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Fact Or Folklore, Goddess Or Saint: Who Was Brigid?

Ireland has a new national holiday, the first that honours a woman. But who was Brigid, what is Imbolc and what do they mean to the women of Ireland today?
A depiction of St Brigid

For many years, St Patrick’s Day has been recognised globally as a day to celebrate Ireland and all things Irish.

 

But on the first Monday of this February, and the first Monday of every February hereafter, the south of Ireland will have a new public holiday that some believe is a much more fitting national celebration: St Brigid’s Day/Imbolc.

 

Imbolc, traditionally held on February 1, is a pre-Christian celebration of the beginning of spring in the Celtic calendar.

 

It may have been aligned with the breeding of sheep and was seen as a day to honour the goddess Brigid, one of the most powerful Gods in the Tuatha Dé Danann (a supernatural race in Irish mythology).

 

Christian tradition has it that St Brigid, the matron saint of Ireland, died on this day.

 

So it is seen as a celebration of the feminine, a cherishing of the land and the return of light.

 

Melanie Lynch, CEO of Irish storytelling platform Herstory, sees Brigid as Ireland’s first environmentalist and first feminist. She says the holiday is for everyone.

 

“Whether you are Catholic or Christian or love the pagan tradition, or you’re not spiritual, it’s a celebration of woman and women. All mná.”

Fact or folklore?

 

The goddess and the saint share many attributes. Both are associated with poetry, healing, fertility and domestic animals.

 

But where does the mythology of Brigid the goddess end, and the story of Saint Brigid begin?

 

Did St Brigid ever really exist?

 

It’s a question that has divided scholars.

 

Some believe she is a Christianised version of the goddess and that stories about her life and miracles are too similar to pagan folklore to be true.

 

In fact, she was among 93 saints whose feast days were removed from the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar by Pope Paul VI in 1969, changed from days of obligatory veneration to voluntary veneration.

 

Those on the list, which included St Nicholas and St Christopher, had their obligatory feast day revoked because there was more mystery surrounding their origin than historical evidence.

“Mná, saol, saoirse (Women, life, freedom)” by Martina Leonard is a piece of art that depicts solidarity between Brigid, Irish women and women of Iran
“Mná, saol, saoirse (Women, life, freedom)” by Martina Leonard is a piece of art that depicts solidarity between Brigid, Irish women and women of Iran

 

Unlike St Patrick, for whom there are surviving documents written by the man himself, there’s no evidence to show that St Brigid did exist.

 

However, some scholars believe she was an historical figure who may have later been attributed features of the goddess.

 

Many biographies have been written about her.

 

They include hymns and accounts of her life written by monks in the seventh and eighth centuries.

 

According to these writings, St Brigid was born in 451 in Faughart, near Dundalk. Her mother was a slave and her father a chieftain of Leinster.

 

Much of her childhood was spent in slavery raising farm animals, but when she won her freedom, she established a double monastery in Kildare -for both men and women – that became one of the most important in Ireland.

 

“We know from the records that even as a child she was an activist,” Melanie Lynch said.

 

“She was incredibly compassionate and kind, but fierce and formidable too.

 

“Her father was very wealthy and so she would relieve him of some coins and redistribute them to the poor, like an Irish Robin Hood figure.

 

“She also gave away her father’s jewel-studded sword and because their pantry was over-flowing with food, especially butter, she’d give the butter away too.”

From ancient stories to a contemporary resurgence

 

The early biographies, or hagiographies, tell of Brigid’s miracles and acts of healing.

 

They include turning water into beer, healing muteness and, in the case of an unwanted pregnancy, blessing a woman “causing the child to disappear, without coming to birth, and without pain”.

 

These early writings by local monks also note Brigid’s close relationship to female companion and successor Darlughdach, who they said she shared a bed with, which some have interpreted as meaning she was gay.

 

The former story of abortion and the latter of close female ties have led to a resurgence in love for St Brigid in contemporary Ireland.

 

“These could be myths and tall tales,” Lynch said, “but it’s interesting that the monks recorded it.”

 

And whether or not Brigid was an historical figure, her impact on Ireland is undeniable.

 

Across the country, place names, schools and GAA clubs are dedicated to her and the new public holiday very much recognises her influence.

 

“It’s not the saint or the Goddess, it’s both/and,” says Lynch, whose platform led a three-year campaign for St Brigid’s Day to become a national holiday.

 

“It’s celebrating the saint because she is true Christianity and we don’t want to lose the magic of that. It’s Celtic Christianity and it’s beautiful.

 

“And then the goddess Brigid because we are talking about a time in Ireland (pre-Christian) when there was great reverence for the land, for nature.

 

“I think we need the wisdom of both.”

Herstory's Melanie Lynch and Laura Murphy join Siobhán McSweeney, Mary Kennedy and her sister Deirdre Ni Chinnéide in a stone circle at Brigit’s Garden in Galway for documentary Finding Brigid.
Herstory's Melanie Lynch and Laura Murphy join Siobhán McSweeney, Mary Kennedy and her sister Deirdre Ni Chinnéide in a stone circle at Brigit’s Garden in Galway for documentary Finding Brigid.

What does Brigid mean to you?

 

Herstory made an open call for artists to explore who Brigid was and how she is relevant today.

 

“The responses are absolutely stunning,” says Lynch. “So diverse, absolutely amazing.”

 

“We got art from Iran, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Germany – a lot international artists were inspired.

 

“Iranian artists have made some really brilliant submissions where Brigid is cutting off her hair in solidarity with the women of Iran.”

 

Closer to home, in a documentary to be broadcast on RTE on St Brigid’s Eve (Tuesday 31st January) actor Siobhán McSweeney sifts through the fact and folklore to find out who Brigid was and what she means in Ireland today.

 

She speaks to broadcaster Mary Kennedy, who said co-authoring a book about Brigid taught her a surprising amount about herself.

 

“I got more of a sense of me as a woman, as an Irish woman, as a woman with Celtic roots and a confidence.”

 

Brigid is said to have been Ireland’s first female bishop. The second, the current Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath and Kildare Pat Storey, told McSweeney that she sees her role as a continuation of Brigid’s “spreading of Christian faith”.

 

“You bring being a woman, you bring representing fifty percent of the population. My

experience of being a woman and, as it happens, as a wife and a mother, obviously

feeds into my Christian faith.”

 

And McSweeney’s connection to Brigid is personal. Like many across the island she shares the name – it’s her confirmation name – and she grew up participating in St Brigid’s Day traditions: weaving crosses in school and putting out the Brat Bríde (a ribbon or cloth that is placed outside on the eve of Brigid’s Day, which is believed to be blessed overnight and is then used throughout the year for fertility or curing illness).

 

In a recent interview with the Guardian, McSweeney said she believed the new Irish day of celebration to be a fitting lens “through which to look at contemporary Ireland”.

 

“[St Brigid] became a figurehead for Repeal the Eighth (the successful campaign to repeal the amendment which effectively banned abortion in the Republic of Ireland) and without sounding woo woo, I do think a feminine spirit has finally come back to Ireland,” she told the news site.

 

“We’ve thrown out the dour masculine authority of the church and patriarchal amendments to our constitution.

 

“A wave of feminine energy is wiping away all these manmade things to reveal the country I recognise: partly pagan, matriarchal, intelligent and powerful.”

 

Finding Brigid – Tuesday 31st January, 10.15pm on RTÉ One.

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