Ireland’s Second Saint

This time last year our guest blogger Dr Elva Johnston looked at St Brigid’s family history, her life in Ireland and her highly respected standing amongst the early Irish Church. This year the National Folklore Collection rummage in their archives and…..well read on to find out more!

In Irish folk tradition, the calendar is principally split into ‘Quarter Days’, so called as they divide the year into each of its four seasons of summer (May Day / Bealtaine), autumn (Lammas / Lúnasa), winter (Halloween / Samhain) and, of course, spring (St. Brigid’s Day / Imbolc), which falls on the 1st of February. St. Brigid’s day is named after the saint nicknamed Muire na nGael or ‘Mary of the Irish’, a name given to her on account of the adoration and high regard in which she has long been held by the people of this island. In order to more fully understand St. Brigid’s day and the folk customs associated with it however, we must explore the pre-Christian roots, not just of the celebration, but of the mythological figure of Brigid herself.

St. Brigid's Well, Liscannor

Photo of St. Brigid’s Well, Liscannor, Co. Clare in 1955.

Prior to the veneration of the Christian saint, the first of February was the date on which the festival of Imbolc was observed. This pagan festival of spring (which had fertility and propagation as its focus) would seem to be derived from the Old Irish i mbolc, meaning ‘in the womb’. Attached to the festival of Imbolc was the pre-Christian deity Brighid, patroness of poets and smiths, protector of livestock and goddess of healing, and a daughter of the Daghda (himself father god of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the mythic race said to inhabit Ireland before the arrival of humans).

Her name means ‘high’, ‘lofty’ or ‘exalted one’ and the 9th century glossary Sanas Cormaic relates that among the early Irish ‘a goddess used to be called Brighid’. Her influence can be seen not just in Ireland, but across lands inhabited by Celtic peoples, with rivers named after her in Ireland, Wales and England (the Brighid, the Braint and the Brent, respectively). Her cult would appear to have been brought to this island by the Brigantes, the tribe who spread across northern Europe and Britain before coming to Ireland and who held Brigantia among their principal goddesses.

The festival of Imbolc, dedicated as it is to the goddess Brighid and falling as it does on the 1st of February, would seem later to have become heavily associated with the woman who, said to be born in Co. Louth around 455 AD, Christianised her tribe, took the name of Brigid, and went on to establish what is likely Ireland’s oldest monastery at Kildare (a demonstration of the central role of women at the earliest phase of the Christian church in Ireland).

St. Brigid's Well, Tully East

St. Brigid’s Well, Tully East, Co. Kildare in 1963

St. Brigid’s place in contemporary Irish life is perhaps less pronounced than it once was, but her presence is still felt if you know where to look. Take the 40 townlands by the name of Kilbride for example, or the countless others taking some variation, such as Killbreedy (6 at last count) dotted across the country. And what of the holy wells, local schools, churches, and GAA clubs named in her honour? Did you attend Scoil Bhríde in Galway perhaps or play for St. Bridget’s in Dublin? If you were born on or near the 1st of February, did you become a Bríd, Bridget, or Belinda?

To this day, traces of early customs and traditional practices relating to the saint’s feast day are still visible in Irish communities. Our understanding of these – their growth, development, and obsolescence – is greatly aided by a special collection of questionnaires housed within the National Folklore Collection, that carefully details the rituals and beliefs associated with this once-popular festival.

You may have heard about the ubiquitous St. Brigid’s Cross, and perhaps her Mantle – two emblems once well known across the country – but have you heard of St. Brigid’s Belt? Also known as the Crios Bhríde?

This was a familiar practice in the west of Ireland whereby a rope of straw measuring 8-10 feet in length would be looped to form a circle and tied to form a large belt. This would usually have three straw crosses fixed to it, marking it out as Brigid’s Belt. On the festival’s eve, young boys from the local area would carry this emblem from house to house, urging men, women and children to pass through it in order to secure the saint’s blessing for the year ahead. It was reported that the loop could also be placed on a barn door in the morning for the household’s livestock to pass through too. Like Brigid’s Cross and Mantle it was believed to possess protective powers and was much revered.

Crios Bhríde

Crios Bhríde, National Museum of Ireland

Issued in 1942, this questionnaire on the topic of St. Brigid’s Day received over 200 responses from all four provinces, and these now comprise nine manuscript volumes in the National Folklore Collection (NFC899-907). Our questionnaire responses preserve some wonderfully vivid verses said to be the mainstay of this customary practice. One example from Co. Galway, spoken on entering the family home, reads as follows:

‘Seo í isteach mo chrios / Here comes my belt,
Crios Bhríde mo chrios / St. Brigid’s Belt is my belt,
Crios na dtrí gcros / The belt of three crosses,
Éirigh suas a bhean an tí / Rise up woman of the house,
Agus téirigh tríd an gcrios / And step through the cross.
Más fear atá sibh anocht / If you’re well tonight,
Go mba seacht fear a bheas sibh bliain ó anocht / May you be seven-times as well a year from tonight.’

Another lesser-known tradition is that which pertains to the once mischievous Biddy Boys. Detailing their exploits, our questionnaires and photographs paint a dramatic picture of once-active processions which would travel from house to house on St. Brigid’s Eve, composed of young men and/or women dressed in colourful costumes, sometimes masks, and carrying an effigy of the revered saint, the Brídeog.

On arrival they would exclaim:

‘Here comes Brigid dressed in white
Give her a penny in honour of the night.
Put your hand in your pocket,
Take the weight off your purse,
And this time next year,
May you be none the worse.’

In seeking alms for the saint the revelers would sing and dance for their earnings. To refuse them a parting gift was to risk untold ill fortune for the coming year, particularly given Brigid’s own famed charity. Such processions were common in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe at various times of the year, raising the question of their original roots and the distribution of tradition in our early history.

From crosses to belts, mantles to effigies, processions to pilgrimages, even the most cursory glance at the diversity and depth of St Brigid’s Day customs and practices reinforces an understanding that this was once a festival of real significance in Irish life, with tantalizing hints at earlier Christian and pagan practices. Our questionnaires and photographs offer researchers an untapped source of primary materials not yet fully utilized for their significance in understanding our early pre-Christian history, and the impact of broader European traditions on our subsequent Christianised nation and festivals.

To learn more why not view for a range of photographs and recollections pertaining to Ireland’s second saint, or visit the National Folklore Collection to view all primary sources.

Marking a new beginning in the agricultural year, and a new season of longer evenings and brighter days, St. Brigid’s Day speaks of nature’s re-birth, and our burgeoning hope for a prosperous new year. And that tradition never gets old.

  • This post was researched and written by Claire Doohan and Jonny Dillon, Assistant Archivist, National Folklore Collection.

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