Lá Fhéile Bríde or St Brigid’s Day.
There are many traditions and customs associated with St Brigid and her feast-day. February 1st was originally a pagan festival called Imbolc, from the Irish/Gaelic for ‘im bolg’, often thought to mean the time when spring lambs were in gestation, thus marking the beginning of spring. Brigit, Brigid or Bríg, from Old Irish meaning 'exalted one' is also a goddess of pre-Christian Ireland. She appears in Irish mythology as a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the daughter of the Dagda and wife of Bres, with whom she had a son named Ruadán.
She is associated with the spring season, fertility, healing, poetry, brewing, lactation and blacksmithing. Cormac's Glossary, written in the 10th century by Christian monks, says that Brigid was "the goddess whom poets adored" and that she had two sisters: Brigid the healer and Brigid the smith, suggesting she may have been a triple deity.
According to Saint tradition, Brigid was born in the year 451 AD in Faughart, just north of Dundalk in County Louth, Ireland. Because of the legendary quality of the earliest accounts of her life, there is debate among many secular scholars and Christians as to the authenticity of her biographies. Three biographies agree that her mother was Brocca, a Christian slave who had been baptized by Saint Patrick. They name her father as Dubhthach, a chieftain of Leinster.
As she grew older, Brigid was said to have performed miracles, including healing and feeding the poor. According to one tale, as a child, she once gave away her mother's entire store of butter. The butter was then replenished in answer to Brigid's prayers. Around the age of ten, she was returned as a household servant to her father, where her habit of charity led her to donate his belongings to anyone who asked.
In both of the earliest biographies, Dubthach is portrayed as having been so annoyed with Brigid that he took her in a chariot to the King of Leinster to sell her. While Dubthach was talking to the king, Brigid gave away his bejeweled sword to a beggar to barter it for food to feed his family. The king recognized her holiness and convinced Dubthach to grant his daughter freedom.
The Story of St. Brigid’s Cloak
Soon after her ordination by St. Patrick, Brigid wanted to found her own monastery. She decided that the edge of the Curragh in Kildare was the ideal place – it had ample Oak forests for firewood and building, freshwater in a nearby lake and a large, fertile open plain for growing food.
She approached her old acquaintance the King of Leinster. She asked for land in Kildare on which to build her monastery. The king refused as he was not one to part with hard-won land. She was not to be deterred and Brigid and her followers prayed that the King would change his mind and that ‘his heart would soften’. The second time she asked him, she asked for ‘as much land as her cloak would cover’. Bemused by this request, the King agreed and met her on the Plains of Kildare. When the King saw Brigid’s small cloak, he laughed out loud, but was soon to be sorry for doing so. Brigid took off her cloak and told four of her followers to take hold of a corner each and walk in four different directions, north, east, south and west. As they walked away from Brigid, the cloak grew and grew and grew until it covered many hundreds of acres.
The King was true to his word and granted her the lands for her Monastery. On this land Brigid founded one of Ireland’s most sacred Early Christian monasteries about the year 470 – often referred to as The Church of the Oak. The King of Leinster was so taken by this miracle that he became a patron of Brigid’s - funding building, food and other necessities as the monastery grew in size and fame, and later becoming a Christian himself.
A Cathedral dedicated to St. Brigid still stands on the site to this day, adjacent to a wonderful Round Tower from the top of which you can look over the land that was covered by St. Brigid’s Cloak!
St. Brigid’s Perpetual Fire
Legends say that before St. Brigid was born, a long line of Pagan Priestesses in Kildare kept ritual fires burning on a Kildare hilltop to invoke the Goddess Brigit. After St. Brigid built her Monastery in Kildare she and her nuns kept this custom alive. For them it represented the lighting of the way from pagan ritual to new Christianity. It is said Giraldus Cambrensis, a 12th Century traveller to Ireland, noted that St. Brigid’s Fire was still burning and tended by nuns at her Monastery. It is thought that it remained burning from St. Brigid’s time until the 16th Century.
St. Brigid’s Fire burns strongly each year in Kildare during the festival Féile Bríde.
The Brideog Doll
In an ancient custom, still practised in parts of Ireland, children would make a Brideog Doll for St. Brigid’s Day. The doll was created as a physical representation of St. Brigid. The doll would be walked around the town or village, to each household, where the woman of the house that was called upon, would offer snacks or money to those bearing the Brideog. This gift to St. Brigid was to welcome in the Light of Spring for the householder.
The money and food collected on the Brideog tour was used to hold a feast that evening for the participants, with the Brideog placed in the table centre.
Print and Colour St’ Brigid’s Perpetual Fire and the Traditional Brideog Doll Print copies of the illustrations of St. Brigid’s Fire and the Brideog Doll. Find inspiration for colours, details, designs and motifs in the words of her story, in the woods that you visit.
Harvesting materials for your St. Brigid’s cross
The most common materials used in the making of St. Brigid’s Cross is the very common Soft Rush (Juncus effusus). Found growing on wet ground or in places with infertile soil, the soft rush can produce over eight thousand seeds per shoot every year!
Rushes typically grow up to one metre tall and grow in tufts of dark green stems with small brown flowerheads that can still be seen through winter on some stems. These resilient and invasive native plants can be found in low-lying fields, on roadsides, in bogs and marshes and near water’s edge countrywide. When harvesting, select the tallest and greenest tufts, pull the dead grass out from the base of the stems with your fingers and, using a scissors or secateurs, cut as close to the ground as possible. One large handful should contain about 30 rush stems – enough to make one St. Brigid’s Cross. Larger Rushes, such as the Bulrush, were also used to make St. Brigid’s Crosses, as well as furniture, mats, mattresses, chicken houses and other uses. Another material that may be used is the Common Reed (Phragmites australis). This vegetation grows in dense stands along freshwater wetlands, rivers, lakes and canals. It can grow to over 5 metres tall! Traditionally used for thatching, the Common Reed has been used extensively in Ireland for thousands of years. Reeds can be trickier to harvest and more difficult to locate, but may be easier to find for some Cross-makers.
*Please take the necessary precautions when harvesting your materials. Be careful with sharp tools and be mindful of the hazards associated with open water and boggy ground.
**Please keep within your 5K while harvesting materials.
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