From goddess to saint and back again

St Brigid is enjoying a new lease of life thanks to her roots as a goddess in ancient Celtic traditions

St Brigid is enjoying a new lease of life thanks to her roots as a goddess in ancient Celtic traditions

TOMORROW, THE LIFE and work of St Brigid will be celebrated in cities, towns and villages across Ireland. Celebrations will range from small pilgrimages to ancient shrines, holy wells and monastic settlements to classes for children on making St Brigid’s crosses.

But who exactly was St Brigid or Brigit as some prefer to remember her? And what do we know about her life?

History and myth are particularly difficult to separate when it comes to figures such as Brigit whose lives straddled the political divide of Celtic and Christian Ireland. According to Mary Condren, director of the Institute for Feminism and Religion at Trinity College Dublin, the cult of Brigit has origins long before the historical figure we associate with the fifth-century saint. “I consider Brigit [the old Irish spelling of Brigid] to be a pre-Celtic goddess as the root of the word Brí is an indigenous European word for female divinity.”


Condren, who is the author of the Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion and Power in Celtic Ireland(New Island) is one of a number of academic theologians who have promoted a wider interpretation of Brigit than that which was handed down through Christian churches over the centuries.

“Layers of separate traditions have intersected, making Brigit out to be one of the most contradictory figures in Irish history,”she writes. “But, it could be argued that precisely this complexity has enabled the figure of Brigit to move seemingly so effortlessly through thousands of years.”

The historical figure that the Christian churches refer to as St Brigid is believed to have been born at Faughart near Dundalk, Co Louth around AD 453. Legend has it that her mother Brocess, a slave to chieftain Dubhtach, was banished to Connacht with her daughter until Brigid grew up and was reclaimed by her chieftain father. By that time, Brigid was already known for her great farming skills and tremendous energy. Coupled with her unwillingness to marry, these talents must have propelled her to seek land to start her monastery in Kildare. The details become a bit sketchy here but myths abound regarding her healing powers, negotiating skills and keen sense of justice.

“You could put the facts about St Brigid on the back of a postage stamp but there is no doubt that monasteries offered women an alternative to marriage. They also gave these early holy women a place to learn to read and to write. Monasteries were also great centres of craftwork, farming and places of refuge for the poor and the sick,” explains Padraigin Clancy, folklorist and historian.

One thing that is widely accepted is that the celebration of St Brigid on February 1st replaced the Spring festival of Imbolc, the first of four major feasts in the Celtic calendar (the others are Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain). This practice of replacing a pagan festival with a Christian one was both common and clever. It helped Christianise a pagan people and allowed them to carry over some of the rituals into their new religion. And so it is that St Brigid’s Day is associated with the coming of spring and new life.

St Brigid’s crosses – the symbol most widely associated with St Brigid – are believed to offer protection to families and their farms for the year ahead. The crosses come in various shapes but the four armed cross remains the best known, probably due to its use as an emblem for RTÉ television when it began broadcasting in 1961.

While St Brigid remains highly regarded – one of Ireland’s three patron saints alongside St Patrick and St Columba – in Christian churches in Ireland, there has also been a revival of interest in her as an icon of female spirituality outside of the more institutional (and some would say patriarchal) forms of Christian worship. One such “re-claiming of Brigid” is in Solas Bhríde in Kildare where in 1992 a group of Brigidine Sisters founded a small Christian centre for Celtic spirituality and re-lit the sacred fire associated with the monastery Brigid founded in Kildare or Cill Dara, which translates as church of the oak. Cáirde Bhríde (Friends of Brigid), an ecumenical community of women and men who promote peace, justice, reconciliation and care of the earth, has developed out of Solas Bhríde, and the social justice organisation Action from Ireland (Afri) holds its annual conference in Kildare each year.

Other groups continue to celebrate St Brigid by keeping alive the knowledge of folk customs and rituals that are still carried out in parts of Ireland. “Traditionally, the rushes were plucked on Brigid’s Eve and laid on the doorsteps of houses. Then someone pretended they were Brigid and brought the rushes into homes – symbolically bringing new life into the homes,” explains Padraigin Clancy.


Brigid's Festival in Kildare town

St Brigit: History and Tradition at the Irish Museum of Country Life, Turlough Park, Co Mayo from 2.30-3.30pm. Tel: 094-9031751.

Children (aged eight and over) can make St Brigid's crosses in the Irish Museum of Decorative Arts at Collins Barracks, Dublin tomorrow from 3-4pm.

Celebrations of Brigid of Faughart at Imbolc in Dundalk, Co Louth. Events include a pilgrimage walk to St Brigid's Shrine in Faughart, Co Louth, starting at 9am tomorrow from the Peace Garden in Linenhall Street, Dundalk.

St Brigid's Day celebrations at Brigit's Garden, Roscahill, Co Galway from 2.30-5.30pm.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment