-Christian deity in Ireland, who dwelt at Newgrange. She was a woman of great learning, worshipped by poets and seers and renowned for her protecting care.
According to Cormac (831-908),scholar and bishop of Cashel, she had two sisters who were also called Brigit and were associated with healing and smithwork. Triple deities are known throughout world mythology and are very common in Irish mythology. Indeed a stone head with three faces was discovered at Corleck Hill in Co.Cavan around 1855. MacKillop says that the hill was known in Irish as ‘the hill of the three gods’ and that a stone head of Brigit was once worshipped here. It was possibly the site of pagan worship during Imbolc and the other three major festivals of ancient Ireland.
The Christian saint Brigit was born around the year 439 AD and died around 524. She was reputedly born at Faughart, Co. Louth, where a well dedicated to her still attracts many visitors.
St. Brigit’s Well, Faughart, Co. Louth.
She founded a famous convent and monastery at Kildare and her cult became widespread across Ireland, but was especially strong in Leinster. In the 7th century, Kildare was involved in a major dispute with Armagh over which was the main church or ‘primatial see’ in Ireland. This was significant not just in the ecclesiastical world but in the world of secular politics. The church was very closely associated with the political leaders of the time and played an important role in the support and inauguration of kings. The dispute led to the writing of a Life of St. Brigit and two Lives of St. Patrick. A major function of these 7th century texts was to make a strong historical case for the right to primacy of Kildare (St. Brigit) and Armagh (St. Patrick). Cogitosus, author of the Life of St. Brigit, wrote that her church in Kildare ‘…is head of almost all of the Irish Churches with supremacy over all the monasteries of the Irish and its paruchia extends over the whole land of Ireland, reaching from sea to sea.’ The paruchia was the area over which the church at Kildare claimed to exercise control. If Kildare had established this claim to rule over all the churches of Ireland, we may well not have had to wait until 2023 for a national holiday to celebrate St. Brigit. She would probably have become our national saint instead of Patrick. By the end of the 7th century, however, Armagh had won the primacy of Ireland, which it retains right down to the present day.
The cult of the Christian saint Brigit may well have been built upon that of the pre-Christian goddess and Ó hÓgáin notes that the Life of St. Brigit written by Cogitosus c. 650 AD shows considerable evidence for the synthesising of paganism and Christianity. Even the choice of Kildare as the site of her church may have deliberately built on a pre-Christian past. Cill Dara, the Irish for Kildare, means ‘Church of the Oak’ and oak groves were well known as sanctuaries for druids in pre-Christian times. Like her pre-Christian namesake, St. Brigit was renowned for her care of animals, her healing and also for her generosity and total commitment to the poor and vulnerable. Although many of the tales in the various Lives of the Christian saint use pagan motifs, there are strong Christian elements and biblical influences there too.
The monastery that Brigit founded at Kildare had a long history, with abbesses, abbots and bishops being recorded there through more than a thousand years. Cogitosus’ Life of St. Brigit contains a fascinating description of the church at Kildare, rare for the detail it provides on Early Medieval architecture in Ireland. The 7th century church was probably located on the same site as the 13th century cathedral, which is still standing.
The Cathedral, KIldare.
The cleric and author, Giraldus Cambrensis (1146-1223), visited Ireland in the 1180s and wrote two books about the country. Although notorious amongst Irish historians as a ‘propagandist’ for the 12th-century invasion of Ireland, Giraldus wrote with wonder and fascination of his visit to Kildare. Here he saw a fire that had been lit in St. Brigit’s time and had been kept burning continually since then. Nineteen nuns, each taking a turn for one night, kept the fire going since the death of Brigit and a hedge around the fire prevented any men from entering. The sacred flame may have survived right up to the suppression of the monasteries in the 16th century. The foundation of the temple where the fire is reputed to have burned can still be seen in the grounds of Kildare cathedral today.
In 1993 the flame was re-lit in the Market Square, Kildare by the congregational leader of the Brigidine Sisters, who still tend the flame. They believe that the original fire went back to pre-Christian times and formed part of rituals that invoked the goddess Brigit to protect animals and provide a fruitful harvest.
Giraldus Cambrensis also wrote a detailed description of a manuscript of the four gospels that he saw at Kildare. He ended his description by saying that, if you look closely at the delicate artwork in the manuscript, “…you will not hesitate to declare that these things must have been the result of the work, not of men, but of angels.” The National Museum of Ireland, in conjunction with the National Museum of Scotland and the British Museum, used Giraldus’ phrase for a major exhibition that began in 1990 titled ‘The Work of Angels: masterpieces of Celtic Metalwork, 6th-9th centuries AD.’
St. Brigit has continued to inspire people in many ways across the last 1,500 years. Centuries-old folk customs were still practised in many parts of Ireland into the late 20th century. One of the most widespread and popular of these customs was The Biddie, when groups known as ‘Biddy Boys’ would travel the countryside on St. Brigit’s Eve (January 31st) or St. Brigit’s Day (February 1st) going from house to house, sometimes playing music and dancing at each place they visited. They’ve often been compared to the Straw Boys or the Wren Boys, who go out on St. Stephen’s Day. The Biddy Boys, although often dressed in straw costumes and headpieces, usually carried an effigy of St. Brigit which was called the Brídeog. They would sometimes collect money or food for a party to celebrate St. Brigit, but if people had nothing else to give they might simply stick a pin in the Brídeog . The practice of the tradition continued in parts of Co. Kerry through the 1960s and 1970s, an RTÉ television report in 1965 noting that it was largely confined to south Kerry and parts of counties Cork, Kildare and Fermanagh. There are some places where the tradition still carries on, like Kilgobnet, Co.Kerry.
The custom of making St. Brigit’s crosses out of reeds or straw is still carried on in many Primary schools around Ireland on February 1st and the earliest tale of how St. Brigit herself made the first cross goes back over a thousand years. The best known form of the cross is the four-armed version used by RTE television as their logo since 1962, but a wide variety of other designs were well-known in the past. Ó Duinn wrote in 2002 that the lozenge or diamond-shaped straw cross was the most widespread throughout the country and notes that this is a well-recognised symbol of fertility associated with goddesses throughout ancient Europe. It is also incised in stone at the Neolithic site at Newgrange, Co. Meath and Ó Duinn also lists out a number of Early Medieval ecclesiastical sites in Ireland where it appears, including on the portal into the round tower at Kildare.
The round tower, Kildare.
Many of the customs and rituals associated with St. Brigit’s Day relate to fertility, the healing of people and animals and the protection of homes, people, animals and crops for the year to come. Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin pointed out how Sir William Wilde, in the 19th century, drew comparisons between the Brídeog figures used on St. Brigit’s Day and the Babóg na Bealtaine (‘little May Day baby’) figures, both of which were associated with fertility. She points to a number of different songs relating to these themes which still exist in the traditions of Oriel, or south-east Ulster.
Ní Uallachàin’s sister, Eithne, recorded a wonderful song with her band Lá Lugh called ‘Brighid’s Kiss’. Eithne had a rare sense of the contemporary significance of ancient Irish customs and people. The song, sung in both Irish and English, wonderfully interweaves elements of Brigit’s story from ancient times and evocations of her significance today. You can listen to the song on Spotify. https://open.spotify.com/track/680bOqQf477OsETxxbuxcK?si=669f293561e848e6
If you’re interested in looking more closely at the lyrics, including seeing translations of the Irish lines in the song, go to: www.flashlyrics.com
There are a couple of playlists on Spotify which are very different. Imbolc/Brigid is described as ‘a contemporary playlist for Imbolc and St. Brigid’s Day’. It is loosely themed around love/spring/regeneration/poetry/inspiration and includes songs by Florence and The Machine, Bastille, The Fleet Foxes, Hozier and others. Another playlist, Songs of Brigid, is very different, ‘devotional songs to Our Lady Goddess, Brigid, Brighid, Brigantia, Bridget, Brigit.’
2013 saw the launch of the Brigid’s Way Celtic Pilgrimage from Faughart, Co. Louth to Kildare. The full walk takes nine days to complete and details can be seen on http://brigidsway.ie
The number of placenames, schools, and holy wells all over Ireland that are named after St. Brigit are ample evidence of her widespread popularity. When I first moved to the Boyne Valley over 20 years ago, a local priest told me that there was a holy well dedicated to St. Brigit on the corner of a road that went down to the River Boyne towards Stackallen Bridge. All that I could ever see at that corner were wildly overgrown bushes. During the first lockdown in 2020, however, a local community group set about the task of clearing the site. They revealed a beautifully constructed stone well with a little stream flowing in front of it, a wonderfully tranquil spot to stop and watch the world go by!
The group Herstory Ireland campaigned from 2019 to make St. Brigit’s Day a national holiday. See https://www.herstory.ie
The site of St. Brigit’s Well at Faughart, just outside Dundalk, can be visited at any time. The site of St. Brigit’s convent and monastery at Kildare, with it’s round tower, the remains of a high cross, the foundation of St. Brigit’s fire-temple and the 13th century cathedral can also be visited at any time. It is located just off the market square in the centre of Kildare town.
Connolly, S. and Picard, J.M., ‘Cogitosus:Life of Saint Brigit. Content and Value’, JRSAI, Vol. 117 (1987), 5-27. Includes full text, in translation, og this 7th century life of the saint.
Connolly, Seán, ‘Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae, Background and Historical Value’, JRSAI, Vol. 119 (1989): 5-49. Includes full text, in translation, of this 10th century life of the saint.
MacKillop, James, Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford, 1998).
Ó Dúinn, Seán, Where Three Streams Meet (Blackrock, 2000)
Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí, The Lore of Ireland. An Encyclopedia of Myth, Legend and Romance (Cork, 2006)