Why Brigid? The New Irish Holiday and Ancient Celtic Lore
Updated: Jan 27
Why would the Republic of Ireland create a new bank holiday (Americans: think federal holiday) in honor of a sixth century woman who may or may not have actually lived? The short answer is that they are rewarding Irish citizens for behaving well during the stress of living through COVID restrictions. Okay, but why did the Irish government choose to dedicate the new day off to St. Brigid? The answer to that is a bit more complex.
Today’s post examines that topic along with exploring who Brigid of Kildare was (according to legend), the similarities she shares with Brigid, the Celtic goddess of summer, and why both of those women share things in common with the Celtic fire festival of Imbolc. All three—the saint, the goddess, and the fire festival—are celebrated on February 1st. Of course, anyone who’s been following this post for a bit knows I’ll fit some folklore in along the way too.
Why the Holiday?
In response to the efforts made by first responders and the public at large during the COVID crisis, the Irish government announced it would be adding an additional bank holiday to the work year. Initially, the idea was for a one-time special day in memory of those who had died from the pandemic, but the idea of an extra holiday as a reward for all gained momentum. Finally, the government announced the establishment of a new permanent annual holiday that would begin in 2023. But what would the holiday celebrate? After all, who’d want to have an annual COVID holiday?
The topic, as with anything political, was debated in Parliament. Employers and trade unions were consulted, and members of the public sent in ideas. Members of the organization Herstory circulated a petition and lobbied politicians to dedicate this new holiday to Ireland’s other patron saint, Brigid. Of course, Americans and many other non-Irish people are familiar with Saint Patrick, but Brigid has been the co-patron of Ireland for ages. And Brigid’s Day has been celebrated in the minds and hearts of people through traditional customs and folk practices. But Herstory, the Women's Parliamentary Caucus, and other advocates worked to ensure that the new holiday officially elevated Brigid to an equal standing with Patrick.
Their campaign was successful. The Irish government announced that the tenth bank holiday on the calendar would be Brigid’s Day and would be celebrated each year on the Monday nearest to February 1st, the Catholic saint’s feast day.
Promoters of Brigid’s Day argue that, in addition to the equality achieved by having a female counterbalance to Patrick, the day is relevant because the saint is an excellent role model for modern women. She is intelligent, strong, resourceful, compassionate, and a leader. And that’s just the short list of her attributes! They hold up Brigid as a symbol of the contribution women have made and continue to make to Irish society. There are many more excellent reasons for dedicating this new Irish holiday to Brigid. I encourage you an editorial written for the Irish Times by Mary Condren, Th.D. in support of Brigid’s Day. Also, check out the Herstory article celebrating the success of their campaign.
A final—and strong—reason that Brigid’s Day resonates with the Irish people is that the day doesn’t exclusively celebrate a Catholic saint. Long before there was St. Brigid of Kildare, there was the goddess, Brigid. Whether or not you are religious, this figure from Celtic mythology can be a symbol not only of a strong woman but of inspiration, passion, and hope. Why? She is the goddess of fire, summer, healing, and childbirth, among other things. She also is associated with the fire festival of Imbolc, which marks the start of spring. The goddess represents new life and possibilities. That makes her potentially relevant not only to women but to people of any gender.
Brigid the Saint
According to her hagiography, Brigid was a contemporary of St. Patrick. She was born near Dundalk (about an hour north of Dublin) c. 451 AD. She died c. February 1, 525 in Kildare, Ireland. Her father was a Chieftain and a pagan. Her mother was his slave and a Christian. While she was pregnant with Brigid. He sold the woman to a Druid. So, Brigid was born into slavery.
Her mother raised her as a Christian and, from an early age, Brigid showed great charity and generosity. She loved giving things to others. Unfortunately, sometimes those things didn’t belong to her. Fed up with Brigid giving away his things, the Druid returned her to her father.
Brigid decided to dedicate her life to Jesus by becoming a nun, but her father wanted to marry her off. In response, Brigid disfigured her face to make herself undesirable to men. Furious, her father brought her before the King of Leinster, but Brigid won the king, who was a Christian, over to her side. He declared she didn’t have to marry. While she had his ear, she asked for land on which to build a monastery. The king at first turned the request down, but Brigid persevered. She said, ““Oh, please. Just give me as much land as my cloak covers.”
Deciding this was a small ask and probably thinking he could get some brownie points with God, the king agreed. Gathering a few female friends, she took off her cloak. The women stretched it out until it covered over 100 acres then laid it on the ground. Despite being duped, the king kept his word and gave her the land.
Brigid’s monastery was located in Cill Dara, which means “place of the oak.” The area is known now as Kildare. In typical Celtic fashion, it was a dual monastery, housing both women and men, and it became a center of learning and the arts. Until the rule of the Tudors, a perpetual fire was maintained in the monastery. It’s no coincidence that this monastery is said to have been built at a place that had been a shrine to the Celtic fire goddess, Brigid. Whether St. Brigid was a historical woman trying to pave over paganism with Christianity or whether the saint is possibly a Christianization of the Celtic goddess, I leave for you to decide.
Brigid the Goddess
The young and beautiful Brigid, goddess of summer, fire, inspiration, healing, and childbirth (among other things) was worshipped across Celtic lands. She was a powerful goddess who, each year, overcame the Cailleach, the goddess of winter. According to mythology, sometime between Imbolc (February 1st) and Beltane (May 1st) Brigid defeated the Cailleach and brought sunshine, warmth, and new life to the world.
On Imbolc, the festival marking the start of spring, Celts honored Brigid by visiting sacred wells. Brigid had a gift for healing and, according to lore, the water from these wells had healing powers. The water was used to cure the sick and to bless people and animals to insure their good health throughout the coming year. Pilgrims to the holy wells decorated them with flowers and greenery, and left offerings, usually of silver, in thanksgiving to the goddess.
In Ireland, there was a shrine to the goddess at Kildare. It is said to have been in an oak grove. There, virgins consecrated to her tended an eternal flame in her honor. Only the wood from hawthorn trees could be used to kindle the flame. In Celtic tradition, oaks and hawthorns are among the most sacred of trees.
Imbolc and Brigid’s Day Folk Customs
The ancient fire festival of Imbolc represents new beginnings, renewal, rebirth, and new growth. Thus, it is also associated with possibilities and hidden potential. Marking the start of spring and the lambing season, its themes include fertility, childhood, and innocence. Insight, inspiration, purification, and cleansing are associated with the holy day as well.
In keeping with the theme of purification, a folk tradition connected with Imbolc is to clean house thoroughly (do a spring cleaning). This is said to be done in the spirit of out with the old to make room for the new.
February 1st is an important day in Ireland from a folklore perspective as it is three celebrations in one day: Imbolc, the goddess’ feast day, and St. Brigid’s Day. Folk customs practiced on the day show a comingling of the three. Some of the activities practiced on the day include:
--placing a white cloth (Brigid’s cloak) on a tree branch overnight so Brigid can bless it as she passes by. The cloth then is used throughout the year to cover those who are ill.
--leaving a cake and a glass of milk out as a thanksgiving to Brigid.
--making Bannock bread (a Scottish import) and leaving a loaf outside for Brigid.
--making corn dollies, dressing them as brides, and parading them through the house to welcome Brigid. The doll is then put to bed in a basket with her groom (a white wand tipped with an acorn).
--visiting and dressing holy wells.
--making a Brigid’s Cross, a hand-woven cross made from a reed. It is then hung in the home to protect the family from harm.
--Imbolc is a fire festival so, in the past, bonfires would be lit.
I wish you a happy and blessed Brigid’s Day. And, for all my Scottish readers (and all lovers of Scottish culture), I wish you a belated happy Robert Burns’ Day.
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Slan go foil!
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