The cros Bríde, or bogha Bríde,1 is traditionally made at the festival of Là Fhèill Brìghde, when it is hung up in the house for Brìde’s blessing and her protection against malevolent spirits, fire, lightning strike, sickness, and bad luck in general.2 Although usually referred to as crosses (or crosoga),3 they take a number of different forms; some of these are the typical “cross” form, while others are more reminiscent of triskeles, diamonds or ‘lozenges,’ or are more complex than a simple cross alone.
Traditionally it’s straw or rushes that are used to make the crosses (or sometimes wood), but folklorist Thomas Mason has also noted the use of leather, grasses, wire, and cloth.4 Today anything that’s workable will do: Pipe cleaners, wool, lollipop sticks, paper, ribbons, raffia… All kinds of things. There is also a tradition of drawing the crosses onto the side of buildings or onto the fore-arm or forehead of each person within the household, using a charred stick,5 and smaller crosses (often of less traditional styles) made be worn by children.6
All in all there are at least 23 different forms of cros Bríde recorded by T. G. F. Paterson,7 accounting for the different shapes, styles, and materials that might be used in making them, though there are surely many more than that (I’ve seen some examples with only two arms – essentially a v-shape – that aren’t listed by Paterson). Sean Ó Duinn, however, groups them all into seven main categories:
- The four-armed or ‘swastika’ type
- The three-armed type
- The diamond or ‘lozenge’ type
- The interwoven type
- St Brigid’s Bow
- St Brigid’s bare cross
- The Sheaf cross8
Of these, Paterson has noted that some of the plaited versions (the Sheaf Cross, as Ó Duinn calls them) have harvest knots fashioned into them, which are made from the last sheaf cut from the field at harvest-time (called the Cailleach or ‘Cailliagh’).9 The “interwoven type” generally consists of several crosses worked together onto a larger frame, as illustrated here from Henry Crawford:
Some examples of these interwoven crosses have even more crosses on them – Mason reports as many as fourteen in one example he saw during his research in the field – and the thought here is that “the more frequent the repetition, the greater and surer will be the blessing which ensues.”10 The “bare cross” defined by Ó Duinn may also be simply referred to as the Latin or Greek type – a cros Bríde that most closely resembles the Christian cross. There are also a number of other types of crosses that don’t fit neatly into any of the categories outlined by Ó Duinn, which we might lump into a “miscellaneous” category.11
Different areas tend to favour different styles of cross, with the three-armed version, for example, being centred around the north of Ireland in parts of Donegal, Armagh, and Antrim.12 Of them all, it’s the four-armed ‘swastika’ version that’s perhaps the most common and recognisable type of cross of them all because of its use in corporate logos by a number of different companies in Ireland (including the Department of Health).13 If you want to make one for yourself you could try researching which kind of cross is most traditional to the area of Ireland that you might claim ancestry from, perhaps.
In making the crosses, where rushes are used it’s said that they should be pulled and not cut.14 It’s clear here that the reason is that to cut them means exposing them to iron, which the spirits have an aversion to. They are usually collected during the day on January 31st, and are then left outside until the evening when they’re brought in with great ceremony, although who does this may vary. In some parts of Ireland it’s a member of the family who goes to gather the straw or rushes (usually in secret – no one must know what they’re doing), and it may be left to the man of the house to bring the materials in.15 In other parts (such as Galway and Aran) it’s traditional for the Biddy Boys to collect the rushes and then they bring them round to the houses and ask to be let in, in the name of Brìde:
Going up to the door, the boys shout seven times, “Leig asteach Brighid” (Lig aschiŏkh’ Breej), “Let Bridget enter,” while to each demand those within reply, “Leig a’s céad fáilte romhad” (Lig os caedh fawlcha roath), “Enter and a hundred welcomes before you.”16
In still other parts of Ireland (such as Donegal), it’s girls who have the job of bringing the rushes in, and they take on the role of Brìde themselves. In this case it’s usually the eldest daughter who does this, unless there is a younger child who shares her name with the goddess (or saint, depending on your point of view).17 Once the rushes are brought in, the crosses are made – one cross is made for the household, but children in particular might join in and make their own. Individual crosses that aren’t hung in the house may be carried around as personal protection, but needless to say there’s a definite element of competition amongst everyone who’s participating to see who can make the best cross. When they are finished they may be hung up or placed on the dinner table (some places eat first and then make the crosses, others do it the other way round). When placed on the table, the main dish of whatever is being served – traditionally something like pancakes, apple cake (made with potato rather than flour) or boxty – may be placed on top of the cross. The leftover rushes also remain on the table while dinner is eaten, presumably to impart their blessing on the food and those who eat it.18 Later, they may be used to make the leaba Bríde or ‘the bed of Bríde,’ where the brídeóg is laid.
The crosses are usually hung above the kitchen door, but may sometimes be hung on the chimney breast. As with almost every other element to the ceremonies associated with the making of the cros Bríde there are local variations to be found, and in Co. Leitrim a description of the rites involved tells us:
When the cross was made the head of the house went round the house with it and placed it in every window and door round the house and said at each entrance or window, “St Brigid save us from all fever, famine and fire.” He then came in and placed the cross over the kitchen door.19
Although not specified, this was presumably carried out deiseil (sunwise) about the house, and the description shows that it is clearly a saining rite. Here, instead of water or a rowan charm, it is simply the cros Bríde itself that provides the focus and agent for blessing and protection upon the household.
From Co. Sligo we have record of an Irish prayer that’s traditionally said as the cross is hung up, which goes:
I bhfad uainn gach olc is gach urchóid
I gcarn is i gclocha,
Is i mbeanna fuara fairrge.
(This may be rendered as: ‘May we be safe from every evil and harm on land and sea.’)20
As such a prayer is said they are also sometimes sprinkled with holy water, or else they might be taken to church for the priest to bless (although in this case any crosses made for cow sheds, byres and other buildings weren’t taken; only the cross for the house would be blessed).21 According to Kevin Danaher, one man he interviewed said that his grandfather would hang the cross up with a bag containing three slices of bacon “to ensure a year of plenty.”22
The old cross from the previous year is traditionally moved to make way for the new cross. In most cases the old cross is simply moved up to the rafters or to an outbuilding where they then accumulate.23 When a newlywed couple starts their married life in a new home it’s traditional for them to clear out the old crosses and start afresh. In many traditional houses, the number of crosses up in the rafters would show how many years the couple had been married, but in some parts of Ireland crosses that have begun to rot or are no longer able to stay in one piece may be taken down and buried out in the field to impart Brìde’s blessing on the crops that grow there (or the livestock who feed there). Alternatively, they are crumbled into dust between the fingers and spread over the land, or else they may be burned.24 According to Paterson, the reason for their being burnt isn’t clear, but it may be connected with the tradition of Brigid’s perpetual flame.25 Regardless of why this is done, the ashes may be kept for healing purposes for both livestock and people.26
The oldest written evidence that references the practice of the cros Bríde only dates back to the seventeenth century, according to John O’ Sullivan, although the author – a chaplain by the name of George Story, writes that the crosses were put up at Corpus Christi (a movable feast in the Christian calendar, which generally falls some time in May or June). All of the other details fit the description of the cros Bríde, however, and O’ Sullivan is of the opinion that the author was mistaken.27
Written evidence can only take us so far, however, and we can’t say for sure how old the tradition might be. Many of the folklorists and historians who’ve written on the subject have commented that there’s a definite air about them that’s non-Christian, though, and no wonder – the style and form of the crosses, their similarity to ancient symbols such as the swastika and the triskele,28 and the way the crosses are made and then hung up, accompanied by certain rites and prayers, has only reinforced this. Thomas Mason concludes:
“…I think the evidence points to the fact that not merely the crosses but the whole ceremony is a Christianized version of a pre-Christian custom… It is a curious mixture of non-Christian charms or magic combined with Christian beliefs and legends.”29
Those Christian beliefs and legends include the tradition that the crosses should be made with 12 pieces of rush, each one representing the Apostles.
Outside of the making and hanging of the crosses at the festival of Brìde, for the benefit and protection of the household, the crosses may also be made as gifts; to give a cros Bríde to a friend or loved one is to give them a blessing of Brìde herself and it’s considered to be a great sign of affection.30 The friends of newlyweds would place a cross in the thatch of their new home as they moved in, to bless the couple in their new life together.31
Making a cros Bríde
Although the discussion above has concentrated on the Irish evidence of the cros Bríde, the tradition can be found outside of Ireland; my husband and I both grew up with the tradition, both of us coming from strongly Irish-influenced areas and with strongly Irish-identified heritage. My sister and I were taught how to make the diamond or ‘lozenge’ type, though for some reason we made them in association with the beginning of Lent; my husband kept the tradition on the more usual date with the ‘swastika’ type. I’m not sure why I was taught the tradition for Lent (I wasn’t brought up especially religiously and can’t say I paid attention…) but Mason does note that the tradition of marking a cros Bríde onto the forearm or forehead was also observed on St Patrick’s Day as well.32
On the Isle of Man the crosses are known as the “Crosh Vreeshey,” and the traditions associated with the procuring of the rushes are identical to those found in Ireland – the rushes should be pulled and not cut, and the Threshold Ritual (where someone brings the rushes to the threshold and Brìde is then invited in) is observed, too. Here, the following invitation is said or sung as the person bringing the rushes into the house stands at the doorstep:
|Vreeshey, Vreeshey tar gys my hie,
Tar gys y thie aym noght.
Vreeshey,Vreeshey, tar, O tar gys y thie aym noght.
O foshil-jee yn dorrys da Breeshey
Al lhig da Breeshey cheet stiagh.
Vreeshey, Vreeshey, tar oo gys y thie aym noght.
|Breeshey, Breeshey, come to my house,
Come to my house tonight.
Breeshey, Breeshey, come, O come to my house tonight.
O open thou the door to Breeshey
And let Breeshey in.
Breeshey, Breeshey, come to my house tonight.33
Since there are so many different types of cros Bríde it’s difficult to give just one set of instructions. There are plenty of guides for the more popular four-armed type of cross, including videos such as this one:
The following instructions given below are for a three-armed triskele type cross. I follow the usual traditions and collect the rushes on the day of January 31st so they’re ready to use in the evening when they’re brought in with an invitation to Brìde. I avoid using any iron or steel in making the cros Bríde so I pull the rushes instead of cut them (it’s pretty easy to do), and I like to leave an offering of thanks after I’ve collected the amount of rushes I need.
To make a three-armed triskele type cross, the principle is pretty much the same as with the four-armed cross, except you start off with two rushes, both of which are folded in half (only one is folded in the four-armed version).
So to start, slot one of the rushes through the other:34
Moving sunwise, fold another rush in half and then slot it into place just next to the rush on the right:
You don’t need to worry too much about the shape at the moment but it does make it a little easier in the long run if you try to keep each of the arms spaced fairly evenly and where they’ll end up.
Take a fourth rush and fold it in half as usual. Slide your rush into place so one of your arms now has two rushes pointing that way:
Rotate deiseil (sunwise) and do the same again for the remaining two arms, so each of them now has two rushes:
Now you’re back to the first arm. Using a rush that’s folded in half, slot it into position, sliding it into place next to the second rush:
You want a nice triangle to start taking shape in the middle so it will look nice and neat. Now just keep going, adding a rush to each arm (always moving sunwise) until your cross has reached the desired thickness:
When you’re done, you want to make sure that any rushes that are sitting loose (like the rush to the top left in the picture above) is secured by sliding it through the outer fold, like so:
Tie off the end of each arm (I use loom bands or elastic bands) and cut the ends so each arm is finished neatly and they’re all the same length:
You can cut the ends to size using your fingernails or a sharp plastic or wooden knife to avoid using iron – to do so, it’s said, means the Good Folk and Brìde will stay away and they won’t give their blessing.
As you hang the cross in place – traditionally above the front door or chimney breast, but you could also hang it near your shrine if it takes the place of a hearth (for example) – say a prayer asking Brìde for her protection and blessing upon the household in the coming year. You can also sprinkle it with water (such as the skim of the well or tap from Bealltainn or Hogmanay, or water collected from a holy well, perhaps) as an act of saining and purification.
1 Translating to “Brigid’s Cross” and “Brigid’s Bow,” respectively. Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2004, p959.
2 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p268; Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p157; Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p18.
3 Henry Crawford, ‘Crosses of Straw and Twigs from County Roscommon,’ in JRSAI Vol 38 No. 4, 1908, p395.
4 If there’s a traditional wood (or woods) that’s used – one might presume it would be a protective wood such as rowan or birch, for example – it’s not usually specified by the folklorists writing about the crosses. Henry Crawford, however, noted that “they are sometimes made of peeled willow twigs…” I presume willow would be an appropriate wood of choice because it’s very flexible and easy to work with, but Crawford’s reference to it doesn’t mean that it’s the only wood that’s used and there’s no mention of whether its use indicates a deeper significance. O’ Sullivan gives examples of several multi-form crosses that use bog-wood – wood recovered from bogs, so of no specific type, in his article. In general, the preference for straw or rushes seems to be more to do with availabilty (straw being used in predominantly agricultural areas, rushes in predominantly pastoral) so presumably wood it the same. See Mason, ‘St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Volume 75 No. 3, 1945, p160; Crawford, ‘Crosses of Straw and Twigs from County Roscommon,’ in JRSAI Vol 38 No. 4, 1908, p395; O’ Sullivan, St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in Folk Life Volume 11 Issue 1, 1973, Plate 2a.
5 Mason, ‘St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Volume 75 No. 3, 1945, p162.
6 O’ Sullivan, St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in Folk Life Volume 11 Issue 1, 1973, p80.
7 Paterson, ‘Brigid’s Crosses in County Armagh,’ in Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society Volume 11, No. 1, 1945, Plates I and II.
8 Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p121.
9 ‘Such a cross presents to the mind a relationship with the harvest and makes one wonder whether Brigid took over some of the attributes of the Calliagh, besides those of her pagan namesake.’ Paterson, ‘Brigid’s Crosses in County Armagh,’ in Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society Volume 11, No. 1, p19; Mason, ‘St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Volume 75 No. 3, 1945, p166. The fact that there is an association between the Cailleach and Brìde here is very intriguing, especially considering their relationship in Scotland.
10 Mason, ‘St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Volume 75 No. 3, 1945, p164.
11 O’ Sullivan, St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in Folk Life Volume 11 Issue 1, 1973, p71; 80.
12 Mason, ‘St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Volume 75 No. 3, 1945, p162.
13 O’Riordan, ‘The Cult of St Brigid,’ in The Furrow Volume 2 No. 2, 1951, p91.
14 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p268; Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p157.
15 O’ Sullivan, St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in Folk Life Volume 11 Issue 1, 1973, pp65-66.
16 See Mooney, The Holiday Customs of Ireland, 1889, pp379-384.
17 Mooney, The Holiday Customs of Ireland, 1889, pp379-384; O’ Sullivan, St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in Folk Life Volume 11 Issue 1, 1973, pp65-66.
18 O’ Sullivan, St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in Folk Life Volume 11 Issue 1, 1973, pp65.
19 O’ Sullivan, St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in Folk Life Volume 11 Issue 1, 1973, pp67.
20 O’ Sullivan, St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in Folk Life Volume 11 Issue 1, 1973, pp67.
21 O’ Sullivan, St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in Folk Life Volume 11 Issue 1, 1973, pp67.
22 Mason, ‘St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Volume 75 No. 3, 1945, pp164-165.
23 Paterson, ‘Brigid’s Crosses in County Armagh,’ in Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society Volume 11, No. 1, 1945, p16.
24 O’ Sullivan, St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in Folk Life Volume 11 Issue 1, 1973, pp68-70.
25 25 Paterson, ‘Brigid’s Crosses in County Armagh,’ in Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society Volume 11, No. 1, 1945, p16.
26 O’ Sullivan, St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in Folk Life Volume 11 Issue 1, 1973, p71.
27 Writing in 1689: ‘I went abroad into the Country, where I found all the Houses deserted for several miles; most of them that I observed, had Crosses on the Inside above the Doors, upon the Thatch, some made of Wood; and others of straw or rushes, finely wrought; some Houses had more, and some less: I understood afterwards, that is the custom among the Native Irish, to set up a new Cross every Corpus Christi day; and so many years as they have lived in such a house, as many Crosses you may find; I asked a Reason for it, but the Custom was all they pretended to.’ O’ Sullivan, St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in Folk Life Volume 11 Issue 1, 1973, p62.
28 As noted in the article on Là Fhèill Brìghde, Evans suggests the three-armed crosses are evidence of older type crosses stemming from pagan times, being reminiscent of the triskele, with the four-armed crosses being adopted during Christian times. There’s no hard evidence for this but the fact that the triskele just isn’t a cross (if the cross is supposed to represent a Christian cross) doesn’t make it seem like the most Christian of choices.
Mason, in trying to procure a triskele-type cross from a farmer, was met with a lot of resistance and excuses leading him to conclude that the triskele form had ‘greater significance’ than the four-armed type. He noted that the four-armed swastika type was usually found in the home while the triskele-type was found in the byre, but Ó Súilleabháin contradicts this, saying this seems to be the exception rather than the rule, and specific styles of cross do not appeared to be favoured for certain uses. Mason, however, feels that the reluctance to part with a triskele-type cross is evidence of their pre-Christian and therefore more potent and authentic significance. Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p268; Mason, ‘St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Volume 75 No. 3, 1945, pp162-163.
29 Mason, ‘St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Volume 75 No. 3, 1945, p166.
30 O’ Riordan, ‘The Cult of St Brigid,’ in The Furrow Volume 2 No. 2, 1951, p91.
31 Concannon, ‘The Holy Women of the Gael,’ in The Irish Monthly Vol 45, 1917, p86.
32 Mason,’St Brigid’s Crosses,’ in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Volume 75 No. 3, 1945, p162.
33 See here.
34 This is how I make them but O’ Sullivan describes starting off with one rush folded in half with the other bent into the angles of where the second and third arms will be. Having said that, he gives two methods for making the swastika-type, one of which involves starting off as I do here (and then following on to make four arms instead of three). As with just about everything else, traditions and methods vary and there’s no real wrong answer here. p76-77.