Brigid was no 'ordinary woman, but a goddess and a saint'

Dr Jenny Butler, Lecturer in the Study of Religion, School of Society, Politics and Ethics, College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences, University College Cork, looks at stories and symbols associated with goddess Bríd and St Brigid
Brigid was no 'ordinary woman, but a goddess and a saint'

Dr Jenny Butler, Lecturer in the Study of Religion, School of Society, Politics and Ethics, College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences, University College Cork,

On February 6, 2023, we will celebrate our first official St Brigid’s Day in the form of a bank holiday on the first Monday that follows the saint’s feast day today, February 1.

It is the first public holiday in Ireland that has been named for a woman. Brigid is no ordinary woman, but a goddess and a saint.

Some hold that there was a historical saint that took on attributes of the goddess Bríd while others maintain that the legends and places connected to the saint were retrospectively used in attempts to replace and erase the pagan goddess.

Stories and symbols of Brigid proliferate and if you’ve grown up in Ireland, or visited Ireland as a tourist, you’ve likely encountered something of her.

Schoolchildren around the country will be making St Brigid’s crosses. Although there are regional variations, the most popular version is one with a square in the centre and four radials. Woven together from reeds or rushes in a crisscross pattern, each end is tied with string. The cross was once incorporated into the logo of RTÉ and can now be found as a souvenir of Ireland alongside harps and shamrocks. In this way, Brigid and her symbols have remained present and accessible.

The enduring popularity of the St Brigid’s cross and of the saint herself is testament to her centrality in Irish culture.

People and place are always intimately and intricately connected, and we can see this with Brigid in the natural environment with the numerous holy wells named for her.

In County Cork, there are ‘St Brigid’s Wells’ in Buttevant and in Castlemagner. At St Brigid’s Holy Well in Ballysteen in Liscannor in Co. Clare, people tie small rags or strips of ribbon to the tree alongside the holy well by way of an offering in the hopes of getting the saint’s blessing. Holy well-water is understood to be more potent on saints’ feast days and is important in healing traditions, with some wells being associated with cures for specific ailments like eye problems or joint pain.

In stories, Brigid herself is presented as a healer and there are many healing-related traditions related to this aspect of her. While some customs have died out, others have endured, and some have been revived.

One continued tradition, though less prevalent than in centuries past, is to leave brat Bhríde (Brigit’s mantle), a small strip of cloth, outdoors from sunset to sunrise on January 31, perhaps on a tree or windowsill. Legend has it that St Brigid traverses the land on the eve of her feast day and would touch and bless all such pieces of cloth as she passes. The brat Bhríde would traditionally be kept until the next St Brigid’s Day and used as a cure for headache. The cloth would also be used to cure animals or as a charm to solve problems with animals, such as getting one to suckle from their mother by placing the cloth on the baby animal’s head.

Brigid has a special connection to babies, animal and human, and with the birthing process. The brat Bhríde has been used in charms to cure infertility and to safeguard women in labour.

There are ‘folk prayers’, different to the official ones said in church, that invoke Brigid’s protection in childbirth.

Legends of the saint connect her with nurturing, fertility, and abundance. It is likely these attributes extend back to the goddess as a creator and provider.

St Brigid’s shrine in Kildare attests to the lasting interconnection between goddess and saint that is embedded within Ireland’s landscape. This, it is said, is where the saint founded her monastery and is believed to be the same site where the St Brigid’s Cathedral in Kildare Town was built in 1223.

The anglicised placename Kildare is derived from Cill Dara meaning ‘church of the oak-tree’. The word ‘druid’ comes from two root-words in the Celtic languages, dru for ‘oak’ and wid for ‘knowledge’, with druids being described as ‘priests of the oak’.

Modern Irish still has the word draíocht for ‘magic’. Sacred enclosures, temples, and places of pagan magic were replaced by Christian churches and abbeys.

The legend of St Brigid erecting her monastery “under the shadow of an oak tree” subtly references the pagan world transitioning to a Christian one. The tradition of keeping a sacred fire burning at this shrine links ancient observances for the goddess to the early Christian period and to the present day.

Ireland has a strong mythological and literary tradition of the ‘sovereignty goddess’ presiding over a particular land and clans of people as their protector. Similarly, mother-goddesses or fertility-goddesses have long lineages of human descendants and sacred landscapes connected with them. It is appropriate therefore to call Brigid our patroness or ‘matron saint’ in her Christianised form.

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