Siobhán McSweeney is currently to be seen in the Disney+ superhero comedy Extraordinary. Now, with Finding Brigid (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 10.15pm, and available to stream on RTÉ Player), she is back home celebrating a very Irish superhero: St Brigid, whom she praises as a “kick-ass warrior poet and goddess”.
Few people have described St Patrick as kick-ass. Which is probably why Brigid has come to be regarded as a sort of Celtic Wonder Woman to St Patrick’s Shamrock Superman. Where Patrick is sadly synonymous with kitsch, rain-whipped parades and Americans wishing you a Happy St Patty’s Day, Brigid is feminine and mysterious.
She embodies a side of Irishness the rest of the world doesn’t know about and isn’t interested in. She is both ethereal and wild, familiar and unknowable. And she has also just given us an extra day off, in the form of the new February bank holiday. No wonder we can’t stop blabbing about Brigid.
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McSweeney roves far and wide in her quest to discover the true identity of Ireland’s warrior nun. In Dundalk she’s delighted to see a mural that captures the dual aspects of Brigid, the Christian saint and the Celtic shield maiden.
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Her mission to understand Brigid then takes her to Galway, where she sits in a stone circle with a group of women with a special interest in the saint.
They include the broadcaster Mary Kennedy, who grew up close to St Brigid’s Well in Clondalkin in Dublin and is the co-author of a book on Brigid. “I did feel that by researching and by writing about Brigid I got more of a sense of me as a woman, as an Irish woman, as a woman with Celtic roots and a confidence,” she says.
McSweeney also meets the former president Mary McAleese, who says that the reclamation of Brigid as feminist icon is long overdue. Brigid’s legacy has been distorted by misogyny, she believes.
The new public holiday, she adds, is not just in Brigid’s honour. “It’s in honour of that whole tribe of people, going back generations, who insisted that her story be told, because it was worth the telling and worth remembering ... what we owe her.”
A pagan priestess is of course going to attract an eclectic fan base. In Glastonbury, the English town now better known for the music festival held nearby but also long famous for the area’s links to Arthurian legend, McSweeney meets a group of Druidic cosplayers who hum and sway through the streets and who, in doing so, veer on Paddy’s Day kitsch.
And she meets a lawyer turned priestess, Marion Brigantia, who sees Brigid as a manifestation of the natural world. “The goddess tradition is all about the reclaiming of our wild selves, of our really primordial connection with the land ... and as a goddess, I think, Brigid is very powerful.”
These are esoteric waters, and it would be easy to become lost in New Age psychobabble. But McSweeney never loses sight of dry land: her portrait of a saint reborn for a new Ireland is both heartfelt and illuminating.
Finding Brigid is available to stream on RTÉ Player