Pagan and Pure

How does a prehistoric calendar mark turn into a pagan feast and then into a Christian saint’s day? This year, the cross-quarter day is Feb 3, yesterday: that is, the day that lies half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Together with the solstices and equinoxes, the cross-quarter days divide the year into eight ‘months’ and they also establish the dates for the ancient festival days of Imbolc ( Feb 2, spring), Bealtaine ( May 1, summer ), Lunasa (Aug 1, harvest), and Samhain (Oct 31, start of winter). In fact, the actual cross-quarters times don’t fall always on those dates but close enough so they have become established as the festival days.

The Brigidine Centre in Kildare, run as retreat and contemplation house. The lead image in this post is a St Brigid stained glass window in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo

As so often happens when an ancient culture is Christianised, Imbolc became conflated with a saintly feast day, that of our own Saint Brigid, the female patron saint of Ireland. Brigid may have originally been a female deity, also called Brigid, or perhaps Danu. This is all controversial, of course – did the idea of the goddess or the idea of the saint come first, for example? Whatever the origins, the marking of the cross-quarter day turned into Imbolc the pagan festival, and finally into Saint Brigid’s Day, and all over the country we make St Brigid’s Crosses, leave a scarf out at night for her to bless, or, still, in Kerry, dress up as ‘Biddies’ and go from house to house, carrying a Brídeóg doll and singing and dancing in a ritual that must be as old as time.

Another custom is to visit those holy wells that are associated with Brigid. Amanda has a special post on that – and is celebrating two years of holy well hunting!

On one Imbolc that lives in our memories Robert and I arose early in the morning and went to watch the sun rise over a small prominence, standing on a piece of 5,000 year old rock art. Our account of that occasion is here, and below is the thrilling moment the sun rose, and lit up the ancient carvings.

Our friend, the poet Paul Ó Colmáin, from whom we take Irish lessons, used one of his own poems as a teachable moment this week, and I was struck by how perfectly it captures that sense of the turning year, the joy of sunrise, the deep embedding in our Irish souls of the ancient and the traditional and the embracing of both. I give the poem first in Irish. For those of you who do not speak it, you can take my word that the language is beautiful and contains nuances that his English version cannot capture, brilliant as it is.

Lá ‘le Bhríde

Dhúisigh an ghrian sinn

an mhaidin úd,

solas órga

ag stealladh

‘is ag scairdeach

isteach ar an urlár,

ag slaparnach

thuas na fallaí,

ag sruthlaíonn

an doras síor-oscailte isteach.

Níor thuigeamar

ar dtús

cad a bhí ag titim amach.

Níor aithníomar

torann buí na Gréine.

Ach chuimhníos

go tobann ar na bhfocail a dúraís,

mar dhraoi:

“Tiocfaidh an Ghrian thar nais ar Lá ‘le Bhríde.”

Agus d’árdaigh dóchas,

ársa, pagánaigh im’ chroí,

inár suí sa leaba,

Bríd nó Danú,

an lámh in uachtar ag an t-earrach,

bhí an geimhreadh, gruama thart.

“Tiocfaidh an Ghrian thar nais ar Lá ‘le Bhríde.”

Paul’s English version of the poem is given below. At the time he wrote it, Paul, his wife, the artist Marie Cullen, and their sons were living on the Great Blasket*, off the Dingle Peninsula, the only inhabitants of the Island.

The Blasket Islands lie off the cost of Kerry, near the Dingle Peninsula. An Irish speaking enclave, it is now uninhabited

Winter was long on the Island, made gloomier by the fact that the sun, due to a combination of high ground and orientation, did not shine on their dwelling all winter.

The sun awoke us.

Like a fanfare

or a burst of wild laughter.

Playfully.

Unfamiliar.

Spilling in along the floor.

Splashing up the walls.

Streaming in through the ever-open door.

We didn’t – at first-  know what was happening,

Didn’t recognise the bright clamour of the sun.

Then we remembered the words

That you, druidlike, had spoken:

“The Sun will come back on St. Brigid’s Day.”

And a welling of Hope,

Pagan and Pure,

Came rising inside us,

Sitting in bed,

Brigid or Danú,

The Winter defeated:

“The Sun will come back on St. Brigid’s Day.”

We’ve turned the corner and spring is finally in the air. Today was golden and we spent it on The Mizen (see below). Thank you Brigid/Danu/Imbolc/ancient Calendar Keepers!

*If you’re ever in Kerry, make sure to visit the Blasket Centre

Gather Your Seaweed

collecting sand

Today is Oiche Fhéile Bhríde – St Brigid’s Eve. The Saint’s festival – tomorrow – marks the beginning of Spring: we will feel the lengthening of the days, and we have to be alert for so many portents.

Firstly – Hedgehogs. Watch out for your Hedgehogs: to see one is a good weather sign, for on Brigid’s Eve the Hedgehog comes out of the hole in which he has spent the winter, eyes up the weather and, if he likes the look of it, starts his foraging. If he goes straight back in again, then you’ll know that the storms will continue! This is according to Kevin Danaher, a frequent contributor on our seasonal folklore. The wind direction on the eve of the festival ‘…betokens the prevailing wind during the coming year; the festival day should show signs of improving weather, although an exceptionally fine day is regarded as an omen of poor weather to come…’

For those of us who live by the sea we have to be alert for Rabharta na Féile Bríde, the spring tide nearest to St Brigid’s day, as it is said to be the most significant one of the year – that’s when the difference between high and low tide is the greatest. Danaher, The Year in Ireland, Mercier Press 1972, notes: ‘…The people were quick to take the opportunity of cutting and gathering seaweed to fertilize the crops and of collecting shellfish and other shore produce. In a few places a live shellfish, such as a limpet or a periwinkle, was placed at each of the four corners of the house, to bring fishing luck and ensure plentiful shore gathering…’ But don’t forget that it’s not until Good Friday that you harvest the Mussels.

along the strand

All the photographs in this post are from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s – an invaluable pictorial record of the times

This is the day to make – and eat – your bairin-breac: ‘…On St Brigid’s Eve every farmer’s wife in Ireland makes a cake, the neighbours are invited, the madder of ale and the pipe go round, and the evening concludes with mirth and festivity…’ (Danaher). I’m holding out hopes that Finola will oblige and get out her delicious barm-brack recipe. Of course, the mirth and festivity will follow as she soaks the fruit in whisky! The Saint travels around the countryside on the eve of her festival, bestowing her blessing on the people and their livestock. We must be sure to leave out for her a piece of our cake: ‘…Often a sheaf of corn was put beside the cake, as refreshment for the Saint’s favourite white cow which accompanied her on her rounds. Others laid a bundle of straw or fresh rushes on the threshold, on which the Saint might kneel to bless the house…’ (Danaher).

collecting seaweed

Tonight we will hang a piece of red ribbon outside our door: ‘…One traditional story says that St Brigid wove the first cloth in Ireland and worked into it white healing threads which were said to have kept their healing power for centuries. In many places in Ireland it was customary to put a piece of silk ribbon, red being the preferred colour, outside the house on the Eve of St Brigid’s Day, much in the same way as articles of clothing or cloth left out on the saint’s eve would be endowed with St Brigid’s blessing when they became known as the Brat Bhríde (Brigid’s cloak). It was believed that St Brigid, when travelling around the country on the Eve of her Day, would see and touch the ribbon, so endowing it with her blessing and conferring on it some of her healing power. After this it was referred to as the ribín Bhríde…’ from Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint Brian Wright, The History Press 2009. This reminds me very much of another saint – Gobnait – who also has a February festival. It’s going to be a busy month! To start it off it’s essential that we make our bogha Brídhe – St Brigid’s Cross.

carrying the seaweed