Là Fhèill Brìghde

Brigid at Brigid's Well, Kildare, July 2014

Brigid at Brigid’s Well, Kildare, July 2014

Throughout the Gaelic world Brìde is one of the most popular saints, and is commonly known as the foster-mother of Christ and midwife of Mary. An apocryphal tale tells of how Brìde was in Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth. She answered a knock on the door and found Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay, but was forced to turn them away. Before they left, however, she gave them water and some of her own bannock, seeing that they had had a long
journey. Once they had left, Brìde turned round to find the bannock miraculously whole and the stoup of water full again. Knowing something out of the ordinary was happening, Brìde went looking for the couple and, seeing a strange star in the sky, followed it and found them in the stable, where Mary was about to give birth. Full of compassion, Brìde went to Mary’s aid and helped deliver her child.1

It is because of the events in this tale that Brìde is given the day before Candlemas as her own festival. Candlemas celebrates the ritual purification of Mary after giving birth, since Mary was said to be so grateful to her for her help. In parts of Ireland, it is said that Brìde helped distract the crowd present when Mary brought Jesus to the temple by parading ahead of Mary wearing a headdress of lighted candles, and it was because of this that Mary decreed that Bride should have a festival dedicated to her on the day before Mary’s own.2

There is often some confusion over the dating of Là Fhèill Brìghde, which is often given the same date as the Christian festival of Candlemas, on February 2. However, bearing in mind the tradition of Brìde being Mary’s midwife, Là Fhèill Brìghde actually falls on February 1 (or February 13, Old Style) the day before Candlemas. Candlemas and Là Fhèill Brìghde are therefore not the same festivals.

Origins of Là Fhèill Brìghde

Traditionally, Là Fhèill Brìghde is not just dedicated to St Brìde, but it also marks the beginning of spring and the beginning of the agricultural season.3 It also – historically – marked the time when the very earliest lambs would be born, and therefore, since cows and sheep were generally left to go dry over the winter season, it marked the return of an abundance of milk – or the anticipation of it at least.4

In Ireland, Là Fhèill Brìghde came to replace, or fit seamlessly into, the pre-Christian festival of Imbolc or Oímelc. Cormac’s Glossary tells us that the name “Oímelc” refers to the lactation of sheep – “that is the time the sheep’s milk comes…” – but in a literal sense it is now generally accepted that the name simply means ‘milking.’5 Cormac’s reference to sheep’s milk is not so far off, given that this would be a time when sheep’s milk would start to become available, but the lore associated with the day is overwhelmingly related to that of cows and cow’s milk – perhaps not surprising since cattle, rather than sheep, were the most important source of income for a farmer, in addition to corn.

Whether Brìde has always been associated with the day (as a goddess, in the time before she came to be adopted as a Christian saint) is unclear, but the link between the ‘milking’ of Oímelc and the wealth of lore associating Brìde with cows and milk supply suggests some continuity in the transition between pre-Christian and Christian feast for both Scotland and Ireland. Since most cows were dry during the winter period, come January fresh milk would be scarce. However, from a practical point of view it would be common sense to let the cows go dry over the winter when there was very little for them to eat, and it would be a necessity anyway, to increase their chances of conceiving. Generally, cows wouldn’t go into calf until the late spring, when grass and other types of green vegetation would start to become abundant again, which would give the cows plenty of food to eat to make milk. This gave both the cow and the calf the best chance of surviving, and it also meant the cow could be kept in milk for the longest period of time, allowing the surplus to be used for human consumption.6

The return of milk, with the start of lambing, therefore symbolised the coming return of abundance in general. Cows’ milk – the main source of dairy – was a while off yet, but the sheeps’ milk was a welcome reminder that the calving would come next. Milk and dairy products became one of the natural focuses on celebrating and propitiating what was hopefully to come – a good harvest and wealth of produce in the coming year. As a staple of the Irish diet, the success of the lambing and then the calving season would be greatly anticipated, and that success could be taken to be an indication of how good the harvest might be later on. After all, good weather conditions would be needed for the well-being of the livestock just as much as the crops.

However, while dairy produce generally formed the focus of the feasting that traditionally takes place on the eve of Là Fhèill Brìghde, other customs are observed as well. Over all the customs are fairly universal between each of the Gaelic countries and the diasporan communities, though there are often marked local variations to be seen. Divination (particularly relating to the weather), the fashioning of a straw doll representing Brìde and the making of a bed for her somewhere in the house so that she could stay if she wished, and some form of ritualised invitation to her to come and bless the house can be found in all countries, for example. In Ireland, however, some customs – such as the fashioning of the Crios Bride (‘the Girdle of Brigid’)  seem not to have crossed over to Scotland.

Customs in Scotland

Being a Quarter Day, signs are closely watched for in the hopes of gaining a glimpse into what the year might hold on the morning of Là Fhèill Brìghde. As the start of the agricultural season, thoughts turn to what the weather might be like, since this will naturally affect the harvest (or dairying or fishing season) to come a great deal, so the signs to be sought after on this morning concentrate on what the weather might be like. A traditional Scots language rhyme indicates that a foul day signifies that warmer weather is soon to come:

Candlemas Day, gin ye be fair,
The half o’ winter’s to come and mair;
Candlemas Day, gin ye be foul,
The half o’ winter’s gane at Yule.

Alternatively:

Gin Candlemas be fair and clear,
There’ll be twa winters in the year.7

There are plenty of other rhymes, too, but they all encapsulate the same wisdom: A bright and fair festival morn indicates a bitter spring to come, while a day of foul weather indicates a warm one.

The main focus of celebrations take place on the eve of the feast, however, as is usual. Looking at the historical sources gives us an idea of how we might celebrate today – for those of of us who don’t necessarily have any family traditions to draw from. For most of us, Là Fhèill Brìghde is no longer a festival where the whole community joins in, with the parades or the Biddy Boys, but the descriptions of these communal events can tell us a lot.

Writing in the early twentieth century, Donald Alexander Mackenzie tells us that offerings were made “to earth and sea.” The offering could be milk, poured on the ground, or porridge, poured into the sea, to ensure a good yield of fish and seaweed in the year to come, depending on where you lived.8 As they gave, so they would (hopefully) receive.

Dealbh Brìde – Icon of Brigid – February 2008

Dealbh Brìde – Icon of Brigid – February 2008

Alexander Carmichael gives the fullest account of the communal rites in Scotland, telling of how in towns the girls – calling themselves the banal Brìde (‘the maiden band of Brìde’) – would fashion a brìdeag (‘Little Bride’) out of corn and dress it as elaborately as they could in specially made clothing, greenery, brightly coloured shells, crystals or anything else that seemed appropriate. Any flowers that were available could be used, such as snowdrops or primrose, but dandelions were especially appropriate since they were known as bearnan Bride, ‘The little notched of Bride’. In the Highlands, it was said of the dandelion that ‘the plant of Brìde nourishes with its milk the early lamb.’9

Over the dolls’ heart, the girls would place a particularly bright shell or crystal, and this was called reul-iuil-Brìde, ‘the guiding star of Brìde’ in reference to the star that led her to the stables where Mary gave birth. Once they had finished, the girls, dressed in white and with their hair down to symbolise their unmarried status, would take the brìdeag to every house in the town. Each person who answered the door was expected to give a gift to Brìde, which could be something to decorate the brìdeag with, or something for the girls to eat once they had finished visiting houses. Mothers would traditionally give out the bonnach Brìde (‘bannock of Brìde’ – perhaps echoing the bannock Brìde gave to Mary and Joseph), or else the cabag Brìde (‘Brìde’s cheese’), or rolag Brìde (a roll of butter dedicated to Bride). All the food collected would then go towards forming the féis Brìde (‘feast of Bride’), which would take place once all the houses had been visited. Initially the door to the house where the feast was taking place would be barred, and the boys in the town would come knocking and ask to be let in. After some good natured persuasion, they would eventually be allowed in and the feast and merriment would begin in earnest, with much dancing and story-telling taking place in the early hours of the next day. As the party broke up, any remaining food would be shared out “among the poorer women of the place.”10

Older women would not be idle either. As well as the traditional bonnach Brìde, which were made for the day, the women would make a leaba Brìde (‘bed of Brìde’) in the shape of an oblong cradle, into which they would place a sheaf of corn that had been made into the form of a woman. Like the brìdeag that the girls made to take around the town, the corn doll would be gaily decorated with whatever the women had to hand – brightly coloured ribbons, shells, stones and flowers. This doll was called the dealbh Bride (the icon of Brìde), and once it was finished one woman would take the doll outside:

…and standing on the step with her hands on the jambs, calls softly into the darkness, “Bride’s bed is ready.” To this a ready woman behind replies, “Let Bride come in, Bride is welcome.” The woman at the door again addresses Bride, “Bride! Bride, come thou in, thy bed is made. Preserve the house for the Trinity.” The women then place the ikon of Bride with great ceremony in the be they have so carefully prepared for it. The place a small straight white wand (the bark being peeled off) beside the figure.”11

The dealbh Brìde with slatag Brìde laid in the leaba Brìde, February 2011

The dealbh Brìde with slatag Brìde laid in the leaba Brìde, February 2011

This wand is usually made of birch, but can be of any wood that is not ‘crossed.’ It is invariably called the slatag Brìde (‘the little rod of Brìde’), slachdan Brìde (‘the little wand of Brìde’), or barrag Brìde (‘the birch of Brìde’). It is meant to represent the white wand that Brìde is said to use to make the vegetation start growing again as she goes about the countryside, or, as Carmichael puts it, “…her white wand is said to breathe life into the mouth of the dead Winter and to bring him to open his eyes to the tears and the smiles, the sighs and the laughter of Spring.”12

Once the bed had been prepared, the ashes in the hearth were smoothed out and then left overnight. The household would gather round on the morning of Là Fhèill Brìghde in order to look for any signs that Brìde had visited during the night. The footprint of Brìde (‘lorg Brìde’) was considered to be an especially good sign, but no sign at all meant that the saint had somehow been offended and so had not visited. That evening, incense would be burned to her at the household hearth, and an offering would be made.13

Martin Martin describes an almost identical practice taking place on the island of Colonsay in the late seventeenth century:

The mistress and servants of each family take a sheaf of oats and dress it up in women’s apparel, put it in a large basket, and lay a wooden club by it, and this they call Briid’s-bed; and then the mistress and servants cry three times, Briid is come, Briid is welcome. This they do just before going to bed, and when they rise in the morning they look among the ashes, expecting to see the impression of Briid’s club there; which if they do, they reckon it a true presage of a good crop and prosperous year, and the contrary they take as an ill omen.”14

It can be seen, then, that the main focus of customs for Là Fhèill Brìghde traditionally involve women, rather than men – almost the complete opposite of Lùnastal, which is often said to be a very ‘masculine’ festival (though make of that what you will).

Most of these customs are fairly transparent – the aim is to propitiate Brìde and ensure a good milk supply for the coming year. In this light, it makes sense that the focus of activities involves women, rather than men, who generally had no involvement in the production of milk themselves (i.e. breastfeeding), or involvement in the milking and churning process of cow’s milk (though children did help out, regardless of sex).

There is one tradition, however, that is not so transparent, and this is ‘the rite of the serpent’ as F Marian McNeill calls it.15 According to Alexander Carmichael, a serpent (probably an adder, being the only poisonous snake in Britain) was said to emerge early on the first day of spring. A rhyme tells us:

Early on Bride’s morn
The serpent shall come from the hole,
I will not molest the serpent,
Nor will the serpent molest me.15a

Carmichael and McNeill have little to say on the matter of what the serpent might represent, but Ronald Black suggests: “It would be fair I think to see these rhymes in Frazerian terms as depicting the sterile, even poisonous, spirit of winter – the last vestige of the previous year’s cailleach which must leave the ground unmolested before any attempt can be made at ploughing. What they are essentially telling us is that once St Brigid’s… is over, it is safe to begin testing the ground to see if it isair dàir (‘on heat’)…”16

In support of this idea, one can point to the saying recorded by Carmichael relating to the beginning of the spring season: “Mary put her fingers in the water on Bride’s Feast Day and the venom went out of it and on Patrick’s Feast Day she bathed her hands in it and all the cold went out of it.” Here the venom here is ice, which is supposed to pose no further threat after Là Fhèill Brìghde, but the cold is still a problem until later on in March. The saying echoes the tradition of Brìde and the Cailleach, where Brìde is supposed to take over the mantle of ruling the spring season from the Cailleach, ruler of the winter season, on February 1, but the Cailleach does not give up the fight easily and is said to go around raising storms and blasting vegetation with her wand until she is finally overcome at St Patrick’s Day, or March 25 (which was traditionally the beginning of the new year before January 1 was adopted, and marked what was thought to be the equinox). In one tradition, “On the day which is of equal length with the night, ” Brìde was said to dip “…her fair white hands in the high rivers and lochs which still retained ice. When she did so, the Ice Hag feel into a deep sleep from which she could not awake until summer and autumn were over and past.”17

Comparing the venom of a serpent (presumably an adder, being the only poisonous snake in Britain) to ice is not such a stretch when we consider further lore that has been recorded. Carmichael further describes the case of a Mrs MacLeod, a guest on Skye, who, when she realised it was Là Fhèill Brìghde, took a peat from the fire in the hearth outside, put it in her stocking and then proceeded to beat it on the doorstep of the house with a pair of tongs from the fire. As she did this, she said a rann with a verse similar to the one recorded by Carmichael above:

This is the day of Bride,
The queen will come from the mound,
I will not touch the queen,
Nor will the queen touch me.18

The other verses were not recorded, but the use of the term ‘queen’ (an rìghinn) is interesting. Gregorson Campbell notes that in Argyllshire and Perthshire serpents were often referred to as “the daughter of Edward”, whereas in Skye they were called an rìbhinn (the damsel), “in both cases the name is probably a mere euphemism suggested by the rhyme to avoid giving unnecessary offence to the venomous creature.”19 Ronald Black quotes a correspondent from Stornoway, writing in 1981, who remembers his grandmother saying “Air latha Fhéill Brìghde/ Thig an rìoghann ás an toll” (On St Brigid’s day/ The rìoghann comes out of the hole). Here the rìoghann means ‘supple one’, which the correspondent took to mean that the snake simply came out of hibernation at the beginning of spring.20 The similarity of rìoghann, rìbhinn and rìghinn is striking, however.

It is apparent that the stocking of peat is meant to represent the serpent, but other than that scholars have been hard pressed to comment further on the significance of the tradition. Carmichael writes: “The pounding in the stocking of the peat representing the serpent would indicate destruction rather than worship, perhaps the bruising of the serpent’s head. Probably, however, the ceremony is older, and designed to symbolise something now lost.”21

Serpents are not generally viewed favourably in Gaelic lore (think of St Patrick driving out all the snakes in Ireland, for example), so presumably the rite was of a protective rather than propitiatory nature against them and whatever they stood for. It was said that a serpent should be killed whenever one was encountered, otherwise it was a sign of evil, and that the head should be smashed in and removed from the body, otherwise the snake would not die. It was said that the head would reattach itself to the body, and would then become a beithir, the deadliest and largest kind of snake to be found. A man bitten by a snake should run to a body of water as fast as possible, before the snake did, otherwise he would die.22

However, serpents (dead ones, anyway) were also associated with healing. ‘Serpent stones’ (clach nathrach) were a sort of bead used in healing rites to cure diseases for people or livestock, or else they were used to aid women in labour or to protect against enchantment. The sloughed skin (cochall) of a snake, or the severed head, could also be used for healing according to Gregorson Campbell. Either the stone or the skin was placed in water, which was then given to the patient – person or animal – to drink in order to aid healing, presumably after a charm had been sung over it.23 It was commonly thought (in the time of Campbell et al) that these stones had once been used by the druids themselves, and so they were sometimes also called ‘druid beads.’

It could be speculated, then, that serpents were on the one hand associated with druids and protective or healing rites, whilst on the other hand they were associated with evil, venom and death – and as we’ve seen above, with the harshness of winter itself. Could this indicate the purpose of the rite – to protect on the one hand against diseases in the coming year, which would naturally affect the milk supply, or on the other hand, against the evil influences and the dark season of winter that serpents were thought to represent? Since the Quarter Days – particularly Bealltainn and Samhainn – were associated with an undertone of supernatural danger, and protective rites were common during these times, it may be the case that here we have recorded some sort of rite of protection and expression of the spring season triumphing over the winter season, the meaning of which had been lost to most people even in the time that it was witnessed.

Customs in Ireland

As Là Fhèill Brìghde traditionally heralds the first day of spring, as well as the start of the fishing season, it is said that Brìde sets her foot in water so that it will warm up. By the time of her festival, the storms at sea are meant to have subsided, allowing the fishermen to get out to sea once again, and farmers and fishermen alike will look to see which way the wind is blowing in order to determine the prevailing wind for the year to come. Farmers look out for signs of improving weather as an indication that good weather was to come, although an unusually fair day was meant to signal very bad weather to come, just as it does in Scotland. Since ploughing was dependent on finer weather, many farmers turn over a sod of earth or two in a symbolic act to hurry up the warmth.24

As in Scotland the historical traditions associated with the day are overwhelmingly concentrated on the traditionally “feminine” aspects of life, domesticity and fertility, and there are both communal and domestic customs recorded. Even so, Là Fhèill Brìghde was ‘a holiday from turning’, and so anything that required turning or spinning was forbidden – there was no weaving, ploughing, spinning or carting permitted. Some said the reason for this was that it was out of respect for Brìde, who had shown women how to spin wool to make clothes, and therefore: “On this one day, then, they refrain from spinning out of reverence for Brigid and to express their esteem.”25 Presumably this prohibition then extended to anything else that involved spinning or turning in general, and dire consequences were predicted for those who broke with tradition and ignored it, although sayings such as “Perhaps nothing would grow in the land that was turned over (ploughed) on Saint Brigid’s Day”26 suggest that the prohibition ties in well with the areas of Brìde’s expertise as saint and goddess – in this case, her power over fertility, which was often propitiated in the rites associated with her festival.

It was customary for houses to be spick and span for the day, and housewives would open their cupboards and take stock of the supplies they had left. Many households would bring water from a well dedicated to saint Brìde and sprinkle it around the house, the farm buildings, fields, livestock and family members, invoking a blessing of the saint as they did so.27

Even in the worst years when supplies were low, housewives would aim to make a feast for the eve of the festival, and favourite foods such as sowans (always appropriate since it didn’t require much in the way of ingredients), apple-cake, dumplings and buttery colcannon were laid out, and naturally butter – fresh if possible – and lamb or mutton, bacon or fowl would feature as well. A special cake called bairín-breac was made, and drink and tobacco would be passed around all those invited to join in the festivities as the evening went on. Most important in later lore was the making of some form of mashed potato, colcannon or poundies (bruítín – mashed potato, butter and onion), and it was often customary for the whole family to be involved in the mashing.28

Brìde was widely believed to be present at these feasts and so a place was laid for her.29 Even so, most households would leave a portion of the cake, porridge, butter, water, salt or bread and butter outside for Brìde as an offering during the night,30 or alternatively it was meant for the Gentry:

“A sheaf of corn and an oaten cake used to be placed on the doorstep on St Brigid’s Eve for the ‘wee’ folk (fairies) and also as a thanksgiving for the plenteous grain-crop and for good luck during the following year.”31

Another description of the practice describes the cake as being three-cornered, presumably to represent the Trinity.32 Often the offering would be brought back in to the house in the evening before bedtime and then shared out amongst the household in order to impart the blessing of the saint on everyone, or else it was kept to be used later when needed, since it was believed to have been imbued with curative properties from the saint herself.

Since Brìde is widely believed to go from house to house with her favourite white cow, a sheaf of corn might also be left out for its refreshment, and rushes might be left on the doorstep so she would have somewhere to kneel as she left her blessing. In the same way the cake was then eaten by the household, the corn might be fed to the cows to impart Brìde’s blessing on them as well. However, in some parts instead of a cake being left out, a sheaf of corn and a potato might be left out for blessing instead. At bedtime they were brought back in and kept until it was time to start sowing, and so the corn would be mixed in with the other seeds and sown, and the potato would be cut and sown along with the rest of the crop, whilst Brìde was invoked for blessing and protection against diseases in order to ensure a good harvest.33

Other items might be left out for Brìde to bestow her blessing on as well, and these included ribbons, handkerchiefs, items of clothing or special pieces of cloth reserved for the occasion, the brat Bríde. Ribbons would be tied to a tree or bush for, and it was said that the longer the ribbon grew over night, the bigger the blessing the saint had bestowed. Any items of clothing were put in a basket and left outside.34 One person describing the custom said:

When everybody in the house had gone to bed, the man of the house would take some article of clothing belonging to each member of the family, and place it outside, so that if St Brigid were passing by she would have clothing to keep her warm while visiting the houses that honoured her. The doors used to be kept open, also, and a fine fire burning, so that Brigid could come in and warm herself.”35

Whatever item was used, the aim was the same in that the blessing Brìde gave them would then mean they were useful for healing, protection against the evil eye or children being abducted by fairies, aid during childbirth, an aid for conception, or else as a means to protect an unmarried girls’ virginity. They could also be used to ensure a good supply of milk in cows, and help during calving, lambing and foaling.36

In some places it was said that anything blessed by Brìde would lose its properties if it was washed during the course of the year. In order for the mantle to retain its power long term, however, some people believed it would need to be left out for Brìde each year. Others felt the brat would retain its blessing forever, and it would grow more potent as the years went by – reaching its greatest power after seven years.37

Cros Bríde

Cros Bríde by Stephen

The brat is a custom most commonly associated with the women and girls of the house, whereas in other cases it was often the man of the house that left the items outside, just before bed. The cloth intended to be the brat Bríde was supposed to be unwashed. It was left outside on a bush (whitethorn is mentioned in one example, for instance, which was often associated with the Otherworld) on the eve of the festival and then brought back in before bed, after Brìde had touched it and bestowed her blessing on it. The brat would then be torn into pieces and given to each female member of the household for protection in the coming year. Some families would sew pieces of the cloth into young girls’ clothes in order to preserve their virginity. Sometimes, however, the brat was kept whole and would be used by handy women during childbirth or even calving, and used for healing as well. During labour the brat would be placed on the woman’s head to help ease the pain, or for cows it would be laid on their rump.38

A tradition that is still widely observed today is the fashioning of a cross made of rushes or straw (or sometimes wood, though today other materials like wool and pipecleaners may be just as appropriate to use), which was called the cros Bríde. This is traditionally made on the eve of the festival by members of the family, and if rushes are used it is often said that they are supposed to be pulled and not cut as they are gathered, “and so the use of an iron reaping hook was avoided”39 – and therefore the blessing of the Good Folk and the saint will not be deterred. This is not always the case, however, with one person saying: “Crosses…are made from green rushes, and the rule is that you must have them cut and left on the doorstep before the sun sets.”40

The form the crosses took varied across the country in style and complexity, and Seán Ó Duinn lists seven main types in total:

  1. The four-armed or ‘swastika’ type
  2. The three-armed type
  3. The diamond or ‘lozenge’ type
  4. The interwoven type
  5. St Brigid’s Bow
  6. St Brigid’s bare cross
  7. The Sheaf cross41

St Brigid’s bow takes the form of the cross inside a circle, and is usually made of straw. The bare cross is made to clearly represent the cross that Jesus died one, whereas all the others are equal-armed. The sheaf cross is made from sheafs of corn rather than rushes or plain straw.

Some areas favour a three-armed cross, whereas other areas typically favour a four-armed cross; the Three-armed type cros Brídefour-armed types might vary by becoming more elaborate with several crosses being woven onto each arm, and so on. 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.42 Although the symbol of the three- (or four-, for that matter) armed cross does seem to share its style with pre-Christian symbols and art, there is no evidence of such crosses being found from this period, and documentary evidence mentioning them can only be found as far back as the eighteenth century.

One of these early references, from 1735, mentions the purpose of the cross:

St Bridget’s cross hung over door
which did the house from fire secure
as Gillo thought, O powerful charm
to keep a house from taking harm;
and tho’ the dogs and servants slept,
by Bridget’s care the house was kept.
(Hesperi-Neso-Graphia)43

Similar to the beliefs associated with the crosses of rowan and red thread that are made at the festivals in Scotland, the cros Bríde is also meant to protect from lightning, and no evil spirit is meant to be able to pass it. Traditionally, the cross is meant to be hung above the front door, or else it might be hung on the chimney breast.44

Rituals associated with the fashioning and hanging of the crosses have been recorded, and these tend to vary slightly from place to place. In southern Ireland, the folklorist Kevin Danaher (writing in the 70s) says that one cross was usually made per household, which was then sprinkled with holy water and hung over the door as a prayer was said for blessing and protection during the coming year. Some households in some parts of Ireland made two crosses, one for the house and one for the byre, however, although elsewhere the cross from the previous year was moved from the house to the byre to make way for the new one, or otherwise it was placed in the rafters of the roof along with a collection of others from past festivals. Alternatively, the cross of the previous year might be buried or burnt.45 

Danaher records a much more elaborate style of ritual for the northern half of Ireland, whereby a girl representing Brìde went out of the house and then seeks to be let in (though more commonly it seems to have been the man of the house who performed this). Holding rushes, she knocks three times, each time asking for admittance. On the third attempt she is welcomed in and lays the rushes on the table, and then everyone sits down for dinner and grace and thanksgivings are said. Once the crosses have been made they are sprinkled with holy water and placed above the door as in the southern half of Ireland. In a slight variation of this, a pot of potatoes was placed on the rushes after they were laid on the table, and the contents of the pot were mashed in situ. Evans elaborates on a few more specifics of their making, saying that they were fashioned from left to right, with the sun – a theme that will crop up again in the crios Bríde.46

While the crosses generally stay put for the whole year, they might be removed at certain times in order to lend their blessings to activities like sowing the new crops. Séamus Ó Cathaín mentions that such crosses would be placed in baskets of seed potatoes, which was then taken to the field for blessing. The blessing of the cross was effectively contagious, in the same way as any oats or potatoes that had been left out would spread their blessing to the rest of the crop and ensure a good harvest.47

In households where a young couple had recently married, a straw cross might also be fashioned by the mother of the house, of which each end was burnt. The cross was then placed under the bed of the couple in order to ensure children for the newlyweds.48

Any leftover materials from the crosses were used to make Brìde’s bed (which were sometimes even made from crosses), or else placed on the doorstep for Brìde to kneel on as she gave her blessing, and these were then kept and used for healing headaches or sore limbs by tying strands around the affected area and left on overnight. Sometimes leftover straw might be used as bedding in the byre, but whatever the material it was never just thrown away. Rush lights were often made for each member of the family, and it was said that whichever person’s candle went out first would be the first to die.49

The leaba Bhríde, or Brìde’s Bed, is an Irish as well as Scottish custom. One woman, describing how it was done (recorded by the Irish Folklore Commission) said:

Another old lady still makes a St Brigid’s Bed but it is made of the ends cut off the rush crosses. All the ends are put in a corner in the form of a bed and covered by a white linen sheet. After the bed is made, this old lady when night falls, goes to the door and says in a loud voice: ‘Come Saint Brigid’ and returns to the rush bed leading imaginatively St Brigid by the hand.”50

In some places, the bed might be made out of birch twigs instead of rushes, or else the last sheaf of the previous harvest might be used. Elsewhere, beds are made out of crosses, rather than the leftovers, and then sprinkled with water and the rosary said by it. If no sign of the saint having stayed during the night is seen, a cross from the bed might be hung outside the door the next evening – presumably for a late blessing in case she had been delayed the night before. Otherwise, leftover straw or rushes that have been used to make the bed are then incorporated into equipment for livestock, such as spancels.51

brídeóg is also made on the eve of Là Fhèill Brìghde, and again, as in Scotland it was traditionally made from straw which was then nicely decorated. Alternatively a child’s doll was co-opted for the purpose, and today any kind of materials that come to hand can be used. The churn dash was also popularly used as the basis of the body for the effigy, which was then dressed in padded clothes to make it more lifelike, and a turnip or piece of painted cloth might be used to make the head.

While some communities made an effort to make as realistic an effigy as possible, other parts made deliberate efforts to make theirs as grotesque as possible. Other communities made no effort to make an effigy at all, and instead a girl was chosen to represent the saint. The brídeóg was then paraded from house to house, by unmarried girls, with the prettiest appointed as the person who actually carried the figure (or was the figure herself). In southern parts boys might parade the brídeóg, dressed as women, or else it would be a group of children, or a mixture of children and adults, men and women.52

At each house the party, called Lucht na Brídeoige, might hand out crosses, or else they would perform entertainments in return for money or other more traditional donations like eggs or cakes for the ‘Biddy.’ Boys would exhort the people to make a donation with rhymes like:

Something for poor Biddy!
Her clothes are torn.
Her shoes are worn.
Something for poor Biddy!53

It was considered bad form for the Lucht na Brídeoige to refuse a donation, and once the parading had been completed, the party would return to the house and feast and make merry on the proceeds.54

This theme of charity for poor Biddy in her torn clothes and worn shoes was also reflected in the belief in some parts of Ireland that any person who arrived at a house asking for help was the saint herself in disguise. Some households would even set a place at the table and leave the door open at night for anyone in need.55

In the north of Ireland the brídeóg was less popular, but the custom of the Threshold Rite – going to the door to formally invite Brìde in – was prevalent. Ó Duinn outlines the general form it took:

  1. Before sunset on 31st January, rushes are cut and placed in a bundle outside the door.
  2. While this is taking place outdoors, potatoes are being prepared, boiled and mashed in a pot indoors.
  3. When this is ready, the man of the house or somebody else goes outside, closes the door after him, takes the bundle of rushes in his arms and recites the threshold dialogue with those within the house.
  4. When the dialogue is completed, the door is opened by the woman of the house wearing a veil.
  5. The man/woman enters carrying the bundle.
  6. He/she deposits the bundle of rushes under the pot – presumably the bundle was laid on the floor and the pot was placed on top of it.
  7. The supper then takes place, the mashed potatoes being taken from the pot resting on the bundle of rushes.
  8. When supper is over the pot is removed.
  9. The members of the family divide the rushes among them and proceed to make St Brigid’s crosses.56

In some cases the person holding the rushes outside would walk around the house in a sunwise direction three times. As Ó Duinn suggests, given the fact that the dialogue held at the threshold often involved asking to be let in to the house three times, it is likely that the Car Deiseal (‘sunwise turn’) was a common part of the rite across Ireland but only survived in certain parts.57

Looking at the summary, we can refer to Ó Cathaín’s thoughts on what the ritual of the Threshold Rite, the feast, and the subsequent fashioning of the cros Bríde represents:

Union and regeneration are symbolic themes which dominate the three central phases of the festival celebrations in honour of Brigit. The chain of symbolic actions begins with the male partner – then man of the house – seeking admission to his home in the name of Brigit. He orders those within to go on their knees, open their eyes and admit Brigit – in other words, to be prepared to submit themselves to the process of impregnation through the good offices of the goddess who rules over such matters. The commencement of this process is gladly welcomed by those within. The second phase consists of feasting, the centre-piece of which is butter, the product of churning – an imitation of the act of sexual intercourse – represent creation. The appearance of the butter may be taken to stand for the arrival of the much hoped for product of that sexual union. The implements used for churning also carry their own obvious sexual message: the churn and churn dash representing the female and male sexual organs respectively…The third and final phase of the festival celebrations, that which centres upon the weaving of crosses in honour of Brigit, is dominated by the symbolism of the cross an object which…was plainly perceived in folk tradition as possessing the potential to promote fertility.”58

It is presumed by many scholars that the habit of turning sunwise (found in Scotland as well) is a pagan hangover, but it also fits in nicely with Christian superstition that the right is positive whereas the left is negative. Another custom that may have elements of paganism to it is the tradition of the crios Bríde, a large ring commonly made of a straw rope. These were usually 8-12 feet long and where the straw was tied together the ends were formed into the shape of a cross. Some had three or even four crosses woven onto them (at each cardinal point) according to localised tradition.59

The crios Bríde, Brìde’s girdle/belt, was often processed around the community along with the brídeóg, and people were supposed to step through it in order to be blessed by Brìde and ensure protection against illness in the coming year. Larger girdles might be made for cattle to be passed through as well, for the same reason and in Co. Galway they were hung on the door of the byre for the cows to walk through. The general formula for the ritual was simple: On being presented with the crios, the person would kiss the cross that was foremost (if there was more than one), and then he or she would lift it over their head and let it fall on the floor around them so they were standing in the middle of the circle. They are then supposed to step out of the crios with their right foot first, and goes through the rite two more times.60

Ó Duinn gives an interesting interpretation of the meaning of the ritual:

It is clear that the ‘surrounding’ of the person by the crios – above, below and all around (the four point of the compass) – is of supreme importance in this rite…This appears to be a piece of archaic Celtic cosmology in which the world is enclosed between sky, earth and sea. The sky can break its boundaries and invade the land in lightening, the earth can break its boundaries by splitting open in earthquake and volcanic eruption and the sea can invade the land in flooding. To maintain harmony in the universe each of these mighty forces must be kept within its own set boundaries.”61

In addition, assuming the person would be standing at the centre of a crios with four crosses, one at each cardinal direction, this could be interpreted as representing the four cardinal points and the centre – the five earthly directions that can be applied to the five coiceda (fifths), or provinces of ancient Ireland. Thus it could be said that the person is reaffirming their position within the social and political landscape – their position within their immediate society of kin, which relates to the position of their kin within the wider context of the political divisions found in Ireland.62

The cosmological aspects of this ritual can also be compared to the tradition of lorica (lúireacha) prayers like St Patrick’s Breastplate (also known as The Deer’s Cry), which symbolically surround the person with the word of God, as a protection. As the words surround the person in the prayer, so does the girdle.

Summary

It can be seen, then, that Là Fhèill Brìghde, or Imbolc as it was once known in Ireland, celebrated the first signs of the return of fecundity to the land. While stocks in the larder ran low, hope was offered in the first lambs of the season bringing with them a little milk, a sign that soon the cows would calve and therefore the main source of sustenance over the summer would be available once again.

Customs associated with the day – or more properly, the eve of the festival onwards – were all aimed at celebrating and propitiating the saint and ensuring a good harvest and supply of milk in the year to come. Brìde was expected to walk the earth once more – not something commonly associated with any Christian saint and perhaps evidence of her pagan origins – bestowing blessings upon the people, their livestock and seeds for the year to come. Naturally thoughts would also turn to the health and well-being of people and livestock, and so customs also centred around ensuring health and protection from illness and ill intent, such as the brat Brídein Ireland.

As Ó Cathaín puts it, “There is nothing in the water or in the ground that is not thinking of propagating by the Feast of St Brigid.”63


References

1 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p580.
2 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p38.
3 Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen, 1994, p129; Campbell, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2000 p541; Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p13.
4 Today the lambing season generally starts around Easter time, but before that shift in the medieval period the lambs would come earlier – or at the very least some of the lambs would so as to make some milk available for human consumption; even if the lambs succumbed to the cold the sheep would still be producing milk that could be used. Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen, 1994, p129; McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p19/28.
5 Ó Catháin, ‘The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman,’ Celtica 23, p 243.
6 Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen, 1994, p131; O Cathain, ‘The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman,’ Celtica 23, p238-239.
7 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p30.
8 Mackenzie, Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, 1917, p19.
9 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p581/584; McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959. p28.
10 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p582.
11 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p582.
12 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p583/585.
13 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p583.
14 Martin Martin, A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland.
15 See McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p27.
15a Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume I, 1900, pp164-173.
16 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p379.
17 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p585; McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p20; Mackenzie, Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, 1917, p47-48.
18 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p583.
19 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p122.
20 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p379.
21 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p584.
22 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p122.
23 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p122/219-220; McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, 1957, p91-92.
24 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p270; Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p14.
25 Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p177.
26 Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p179.
27 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p15.
28 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p15; Ó Cathaín, ‘Brigit the Holy Woman,’ p251.
29 Ó Cathaín, ‘The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman,’ p249.
30 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p15-16; Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p27-29.
31 Quoting from IFC 904; 178, Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p27.
32 Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p27.
33 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p15/16.
34 Ó Cathaín, ‘The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman,’ p234-235; Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p33; Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p35.
35 Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p37.
36 Ó Cathaín, Brigit the Holy Woman, p235-236; Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p33.
37 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p32.
38 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p33; Ó Cathaín, ‘The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman,’ p234; Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p137.
39 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p268; Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p157.
40 Quoting IFC 904;179, Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p97.
41 Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p121. See also The article that accompanies the illustrations linked to above.
42 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, 268.
43 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p18.
44 Ibid; Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p99/p268.
45 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p19; Paterson, ‘Brigid’s Crosses in County Armagh,’ in Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society Vol. 11, No. 1, 1945, pp. 15-20.
46 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p20-21.
47 Ó Cathaín, ‘The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman,’ p252.
48 Ó Cathaín, ‘The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman,’ p252-253.
49 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p23; Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p33.
50 Quoting IFC 904; 310, Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p49.
51 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p270; Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p48-49.
52 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p24.
53 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p29.
54 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p30.
55 Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p37-38.
56 Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p97-98.
57 Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p101.
58 Ó Cathaín, ‘The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman,’ p254-257.
59 Ó Cathaín, ‘The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman,’ p248; Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p145; Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p34-35.
60 Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p145/151; Ó Cathaín, ‘The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman,’ p248; Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p34-35.
61 Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p147.
62 Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p147.
63 Ó Cathaín, ‘The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman,’ p237.