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

High Drama!

tower in context

If you suffer from vertigo or claustrophobia – or both – then you won’t want to follow us in the adventure we had this week while returning from a visit to Dublin: climbing to the top of an Irish Round Tower! Overcoming any tendencies we might have had towards these phobias, we arrived at the roof of the 32.6 metre high Kildare tower and marvelled at being able to stand on the summit of a piece of architecture over a thousand years old. Kildare has the second highest Round Tower still extant in Ireland: the highest is at Kilmacduagh, Co Galway, at 34.9 metres; however, Kildare now lacks a conical cap, which it might once have had. If so, it would just tip in as the highest of all the towers.

Kildare Round Tower: note the battlemented top - probably added in an 18th century restoration, the romanesque doorway and the granite base. The upper stonework is limestone and sandstone

Kildare Round Tower: note the battlemented top – probably added in an 18th century restoration, the romanesque doorway and the granite base. The upper stonework is limestone and sandstone

The print above – dating from 1788 – shows the ruins of St Brigid’s Church, which was fully restored as a Church of Ireland Cathedral a hundred years later. We looked down on this from our vantage point atop the Tower – and had a good view of the (also restored) Fire Temple where a perpetual flame, lit by the Saint, was kept burning for hundreds of years, finally being extinguished by the shenanigans of Henry VIII.

Looking down on Kildare Cathedral, with St Brigid's 'Fire Temple' in the grounds

Looking down on Kildare Cathedral, with St Brigid’s ‘Fire Temple’ in the grounds

You’ll have heard me talk about St Brigid many times: she’s second only to St Patrick in the Irish Martyrology. In fact, as probably the most influential woman in Irish history, I’m going to declare her as quite the equal of St Patrick: she’s often enough described as one of the Patron Saints of Ireland. You will also know that she is surrounded by folklore and traditional customs, such as the making of her Cross on her day, the First of February.

St Brigid’s Cross – left, at her Holy Well and right, a textile in the Solas Bhride Centre, Kildare

Back to the adventure (although the whole day was adventurous!) – climbing the tower was hard going. There were a series of near-vertical ladders to be negotiated: each one took us to a higher timber platform, six floors in all. At the top of each ladder we had to squeeze ourselves through a narrow opening; this, and the confines of the tower interior – only two metres or so across – certainly challenged the claustrophobiac in me.

The restricted space also made us question some of the theories about the uses of these towers, which are always located at ecclesiastical sites. The definitive work on them is, as it happens, written by someone who also lives in West Cork – just a little distance from Nead an Iolair: Brian Lalor. Brian has led a very full life, involving architecture, archaeology, sketching and printing (his etchings are exquisite). He is also the author of a number of books, many of which are on our own shelves, including The Irish Round Tower, published by The Collins Press, 1999 and 2005.

lalor

Brian is unequivocal in his assertion that the primary purpose for round towers was to house the monastery bell. He also suggests that a secondary function would be as a safe storage place for the monastic treasures: the entrance door was always raised at a considerable height above the surrounding ground level, requiring steps or a ladder to gain access. In the times when they were constructed they would have been visually impressive – and could be seen from a great distance. They would have acted as signposts for travellers who might have been searching for the hospitality which monastic communities always offered. Brian discounts some of the more bizarre theories for the towers – for example, that they might have been places of safe refuge for the monks if under threat of attack by Vikings – or that they are simply phallic symbols! Lastly, Brian considers – and gives some credence to – the idea that the towers were monumental buildings of prestige and local aristocratic patronage: certainly, they required considerable expense and effort to construct.

centre entrance

As is often the case with our days out, one adventure led on to another. When we came down from the tower we found that St Brigid’s Cathedral had closed for lunch. But we knew that the Saint’s trail also involved a Holy Well and we had heard that there was a new building devoted to the work of Brigid just outside Kildare.

Solas Brhíde Centre

Solas Brhíde Centre

Robert with Phil, one of the Sisters who conceived the project

Robert with Phil, one of the Sisters who conceived the project

We were very impressed with the Solas Bhríde Centre: a small group of Brigidine Sisters has put together the project to build a Christian Spirituality Centre which unfolds the legacy of St Brigid and shows that it is still relevant in the present day. We were shown around the Centre by one of these Sisters, Phil, who pointed out that Brigid was attuned to the natural world and would have appreciated that the new building (designed by Solearth Ecological Architecture) is conceived on ecologically sound terms using sustainable materials and techniques which care for the wellbeing of the Earth. The plan of the building is appropriately inspired by the shape of a St Brigid’s Cross.

Architect's drawing of the newly completed building

Architect’s drawing of the newly completed building

The next stop on our itinerary was the nearby Holy Well – a popular place of pilgrimage and veneration on St Brigid’s Day:

Finally, we arrived back at the Cathedral. I’m always a little disappointed by restorations – particularly those which were carried out in Victorian times; nevertheless there are some impressive features. The possibly twelfth century font is one of them (below left), and another has to be the hidden Sheelagh-na-gig under the lip of Bishop Wellesley’s tomb (below right). I reached under to feel this little carving, and was then told by the Cathedral’s guardian that anyone who touches the effigy is ensured everlasting fertility!

The excellent Heritage Centre opposite the Cathedral entrance is informative about the town’s history and the important connections with this special Saint. There is much more to be discovered – and written – in respect of St Brigid, and other places in Ireland which are connected with her still to be visited. Do go to Kildare and, at the very least, suspend your phobias sufficiently to allow you to climb the ancient Round Tower. But make sure you go between May and September – and not during the lunch hour…

tower poster