Written by Tony Hennessy MAGI, a professional genealogist based in Annestown, County Waterford.
Every year without fail its welcome arrival brings down the curtain on the darkness of Winter and heralds in the reawakening of the natural world and the promise for us all of new beginnings and a fresh start. ‘You can never hold back Spring’ as Tom Waits once sang and I suspect that this year, 2022, our collective céad míle fáilte, one hundred thousand welcomes to the new season will be heartfelt indeed.
Here in Ireland the arrival of Spring has been celebrated for thousands of years. The very ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc is the first of the four great annual festivals of pre-Christian Ireland, the others being Bealtaine, Lughnasagh (Lughnasadh or Lughnasa) and Samhain, associated with the beginnings of Summer, Autumn and Winter respectively. The name Imbolc derives from the Old Irish literally meaning ‘in the belly’, referencing the pregnancy of ewes and the lambing season on the way.
Imbolc was first celebrated at the moveable midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, but it was later fixed at 1st February, now the official first day of Spring, and runs through to sundown the following day. Imbolc is associated with the great pagan Goddess Brigid, a very powerful deity of the Tuath De Danann, a race of the Mythical Cycle who, according to the Annals of the Four Masters, ruled Ireland from 1897 BC to 1700 BC before descending to the Otherworld. Brigid was the daughter of The Dagda, chief among the Celtic gods. She has quite a long list of associations: she is the goddess of poets, wisdom, healing, blacksmiths, livestock, crafts, childbirth and fertility among others. It is said she introduced the custom of keening, a form of ritual lamentation at a funeral, following her own son’s death in battle.
Tuath De Danann
During Imbolc thanks were given to Brigid and her blessings were sought for the home and for the farm animals for the coming year. Traditionally a little effigy of Brigid called a Brideog, made of oat straw and reeds was made the night before Imbolc and placed in a basket, a tradition still carried on in some parts of Ireland. Another tradition is that straw would be placed at the hearth for the comfort of Brigid when she would kneel to bestow her blessings and some of the straw itself, because of its newly acquired healing properties, could later for instance be placed under the pillow of a sick child to bring them back to good health.
Imbolc is a Fire Festival and lamps were lit and bonfires set ablaze in honour of Brigid and to welcome back the power and heat of the sun after the cold Winter.
A Brigid doll, from Spiddal, County Galway
St. Brigid of Kildare, Ireland
As well as Imbolc the 1st February marks the Feast Day of St. Brigid of Kildare, Lá ’le Bríde in Irish, sometimes known as the Mother Saint of Ireland and one of the three National saints of Ireland, (St. Patrick and St. Columba being the other two). As well as sharing her name and feast day with the goddess Brigid St. Brigid also shares almost all of the goddess’s attributes. For this reason there has been open debate for many years as to whether St.Brigid was in fact a real, historical person or whether she was a Christian reimagining of the goddess Brigid. One school of thought is that St. Brigid was a chief druid at the temple of the goddess Brigid in Co. Kildare and that she converted it into a Christian monastery and that after her death and over time the many stories and characteristics of the goddess were transferred to the saint.
Saint Brigid of Kildare
St. Patrick of Ireland
There were several biographies of St. Brigid (or hagiographies as early ‘lives of the saints’ are called). These mostly agree that St. Brigid was born in 451AD in Faughart, Co. Louth. Her father was Dubhthach, a Gaelic chieftan of Leinster and her mother was Brocca, a former slave who was baptized by St. Patrick. The young Brigid had a habit, understandably quite annoying to her parents, of giving away various items from the family household to help the poor; her mother’s full store of butter, her father’s bejewelled sword!
In 480AD or thereabouts St. Brigid founded a monastery in Kildare in the shade of an old oak tree on the site of an earlier pagan shrine to the goddess Brigid. The name in Irish Cill Dara, meaning the ‘the church of the oak’, gave both the town and the county its name. She was joined initially by seven female followers and this is seen as the first religious community of women in Ireland, with the saint as the first Abbess. The monastery thrived for many hundreds of years and became a rich centre of learning. Brigid also founded an art school that included metalwork and illumination and which created the legendary illuminated manuscript the Book of Kildare –‘…the work of angelic and not human skill’. Sadly the Book disappeared during the Reformation in the mid 1500s. Maybe someday it will turn up again..! St. Brigid was also famed for her skill with cows, sheep and pigs, a gift she inherited from her mother. She also supposedly had the gift of turning water into beer – useful in any century!
One very well known story or miracle associated with St. Brigid relates to an instance when she asked the King of Leinster for some land upon which to build a monastery. When he refused she reduced the scale of her request asking only for the amount of land that her cloak would cover. Of course the king quickly agreed. However when the cloak was laid on the ground it grew bigger and bigger until it covered the entire Curragh of Kildare!
Today St. Brigid’s place in Irish life remains second only to that of St. Patrick. On the night before her feast day some folks will leave out a strip of cloth or scarf, known as Bratóg Bríde, on a bush or tree for St. Brigid to bless as she passes along. The bratóg will be imbued with the power to cure headaches. In the coming days the beautiful and iconic St. Brigid’s Cross, Crosóg Bríde, simply formed with reeds or straw, will be crafted in schools and homes up and down the length and breadth of Ireland. They will be placed over the door and over the hearth in the home and maybe in the cowhouse and among the sheep too. They will invoke both the holy power of St. Brigid of Kildare and the magical and mystical power of her pagan predecessor the Celtic Goddess Brigid to ward off evil spirits and bad energy and guard against illness, fire and hunger in the year ahead. In doing so they are continuing an unbroken Irish tradition whose ancient origins are lost through the mists of time.
Dedicated to the memory of the writer's mother Brigid (Breda) Hennessy nee O'Connor (1932-2016)
Do you have an ancestor named Brigid? If so add her here
It was said that reciting the genealogy of the Goddess Brigid brings her protection
The genealogy of the holy maiden Brigid,
Radiant arrow of flame, noble foster-mother of Gods.
Brigid the daughter of the Dagda,
Dagda the Good God, the son of Ethlinn,
Ethlinn the daughter of Balor,
Balor the king of the Fomoire.
Every day and every night
That I say the genealogy of Brigid,
I shall not be killed, I shall not be injured,
I shall not be enchanted, I shall not be cursed,
Neither shall my power leave me.
No earth, no sod, no turf shall cover me,
No fire, no sun, no moon shall burn me,
No water, no lake, no sea shall drown me,
No air, no wind, no vapour shall sicken me,
No glamour out of Faery shall o’ertake me,
And I under the protection of the holy maiden,
My gentle foster-mother, my beloved Brigid.
How to Make a Saint Brigid's Cross
You will need
- 16 Reeds (or Straws)
- 4 small rubber bands
Tony Hennessy MAGI is a professional genealogist based in Annestown, Co. Waterford. He will be running a 10 week (2.5 hours per week) evening course in genealogy, online on Zoom, beginning Wednesday 16th February coming. All, including members of our mighty Diaspora, are very welcome. Check out Tony’s website www.tonyhennessygenealogy.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.
Tony is a member of Accredited Genealogists Ireland.