Emerald Isle

Saint Brigid

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle

One of the greatest Saints of Ireland!

One of the three patron Saints of Ireland, along with Patrick and Colmcille, St Brigid of Kildare was a devout Catholic in the very first days of the faith in Ireland. Her feast day is the first of February, which previously had been the pagan festival of Imbolc, halfway between winter and spring.

Brigid herself was the daughter of a baptised Christian slave woman called Brocca who had been pirated from abroad, an ancient pagan practise, and the child Brigid was got on her by her owner Dubhthach, one of the chieftains of Leinster.

Much is made of the similarity between Brigid's name and that of the earlier Gaelic goddess Brigid, but it's as normal to name children after spiritual patrons today as it was back then.

Dubhthach's own wife was fiercely jealous of Brocca and forced him to sell her to the druids when she got pregnant, and so Brigid was born into slavery. She was nothing but a source of trouble for the druids however, and she would vomit whenever they tried to feed her. Legend has it that a white cow with red ears would appear to sustain her with its milk. Having enough of her by age ten, the druids sold her back to her father, where she was no less difficult, being in the habit of giving away his belongings to the poor whenever she could!

So Dubhthach in anger thought he'd make good of his losses and went to see the King to sell her on, as she was beautiful. While he was arranging the deal, Brigid took the king's jewelled sword and sold it at the market, distributing the money among the beggars! Her father was enraged but the King was struck by her holiness and persuaded her father to grant her freedom.

Soon after that, Brigid decided she'd take the oath of chastity and join a holy order, but her brothers were angered since they'd get no share of the price they were to be paid when she married. One called Bacene laughed and said to her, “The beautiful eye which is in your head will be betrothed to a man though you like it or not.”

Well, Brigid stuck her finger in her eye and said, “Here is that beautiful eye for you. I don't think anyone will ask you for a blind girl.”

And yet when she took her vows, the eye returned as if it had never been lost!

At that time there was a pagan oak tree where priestesses would tend a fire for their goddess, Brigid, so St Brigid decided to take it over, inviting seven women to join her, making the first women's Abbey in Ireland, calling the place “the Church of Oak,” or Cill Dara in Irish, which we know today as Kildare. As she had been consecrated to God, so did she consecrate the pagan fires to the Church.

When she had found the ideal spot for her Abbey, she went to the King of Leinster and asked him for that land, which had rich forests and a gurgling stream nearby. He only laughed of course, wanting no Catholics on his pagan soil, but she smiled at the king and asked him if he'd give her as much land as her cloak would cover.

Greatly amused, the king agreed, and she told four of her sisters to take up the cloak. Rather than laying it flat on the turf, each of them ran towards a point of the compass and behind them the cloak grew without end! Soon it was vast, and the king was terrified, wondering what he was dealing with, so he begged Brigid to call them back and he'd give her a good parcel of land.

She accepted, but whenever he was less than generous with the poor and unfortunate, she would remind him of the cloak, and soon he became a Catholic.

She also founded an Abbey for men, and for centuries Kildare was jointly ruled by  abbot-bishops and abbesses, with the Abbess of Kildare being regarded as superior general of the monasteries in Ireland.

St Brigid is said to have founded a centre of craft and high art, which worked metal and illuminated manuscripts. A visitor centuries later is said to have been overcome by the skill he saw on display, saying you'd think it was the work of angels, not human beings.

There are many miracles associated with St Brigid – she could turn water into beer, and her prayers were meant to be able to quiet the wind and rain! She healed the injured and the mute, and her charity knew no end.

One of the chiefs in the area gave a silver brooch to a young girl for safekeeping, then quietly crept into her home and threw it into the ocean. Then he accused her of thievery, knowing she'd be his slave, but she fled to St Brigid's community for refuge. One of St Brigid's fishermen pulled in a fish that very day, which when cut open spilled out the lost brooch, and the chieftain confessed his dishonesty.

The symbol by which she is most widely known is St Brigid's cross, made of woven reeds. When a pagan king lay dying, St Brigid came to tend and comfort him, and as she spoke she picked up reeds and rushes from the floor, weaving them into a cross, which she laid upon him. Asking her what it was, she began to explain to him all about Christ and the faith, and he converted before he died.

Brigit bé bithmaith - Brigit ever good woman
breó orda óiblech - A sparkling golden flame
donfe don bithlaith - may she lead us to the eternal realm
in grian tind toidlech - the shining bright sun

Ronsoera Brigit - Save us Brigit
sech drungu demna - from hordes of demons
roroena reunn - may she win for us
cathu gach thedma - battles of every hardship

Although Saint Brigid's day falls on the first of February, in ancient Ireland as in many places the new day began when the sun went down, and so it was celebrated on the 31st of January by the modern calendar.

However it was reckoned, up until very recent times a procession was held by young people around Ireland, who would carry a female figure made of straw, the Brideóg', covered in purest white cloth and dressed in the clothes of some girl of the village, from house to house. Fiddlers and pipers went before them, and a crowd followed. They collected money which would be spent the next day on food and drink for a country feast. Those who carried the effigy would have been the prettiest young girls in the village, called the brideóga.

Saint Brigid's day was known as the time to petition the Saint for good harvests in the coming year – farmers would turn over a few sods in their fields and coastal communities would harvest seaweed for fertiliser on the nearest spring tide to the day.

The Saint was believed to travel around the countryside bestowing her blessings on this night, so housewives would make sure that the house was tidy in what we today call spring cleaning, and various bits of food and drink were left outside for the Saint to enjoy on her travels. And if a poor neighbour or someone in need were to take them instead, all the better!

Bundles of straw were also left to be blessed, and butter, pieces of meat, salt and water would be taken in after the dawn and used for medicinal purposes. A ribbon left outside, then taken in, was called the brat Bríde, and it was said to cure headaches along with many other ailments, and offer protection on long journeys, especially having been left out for seven consecutive years. Handkerchiefs as well as ribbons were used for this purpose.

This was also a day to find out who your future husband or wife might be! Little ladders and spinning wheels were made from rushes and reeds, and placed under the pillows of men and women. When they slept that night, they would dream of their future love.

Hearing the sound of a lark singing on this day was a sure sign of good fortune to come, and the frost could be gathered, or water from a well dedicated to Saint Brigid, and sprinkled on fields, livestock and members of the family to protect them from ill fortune.

But of course the most famous tradition of Saint Brigid's day was the making of the cros Bríde, Saint Brigid's cross from straw or rushes. They would offer protection against disease, disaster, fire and lightning, and prevent evil from entering the house if they were hung by the door. The bits of straw left over form making the cross were scattered before the fireplace with a white cloth over them, to make a bed for the Saint. In other places the straw was tied into bundles and wrapped around an injury or a sick person, then cast into the fire the next day.

Kildare can be found on the map below!

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