The rites of Brigid, goddess and saint
February 1st, the feast of Imbolg in the old Celtic year, marked the beginning of spring. It was Christianised and adapted as the feast of St Brigid and many rituals still associated with the feast are best understood in the light of their pagan Celtic origins. After a Foreword on the life of Brigid as told in the Leabhar Breac, Seán Ó Duinn describes these rites and explores their relevance for today.
236 pp, Columba Press, 2005. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie
1. Brigid and springtime
2. Foretelling the future
3. The annual return of Brigid from the otherworld
4. Preparing a bed for Brigid
5. The cult of Brigid among the clerics
6. Brigid, the goddess and the saint
7. Brigid and the ever-living fire at Kildare
8. The place of the sun in ancient religion
9. The brídeog
10. The threshold rite
11. St Brigid's cross
12. Brat Bhríde/St Brigid's cloak
13. Crios Bhríde/Brigid's belt
14. St Brigid's holy wells
15. Saoire ar chasaibh (A holiday from turning)
16. Some localised cultic observances
17. New Year rituals
February 1st, the feast of Imbolg in the old Celtic year, marked the beginning of spring, the rebirth of nature after the long death of winter. It was Christianised and adapted as the feast of St Brigid. A large variety of customs and traditions are still associated the feast till this day, many of which date back to the pagan Celtic days.
In this book, Seán Ó Duinn OSB collects, describes and shows the relevance and geographical locations of these ancient pagan celtic rites and traditions associated with the feast of Imbolg. It also contains a thorough Bibliography and Index.
THE LIFE OF BRIGID AS CONTAINED IN THE LEABHAR BREAC
In a flight of imagination, the author of Beatha Bhrighdi ("The Life of Brigid") in the Leabhar Breac sees the soul of Brigid as the blazing sun illuminating the Heavenly City. There are the angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, accompanying Mary's Son and there is the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Inspired by this vision, the author prays:
I ask for the Lord's mercy
through the intercession of blessed Brigid.
May we reach that unity
which exists for ever and ever (Stokes, 1877, 86).
This mystical effusion is concerned above all with the otherworld and the last times.
On the other hand, there is in Beatha Bhrighdi a message of hope and consolation for those who in this world make their way painfully to God amidst trials and afflictions:
It is she who helps everyone in trouble and affliction.
It is she who cures diseases.
It is she who mitigates anger and calms the stormy sea.
She is the prophesied one of Christ.
She is the Queen of the South.
She is the Mary of the Gael. (Beatha Bhrighdi, 1703-1705)
In Brigid, two elements come together - the eternal and the temporal - and she is seen as a female warrior trampling on demons, and on the forces of evil in her efforts to lead a person over the dangerous bridge of this present life to the gleaming country of heaven.
After a short summary of the life of Brigid as it is presented in various biographies, we proceed to the principal object of this work, that is, to discuss the rites and ceremonies with which the Feast of Brigid is celebrated.
Since Brigid is, as it were, a bridge between this world and the world beyond, it is no wonder that her fame extended far and near. As the poem says:
Gabhaim molta Bhríde,
Ionmhain le hÉirinn;
Ionmhain le gach tir í,
Molaimis go léir í. (Mac Giolla Chomhaill, 1984, 29)
(I proclaim the praises of Brigid;
she is dear to Ireland;
she is dear to every country;
let us all join in her praises.)
The object of this work is to examine the ways in which the people of Ireland praised Brigid in the traditional rituals pertaining to her Feastday.
In the biography of Brigid as contained in the Leabhar Breac (Stokes, 1877, 50-87), a very full account is given of her life. Moreover, some elements of pre-Christian practice may be discerned in the narrative. While this version is not as old as that of Cogitosus (JRSAI, Vol 117, 5), nevertheless its ethos is close to that of the folk-cult of the people who revered Brigid. For this reason, the Leabhar Breac version is the one used as a basis for the following shortened account of her life.
Brigid was the daughter of Dubhthach mac Dreimne. Dubhthach had purchased a slave-girl named Broicseach, a daughter of Dall-bhronach of Dal Chonchuir in the southern area of Breagha. Dubhthach married the girl and she became pregnant. Dubhthach's wife, Breachnat, was furious and threatened to leave him if he did not sell Broicseach to somebody living far away. But Dubhthach didn't want to sell her.
One day, while Dubhthach and the slave-girl were going past the house of a certain druid, the druid heard the noise of the chariot and he came out to greet them.
The druid made a foretelling that they would have a wonderful daughter whose fame would spread far and wide because of her power and virtue.
After this, God sent two bishops - Mel and Melchu - to Dubhthach and when Mel learned of Breachnat's anger he informed her that her own descendants would serve the descendants of the slave-girl. Nevertheless, she would be of assistance to them.
Then, another druid happened to come that way and the bishops advised Dubhthach to sell the slave-girl to him but not to hand over the infant in her womb. Dubhthach agreed to this and the druid took Broicseach to his home.
Shortly after this, another file or druid from the territory of Conaill purchased the slave-girl. This man prepared a great banquet for the king of Conaill and it so happened that the queen at that moment was on the point of giving birth. A fáidh (seer, prophet) of the learned class, who happened to be present, was asked if this were a lucky time for a royal birth. The fáidh said that the child born next morning with the rising of the sun would have an outstanding destiny. However, the queen's child was born in advance of this point and he was born dead.
The file, then, asked the fáidh about the slave-girl's child. The fáidh answered: 'The child born tomorrow at the rising of the sun, and who is born without being inside or outside a house that child will surpass every other child in Ireland.'
It happened then, at the break of day, that the slave-girl, Broicseach, was going into a house, holding a bucket of buttermilk in her hand.
She had one foot inside the threshold and the other outside the threshold when Brigid was born. The servant-girls washed the baby and the mother with the buttermilk which was in the vessel. Brigid was born on a Wednesday, on the eighth day of the moon, at Fochairt Mhuirthemhne.
Brigid was taken then to the place where the queen's baby lay dead. When Brigid's breath reached him he became alive and well. The druid and Broicseach and Brigid then went to the Province of Connacht where they settled down.
One day, the people of the area saw that the house in which the child Brigid lived was on fire. They rushed to the house to extinguish the flames but found on arrival that there was no fire at all. The people concluded that the child was filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Once, while asleep, the druid saw three clerics, that is to say three angels, coming and pouring oil on Brigid's head to complete the rite of baptism. The three clerics instructed the druid to give the name Brigid to the child.
Brigid was not accustomed to take the ordinary food available to her. For this reason the druid obtained a white cow with red ears and she used to drink the milk of this cow.
As Brigid began to come of age everything under her care increased and flourished. She took care of the sheep, of blind people and of the poor.
The druid gave Brigid back to Dubhthach, her father, and they returned to the area of Uíbh Fhailí. It happened that her nurse was ill at that time. Brigid prepared a potion for her from water, having the taste of beer, and the nurse was cured of her disease.
Some guests arrived at Dubhthach's house. Brigid prepared five portions of meat for them. It happened that a hungry hound was passing by and Brigid gave him one of the portions. When he had eaten that, she gave him another portion. 'Have you all the portions?', asked Dubhthach. 'Count them,' said she. He did so and all the portions were there. 'That girl works many wonders', said her father.
On one occasion, Brigid attended a Synod of Leinster. It happened that a holy man who was present had had a vision in which he saw Mary coming to the meeting. When Brigid entered, this man said: 'This is the Mary I saw in a vision', and from that time on, she was called Muire na nGael - Mary of the Irish.
Without her father's permission, Brigid went to her mother who was poor and ill and still a slave-girl in Connacht. She took over her mother's duties and it was her custom at the time of butter-making to divide the butter into twelve divisions in honour of the twelve apostles and a large lump in honour of the Son of God. Although she used to give away butter to the poor, there was no reduction in the amount manufactured. 'It was Christ and his twelve apostles who proclaimed the gospel to the peoples of the world,' said Brigid, 'It is in their name that I look after the poor, for Christ is to be found in the person of every faithful poor person.' Finally, Brigid's miracles so impressed the druid and his wife that the druid became a Christian. The druid gave Brigid a herd of cows and made her mother a free-woman. Brigid and her mother Broicseach returned to Dubhthach.
Dubhthach, however, was not over-satisfied with this arrangement as he saw his wealth diminish while Brigid handed over his goods to the poor. He decided to sell Brigid to Dunlaing Mac Enda, king of Leinster, as a servant, to grind com.
Brigid and her father went to the king's fort by chariot. When they arrived, Dubhthach went inside to meet the king, leaving Brigid and his sword in the chariot. While Dubhthach was inside, a leper happened to pass by and Brigid gave him her father's sword.
Dubhthach was furious at the loss of his sword and he took Brigid into the fort to meet the king. The king asked her if she intended to give his property away to the poor also. Brigid gave the king no satisfactory answer. She answered that if all the wealth of Leinster were at her disposal she would give it all away to the King of the Elements. The king said that Brigid's status was higher in the eyes of God than among men. He gave a sword with an ivory hilt to Dubhthach on Brigid's behalf and he made her a free-woman.
Brigid went, along with other virgins, to Telcha Mide, to receive a nun's veil from Bishop Mel. It happened that through the bounty of the Holy Spirit, the rite of Ordination of a Bishop was read over Brigid. Mac Caille said that it was not right to confer the status of a bishop on a woman. Bishop Mel, said, however:
We have no power over it, because it is from God himself that this honour came to her
- an honour beyond that of any other woman.
For this reason, the men of Ireland, bestow the honour due to a bishop on Brigid's successor.
It was on the eighth day of the moon that Brigid was born; she took the veil on the eighteenth day; she went to heaven on the twenty-eighth day; she was consecrated along with eight virgins and she lived her life in accordance with the eight Beatitudes.
With one sack of malt, Brigid succeeded in providing beer for the seven churches of Tulach for Holy Thursday and the eight days of Easter.
On one occasion, Brigid went to a church in Teathbha for the celebration of Easter. On Holy Thursday she washed the feet of the people in the church. Among them were four who were very ill. Brigid cured the four of them.
Brigid went to Dunlaing, king of Leinster, with two requests. She promised him the kingdom of heaven for himself as a reward. The king, however, took little notice of this promise. 'I can't see the kingdom of heaven,' he said, 'and nobody knows anything about it. For that reason, I don't bother about it at all. As for granting the kingdom to my son, I don't bother about that either, for I myself won't be around. But give me a long life in my kingdom and give me victory over the Uí Néill in battle, and above all make me win the first battle against them to give me courage for those to follow.' This was granted, and the king won a great victory over the Uí Néill in the battle of Lochar (70).
Brigid's fame spread throughout Ireland because of the miracles she performed especially those of curing the sick.
Brigid travelled to the territory of Fir Ros and she asked the king of the area to set a certain prisoner free. The king refused her request but he handed over the custody of the prisoner to her for one night. Brigid appeared to him and she instructed him to recite the hymn 'Nunc populus' when the chain which bound him was loosed. He was then to turn right-hand wise and flee as fast as he could. The prisoner followed these instructions and escaped from prison.
One day when Brigid was travelling in Maigh Laighean (the Plain of Leinster) she met a student and he was running. 'Where are you rushing to?' Brigid asked him. 'I'm going to heaven,' he answered. Brigid recited the 'Our Father' with him. He was Ninnid Lamh-Idan who at a later stage was to give Holy Communion to Brigid.
Brigid went to Bishop Íobhar to mark out her city for her. They arrived at the place where Cill Dara now stands. It happened, just then, that Ailill Mac Dunlainge was going through Cill Dara with a hundred horse-loads of wooden posts. Two of Brigid's women came and asked Ailill to give them some of the posts. Ailill refused. With that, the horses were glued to the ground and were unable to move. Ailill was forced to give Brigid all the posts and it was with these that she built her monastery in Cill Dara. As a reward, she said that Ailill's heirs would have the sovereignty of Leinster for ever.
On one occasion, Brigid gave a cow to each of two lepers. One of them was a proud man and he began to insult her. As they were crossing the Bearbha the river rose up against them. The humble leper and his cow managed to cross in safety while the proud leper was drowned.
The Queen of Leinster came to Brigid and gave her a silver chain as an offering. Brigid gave the chain to her nuns and they hid it away without telling her, as she was always giving things away to the poor. A leper came along and Brigid gave him the silver chain. The nuns were furious when they heard that the chain was gone. 'Your mercy to everybody is of little use to us,' they complained, 'while we ourselves are in need of food and clothes.' 'You are a bad lot,' said Brigid, 'go to the church, to the place where I pray, and you will find your chain.' They did so and there was the chain even though it had been given to the leper.
On another occasion, seven bishops came to Brigid, and she had no food for them. She had the cows milked for the third time that day and they had plenty of milk (80).
Another time, she had a large number of workers gathered together cutting the com. It began to rain in Maigh Life but because of Brigid's prayers not a drop fell on her own farm.
Brendan, in the western area of the country, heard of Brigid's miracles and he came to talk to her. Brigid came in from herding her sheep to welcome him. She took off her cloak and hung it on a sunbeam coming in the window. It hung there as if suspended from a crook. Brendan instructed his servant to hang up his own cloak in the same way but it fell down twice. Brendan's anger rose and he hung up the cloak on the sunbeam for the third time and this time he was successful. After this, each of them confessed the state of their souls to each other. 'It is not usual for me,' said Brendan, to travel over seven ridges without my mind being directed to God.' 'From the time I first directed my mind on God,' said Brigid, 'I have never taken it away from him'.
After Brigid had founded many monasteries and having performed miracles more numerous than the sands on the seashore or the stars in the sky, Brigid came to the end of her holy life. She was ascetic, she was generous, she was patient. She was joyful in the service of God. She was steadfast, she was humble, she was forgiving, she was loving. She was a consecrated vessel to contain the Body of Christ, she was a temple of God, her heart and mind formed an enduring throne for the Holy Spirit. She is like a dove among birds, like the vine among trees, like the sun among the stars of heaven.
Ninnid Lámh-Idan arrived from Rome and he gave her the Holy Viaticum. Then her spirit ascended to heaven. Her relics are preserved on earth with great honour and reverence.
It cannot be said that the Life of Brigid, as it is contained in the Leabhar Breac, corresponds to our understanding of a modern biography, with its wealth of historically correct details. Many of the Lives of Brigid emphasise the amount of miracles she performed during her lifetime and it appears that the various writers had in mind the promotion of devotion to Brigid among the faithful as their primary object.
From the searching analysis of the Life of Brigid by Cogitosus made by Dr Seán Connolly, it is clear that Brigid's faith/belief was of high significance. Jesus declared: 'All things are possible to him who believes' (Mark 9:23). Cogitosus lists a large number of miracles and these wonders are an expression of the power of God. But it is through Brigid's outstanding faith that God's power becomes effective in this world and revealed to the people.
Many of Brigid's miracles dealt with the multiplication of food and drink for the benefit of the poor and for ecclesiastics. Domestic affairs and hospitality are prominent and it is easy to imagine her as a female Christian Hospitaller (Brughaidh).
In the Poems of Bláthmac a special importance is given to hospitality and to the mercy of Christ, and these same virtues are discerneable also in the Lives of Brigid. It is said in the Life in the Book of Lismore, that Brigid chose the phrase: 'Blessed are the merciful for mercy shall be shown unto them' (Mt 5:7) from the Eight Beatitudes as a motto for herself (Macdonald, 1992:27).
It appears that these particular virtues were emphasised in early Christianity in Ireland. It is clear that the mind of Christ and the mind of Brigid were closely united and that episodes in her life reflected the gospels.
On the otherhand, Brigid's life was bound up with contemporary Celtic life in Ireland, and so differed greatly from the lifestyle portrayed in the New Testament. Brigid was trying to follow Christ and to put the precepts of the gospel into practice while operating within the native Irish tradition. While the cult of Brigid extended throughout the country as a whole, the various Lives of St Brigid, and place-names such as Cill Bhríde, indicate that it was concentrated around the centre of the country and especially in the area of Uíbh Fhaillí. Even today, it is in the Barony of Uíbh Fhaillí that Cill Dara (Kildare) is situated (McCone, 1982: 83).
Brigid belonged to the tribe of the Fothairt of Uíbh Fhaillí (Smyth, 1982, 19). Perhaps this influenced the tradition which holds that she was connected to Fothairt Mhuirtheimhne (Faughart) near Dun Dealgan (Dundalk) in Co Louth.
Broicseach, Brigid's mother, was the daughter of Dallbhronach of the Dal Chonchuir, in south Breagha, according to the Leabhar Breac. Brigid's genealogy, from her father Dubhthach's side, is given there also:
'Brigid, daughter of Dubhthach son of Deimhne, son of Breasal, son of Den, son of Conla, son of Artrach, son of Art Corb, son of Cairbre Nia, son of Cormac, son of Aongus, son of Eochaidh Fionn Fuathnairt, son of Feidhlimidh Reachtaire', and so forth.
Brigid's Genealogy was used in Cúil Aodha in West Cork by people emigrating. It was believed that there was no danger of drowning if they had this rann or poetic text. Consequently, they learned it by heart from the old people (IFC 900;85-86). However, a certain unevenness may be discerned between Brigid as presented in the Lives and Brigid as the object of the people's rituals.
As has been said already, from the literary point of view, Brigid is especially associated with Leinster, although she is seen to travel beyond that area on occasion.
On the other hand, the folklore accounts will show that her cult belongs to the whole country. This gives rise to the question as to why the cult of Brigid is countrywide while the cult of other Irish saints is confined to their own areas.
From the historical point of view, Kildare was particularly important:
Although Kildare lay on the fringes of Uíbh Fhaillí territory in the north-western region, its association with the Curragh and its domination by the Uí Dunlainge kings of Leinster from the seventh to the twelfth centuries, made it one of the most important centres in northern Leinster. After the Anglo-Norman invasion, it was here, almost certainly, that Strongbow established his headquarters. Kildare began life in the prehistoric Celtic past as a cult centre of the goddess Brigit, beside a sacred oak, which in the sixth century was taken over by a Christian virgin and her community of nuns - hence Cill Dara. The ritual fires which were kept continuously burning here in the thirteenth century testify to the origin of Kildare as a pagan sanctuary (Smyth, 1982,41).
Within this context, the importance of Kildare is readily understood, as politics and religion were contained in one centre.
Professor McCone discusses this question and, on the one hand, lays bare the historical weaknesses of the Lives of Brigid the saint while, on the other hand, pointing to the considerable evidence for a Celtic Goddess of the same name. As a result of this confusion, a trace of paganism can be discerned in the cult of the saint:
Fiú má bhí bunús staire le corrshonra faoi shaol Bhríde sna beathai Uíbh Fhaillí éagsúla seo, níl muide in ann Uíbh Fhaillí é seo a dhéanamh amach go cinnte anois, agus caithfear admháil mar sin nach bhfuil aon eolas iontaofa faoi Bhrid mar bhean stairiuil Ie baint amach astu. Ar an láimh eile, tá neart fianaise le fáil faoi bhandia pagánta na gCeilteach i gcoitinne, agus na nGael go háirithe, darbh ainm Bríd, agus níl aon amhras ná gur fhág an cultus pagánta seo lorg ar an gceann Críostaí (1982, 82).
('Even if there were a historical foundation for some detail concerning the life of Brigid, we are unable now to distinguish it with certainty, and we are forced to admit that it is impossible to draw any reliable information on Brigid as a historical personage from the Lives. On the other hand, there is a wealth of evidence regarding a pagan goddess of the Celts in general, and of the Irish in particular, whose name was Brigid, and there is no doubt but that this pagan cult left its mark on the Christian cult.)
At a later stage, we will see the account given by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) of the perpetual fire kept by Brigid's nuns in Kildare, and this carries certain pre-Christian overtones. In a similar vein, a statement in Sanas Chormaic concerning Brigid, daughter of An Daghdha, describes her as Lady of Ironwork, Lady of Medicine and Lady of Poetry.
Imbolc is her feastday. Apart from the literature, however, little remains in the actual site in Kildare to indicate that a pre-Christian sanctuary ever existed there, although a Holy Well and the site of the Perpetual Fire are still in evidence.
It will be seen, nevertheless, that if Cill Dara itself is included along with Cnoc Almhaine (Hill of Allen), Nás na Rí (Naas) and Dún Ailinne (Dunawlin) that a square is formed on the landscape with these sites forming the corners, and perhaps Aonach Carmain - the great Fair of Carman - was celebrated within this square in Cuirreach Life.
This means that Brigid of Kildare lived within an area that was steeped in history, prehistory, politics and mythology and that a lively way of life was going on around her during her lifetime.
BRIGID AND SPRINGTIME
St Brigid's Feastday - Lá Fhéile Bríde - occurs on the first day of February, the beginning of spring and the period of the rebirth of nature after the long death of winter. The turning of the sun at the winter solstice occurred six weeks ago, and the lengthening day speaks of new life and fresh beginnings, as the poet Raifteirí expressed it:
Anois teacht an Earraigh, beidh an lá dul chun síneadh,
is tar éis na Féile Bríde ardóidh mé mo sheol.
(Now that the spring has come, the days will grow longer,
and after St Brigid's feastday I will hoist my sail.)
The sun's new power is energising the vegetation. A dark green colour spreads over the grey grass. Buds appear on the trees and bushes as heralds of new life. The herbs of spring arise from the earth. The song of birds proclaims that the winter is past and a new era beginning.
The farmer is aware that the earth is calling him to a new period of care. This is the lambing season and the time of preparation for the sowing of corn. The evils of the winter season must be banished to allow the fertile energy of spring to enter.
The month of February marks a dynamic change of season, and in ancient pre-Christian Ireland, the Feast of Imbolc/Oimelc on the first of February stood out as the signal for the beginning of spring.
The exact meaning of Imbolc or Oimelc presents considerable difficulty, and Pamela Berger suggests gently that cleansing of the fields after the winter and preparing them for sowing the grain in the spring may be a fundamental idea underlying the term. She refers to the theory which separates the term Imbolc/Imbolg into two words: im and bolg, im meaning 'around and bolg 'belly' - the belly of that goddess - that is the land, the farm. This would refer then, to a traditional ritual procession around the farm, at the beginning of spring, to create a cleansing boundary, so that this particular area of land would be safe from any evil forces threatening the growth of the new corn. Perhaps there is a remnant of this to be found in the Brídeog procession of today on St Brigid's Feast (1988,71).
The idea can certainly be compared to that of the Litaniae Minores, or Rogation Processions, in which, in Catholic countries, the priest and people processed around the boundaries of the parish on the three days before the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord into Heaven, praying and sprinkling Holy Water as a means of safeguarding the growing crops from disease.
While this etymology may be uncertain, nevertheless, examples occur of processions through the fields in which an image of the goddess is carried so that her blessing may fall on them.
While the Feast of St Brigid is on the first of February, the next day - the second of February - is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. However, from the ninth century onwards, north of the Alps, there is a tendency in the church's books of ritual to call the Feast Purificatio Beatae Mariae Virginis and this custom prevailed until the Second Vatican Council (Stevenson 1988:346). By this time the church had moved out from the cities to the country areas and was, no doubt, coming under the influence of the farming population with its preoccupation with cleansing and protecting the farms at this time of the year. In the light of this phenomenon, one can expect a certain similarity between the Feast of Brigid and that of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also called Candlemas.
Mary's Feast of the Purification, moreover, may have a pre-Christian model in the custom of Greek women running through the fields in February with lighted torches to simulate the goddess Demeter's search for her daughter Persephone who was taken to the underworld by Pluto, and in consequence the fields were barren. This torchbearing ritual may well have influenced the Candlemas of the western church (Berger 1988:115).
Professor Berger gives a useful summary account of the month of February in so far as it is connected with purification and fertility:
Throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times February was considered a month of purification. It was the time of the ceremonial purification of the fields before the seed could be placed in the ground. And it was also the time of purification of women who had given birth during the preceding year. Until the last century, women would come to the church on February 2 for a postchildbirth blessing and would take home with them their blessed candles. Since the pagan torch or candle procession had been assimilated into Christian ritual, an originally pagan seasonal practice was to endure, transformed, until the twentieth century (1988:115).
With the arrival of St Brigid's Day, a remarkable change is perceptable in nature:
'Tá sé ráite go dtosnaíonn an fhuiseog ar sheinim Lá 'le Bríde agus an londubh leis, agus deirtear go dtosnaíonn éanlaith an aeir go léir ar chúpláil ó Lá 'le Bríde amach' (IFC 900; 39; Ciarán Ó Síothcháin, Cléire, Co Chorcaí)
(It is said that the lark begins to sing on St Brigid's Day and the blackbird also, and that all the birds of the air begin to mate from St Brigid's Day onwards.)
The growth of vegetation in springtime is described very effectively in the folklore of Cúil Aodha. It begins with the week beginning on St Brigid's Day and progresses into April, but it is remarkable that three goddesses are held responsible for this development of the crops during the spring period. One is naturally reminded of the triple goddess of the Celts or the Matres (Mothers) depicted on plaques of the Gallo-Romans on the Continent or in Britain. The three are pictured clearly, for instance, on a plaque found in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. The three goddesses are shown sitting down with baskets on their laps holding loaves of bread and fruits of the earth (Bord, J. and C. 1982: 24).
Perhaps an echo of this ancient tradition is found in folklore:
'Deireadh na seandaoine go mbíodh nithe ag cuimhneamh ar bheith ag fás Lá 'le Bríde, go mbíodh cailleach a' cur aníos agus beirt chailleach ag a gcur síos, agus nuair a thagadh Lá 'le Pádraig bhíodh beirt chailleach ag cur aníos agus cailleach ag cur síos. Ach nuair a thagadh an chead lá d'Abran bhíodh an triúr cailleach d' aobhuíon chun bheith ag cur neithe aníos. Deir na feirmeoirithe gur mithid cuimhneamh ar obair an earraigh nuair a thagann Lá 'le Bríde agus 'sé ceol na n-éun a chuireann so i n-iúl dóibh' (IFC 900;89-90; Amhlaoibh Ó Loingsigh, Cúil Aodha, Contae Chorcaí, Narrator, Cáit uí Liatháin, Cúil Aodha, Scribe)
(The old people used to say that things would be thinking of growing on St Brigid's Day; that one 'Veiled One' /hag would be pushing the vegetation upwards while two hags would be keeping it down. Then, when St Patrick's Day would come round, two hags would be pushing it upwards. But when the first of April arrived, the three hags would join forces to push the vegetation upwards. The farmers say that it is time to think of the spring work when St Brigid's Day arrives and it is the music of the birds that reminds them of this. )
The fishing season on the River Barrow in Wexford begins on St Brigid's Day and it continues to October (IFC 907:179). This conforms to the general pattern throughout the country except for the Garbhóg River in Co Sligo:
'Salmon fishing opens in all Ireland that day with the exception of the Garvogue in Sligo, for it is said that St Brigid blessed it when passing and fishing opens in it on the first of January.' (IFC 902;242; Mícheál Ó Gallchobhair, Cill Fhearga, Druim Átha Thiar, Contae Liatroma, Scribe.)
From the literary point of view, Brigid's connection with fishing is not as pronounced as her connection with cows. However, it is not entirely absent, as is evident from the story of St Brendan the Navigator and St Brigid:
One day, Brendan was standing on a high cliff looking out to sea. Suddenly, two whales leaped out of the ocean and began to fight. The fight went on and on and it was evident that the smaller whale was getting progressively weaker. It was only a matter of time before he would be killed. However, at the last moment, the smaller whale shouted out with a human voice calling on Brigid to save him. With that, the larger whale seemed suddenly to lose all interest in the fight. He turned around and went off, leaving the smaller whale unharmed.
When Brendan saw what had happened he became very upset. He said, 'Why did the whale call on Brigid to save him and not on me?' He said to himself that the fish all knew him from seeing him constantly sailing the ocean and they would have known that he was a holy man and any request of his would be immediately answered by God. And yet, the whale had ignored him, and instead, called on the land-lubber Brigid who knew nothing of the sea. He was very disturbed to discover that the fish preferred Brigid to himself.
Brendan decided to return to Ireland and consult Brigid herself to find an explanation for this strange phenomenon.
Brendan, however, was often distracted and his mind preoccupied with various worldly matters. The fish knew Brendan well from his many years living among them but they also recognised that his awareness of God was not up to Brigid's standard and this was the reason, that in his hour of need, the whale ignored Brendan and called on Brigid to save him. (Plummer, 1922, 85-86).
Among the fishermen of the coast of Galway, a custom prevailed called An tIasc Beo (The Living Fish). An account of it" comes from Cill Rónáin, Inis Mar, .Árainn:
Lá 'le Bríde bheireann cuid de na daoine isteach an t-iasc beo (an bairneach). Itheann siad cuid díobh agus caitheann siad cuid eile díobh i gcúinne sa teach. lascairí a dhéanas é seo le go mbeadh rath ar an iascach (IFC 902; 3; Sean Ó Maoldomhnaigh, scribe).
(On St Brigid's Day, some of the people bring in the living fish - the limpet. They eat some of them and the throw some of them into a comer of the house. It is fishermen who do this so that there may be luck on the fishing)
This custom is difficult to interpret. It seems that it was mostly small fish enclosed in a shell that were involved. Those thrown into a comer of the house were not killed though they would have died quickly from lack of water.
A similar account comes for Co Clare and this mentions four corners of the house:
'On St Brigid's Eve, people near the sea collect pennywinkles (periwinkles?) and put them in the four comers of the house' (IFC 901; 64; Pádraig Mag Fhloinn, Cill Fhionnabhrach, scribe ).
In this account it seems that, again, small fish enclosed in shells are involved.
Fundamentally, the custom was associated with the luck of the year, with fertility and with a plentiful supply of food. This is the conclusion to be reached from at least some of the accounts. This, however, is only part of the problem, for any kind of fish would have sufficed for this purpose.
We have seen, however, that it was shellfish which were put in the corner or four corners. There is a parallel usage in the sprinkling of a sacrificed cock's blood on St Martin's Feast (11th November) on the four comers of the house and, undoubtedly, this rite was connected with the luck of the year, protection and fertility, for this is really the celebration of the Celtic Feast of Samhain (1st November) which, through a dislocation in the calendar, became the 11th November (Cooper and Sullivan,1994, VI).
A similar dislocation of ten days is seen when St Brigid's Day, the first of February is compared to that of St Gobnat of Baile Bhoime, Co Cork, on the eleventh of February.
This however, does not explain the use of shellfish. But the explanation may lie in the shell itself.
According to the research undertaken by Marija Gimbutas on the goddesses of Old Europe, it is clear that the hedgehog and the snake were connected with the Great Queen, with the Goddess of Fertility. In this country, perhaps, the distinction between the hedgehog and the badger was not emphasised, as both of them appeared at the beginning of spring to coincide with the return of the goddess herself. However, the question of the snail and of the periwinkle remains.
The snake is a .constant companion of the goddess in archaic sculpture and, undoubtedly, the serpent's habit of casting off his old skin and emerging as a new being impressed ancient peoples hugely, transmitting the idea of the snake having the secret of perpetual renewal and immortality (Campbell, 1965:9).
Since the goddess personifies the death and resurrection of nature in the cycle of the year, her connection with the serpent was easy to recognise.
The snail and the iasc beo (periwinkle) are parallel in so far as a shell is involved in both cases. However, it is not the shell itself that is in question but rather the figure on the shell - that is to say the Spiral - a figure that is found so frequently in megalithic sites such as Newgrange and on pottery associated with the goddess.
The Spiral stands, apparently, for the thread of life emerging from the goddess and again returning within her for renewal. Like the snake, the Spiral is another form of presentation of the eternal cycle of life and so it is a valid symbol of the goddess herself as Mistress of Life (cf Streit 1984:51).
This is not to say that there is any strict proof that the custom of the iasc beo derived directly from this source. Rather, an effort is made to explain a ritual whose origin was probably unknown even to those who practised it. The explanation is contained within the mentality of 'Old Europe'.
Before potatoes were introduced, corn was the major crop and this in various ways has left its mark on the celebration of the Feast of Brigid.
Firstly, one of the chief materials used in the making of St Brigid's Cross is straw. Straw suits and hats are often used by those taking part in the Brídeog procession from house to house. A ritual which emphasised corn as the great source of food for the people was that of placing a sheaf of corn on the doorstep on St Brigid's Eve:
Seo nós a bhíodh ag na seandaoine fadó. Nuair a bhíodh Féile naomh Bríd ann do théadh fear an tí amach san oíche agus d' fhaigheadh sé punann choirce agus d' fhágadh sé ar leac an dorais í. 'Sé an fath a dhéantaí é sin na nuair a thagadh Naomh Bríd chuig an doras an oíche sin agus nuair a fheiceadh sí an phunann go gcuireadh sí rath ar an gcoirce sin an bhliain sin (IFC 902; 108; Seán Ó Conaire, Druid Snámh, Mám, Contae na Gaillimhe, Narrator; Cait Ni Chonaire, Scribe).
(Here is a custom which the old people had long ago. When the Feast of Brigid arrived, the man of the house used to go out on that night and get a sheaf of oats and set it down at the doorstep. The reason for doing this was, that when St Brigid arrived at the door that night, and when she saw the sheaf, she would put her blessing on this year's crop of oats.)
What is expressed here, is a belief fundamental to the cult of Brigid in Ireland - the belief that Brigid returns from the Otherworld on this night, that she visits the houses of those who venerate her, and that she bestows her blessing on various objects placed outside the door, notably Brat Bhríde - a piece of cloth called 'St Brigid's Cloak' used for cures and protection.
These objects, placed outside the door on St Brigid's Eve, acquire special powers because Brigid has touched them. For an understanding of the rites, it is necessary to accept the visit of Brigid to the various houses as the cornerstone of the cult.
In Castleisland, Co Kerry, the custom of the sheaf, sometimes accompanied by a cake, was in vogue, to keep out hunger during the year (IFC 899; 196). In an account from Co Donegal, emphasis is placed on the reason for the practice and also the pre-Christian element is indicated:
‘A sheaf of corn and an oaten cake used to be placed on the doorstep on St Brigid's Eve for the 'wee' folk (fairies) and also as a thanksgiving for the plenteous grain-crop and for good luck during the following year' (IFC 904; 178; William Gallagher, Socker, Narrator: Mrs Mary Starrit, Ednacarnon NS, Letterkenny, Scribe).
This account belongs to the district around Cill Mhic Réanáin and the sheaf ritual is associated with the Old Religion. In this offering, it is acknowledged that the ancient deities, the Tuatha Dé Danann (Peoples of the Goddess Dana) have control over the fertility of the earth. In another part of the country, Cnoc Fírinne in Co Limerick, the sanctuary of Donn Fírinne, the Irish God of
the Dead, similar offerings were made:
'On May Eve and Halloween girls lay gifts on the high fields, or at the foot of the Stricín ... this was done probably on St Martin's Eve' (Béal. 18: 155).
Other 'gifts' laid on the hill are mentioned by Thomas Ball:
'They bury eggs in hay, in crops of corn, and also parts of dead animals.' 'All these customs prevail in all the districts within view of the remarkable hill' (Béal. 18, 156).
This account shows also the importance of Imbolc within the Irish Ritual Calendar.
Proceeding northwards from Cill Mhic Réanáin to Ros Goill we find another description of the rite of the the sheaf and the cake:
'Roimhe seo chuirtí císte tri-choirneal agus punann coirce ar leac an dorais Oíche 'le Bríde. Deirtear go gcoisriceadh Naomh Bríd an phunann coirce agus an císte. Faoi
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