The conversion of the Pagan people of Ireland to Christianity began in the 5th century. The success of the missionaries is owed to their combining old Pagan practices with new Christian ones to assist people familiarise with the new religion. This article explores the combining of the Ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc with St Brigid's Day in Ireland and the customs and artifacts that remain today.
Christian events mirrored those important ones on the Pagan calendar: St Brigid’s Day coincided with Imbolc; St John’s Eve on 23 June was at midsummer; the Feast of Our Lady on 1 May was at the same time as Bealtaine and Garland Sunday, the last Sunday in July, is connected with Lughnasa. In Ireland there was a greater emphasis on Catholic female saints because in Pagan worship female goddesses were of equal significance with the male. As a consequence of this we still see a firm devotional following for Our Lady in Ireland and to St Brigid: Until the mid-twentieth century Mary and Brigid were the most popular names for Catholic girls.
A ‘dual’ festival with the focus on a female deity is the feast of St Brigid, falling on 1 February which is also the time of Imbolc. St Brigid a conventional Christian saint from Co. Kildare (noted for her cloak) shares her name with Brigid, an Ancient Pagan goddess, both associated with fertility, health and good fortune. Imbolc is an old festival that heralds the start of Spring and celebrates the lambing season (it translates to ‘in the belly’). In Ireland the worst weather occurred between November and February so St. Brigid’s Day signalled better weather and longer days. To rural farmers it meant new life on the farm and a return to the growing season.
Traditions on St Brigid’s eve include visiting holy wells dedicated to St. Brigid to collect holy water. It was believed to be more potent if collected on her feast day, and was sprinkled on objects, people and animals to offer them her protection.
Some left a piece of cloth outside for the night of St Brigid’s Eve. The belief was that it would be touched by St. Brigid, and bestowed with her power. This was known as the brat bríde and was worn within clothing or applied to the sick to promote healing.
In some parts of Ireland ‘Biddy Boys’ went from house to house with a straw effigy of the saint, dressed in white, collecting for a party in her honour. Sometimes included in their procession was a ‘St Brigid’s girdle’ a belt for the occupants of the house to pass through to ensure health for the coming year. Irish emigrants took such traditions with them to their new homes. Here is a wonderful description of one riotous procession by Irish emigrants in 1830s London:
“[They] scandalised the local shopkeepers by marching their pagan corn dolly effigy up [Kensington] High St and thrusting her in through shop doorways, sending refined customers for the smelling salts. Police chose not to confront the mob, but arrested the dummy and locked her in a cell until a woman turned up asking to collect her sister’s dress adorning the Celtic goddess” .
On St. Brigid’s Eve, crosses were made from soft rushes by the family which offered St. Brigid’s protection for the household, farm and land. The tradition remains today with Irish schoolchildren making the crosses and which are sometimes hung in Irish classrooms, homes, even cars. The most popular style is the four armed cross and design variations occurred in different regions. Three-legged crosses were made for buildings which contained animals, so that they too would be protected by St. Brigid (see illustration below).
The design of the Brigid’s cross has ancient origins. It has similarities with the swastika, an ancient motif that features on some European Celtic carvings. In addition, the central pattern bears similarities to the lozenge shape seen carved on many stone monuments erected by the first prehistoric farmers in Ireland. This central feature underlines its female and fertility characteristics also seen in Irish carved-stone Sheela-na-Gigs from the early medieval period (see illustration).
. Martin Hedges, ‘The worst slum in London’ Posted on July 25, 2016, https://actonbooks.com/2016/07/25/kensington-jennings-rents-rookery/ accessed on 20/01/17.
Pen and ink illustrations by the author.
The twelfth day after Christmas Day, 6th January, traditionally celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany, was known in Ireland as Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas). It was also known in parts of Ireland as Little Christmas. Tradition held that on this day roles were reversed in the home: men did the women’s work in the house while women rested and gathered together socially. The practise was stronger in rural areas, and in the Cork and Kerry areas of Ireland, with some in other regions professing to have never heard of the holiday.
From the mid twentieth century Nollaig na mBan died out but is slowly undergoing a revival. Hotels and restaurants are advertising ladies’ days and evenings out for the occasion, many featuring revivals of taking ‘afternoon tea’. The Herstory Project has chosen the date for their 2017 light projection festival which aims to highlight ‘ordinary women who did the extraordinary’, but who were forgotten by history.
The twelfth day of Christmas is noted in Ireland as the day before which it is considered unlucky to take down the Christmas tree and decorations. The date was also marked in history as the ‘Night of the Big Wind’ ( ‘Oiche na Gaoithe Moire’) in 1839 when a devastating hurricane hit Ireland leaving an estimated 100 dead and thousands homeless with mass structural damage throughout the country. It is cited as a reason that many Irish houses and cottages were from then were built in areas sheltered from the wind.
A notable literary association with this day is that James Joyce set the short story The Dead (1914) on the feast of the Epiphany in Dublin. It is said to be the greatest short story of modern English literature. If you consider Joyce’s work daunting, just reading the last paragraph alone will invoke the beautiful sense of peace one can have at Christmas, and reading it would be a fitting end to the festive season and a nod to the fresh beginnings of the New Year.
From The Dead by James Joyce:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
For more on the hurricane of 6th January 1839 see this article by Bridget Haggerty http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/ACalend/BigWind.html
The Dead by James Joyce. The full piece is available here http://www.online-literature.com/james_joyce/958/?utm_content=buffer64a88&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
More on Herstory: http://www.herstory.ie/home/
Photograph of players in stage adaptation of The Dead by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.