Friday, February 1, 2013

Lá Fhéile Bríde

by Sheila Connolly (or maybe today it's Sile ni Conghaile)

lá atá inniu ann Bhríde. Today is the feast day of St. Brigid of Ireland.  She's the female counterpart of St. Patrick, but she gets far less publicity, at least outside of Ireland. People don't go out and over-imbibe green beer in local pubs to honor her.  More likely, they'd drink milk, since she was a dairy-woman in her early life—and the saint you'd appeal to if you want your cows to produce a lot of milk.

It's great fun to read the online descriptions of St. Brigid, because they're all over the place.  The serious Catholic ones give us one story:

She was born sometime in the mid-fifth century to a pagan father (Dubthach) and a Christian slave mother (Briocsech) and was contemporary with St. Patrick. Dad's wife thought maybe Brigid's mother was a bit too tempting, so she had her sold along with Brigid, but with the promise that the daughter would be sent back to dear old Dad sometime later.  When Brigid was ten, she joined him, and he put her in charge of the dairy, but she insisted on giving most of the milk away (seems she kept giving lots of stuff away).  Dad then handed her to Dunlag, King of Leinster, who when he handed her back ten years later, told Dad to free her, which he did.

Brigid went on to found the first religious community for women in Ireland, on land given to her at Kildare by the same King Dunlag (there is still a Cathedral church of St. Brigid on the site, although it dates from the early 13th century), which flourished, and led to the establishment of many others all over Ireland. The convent became one of the greatest centers of learning in Europe, no doubt assisted by the school of art (which in those days meant illuminating manuscripts) that she also created. It should be no surprise that she is the patron saint of scholars. When she died, she was buried with St. Patrick (except for her head, which for some reason is in Portugal). Not too shabby for a poor peasant girl.

But if you choose to take a less mainstream religious view: 

Another source says she "became a vestal virgin in service to the Brid, goddess of fire, and eventually she ended up the high priestess at the pagan sanctuary of Kil Dara, built from oak, which was sacred to the Druids, but somewhere in there she converted to Christianity. However, over the centuries Brigid kind of got muddled with the pagan fire goddess Brid, and the pagan holiday Imbolc got folded into a Christian holiday, and they both marked the beginning of spring.  Time for feasting (eat a lot of milk and butter!).  Light candles or fires.  Hang those rush crosses (known as St. Brigid's crosses) over your doors and windows to protect your house from fire and lightening. 

On one of my trips to Ireland, over a decade ago, a friend and I found ourselves visiting a Brigidine nunnery (yes, they still exist, more than 1,500 years after Brigid set up the first one).  It was an unforgettable experience.  Most of the nuns were elderly, with few young replacements coming along.  They were unspeakably thrilled to have visitors, and after giving us a full tour of the building where they lived, including their archives, they insisted we stay for tea and cakes and bread and jam, and then a group of them clustered around to watch us eat. It should be no surprise that I'm incorporating part of this in a book.

But Brigid makes a good role model, whichever way you look at her.  Reading between the lines, she was determined, she knew her own mind, she took a broad view of things, and she got things done. Smart woman!

My first book set in Ireland, Buried in a Bog, comes out next week.  Naomh Bríd, beannaigh mo leabhar.


suz said...

Great post. That's a trip I would love to make. And you are right. How can you not use the info from your trip to the nunnery in a book? - Karen

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Shiela,
I have yet to use info gleaned from my trip and studies of Irish culture and history in my books. I do advertise some Irish libations on my website, though. As for saints, St. Brendan is my man. He's possibly the first non-Native American discoverer of America. I have a series of short sci-fi stories about chief medical officer Dr. Carlos Obregon aboard the starship Brendan. I'll have to find space for more Celtic lore in my writing (of course, there's always my Irish blarney).
All the best,

Steven M. Moore said...

Sorry about the name misspelling. The Gaelic confused me...please forgive.

Sheila Connolly said...

Suz, it was like being surrounded by a flock of birds--they were all so gentle and fragile, and practically made cooing noises.

Steve, I think there's a good reason why there are so many Irish story tellers. And there is that blarney thing (yes, I've kissed the Blarney Stone).

LD Masterson said...

It's always fascinating to follow how the Christian and pagan histories have been blended over time.