In Ireland, we celebrate St. Bridget’s Day on February 1st – the first day of spring. Her legacy is a cross of reeds, but there was much more to the woman and myth than we know.
Author Felicity Hayes-McCoy unravels St Bridget’s story of Irish legend, tradition and girl power.
As a child in Dublin I remember searching for the first primroses in the garden, and making a St. Bridget’s cross each year to hang above the hall door. Traditionally, the crosses are woven from rushes but, being an urban child, I suspect mine may occasionally have involved bendy plastic drinking straws.
In truth, St. Bridget’s Day is a festival more associated with the countryside than the cities. And it’s a perfect example of how myth and legend mingle and survive in Ireland, and how shared memories, reaching back across millennia, still preserve an oral culture rooted in Irish earth.
It’s said that Bridget was a pagan, the daughter of a slave, who was baptised by St. Patrick, became a nun and, because of her great piety, was appointed abbess of Kildare. Her Christian story is full of miracles and wonders. She lives on the milk of a pure white cow. She cures infertility in women and animals. She miraculously doubles a housewife’s store of butter and increases a farmer’s herds of cattle and sheep.
There are stories in which Bridget controls the weather and others in which water touched by her hand can heal the sick. And her Christian legend is full of images of fire. As a child I was told she could hang her cloak on a sunbeam. Later I read about a flame that kept burning for centuries in St. Bridget’s shrine in Kildare. Wonder tales like these are often associated with medieval saints. But in Bridget’s case they’re also links and clues to St. Bridget’s ancient genesis in Ireland’s Celtic past.
There may have been a real St. Bridget, or several holy women who shared that name. But the stories associated with the saint are echoes of the ancient, international, story of the Good Goddess, who appears in Celtic myths under many names. Where I live now, on the Dingle Peninsula, she’s called Danu, and her name survives in the Irish language name for the end of the peninsula, which is Corca Dhuibhne. It translates as The Territory of The People of The Goddess Danu.
Danu’s people were tribal Celts who brought her worship with them to Ireland along with their skill as herdsmen and their knowledge of farming crops. Danu was their fertility goddess whose powerful energy revitalised the earth each year in spring. There are stories of seeds waking to the pressure of her feet, and flowers springing up where her cloak touches the fields. She was a powerful personification of fertility and in Celtic mythology, her marriage to the shining sun god Lugh combined the elements of light, heat and water which brought life to the fields in springtime. Danu’s name means ‘water’. Without water nothing can grow so, for the Celts, she was an image of the essence of life itself. And she’s the prototype of the medieval St. Bridget, who controlled the weather, cured infertility, blessed the housewives’ labour and increased the farmer’s herds.
St. Bridget’s crosses woven from rushes are still hung over doorways in Ireland. For thousands of years they’ve invoked protection and blessing on households and animals. In the Christian tradition, the cross has four arms and recalls Christ’s crucifixion. But in some early images of Bridget the cross has three arms, recalling more ancient votive tokens that represented the sun. Linked by powerful images of fire and water, generosity and hope, Danu and Bridget symbolize patience and certainty in the face of anxiety and apprehension. Their stories enshrine Ireland’s centuries-old respect for the earth and traditions of food production and farming.
As a child looking for the first primroses of spring on St. Bridget’s day, I was enchanted by the idea of a saint who hung her cloak up on a sunbeam. Now I’m fascinated by the fact that the Christian legend of St. Bridget preserves the deep respect for balance that informed the pagan Celtic worldview. According to legend, St. Bridget founded two monastic institutions in Kildare, one for men and the other for women. They were equally important and co-dependent as centres for worship, art and scholarship. It’s a perfect echo of the balance expressed in the marriage of the sun god and the earth mother.
Felicity Hayes-McCoy’s memoir of her personal relationship with the Dingle Peninsula, The House on an Irish Hillside, is out now. You’ll find chat about the Irish language, myth and life in Dingle on the book’s Facebook page.