FOR the first time in 2023, Ireland will celebrate St Brigid’s Day with a national holiday.
Although the bank holiday will fall on the first Monday in February each year, St Brigid’s Day itself falls on the first day of February, today.
It’s the first Quarter Day in the old Celtic calendar, the others being Bealtaine or May Day, Lughnasa in August and Samhain in October.
It also marks the first celebration of a female saint; St Brigid is one of Ireland’s three patron saints, the others being St Patrick and St Colmcille.
Brigid was a very important figure in old Irish Celtic traditions, and so powerful was her influence, the Church decided it better to make her a saint rather than risk a public backlash.
Because of her origins in pre-Christian times, she is cloaked in a wealth of folklore and customs. Regarded at the patron saint of farm animals and crops, much of that folklore is attributed to food, and Brigid’s miracles were associated with abundance, including butter, milk and bacon.
Dairying work, calving, milking, and butter making fell to the women of the farm in times past, likely because of the legend of St Brigid. Her feast day, on February 1, marks the first day of spring, and is known as Imbolc or Oímelg in ancient Irish, a word that literally translates as ‘lactation’.
The association with milk and St Brigid also speaks to a time when milk, and particularly butter made from the cream of rich spring and summer milk, was held in high value.
Milk in all its many varied forms, including cream and butter, also buttermilk, whey, and curds of various thicknesses (a precursor to farmhouse cheese), was subject to various uses and regimens as dictated by ancient Brehon Law.
There was huge superstition around something known as ‘butter profits’ and people went to extreme lengths to protect it – hence the considerable body of folklore associated with milk, butter and butter making between the peak dairying period in Ireland bookended by St Brigid’s Day and May Day (Bealtaine).
Butter was a key source of revenue in rural houses, and its abundance and goodness would mean the difference between a good or a lean year economically. No wonder protections bound up in superstitions, charms, spells and incantations that surround it were so prolific during this period of the rural farming year.
But it’s not all about the past.
Dairying is still an important and valuable industry in Ireland with milk and milk products (particularly butter, cheese, dried milk powder for infant formula, and whey-based ingredients such as protein powders) exported around the world.
In 2021, the value of EU dairy exports from Ireland topped a staggering €6.8 billion, accounting for approximately 40% of the total value of Irish food and drink exports in the same year.
Food historian Patricia Lysaght wrote that in old Ireland much depended on butter, but it’s a sentiment that still holds true today.
But what to eat and feast upon on St Brigid’s Day?
The National Museum of Ireland says a traditional St Brigid’s feast would consist of: “[…] potatoes and freshly churned butter. Often, Colcannon was made by adding chopped cabbage. Apple cakes or barm brack followed with tea.
“The family would eat this meal together and make their St Brigid’s crosses.”
Darina Allen, in her book, Festival Food of Ireland, says that Boxty Pancakes followed by Steak and Oyster Pie (no doubt served with buttered potatoes and apple cake for dessert) were the foods she regarded as celebratory for the day.
Culinary Historian Regina Sexton reminds us of the very Cork tradition of Buttered Eggs for which, she says: “Just three ingredients are required for their successful preparation; freshly laid hot eggs, fresh unsalted butter and a speedy dextrous pair of hands.”
Buttered Eggs used to be sold at the English Market, but sadly, upon enquiry, this has gone much the way of other traditional Cork foods, and they are no longer available.
Looking to what other foods are in season in February, shocking pink spears of forced rhubarb gently poached in syrup are the perfect match with a creamy and comforting Rice Pudding. A bowl of Creamed Spinach with Nutmeg would go well with that Steak and Oyster Pie and Buttered Potatoes. Or get your Vitamin D hit with a delicious bowl of Chestnut Mushroom, White Port, Thyme and Cashel Blue Cheese Soup.
But if that all seems like too much bother, there’s nothing quite as perfect as a doorstep slice of hot toast lashed thickly with rich, yellow butter, accompanied by a steaming mug of Barry’s Tea. Delicious.
Happy St Brigid’s Day!