I was talking to Máire Úna Ní Bheaglaoich the other day as she was playing her button accordion in freezing temperatures on Grafton St. Dublin. She reminded me not to forget Brigid, or Mary of the Gael – born in 452; died in 524 – on the 1st February. She adamantly proclaimed that she should be reclaimed, as B rightfully belonged to the pagans before Christianity arrived in Ireland. Incidentally, Brigid is honoured in Catholicism, Anglicanism and Orthodoxy. So with Máire Úna’s knowledge and reminder to hand I went in search of some pagan historical information. I found the following at none other than the Kildare Historical Society.
St Brigid incorporates elements of a much older tradition. When the Celts came to Ireland, maybe around 500 B.C., they brought with them their Druidic religion. They had many gods, who interacted with the people, sometimes for good, and sometimes for evil. Many of the gods and goddesses were associated with cult sites at particular places. The pagan religious framework of the Celts is not well documented, and what details we have, are mainly of the religious practices of the continental Celts as described by Roman writers, who most likely never visited Ireland. So their accounts would not relate directly to the practices in Ireland, though there must have been broad similarities. The pagan religious practices of the Irish Celts were not encouraged by the Christians, and when they did record them, they would not have wished to present a balanced picture, even if they fully understood the rituals. So we actually have very little knowledge of the religious practices and rituals of the Druidic religion. On the other hand, the early Christian Church in Ireland did not seem to associate the Druidic religion with cruel and barbarous practices, which would have to be eliminated entirely. The names, and many of the attributes, of the Celtic Irish gods were preserved in an oral tradition though the Gods themselves were reduced to the ranks of fairies; they were not gods, but they were greater than human, they were the Sidh or the Tuath de Danann.
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In all my years in Goldenbridge I never once remember making St. Brigid’s infamous reed crosses. Yet, they are seemingly made in Irish schools everywhere. I recall seeing children in St. Claire’s school, Ballyjamesduff, create them, whilst practicing with them proper pronounciation of gutteral German words. The latter of which I learned expertly as a young teenager residing in Switzerland.
Brigid is extraordinarily popular across the cultural and social divide. Even in Scotland. She is the patron saint of babies; blacksmiths; boatmen; cattle; chicken farmers; children whose parents are not married; children with abusive fathers; children born into abusive unions; Clan Douglas; dairymaids; dairy workers; fugitives; infants; Ireland; Leinster, mariners; midwives; milk maids; nuns; poets; poor; poultry farmers; poultry raisers; printing presses; sailors; scholars; travellers; watermen.