Today, Monday 1st February, sees the Feast of Saint Brigid (Lá Fhéile Bríde) in Ireland. The day is also known as Imbolc (pronounced Im-olg) which celebrates the arrival of Spring. Ewes are pregnant by now, snowdrops are on the ground and we can feel the season changing. The days grow longer. The time inching towards the official meteorological commencement of Spring on 1st March.
When the clump of snowdrops appears beneath the bare rose bushes in our garden, it is a sign that Spring is making itself known again. The twigs and branches on the ground are the result of Storm Gertrude, which has been raging all week. When Gertrude calms down and it stops raining for a few hours, I will gather these branches to use for kindling.
Soon we will be seeing lots of lambs gamboling in the fields around the house.
Saint Brigid The Christian and Brigid The Irish Goddess
Brigid has two aspects in Ireland, one the Christian Saint and the other the pre-Christian goddess of the Tuatha De Danann. The two are pretty much indistinguishable in how she is celebrated in day to day life. Brigid, Brighid and Bridget are some of the ways to spell her name.
The Christian Saint Brigid, ‘Mary of the Gael’, was born in the mid-fifth century and is one of three patron saints of Ireland, along with Saint Columcille and Saint Patrick. St Patrick’s Cathedral in Downpatrick is the burial place of the three saints.
Saint Brigid built the first Irish Convent beside a giant oak tree – this place became known as the Church of the Oak (Cill Dara) or Kildare as it is known today.
Brigid The Goddess
Brigid, the Irish Goddess, was a member of the Tuatha dé Danann and daughter of the Dagda (The Great Father). The Tuatha dé Danann were a race of god-like people who feature in Irish mythology as rulers of Ireland over four thousand years ago.
Until fairly recently ‘Brigid,’ or variations on the name: Bridie, Bríd, Brídín, Biddy and Breeda were popular names for girls in Ireland. Nowadays it is not such a fashionable name, but the tradition of celebrating Brigid holds strong. The surname McBride denotes that the clan were devotees of Brigid.
Several years ago I paid a visit to The community centre that is home to the Aughakillymaude Mummers Association (It is easier to say Aughakillymaude than it looks, it is simply Auck-la-mad). The centre is based in the townland of Aughakillymaude near Derrylin in County Fermanagh.
At the centre, there are lots of artefacts relating to the tradition of Brigid, including Brídeog, Brigid’s Belt and of course the Crosses. Jim Ledwith introduced me to these artefacts; I learned lots about traditions from the past which are no longer practised to any great extent.
This tradition is sometimes still practiced. It involves placing a piece of cloth on the evening of 31st January outside the home where it can absorb the morning dew. It is said that as Brigid passes during the night, she blesses the cloth, which then can be used throughout the year for healing.
A very long piece of plaited straw which was used to bless livestock and people. The tradition was that two people would pass the belt under a cows belly and over the top of its back for a blessing. It was held in a loop for people to step through for protection in the coming year and then hung up in the outhouse where animals were kept.
Brídeog (pronounced Brie-jogue)
This is a tradition whereby a doll is crafted from leftover rushes on 31st January and carried around the neighbourhood by a group of people on 1st February. Householders were expected to welcome the group and provide snacks and/or money. Below is a poem local to Fermanagh that was recited by those carrying the effigy of Brigid.
“Something for poor BiddyHer Clothes are tornHer shoes are wornSomething for poor BiddyHere is Brigit dressed in whiteGive her a penny for her tonightShe is deaf, she is dumbShe cannot talk without a tongueFor Gods sake, give her some”
The Aughakillymaude Centre is a great place to visit and see the great variety of artifacts on display. Further details on visiting are available from Fermanagh Lakeland’s Tourism and the group has an active Facebook Page with up to date information on current events.
The Brigid’s cross is an enduring iconic symbol in Ireland along with the harp and the shamrock. The State broadcaster RTÉ featured it on its logo from its inception until the year 2000.
The St. Brigid’s Cross is still made in Ireland today and placed in cottages and out-offices on her feast day, February 1st, the day on which the Saint Brigid died about 524 A.D. It is believed this emblem protects the home from evil, and want. It is placed over doorways to protect the home and those who enter it. The Cross is also said to give protection from fire. The placing of the cross in homes is still widely practised both in Ireland and by Irish people living abroad.
The St. Brigid’s Cross is commonly woven from the Rush plant (Juncaceae). It is commonly found in wet soil on river banks and in marshy fields.
The traditional crosses we sell are woven by a lady called Patricia who lives near the River Shannon in County Roscommon. Each Summer, when the reeds are tall and ripe for cutting, Patricia dons her waders and enters the Shannon to harvest the materials for her Saint Bridget’s Crosses. She then takes them home and gets to work fashioning traditional crosses in the age old way. The crosses start out green and later turn to brown as the reed dries.
In addition to the traditional rush, crosses made from other materials are also popular, especially with Irish people living abroad.
Belleek Saint Bridget’s Cross decorated with hand painted shamrocks
Island Turf Crafts St Brigids’s Cross made entirely from Irish peat.
The Brigid’s Cross is also popular in Irish jewellery design and we see the demand for pendants and earrings growing each year.
No matter where you live in the world, an Irish home is truly complete when there is a Saint Brigid’s Cross above the door.
Happy Imbolc from Gilmartin’s Craft Shop
You might also like to read: Oatmeal Porridge Bread Recipe for Imbolc
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