Brace yourself for St Brigid


She’s our female patron saint yet St Patrick gets all the parades, but with her name coming back into favour maybe it’s time for St Brigid to shine, writes FIONA McCANN

GATHER YE rushes where you may, as February 1st is nearly upon us, a date otherwise known as St Brigid’s Day. That’s right, Brigid, aka Bridget or Brid, one of the country’s patron saints, though the lack of parades and a national holiday might lead you to believe otherwise.

The low-key reception St Brigid gets these days is perhaps down to her gender, as some suggest, or maybe the complicated mythology surrounding her origins – her stories are often conflated with those of a pagan goddess of poetry and healing, whose feast day she also inherited and after whom she was allegedly named. She was once, by most accounts, one of the most powerful women in the country, a formidable founder of abbeys and convents, and a woman of an unusually high profile in the male-dominated hierarchy of the early Christian church.

The daughter of an Irish chieftain and a slave from his court, legend and lore link St Brigid to St Patrick, though her personal achievements include founding the famed convent of Cill Dara, which went on to become a renowned centre for learning. In many ways, she was a woman ahead of her time, standing up to the patriarchy and refusing at least one arranged marriage while instead devoting her life to founding convents all over Ireland, as well as a school of art, and in the process ensuring an education for young women uninspired by the child-bearing alternative.

In death she’s also responsible for all manner of causes, and has been claimed as the patron saint not only of Ireland, but of babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, cattle, chicken farmers,children born out of wedlock, dairy workers, fugitives, infants, Leinster, mariners, midwives, nuns, poets, the poor, poultry farmers, printing presses, sailors, scholars and travellers and watermen. A busy woman, then, and yet she still found time for making crosses, as anyone who went to school in Ireland in the 1980s will recall. Legend has it she made the first cross from rushes to give to a pagan on his deathbed, an act which helped convert him to Christianity. Others draw a line from pagan symbolism to the cross of rushes, and the legends that accompany it. A St Brigid’s Cross was believed to keep a home safe from the dangers of fire, with the cross traditionally destroyed every year only to be remade on February 1st when the feast day rolled round again.

Having attended St Brigid’s primary school in Celbridge, I too spent several February 1sts weaving misaligned crosses out of rushes, to the strains of our school anthem, the Hymn to St Brigid: “High above enthroned in glory/Sweetest saint of Erin’s Isle/See thy children kneel before thee/ Turn on us a Mother’s smile.”

This took place at a time when Bridgets were more commonly occurring around the country, though their numbers appear to have since fallen into decline. By the time the 1990s came along, Bridget was no longer the popular Irish name it had once been, with only 15 registered Bridgets in 1998, and 12 Brigids among the 26,121 female babies born. Yet Bridget’s fortunes may have turned, with 36 registered Bridgets in 2008, the name ranking at 168 in the country’s most popular girl’s names, up from 203rd just 10 years previously.

Does this mean Bridgets might be making a comeback? Can we credit the patron saint herself, or should the kudos be going towards the fictional Jones character famous for gigantic underwear and a blockbusting diary?

Since the time of our St Bridget in the fifth and sixth century, there have been several other famous namesakes. Such as St Bridget of Sweden, also known as Birgitta, who founded the Bridgettine order; the French actor and animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot, and the daughter of Peter Fonda and niece of Jane, actor Bridget Fonda.

Yet if the name itself – in some of its variations at least – is on the rise, then what of the traditions associated with the saint herself, most notably the cross of rushes?

According to a spokesperson from St Brigid’s school in Celbridge, pupils there still learn the hymn to their patron saint, and make St Brigid’s Crosses around this time of year. But if, like me, many February 1sts have passed since you first honed your cross-making skills in the Irish school system, the instructions below may spark your memory, and to be sure you’re doing it right, there are several YouTube tutorials – type “Una Brigids Cross” into the YouTube search bar for a particularly enjoyable and entirely surreal one.

STEP ONE: Find the shortest straw/rush and hold it upright. Take a second, fold it in two and wrap it around your upstanding straw so that it opens towards the right.

STEP TWO: Rotate your cross-in-progress 90 degrees anti-clockwise so that the second straw is now upright. Take a third straw, fold it in two and wrap it around the second straw so that it opens to the right.

STEP THREE: Rotate so the third straw is now upright. Take a fourth straw, fold it in two and wrap it around the third so that it opens to the right.

STEP FOUR: Repeat the process, adding each new straw at the top, opening to the right, and turning anti-clockwise.

STEP FIVE: By now you have a cross-like shape. Keep repeating the process, pulling each straw tight towards the centre as you do so.

STEP SIX: Your cross should take about 16 straws to complete. Hang it over your mantelpiece as a cross in honour of the saint itself, as a nod to her pagan predecessor, or in tribute to Telifís Éireann, who used the cross for its logo for many years.