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GNAS NA FEILE BRIDE - Rites of the feast of Brigid

Biography of Saint Brigid in Irish rite

Author(s): N/A

ISBN13: 9780954075361

Publisher: AIS

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  • February 1st was the feast of Imbolg in the old Celtic year and it marked the beginning of Spring. It was Christianised eventually and adapted as the Feast of St Brigid. A large variety of customs and traditions are still associated with the feast till this day, many of which date back to the pagan Celtic days. In this book, Seán O Duinn OSB, collects these rites and rituals, describes them and shows their relevance at various stages in history and today. He also identifies the places and areas associated with particular customs and traditions.
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    St Brigids Feastday - L?í Fh?®ile Br?¡de - occurs on the first day of February, the beginning of spring and the period of the rebirth of nature after the long death of winter. The turning of the sun at the winter solstice occurred six weeks ago, and the lengthening day speaks of new life and fresh beginnings, as the poet Raifteir?¡ expressed it:

    Anois teacht an Earraigh, beidh an l?í dul chun s?¡neadh,
    is tar ?®is na F?®ile Br?¡de ardóidh m?® mo sheol.
    (Now that the spring has come, the days will grow longer,
    and after St Brigids feastday I will hoist my sail.)

    The suns new power is energising the vegetation. A dark green colour spreads over the grey grass. Buds appear on the trees and bushes as heralds of new life. The herbs of spring arise from the earth. The song of birds proclaims that the winter is past and a new era beginning.

    The farmer is aware that the earth is calling him to a new period of care. This is the lambing season and the time of preparation for the sowing of corn. The evils of the winter season must be banished to allow the fertile energy of spring to enter.

    The month of February marks a dynamic change of season, and in ancient pre-Christian Ireland, the Feast of Imbolc/Oimelc on the first of February stood out as the signal for the beginning of spring.

    The exact meaning of Imbolc or Oimelc presents considerable difficulty, and Pamela Berger suggests gently that cleansing of the fields after the winter and preparing them for sowing the grain in the spring may be a fundamental idea underlying the term. She refers to the theory which separates the term Imbolc/Imbolg into two words: im and bolg, im meaning around and bolg belly - the belly of that goddess - that is the land, the farm. This would refer then, to a traditional ritual procession around the farm, at the beginning of spring, to create a cleansing boundary, so that this particular area of land would be safe from any evil forces threatening the growth of the new corn. Perhaps there is a remnant of this to be found in the Br?¡deog procession of today on St Brigids Feast (1988,71).

    The idea can certainly be compared to that of the Litaniae Minores, or Rogation Processions, in which, in Catholic countries, the priest and people processed around the boundaries of the parish on the three days before the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord into Heaven, praying and sprinkling Holy Water as a means of safeguarding the growing crops from disease.

    While this etymology may be uncertain, nevertheless, examples occur of processions through the fields in which an image of the goddess is carried so that her blessing may fall on them.

    While the Feast of St Brigid is on the first of February, the next day - the second of February - is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. However, from the ninth century onwards, north of the Alps, there is a tendency in the churchs books of ritual to call the Feast Purificatio Beatae Mariae Virginis and this custom prevailed until the Second Vatican Council (Stevenson 1988:346). By this time the church had moved out from the cities to the country areas and was, no doubt, coming under the influence of the farming population with its preoccupation with cleansing and protecting the farms at this time of the year. In the light of this phenomenon, one can expect a certain similarity between the Feast of Brigid and that of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also called Candlemas.

    Marys Feast of the Purification, moreover, may have a pre-Christian model in the custom of Greek women running through the fields in February with lighted torches to simulate the goddess Demeters search for her daughter Persephone who was taken to the underworld by Pluto, and in consequence the fields were barren. This torchbearing ritual may well have influenced the Candlemas of the western church (Berger 1988:115).

    Professor Berger gives a useful summary account of the month of February in so far as it is connected with purification and fertility:

    Throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times February was considered a month of purification. It was the time of the ceremonial purification of the fields before the seed could be placed in the ground. And it was also the time of purification of women who had given birth during the preceding year. Until the last century, women would come to the church on February 2 for a postchildbirth blessing and would take home with them their blessed candles. Since the pagan torch or candle procession had been assimilated into Christian ritual, an originally pagan seasonal practice was to endure, transformed, until the twentieth century (1988:115).

    With the arrival of St Brigids Day, a remarkable change is perceptable in nature:

    T?í s?® r?íite go dtosna?¡onn an fhuiseog ar sheinim L?í le Br?¡de agus an londubh leis, agus deirtear go dtosna?¡onn ?®anlaith an aeir go l?®ir ar chópl?íil ó L?í le Br?¡de amach (IFC 900; 39; Ciar?ín O S?¡othch?íin, Cl?®ire, Co Chorca?¡)
    (It is said that the lark begins to sing on St Brigids Day and the blackbird also, and that all the birds of the air begin to mate from St Brigids Day onwards.)

    The growth of vegetation in springtime is described very effectively in the folklore of Cóil Aodha. It begins with the week beginning on St Brigids Day and progresses into April, but it is remarkable that three goddesses are held responsible for this development of the crops during the spring period. One is naturally reminded of the triple goddess of the Celts or the Matres (Mothers) depicted on plaques of the Gallo-Romans on the Continent or in Britain. The three are pictured clearly, for instance, on a plaque found in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. The three goddesses are shown sitting down with baskets on their laps holding loaves of bread and fruits of the earth (Bord, J. and C. 1982: 24).

    Perhaps an echo of this ancient tradition is found in folklore:

    Deireadh na seandaoine go mb?¡odh nithe ag cuimhneamh ar bheith ag f?ís L?í le Br?¡de, go mb?¡odh cailleach a cur an?¡os agus beirt chailleach ag a gcur s?¡os, agus nuair a thagadh L?í le P?ídraig bh?¡odh beirt chailleach ag cur an?¡os agus cailleach ag cur s?¡os. Ach nuair a thagadh an chead l?í dAbran bh?¡odh an triór cailleach d aobhu?¡on chun bheith ag cur neithe an?¡os. Deir na feirmeoirithe gur mithid cuimhneamh ar obair an earraigh nuair a thagann L?í le Br?¡de agus s?® ceol na n-?®un a chuireann so i n-iól dóibh (IFC 900;89-90; Amhlaoibh O Loingsigh, Cóil Aodha, Contae Chorca?¡, Narrator, C?íit u?¡ Liath?íin, Cóil Aodha, Scribe)
    (The old people used to say that things would be thinking of growing on St Brigids Day; that one Veiled One /hag would be pushing the vegetation upwards while two hags would be keeping it down. Then, when St Patricks Day would come round, two hags would be pushing it upwards. But when the first of April arrived, the three hags would join forces to push the vegetation upwards. The farmers say that it is time to think of the spring work when St Brigids Day arrives and it is the music of the birds that reminds them of this. )

    The fishing season on the River Barrow in Wexford begins on St Brigids Day and it continues to October (IFC 907:179). This conforms to the general pattern throughout the country except for the Garbhóg River in Co Sligo:

    Salmon fishing opens in all Ireland that day with the exception of the Garvogue in Sligo, for it is said that St Brigid blessed it when passing and fishing opens in it on the first of January. (IFC 902;242; M?¡che?íl O Gallchobhair, Cill Fhearga, Druim ?ütha Thiar, Contae Liatroma, Scribe.)

    From the literary point of view, Brigids connection with fishing is not as pronounced as her connection with cows. However, it is not entirely absent, as is evident from the story of St Brendan the Navigator and St Brigid:

    One day, Brendan was standing on a high cliff looking out to sea. Suddenly, two whales leaped out of the ocean and began to fight. The fight went on and on and it was evident that the smaller whale was getting progressively weaker. It was only a matter of time before he would be killed. However, at the last moment, the smaller whale shouted out with a human voice calling on Brigid to save him. With that, the larger whale seemed suddenly to lose all interest in the fight. He turned around and went off, leaving the smaller whale unharmed.

    When Brendan saw what had happened he became very upset. He said, Why did the whale call on Brigid to save him and not on me? He said to himself that the fish all knew him from seeing him constantly sailing the ocean and they would have known that he was a holy man and any request of his would be immediately answered by God. And yet, the whale had ignored him, and instead, called on the land-lubber Brigid who knew nothing of the sea. He was very disturbed to discover that the fish preferred Brigid to himself.

    Brendan decided to return to Ireland and consult Brigid herself to find an explanation for this strange phenomenon.

    Brendan, however, was often distracted and his mind preoccupied with various worldly matters. The fish knew Brendan well from his many years living among them but they also recognised that his awareness of God was not up to Brigids standard and this was the reason, that in his hour of need, the whale ignored Brendan and called on Brigid to save him. (Plummer, 1922, 85-86).

    Among the fishermen of the coast of Galway, a custom prevailed called An tIasc Beo (The Living Fish). An account of it" comes from Cill Rón?íin, Inis Mar, .?ürainn:

    L?í le Br?¡de bheireann cuid de na daoine isteach an t-iasc beo (an bairneach). Itheann siad cuid d?¡obh agus caitheann siad cuid eile d?¡obh i gcóinne sa teach. lascair?¡ a dh?®anas ?® seo le go mbeadh rath ar an iascach (IFC 902; 3; Sean O Maoldomhnaigh, scribe).
    (On St Brigids Day, some of the people bring in the living fish - the limpet. They eat some of them and the throw some of them into a comer of the house. It is fishermen who do this so that there may be luck on the fishing)

    This custom is difficult to interpret. It seems that it was mostly small fish enclosed in a shell that were involved. Those thrown into a comer of the house were not killed though they would have died quickly from lack of water.

    A similar account comes for Co Clare and this mentions four corners of the house:

    On St Brigids Eve, people near the sea collect pennywinkles (periwinkles?) and put them in the four comers of the house (IFC 901; 64; P?ídraig Mag Fhloinn, Cill Fhionnabhrach, scribe ).

    In this account it seems that, again, small fish enclosed in shells are involved.

    Fundamentally, the custom was associated with the luck of the year, with fertility and with a plentiful supply of food. This is the conclusion to be reached from at least some of the accounts. This, however, is only part of the problem, for any kind of fish would have sufficed for this purpose.

    We have seen, however, that it was shellfish which were put in the corner or four corners. There is a parallel usage in the sprinkling of a sacrificed cocks blood on St Martins Feast (11th November) on the four comers of the house and, undoubtedly, this rite was connected with the luck of the year, protection and fertility, for this is really the celebration of the Celtic Feast of Samhain (1st November) which, through a dislocation in the calendar, became the 11th November (Cooper and Sullivan,1994, VI).

    A similar dislocation of ten days is seen when St Brigids Day, the first of February is compared to that of St Gobnat of Baile Bhoime, Co Cork, on the eleventh of February.

    This however, does not explain the use of shellfish. But the explanation may lie in the shell itself.

    According to the research undertaken by Marija Gimbutas on the goddesses of Old Europe, it is clear that the hedgehog and the snake were connected with the Great Queen, with the Goddess of Fertility. In this country, perhaps, the distinction between the hedgehog and the badger was not emphasised, as both of them appeared at the beginning of spring to coincide with the return of the goddess herself. However, the question of the snail and of the periwinkle remains.

    The snake is a .constant companion of the goddess in archaic sculpture and, undoubtedly, the serpents habit of casting off his old skin and emerging as a new being impressed ancient peoples hugely, transmitting the idea of the snake having the secret of perpetual renewal and immortality (Campbell, 1965:9).

    Since the goddess personifies the death and resurrection of nature in the cycle of the year, her connection with the serpent was easy to recognise.

    The snail and the iasc beo (periwinkle) are parallel in so far as a shell is involved in both cases. However, it is not the shell itself that is in question but rather the figure on the shell - that is to say the Spiral - a figure that is found so frequently in megalithic sites such as Newgrange and on pottery associated with the goddess.

    The Spiral stands, apparently, for the thread of life emerging from the goddess and again returning within her for renewal. Like the snake, the Spiral is another form of presentation of the eternal cycle of life and so it is a valid symbol of the goddess herself as Mistress of Life (cf Streit 1984:51).

    This is not to say that there is any strict proof that the custom of the iasc beo derived directly from this source. Rather, an effort is made to explain a ritual whose origin was probably unknown even to those who practised it. The explanation is contained within the mentality of Old Europe.

    Before potatoes were introduced, corn was the major crop and this in various ways has left its mark on the celebration of the Feast of Brigid.
    Firstly, one of the chief materials used in the making of St Brigids Cross is straw. Straw suits and hats are often used by those taking part in the Br?¡deog procession from house to house. A ritual which emphasised corn as the great source of food for the people was that of placing a sheaf of corn on the doorstep on St Brigids Eve:

    Seo nós a bh?¡odh ag na seandaoine fadó. Nuair a bh?¡odh F?®ile naomh Br?¡d ann do th?®adh fear an t?¡ amach san o?¡che agus d fhaigheadh s?® punann choirce agus d fh?ígadh s?® ar leac an dorais ?¡. S?® an fath a dh?®anta?¡ ?® sin na nuair a thagadh Naomh Br?¡d chuig an doras an o?¡che sin agus nuair a fheiceadh s?¡ an phunann go gcuireadh s?¡ rath ar an gcoirce sin an bhliain sin (IFC 902; 108; Seán O Conaire, Druid Sn?ímh, M?ím, Contae na Gaillimhe, Narrator; Cait Ni Chonaire, Scribe).
    (Here is a custom which the old people had long ago. When the Feast of Brigid arrived, the man of the house used to go out on that night and get a sheaf of oats and set it down at the doorstep. The reason for doing this was, that when St Brigid arrived at the door that night, and when she saw the sheaf, she would put her blessing on this years crop of oats.)

    What is expressed here, is a belief fundamental to the cult of Brigid in Ireland - the belief that Brigid returns from the Otherworld on this night, that she visits the houses of those who venerate her, and that she bestows her blessing on various objects placed outside the door, notably Brat Bhr?¡de - a piece of cloth called St Brigids Cloak used for cures and protection.

    These objects, placed outside the door on St Brigids Eve, acquire special powers because Brigid has touched them. For an understanding of the rites, it is necessary to accept the visit of Brigid to the various houses as the cornerstone of the cult.

    In Castleisland, Co Kerry, the custom of the sheaf, sometimes accompanied by a cake, was in vogue, to keep out hunger during the year (IFC 899; 196). In an account from Co Donegal, emphasis is placed on the reason for the practice and also the pre-Christian element is indicated:

    A sheaf of corn and an oaten cake used to be placed on the doorstep on St Brigids Eve for the wee folk (fairies) and also as a thanksgiving for the plenteous grain-crop and for good luck during the following year (IFC 904; 178; William Gallagher, Socker, Narrator: Mrs Mary Starrit, Ednacarnon NS, Letterkenny, Scribe).

    This account belongs to the district around Cill Mhic R?®an?íin and the sheaf ritual is associated with the Old Religion. In this offering, it is acknowledged that the ancient deities, the Tuatha D?® Danann (Peoples of the Goddess Dana) have control over the fertility of the earth. In another part of the country, Cnoc F?¡rinne in Co Limerick, the sanctuary of Donn F?¡rinne, the Irish God of
    the Dead, similar offerings were made:

    On May Eve and Halloween girls lay gifts on the high fields, or at the foot of the Stric?¡n ... this was done probably on St Martins Eve (B?®al. 18: 155).

    Other gifts laid on the hill are mentioned by Thomas Ball:

    They bury eggs in hay, in crops of corn, and also parts of dead animals. All these customs prevail in all the districts within view of the remarkable hill (B?®al. 18, 156).

    This account shows also the importance of Imbolc within the Irish Ritual Calendar.

    Proceeding northwards from Cill Mhic R?®an?íin to Ros Goill we find another description of the rite of the the sheaf and the cake:

    Roimhe seo chuirt?¡ c?¡ste tri-choirneal agus punann coirce ar leac an dorais O?¡che le Br?¡de. Deirtear go gcoisriceadh Naomh Br?¡d an phunann coirce agus an c?¡ste. Faoi
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GNAS NA FEILE BRIDE - Rites of the feast of Brigid

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