Brace Yourselves, Bridgets – An Irishman’s Diary on the case for a national holiday on February 1st

Brigitte Bardot. “Well might the Green Party be calling for Lá Fhéile Bríde to become Ireland’s newest public holiday.”

Brigitte Bardot. “Well might the Green Party be calling for Lá Fhéile Bríde to become Ireland’s newest public holiday.”

 

The name Bridget has suffered a precipitous decline in popularity since its heyday, which in Ireland, at least, must have coincided with the period when my namesake grandfather was in the marriage market.  

He was already 41 when, in 1912, he married one Bridget Rafferty. Alas, that didn’t last long. She died, tragically, soon after the birth of their first baby. So a few years later, he tried again, with a Bridget Martin this time, whose only child would be my father.

The coincidence of forenames can’t have been unusual back then. That was an era when, across the Atlantic, Bridgets from Ireland were so numerous that the name became a generic term for an Irish maid. There were plenty of Marys too, and also Margarets. But of this holy trinity, it was Bridget that defined the brand.

And she was a brand, or nearly. First on Vaudeville and later in the movies, the “Irish Bridget” became a stock character in American domestic drama. Fierce and unruly, her role was to bring chaos into the ordered lives of the US middle class, usually with comic effect.

An early cinematic example was Servant’s Revenge (1909), in which a Bridget is sacked by the woman of the house on the eve of a dinner party. Her revenge includes putting laxatives in the food, replacing her employer’s face powder with burnt cork, and other acts of sabotage. Mayhem ensues.

Fiction aside, most Americans of the era would have been familiar with a real-life Bridget, who had played an important role in the notorious trial, a few years earlier, of Lizzie Borden.

The OJ Simpson of the 1890s, Borden was suspected of murdering her father and stepmother. A popular skipping rhyme summarised the grisly details: “Lizzie Borden took an axe/And gave her mother forty whacks/When she saw what she had done/She gave her father forty-one.”

But she was acquitted, thanks in part to evidence from the housemaid, Bridget Sullivan (who ironically was often called “Maggie” by the family, after an earlier servant). Borden remained the chief suspect ever afterwards, although there were multiple competing theories, including one that a physically sick Sullivan had killed the couple, after being pushed over the edge by unreasonable demands.  

Even in more ordinary circumstances, however, the Irish Bridgets may have had a radical effect on American life, and especially on attitudes to immigrants. In a 2009 book on the subject, Margaret Lynch-Brennan points out that, where their male counterparts often lived and worked in ghettos confined to their own countrymen, servant women were on the front line with middle-class America – in intimate contact with families, spreading and absorbing values that helped push the Irish into the mainstream.

They may in short have played a missionary role – in keeping with their name-saint.

And despite the negative stereotype of the early 20th century, they must have left a positive legacy. In the US, the popularity of Bridget as a birth-name rose for decades and peaked only in the 1970s.

Of course, if only indirectly, Bridgets are named after a Celtic pagan goddess as well as a Christian holy woman. The goddess was powerful enough to have a province of Roman Britain, Brigantia, named after her followers, who were also associated with the southeast of Ireland and whose presence in mainland Europe is echoed by the Austrian city Bregenz.

The saint, a semi-historical figure associated with Louth and Kildare, seems to have absorbed most of the goddess’s attributes, especially her association with ancient rites of spring, hence the February 1st feast day. Together they made a powerful cult, rivalling St Patrick as Ireland’s other patron saint, and with overseas missions including the famous St Bride’s of Fleet Street, London, a church historically synonymous with those most wretched of sinners, journalists.  

Helped by a 14th-century Swedish saint, Birgitta, the name has also evolved a bewildering range of variant forms across the Continent, from Biddy (as in Early) to Brigitte (as in Bardot).

Well might the Green Party be calling for Lá Fhéile Bríde to become Ireland’s newest public holiday. Eamon Ryan thinks it would be a “potent celebration of new beginnings, the turning of the seasons, and the cyclical nature of our life on Earth”.  

And I for one agree, albeit with an underlying motive. I never met either of my grandmother Bridgets, nor indeed the man who married them.  

But some of their influence must have rubbed off. Born on February 1st, I’m probably lucky that I wasn’t named Bridget too.