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.