Bridie. Biddy. Brid. Bridget. Brigid. A fearless pagan goddess, or St Bridget of Kildare. Whatever you call her, whatever she means to you, nearly 1,500 years after her death, Brigid is having a moment as Ireland gets ready to celebrate a holiday named, for the first time, after a woman saint. So what’s it like being called Bridget and having a brand new bank holiday named after you? Unsure of the collective noun for them – a cloak perhaps? – we asked a cross-section of women and girls about the importance of being Bridget.
Brigid Moorhouse and Ailish Bridget McKay
“I’m the only Brigid in my entire school,” says Dubliner Brigid Moorhouse, sounding delighted about this fact. “I like that my name is unique and it’s very handy – when somebody calls out ‘Brigid’ I know they are looking for me, because I’m the only one around.”
She was named for her grandmother Bridget who died before she was born. Brigid’s mum Ailish (middle name also Bridget) McKay takes up the story. “I was convinced I was having a boy. My husband and I decided if it was a boy I got to pick the name, and if it was a girl he could choose,” she says. They found out during a scan around six months into the pregnancy that in fact she was having a girl. Her husband picked Bridget after his late mother-in-law, but, says Ailish, “he chose the more Irish spelling of Brigid”.
Brigid was very nearly born on St Brigid’s Day, as her mother was taken into the maternity ward to be induced on January 30th. “She was quite a big baby,” she recalls. “Could you not have asked them to wait until St Brigid’s Day?” jokes Brigid. “They were a bit concerned and didn’t want to wait,” explains her mother, who was 42 years old at the time. And so, at 10 pounds eight ounces, Brigid Rita Moorhouse was born on January 31st, St Brigid’s Eve.
Her middle name is Rita after her mother’s favourite saint, Rita of Cashel.
“Brigid wouldn’t be my main saint, but I do pray to her the odd time,” says Ailish.
Meanwhile, teenage Brigid is fond of St Brigid crosses, and one of her prized possessions is a necklace featuring the iconic Irish symbol, even if she doesn’t have any particular devotion to the saint. And what about that new St Brigid bank holiday on February 6th? “It’s very cool,” she smiles.
Bridget Hourican, Bridget Mair and Bridget Crann
Bridget Hourican’s name was a bit of a trial during childhood. “I had a lisp, and with children apparently a lisp often begins when first saying your Christian name.” She couldn’t pronounce the R in her name, and so it ended up sounding like Bwidget. “Eventually I got on top of it,” she says. “But for a good while I didn’t like my name. I found it very old-fashioned and I was always reading these 19th century American books where Bridget or Bridie was a serving maid. It just wasn’t sexy at all. Having said all that, I am very attached to my name now.”
Bridget was the name of her paternal great grandmother, but she was also called Bridget for patriotic reasons. Her family was living in Belfast when she was named. “Bloody Sunday had just happened, so my parents wanted to choose something very Irish,” she says. “My own sense of Bridget is this pagan goddess, this very strong woman associated with things like fertility.”
She enjoys the fact that some people make a fuss of her on St Brigid’s Day – she gets lots of texts, and one friend makes her a St Brigid’s cross every year. “It’s like a birthday but you don’t get any older, which is great,” she says. She knows one person who calls her Biddy, deliberately to annoy her. “Maybe we need to reclaim Biddy, she’s become a repository for misogyny in the culture.”
Also pictured here is Bridget Mair, a member of Bridget’s extended family – her sister Martha’s mother-in-law. This Bridget, named after her maternal grandmother in Co Tyrone, makes annual pilgrimages to Kildare where in 1993, in a ceremony alongside former president Mary McAleese, she represented Ulster Bridgets at the lighting of a flame in the town most associated with the saint.
“I have huge admiration for the Brigidine Sisters in Kildare,” she explains. “I go there every year for Fhéile Bríde. There’s a mass at St Brigid’s well on the Sunday… it’s a magical, mysterious place. I love everything about the connection with the Celtic world.”
[ Opinion: Brigid, a thoroughly modern 1,500-year-old saint ]
She has educated herself thoroughly on all Brigid-related matters, and appreciates that she was one of the earliest deities worshipped in Ireland. Bridget could talk about Brigid for Ireland, and loves her associations with “literature and poetry and healing and craft and love of nature and fertility and fire and Imbolc and spring and the sap starting to rise. January is a difficult month, but an energy comes into me when the first of February comes.”
What does she think about the new Brigid-inspired bank holiday? “I’m thrilled, she stood for peace, so I can think of no greater role model. I think it’s going to start a shift towards the feminine, a rebalancing of the energies that have been so predominant in our patriarchal culture for so long… it’s a cause for celebration.”
Even so, a small part of Brigid Hourican is grumpy that her name has become a national holiday. “I’m happy to enable a day off for everybody but I liked the name being slightly under the radar, so I’d worry that as a name it might come back into vogue,” she muses.
The name is staying in the family anyway. Her sister Emily named her daughter after her. Bridget’s niece and namesake says Bridget Crann (12) is delighted to have a new bank holiday in her name. “At last, a national holiday for one of our woman saints,” she says. “I don’t know any other Bridgets my age, but I know a lot of wonderful older Bridgets and it’s great to be part of that.”
When I ask Brigid O’Dea how she got her name, she smiles broadly, welcoming the question. “It’s one of my very favourite stories to tell,” the Dubliner says. “My mother found out she was pregnant on St Brigid’s Day, February 1st. My granny is called Brigid and my mother had a best friend called Brigid. My mother died when I was 10, so I guess I love this story for that reason. It’s a really nice way to bring her into conversations, a simple story about who my mum was that is life-affirming and sweet and thoughtful. And that’s why my name means an awful lot to me.”
On St Brigid’s Day every year, her father brings her a bunch of daffodils. “And we’ll always do something simple to mark the day. Go for a walk together or something like that. I like that feeling of moving into spring, and the light that comes with this time of year,” she says.
O’Dea concedes that her name has gone out of fashion. “I remember in one job I was working as an intern. I’d been emailing for a while before meeting up face to face, and they were surprised. They said, ‘We just assumed you were an old woman.’”
She studied modern Irish in college and part of the course was on folklore. That’s where she learned more about Bridget. “I think the pagan goddess and the saint have merged into one, which tends to happen. I love that she’s this really beautiful, iconic feminine figure, a soft and caring character, but then there is this boldness and defiance, she stood up for herself and stood up for other people. I really appreciate that contrast.”
At 107, Bridget Tierney is the oldest Bridget in Ireland. She lives independently in rural Co Cavan, surrounded by family, who live close by. Like many Bridgets, she was named after her maternal grandmother. “It’s good being named Bridget, but I don’t really feel different to anyone else, to be honest,” she says. “The only thing about it is, sometimes people could call you an aul Biddy!”
She is fond of the saint, and says they have some things in common. “I think she had good time for children and for farmers. I always loved having children around the place and always do to this day. My father died quite young, so I spent most of my years looking after the animals on the farm, which was mainly the hens, pigs and cows.”
St Brigid’s Day was just another day growing up on the farm. “The work still had to be done,” she says. “The only difference was that after our work was completed we’d make crosses from the rushes in the field.” Is she happy about the new St Brigid’s bank holiday? “I suppose I am. It does not make much difference to the farmers. The animals don’t take a holiday.”
How does it feel to be the oldest Bridget in Ireland? “It feels good. Thank God that I have lived this long, but it really does not cross my mind that often.”