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St. Brigid – an inspiration for all seasons

St. Brigid, whose feast day is 1st February, is an inspiration for all seasons. There are few figures in popular culture whose story has been reinvented in so many ways to find relevance to a 21st century audience. Viewed by an earlier generation as an icon of the Irish church she has become in modern times a rallying figure for environmentalists and feminists.

The traditional story of Brigid that has come down through the generations is personified in the form of a woman who was the founder of a monastic foundation in Cill Dara, the church of the oak tree. Her powers and spirituality are the stuff of legend – the brat Bríde, for example, was her expanding cloak which covered the distinctive plain now known as the Curragh. The story of the Christian Bríd is a mesmerising blend of folk-tales which may have their roots in the depths of pagan Ireland.

A constant in the folklore of Brigid relates to geography which puts both pre-Christian and early Christian strands of the Brigid story in the area we now know as modern County Kildare.  A chronicler of Ireland in the 12th century, Gerard of Wales wrote ‘At Kildare, in Leinster, celebrated for the glorious Brigid, many miracles have been wrought … the first that occurs is the fire of St. Brigid which is reported never to go out but the nuns and holy women tend and feed it.’ On the face of it this recalls the tradition of the eternal fire being carried out in Kildare to perpetuate the life and work of a Christian era Brigid.

However to show that nothing in ancient Irish folk life is that simple there are deeper and older explanations for this ritual of perpetual fire. One of the recent works on the rituals of St. Brigid suggests that even the Gerald of Wales account could be influenced by practices from the ancient Latin classics which describe rituals where virgins took care of a perpetual fire. A recent analysis by Seán Ó’Duinn, a monk of Glenstal,  quotes another scholar of the era, Professor Kim McCone as writing ‘the twelfth century visiting cleric, Gerald of Wales, describes a fire cult at her main church of Kildare that can hardly be other than a pre-Christian survival”

On the question of Brigidine geography many places in Ireland claim a share in the Brigid story not least her reputed birthplace of Faughart in north Co. Louth. However Seán Ó’Duinn makes a compelling case for the centrality of Kildare in the Brigid tradition.  He points out that a line could be drawn between Cill Dara  across to Dun Ailinne (near Kilcullen), the great Iron age fort, then north to Nás na Ríogh (home of the Leinster chieftains), and then west to Dun Almhaine (the Hill of Allen). Within this terrain the ancient fair of Carman may have taken place on Cuirreach Life or the Curragh as it is now known. Thus Cill Dara lent itself to a myriad of influences with connections to places which have archaeological and annalistic pedigrees rooted long before recorded history.

Whatever about the conjectural blending of folklore and history in the story of Brigid there can be no doubting the continuity of the folklore and craft associated with devotion to Brigid. The best known tradition is of course the St. Brigid’s Cross, the four-armed one which is most familiar being one of numerous styles woven from straw and twigs in country areas from Kerry to Donegal. A particular devotion to Brigid existed in Roscommon and on the shores of the Shannon where the abundant reed beds provided the raw material for complex interpretations of the cross design.

The St. Brigid’s Cross has made its way on to prominent graphic representations in the modern era. It forms one of the symbols emblazoned on the Kildare County Council coat-of-arms. The Lilywhites sport a modern graphic version of the Brigid’s Cross on their jerseys when they take the field. It featured too as the logo of the broadcaster RTE when it first transmitted in 1962, showing that the symbolism of an early Christian saint, who in turn inherited ancient pagan devotion, could be adapted to the technology of modern times.

In modern times Brigid has attracted a new range of followers interested in feminism and environmentalism. As a female, and one who lived close to nature, she has become an inspiration for those searching for an alternative to the relentless pace and consumption of the modern world. Her benign ways have been seen as a role model for those seeking social justice and a better way of sharing the world’s resources. Every generation makes its own of Brigid.  She is truly an inspiration for all seasons. Postscript: this column marks its sixth year of publication on St Brigid’s Day. Thank you to the readers who keep in touch and who come forward with nuggets illuminating the history of Kildare and adjoining counties. Series no: 316.

Liam Kenny reminds us that St. Brigid, whose feast day is 1st February, is an inspiration for all seasons

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