27 Jun 2022

COLUMN: Pagan goddess or Christian saint, Brigid is an enduring symbol of empowerment

The way we celebrate Brigid is changing but her values are as relevant as ever

Kildare's Féile Bhríde has large range of online events to celebrate St Brigid's Day

Statue of St Brigid in Kildare town

The way in which St Brigid’s Day is marked has been changing in recent years. 

Her symbolism has become not only about female empowerment but about the balance, equality and harmony from which her strength was drawn. 

Brigid was never just one element. She represented fire and water; she bridged winter and spring; her legend spanned pagan and Christian faiths. She was a patron - or indeed, matron - saint not only to women but to medieval knights, to poets and to healers all over the world.

In a world where we are desperately trying to rise above duality and division, misogyny, gender violence, racism, cancel culture and more, the values represented by Brigid are desperately needed.

Little wonder then that she is more relevant than ever, regardless of one’s religious beliefs. 

Remarkably, St Brigid’s Day traditions have survived the changing world and the ways in which our matron saint is celebrated. And in the true spirit of Brigid, it is very humbling and grounding to sit with family or the wider community, weaving simple rush crosses in the way that has been done by our people for more than 1,500 years. 

Pre Christian Brigid and Imbolc

The feast day of St Brigid is celebrated on Imbolc, the pagan festival of spring. February 1 is still considered the first day of spring in Ireland, in variance to many of our close neighbours who say spring starts in March.

In pagan terms, ‘Brigid’ means ‘Exalted One.’ It seems that the name was used as a general term for goddesses as well as being a title for Brigid herself. This version of Brigid can be seen in traditions all across Europe. 

She was closely associated with learning and poetry, both of which were highly thought of in ancient Irish society. 

Brigid was also linked to a mythical creature that transformed from an ugly hag into a beautiful woman at the mid-point between the winter solstice and spring equinox, symbolising the change of season from winter to spring.

The healing power of the goddess Brigid was invoked in times of illness. This is perhaps the strongest link between the stories from pre-Christian times and the belief in the Christian saint.

St Brigid

The Christian St Brigid was born in Louth in 457AD and was the daughter of Dubtach, a nobleman. Her mother is thought to have been a slave in Dubtach’s household.

The young Brigid became a nun along with seven other women. The story goes that she was mistakenly consecrated a bishop. Brigid was certainly a powerful, determined woman who became an Abbess in County Kildare and was linked to many miracles.

One of the most recounted is the tale of when she asked the King of Leinster for land to build her monastery. He agreed but later changed his mind. Brigid then asked him for as much ground as her cloak would cover. The king agreed. As Brigid laid out her cloak it grew and grew until it covered the whole of the Curragh, an area of grassy plains in Kildare famous for horseracing and horse breeding today.

The tradition of weaving crosses from rushes relates to a story of Brigid’s visit to a dying Chieftain. He wanted to convert to Christianity so Brigid wove a cross of rushes for him. The simple cross was as much a symbol of humility and a condemnation of materialism as it was of religion. Despite being born into a noble household, Brigid was a strong advocate for the poor.

Beyond Ireland

The fame of ‘both’ Brigids spread far beyond Irish shores. The term ‘bride’ was first used by the medieval Knights of Chivalry for whom Brigid was a patroness.

For others, Brigid is seen as the goddess of poets and an inspiration for lifelong learning and betterment, particularly for women.

We will most likely never know if there really were two Brigids or if both traditions competed to claim her, though many people have a strong belief in one or the other.  Folklore by its nature evolves, grows, and while this makes for great stories there is always the risk of manipulation to fulfil a personal agenda. Though of course, that is the very core of the Irish bardic tradition and it remains alive and well today.

I think it’s fair to say that whatever version of Brigid you relate to, she lives on as a symbol of the very essence of life – the power and the determination to leave the darkness of winter behind and grow towards the light.

From next year, the Monday closest to St Brigid’s Day will be a bank holiday. This has been broadly welcomed as a way of putting our matron saint on more of a par with our patron, St Patrick. That equality is needed in our society if we are to move forward together. 

It is very fitting therefore in the spirit of Bridget and Imbolc that this new holiday links so much of our past - including the darker elements - as we reassert our identity as  a society and move forward into a more enlightened future.

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