BRIGID: "MARY OF THE GAEL"

The early Christians believed that Brigid was present at the birth of Christ and acted as midwife. Indeed, she's often referred to as "Mary of the Gael." Women saw her as a guardian of sorts around all matters of midwifery. Her symbol is that of the triple spiral and represents the three aspects of womanhood: maiden, mother and crone.

When I learned about Saint Brigid in school, it was of an almost mythological figure. In fact the stories fit into classic mythological categories and probably belong more appropriately to the goddess with whose identity hers overlaps. She was the goddess of all creative things, arts and crafts, healing, smithwork and poetry.

And yet the Brigid for whom people set a place at the table and believed looked after their livestock, for whom women felt close to and somehow shared their Everyday Concerns and touched the things in their lives which occupied them from dawn until dusk - this Brigid seems just as powerful and compassionate a figure, as strongly imbued with the divine feminine as is the Christ’s midwife.

Brigid was everywhere and not just on Brigid's Day. Her Wells could be found in almost every townland, her Crosses in every household and every night, Her Blessing was invoked as the woman of the house 'smoored' the fire while reciting one of her many charms. (Smooring the Fire: putting the ashes over the embers to keep them alight until the fire was needed again in the morning)





When I look at these Lovely Traditions woven into the fabric of ordinary everyday lives, divorced from the grandeur of fine architecture, great art and all and finer aspects in life, it is probably this very thing that made them special and 'present.' It was ironically the forbidding of the practice of religion that led to everyday contemplative practice, wherein the ordinary practice of Baking a Cake, Sewing a Piece of Rag, Collecting Rushes From The River and lighting the fire were transformed from the everyday into the sacred.

These everyday practices were never closer to the people than through the simple Rituals Associated with Brigid, the Mary of the Gael, their own divine feminine - the woman who passed by the back of the house on January 31st and looked after the cows and the lambs, and while you might never get to Jerusalem, you could visit her Holy Well down the road, and make a Cross for her by walking to the stream.

Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, once said that all land is Holy Land. And no one made the land more holy that Brigid. And never was she more appreciated that in the depths of harsh winter when reminders of Spring were sorely needed.

This section of the site is dedicated to my growing appreciation of her over the years and what she represented.  Hope you enjoy.

All the very best, 

Áine

 
 


Gabhaim Molta Bríde (We Praise Brigid)

 

Imbolc: Brigid's Feast, February 1st

Imbolc, celebrated on February 1st, as the Feast of Saint Brigid is known, is one of the four major "Fire" Festivals on the old Irish Calendar and pre-dates Christianity itself. For before Saint Brigid was a saint with a 'perpetual flame,' she was a fire goddess and is an iconic figure in the Celtic imagination.  She represented the Celtic aspect of divine femininity and has remained in the hearts and minds of the Irish for centuries. The feast of Saint Brigid also falls on the feast of Imbolc February 1st. 

 
Who is Brigid?  And what does she have to do with "brides"? 


If you're heard a lot about Bridgit (Brigid) and she sounds like Wonderwoman herself, there's good reason! A lot of confusion stems from the fact that the root of the name  Bridgit comes from the word 'Brig' which means 'Exalted' or 'High One.' It's a title moreso than a name; nor was it exclusive to Ireland.  In fact, "Bridgit" was so revered, the first knights of chivalry chose her as their patroness and named their 'brides' after her!  Yes, that's how that all got started.  
 

 
When I think of Brigid (Bridgit), I think of three figures: the goddess, who is an amalgamation of several goddess figures from all over the Celtic world (i.e. Celtic countries and Northern Britain); the Saint, who has been greatly mythologized; and the Brigid of folklore, a loving figure, who became woven into the lives of everyday people. It is mostly the folkloric Brigid I would like to tell you about. 
 
Spelling of Her Name

You may find her name spelled Bridget, Bridgit among other.. While I find myself reverting to Bridget, the most common is probably Brigid.
BRIGID OF IRELAND ~ PLAYLIST 

 

1. Bridget Cruise. The famed 17th Century harper was madly in love with Bridget Cruise for much of his life. The name Brigid (Bridget, Briget) was almost as popular as the name Mary at one time. There's a wonderful story of the blind harper stepping on a boat many decades after he last saw his beloved Bridget and despite his blindness, he knew her immediately from the touch of her hand. 

2. Gabhaim Molta Bríde "We Praise Brigid."  The Hymn to Saint Brigid that we all grew up with. My favorite version is by the late Eithne Ní Uallacháin, the late beautiful and soulful singer from County Donegal. 

3. Brigid's Feast. My own few bars in honor of the Lady herself. 

4. Dove's Return. At the end of the day, it feels like we all just want the same thing. 

5. Sanctuary. I love the old Latin and although it only went out of use in the Church after Vatican II, it takes me back to the days of early Christianity, a really fascinating time to consider in early Ireland. The lyrics are from the canon and the melody came to me late one night.

6. Máthair (Ave Virgo Virginium). Brigid as "Mary of the Gael." The Irish believed Brigid had been present at the birth of Jesus. She is patroness of all such matters for women. 

7.  Gentle Maiden. This girl had options! She went for the common good. 

8.  The Grove. Her place is in Kildare where she was led congregations. 

9.  Song of Keening. Brigid was credited with inventing keening. 

10.  A Winter Story. "When Brigid's day come, the winter is nearly behind us." From Traditional Irish Humn 

12. Dawning of the Day. And so we being the new day with the first stirrings of Spring. 

12. New Light. Brigid of the Flame. Her symbol was fire. 

13. Blessing (Reprise).
"May the long time sun shine on you
All light surround you
And the pure light within you
Guide you on your way." 
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  1. 1 Bridget Cruise 02:44
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  2. 2 Gabhaim Molta Bride 03:19 Info
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  3. 3 Brigit's Feast 02:46 Info
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  4. 4 The Dove's Return (Version II) 03:01
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  5. 5 Sanctuary 05:56 Info
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  6. 6 Mathair 03:50 Info
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  7. 7 Gentle Maiden 04:52 Info
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  8. 8 The Grove 03:34 Info
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  9. 9 Song of Keening 05:34 Info
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  10. 10 A Winter Story 03:25 Info
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  11. 11 Dawning Of The Day 04:54 Info
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  12. 12 New Light 04:25 Info
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  13. 13 Blessing (Reprise) 02:26 Info
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Brigid - goddess or Saint?

The history of the saint is the stuff of mythology and it's hard to distinguish where the goddess ends and the saint begins, so intertwined are the two. Like all good Saints and goddesses, she is possessed of many dualities, humble yet powerful (tales of her power are many); she was born into wealth but chose to renounce her riches so as to serve the poor.


 As goddess, she was the patroness of all creative things and had a particular association with blacksmiths. It was thought those could shape metal had great powers; when one considers the process of blacksmithing in terms of tools and beautiful objects, it's little wonder that the blacksmith and indeed Brigid herself were held in such high esteem.


Brigid's Perpetual Flame - Fire

It is said that her flame was kept alight for over a thousand years but was extinguished during the time of Cromwell. It was re-lit in the 1970's and has reminded burning ever since in Kildare, the city that was built around the great Abbey she founded in County Kildare. After her death, the fire by her Abbey wall was tended only by women, as was her wish.
 

Restored foundation of Brigid's ancient fire temple on the north side of her Cathedral in Kildare.
A fire is often lit here in her honor on Brigid's Feast on Feb. 1st.
 
 

Kildare Cathedral 



Brigid Protector of Animals 

 
Like all the Irish Fire Festivals, hers is celebrated in the heart of the season on February 1st. Since it was the time for the birthing of lambs and domestic animals, it marked the rebirth of the agricultural year. Saint Brigid was seen as protector of domestic animals.  Her cross is often hung in barns and places where animals are sheltered for their protection. 





 

 

"Oiche Fhéile Bhríde"
(The Eve of St.Bridgit's Day)  
(January 31st)

The greatest Celebration to honor Brigid was "Oiche Fhéile Bhríde" or ‘the eve of St.Bridgit's Day.’  Listed here  are some of the traditions and customs used to mark her special day.

A favorite element of this fire festival was the "biddy boys," young men dressed in disguise going door to door.  Performing and passing the hat or accepting food was a tradition that has continued in parts of Ireland well into the twentieth century. This usually occurred on the Eve of the festival "Oiche Fhéile Bhríde" (the eve of St.Brigid's Day). The leader of the group was often a girl dressed as the saint carrying a 'brideog' (little Bridgit) or "biddy," (Brigid doll), usually home made and carried in a basket.

THE BIDDY BOYS ON BRIGID'S EVE




TAKING CARE OF THE POOR ON BRIGID'S EVE

We see many Christmas-like customs cropping up around this feast. The more well-to-do farmers tended to donate butter and other supplies to the poorer households since it was considered poor form for any house to be without a full table on the feast of this Saint. Since Brigid was patroness of domestic animals, the fruits of these animals in the form of milk and butter were most likely to appear at the table on her feast.

SETTING AN EXTRA PLACE AT TABLE ON BRIGID'S EVE

Much as on Christmas Eve, an extra place might be set at the table in her honor. Those foods that might sustain her as she made her journey across the countryside were often left on the windowsill for her in hopes that she might bless them. 

LEAVING OUT FOOD FOR BRIGID'S BLESSING

On February 1st, these foods were taken back indoors and given to those thought to be most in need of them. They usually went to the sick, since they were thought to have curative powers, or to those less well off in the community.

LEAVING OUT CLOTH FOR BRIGID'S BLESSING & PROTECTION

Instead of food, a piece of cloth was often left outside, again in hopes that Brigid would bless it. The cloth would later be sewn into the clothing of children, particularly girls, in order to protect them from ill health and all harm. From time to time, several pieces of cloth would be sewn together, perhaps collected over the years - such a "Brigid's mantle" would be considered beneficial to women having fertility issues.


Brigid & Early Christianity:

When Christianity was introduced to Ireland, it was welcomed.  In fact, there is a poem attributed to Brigid herself (see end of this article) wherein she talks about now nice it would be to 'have a pint' with Jesus Christ.  (I'd like to give a Lake of Beer to God).  While difficult to fathom in modern times, Brigid was thought to have have turned water to ale, stone to salt and was renowned for multiplying food!  Sound familiar? For this tribe, Jesus Christ was not an unfamiliar.  In fact, he sounded just like one of the tribe.  For several centuries, we're led to believe that  these two systems co-existed nicely and melded to a large degree.   The early Christian period when the island was known as the land of "Saints and Scholars" is regarded as a golden in the hearts and minds of the Irish.  




BRIGID AND CHRISTIANITY

Brigid loomed very large indeed.  Few people realize that she is one of the three patron saints of Ireland.  In fairness, St. Colmchille doesn’t get much of a look in either!  St. Patrick seems to get all the press these days!   There are many townlands that boast a “Brigid’s Well” and many have faith in the curative powers of these waters.   If you visit one of the wells, don’t be surprised to see small tokens of gratitude placed there in her honor.  To this day, people harbor a deep affection for this woman that has often been passed down from their own mothers and grandmothers.
 


She is still a very real presence in the land and the tokens left in her honor attest to her ongoing embodiment of the divine feminine in the hearts of women who come from all over the world to her holy shrines. She lives on.
 


 


  

BRIGID'S CROSS
("CROS BHRÍDE")


The truly unique ritual of this Feast day was the making of the Brigid’s Cross ('Cros Bhríde'). These crosses were made from rushes, usually gathered from a local stream or river. The four sides are equidistant and often though to be more representative of the four elements or the four directions, unlike the Christian cross, which is longer in length on one side and signifies sacrifice.

 



In Sligo seven rushes are used for each side of the cross so that there are 28 stalks in all (one for each day of the month of February). There are several variants on the cross in various parts of Ireland, or depending on how the cross is to be used. (sometimes they are placed in barns and used for the protection of livestock). Most Irish homes still have a Brigid's cross hanging over the door. Many of the Irish brought this custom to the New World, as well as across many other oceans. They are often place in cars or anywhere people would like to feel safe. Never leave home without it!

The cakes baked on this day were and are often made in the shape of a cross. Many were fed to the Biddy Boys as a token of gratitude for their entertainment.

St. Brigid’s cross hung over door

Which did the house from fire secure

As Gillo thought,
O powerful charm

To keep a house from taking harm;


And tho’ the dogs and servants slept,

By Brigid’s care the house was kept.


1735 poem



BRIGID: EVERYDAY CONCERNS


And here's where she gets really interesting.... This was a woman, who walked beside you through your day, helped watch over your livestock, feed your children and aided with issues around fertility.
While all aspired to be like Mary and it was she who has suffered the very greatest of losses – losing a child; However, if you needed a strong presence to get you through the day - Brigid was your woman! Her concerns reflected the concerns of everyday women. And for all that, she was beloved.

The thing to remember about Christianity in Ireland is that for much of its life, the population was geographically and politically cut off from Rome; and not just from the leadership.  It was forbidden as a practice and driven underground. The result? A type of contemplative, ritualized, drawing-in of the sacred into every-day life; And no where was this more evident that in invoking the blessings of Brigid.

It began in the morning when the house was blessed:

 

BRIGID'S CHARM I

Brighid of the Mantle, encompass us,

Lady of the Lambs, protect us,

Keeper of the Hearth, kindle us,

Beneath your mantle gather us,

And restore us to memory.


And ended at night when the fire was 'smoored.' The 'smooring' of the fire was a lovely ritual. The dying embers were covered with the ashes so as to conserve energy, but yet not quench the fire so it could easily be rekindled the next morning. Some houses had kept their fires 'alive' literally for years - an art in itself. While the woman of the house smoored the fire, she would recite one of many "Brigid Charms".

 

 

 


 

BRIGID'S CHARM II

I rake this fire like everyone else

Bridgit below it with Mary on top

Twelve angels of the angels of the ages

Protecting my house till dawn.


Saint Brigid’s Prayer
(10th century Poem attributed to Bridget herself)

I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.
I’d love the heavenly
Host to be tippling there
For all eternity.
 
I’d love the men of Heaven to live with me,
To dance and sing.
If they wanted, I’d put at their disposal
Vats of suffering.
 
White cups of love I’d give them
With a heart and a half;
Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer
To every man.
 
I’d make Heaven a cheerful spot
Because the happy heart is true.
I’d make the men contented for their own sake.
I’d like Jesus to love me too.
 
I’d like the people of heaven to gather
From all the parishes around.
I’d give a special welcome to the women,
The three Marys of great renown.
 
I’d sit with the men, the women and God
There by the lake of beer.
We’d be drinking good health forever
And every drop would be a prayer.

 

~

Gabhaim Molta Bríghde  (We Praise Bridgit)
 
Gabhaim molta Bríghde, Iníon í le hÉireann
Iníon le gach tír í, molaimís go léir í!
 
Lóchrann geal na Laighneach, soils’ ar feadh na tíre,
Ceann ar óigheacht Éireann, ceann na mban ar míne.
 
Tig an geimhreadh dian dubh, gearra lena géire,
Ach ar lá le Brighde, gar duinn Earrach Éireann.
Molaimís go léir í!
 
English Translation (We Priase Bridget)
 
I sing loudly the praises of Bridget
She it is who is daughter,
not just of Ireland,
but of all the countries of the world.
 
A shining lantern of Leinster,
a flame throughout the land,
Leader of the women of Ireland,
one of the finest women ever.
 
The hard, dark winter comes,
short and sharp
But once Bridget’s Day appears,
Ireland’s spring is not far behind.