Why the time is right to choose Brigid, saint or goddess, to be an icon for women

Religious people honour St Brigid, while the disaffected turn to goddess Brigid

The Irish Government has decided that next year a national public holiday (equivalent to that given to St Patrick) will be accorded to Brigid, saint, goddess, matron of poetry, healing, and smithwork.

To be held on the nearest Monday to February 1st, (feast of St Brigid and traditional date of Brigid’s festival of Imbolc), next year it will be on February 6th.

Why choose Brigid, saint or goddess, to be an icon for women, and why now?

In a post-Covid world, we will be able to reflect further on her role, asking how the integration of nature, culture and technology can serve to heal our wounds and the vulnerable earth

The decision recognises the rising interest in the figure of Brigid and the role of women in Irish society.

In a post-Covid world, we will be able to reflect further on her role, asking how the integration of nature, culture and technology can serve to heal our wounds and the vulnerable earth.

Given the myriad challenges we experience on our beloved island, Woman Spirit Ireland has for the last 30 years organised and resourced festivals of Brigid in Ireland and abroad.

St Brigid's successors, the great abbesses of Kildare, were known as those who turned back the streams of war. In their spirit, we aimed to excavate, meditate, and liberate Brigid's traditions to empower women and to bring about a new springtime in Irish spiritual consciousness, especially for those who have turned away from traditional religious forms.

Brigid’s sheltering famous cloak gathered women of all traditions. Traditional religious persons honoured St Brigid. The disaffected and disinclined turned to the figure of a goddess: Brigid, the poet, healer and smithworker.

In our festivals we work non-verbally, through music, dance, poetry and Brigid’s most famous symbols: her cloak, cross and crios (her girdle).

Through the festivals and research, we learned to appreciate the richness of Brigid’s traditions, often missing in the public sphere. Some stories have borne particular resonance.

Brigid was born of slave mother Broicsech (whose name means "badger") and her father Dubthach. Dubthach's wife objected to his keeping a pregnant slave in her household, so Dubthach sold Broicsech to a druid or poet who set off on a journey that took him to Faughart, Co Louth, where St Brigid was born.

She was taken to Connemara in Galway and then to Munster. Eventually Brigid returned to her father, but soon she heard that her mother Broicsech, still in slavery, had a disease of the eye.

Against her father’s wishes, Brigid went to help her mother in the dairy but couldn’t help giving foods, butter and milk, to the poor who turned up at the door. The druid and his wife planned to hold a feast but no butter was left.

Brigid miraculously produced enough to feed multitudes. The family was thrilled and they offered to give Brigid all their cows. She refused. “The only thing I want,” she said, “is my mother’s freedom”.

The story speaks volumes about generosity, but also about mother-daughter relationships and the need for intergenerational healing. Broicsech was released from slavery through the work of her daughter.

A second story also concerns generosity. Her father Dubthach became incensed at her generosity towards the poor and ordered her into his carriage, setting off to sell her into slavery to a local king.

Dubthach expected a quick done deal. Foolishly, however, he left Brigid in the carriage who, meeting a hungry leper, gave him her father’s sword to buy food.

Dubthach arrived back with the king. Seeing that his sword was gone he was incensed and wanted to kill Brigid. But the king intervened and spoke wise words that echo down the generations.

He told Dubthach that Brigid would be a hard woman to sell and an even harder woman to buy: she could neither be bought nor sold.

Generosity pervades Brigid’s stories but she was no pushover. A rich woman gave her a basket of apples which Brigid immediately distributed to the poor. The woman protested, outraged. In response, Brigid cursed her orchards and they would no longer bear fruit.

May the new Brigid festival usher in an Irish springtime festival spreading Brigid's generous spirit throughout the world

Just as no parent would look around their dinner table and give a third of the food to some children and leave the others starving, Brigid held that the goods of this world were made to be circulated. Otherwise their source would wither and die.

At Brigid’s festivals we gather together under her expansive cloak and aim to honour and respect diversity. We weave her crosses. They remind us to cultivate spiritual and physical fertility for our vulnerable earth.

We take pieces of bread (which Brigid always multiplied to feed the hungry); a little milk, (to honour her red-eared white cow whose pure milk was the only milk St Brigid could tolerate); and a little honey to honour the Brigid of Munster, St Gobnait.

Finally, we go through her crios making commitments for the coming year. Her circular crios reminds us to align ourselves with our bodies, communities and to the cosmos.

May the new Brigid festival usher in an Irish springtime festival spreading Brigid’s generous spirit throughout the world.

Mary Condren, Th.D. is director of Woman Spirit Ireland and teaches at the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College Dublin.

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