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Curious Eye

Celtic Goddess and protector of livestock: The story of The Mother Saint of Ireland, St Brigid

As we celebrate the festival of Imbolc with the arrival of February, we look at the many myths surrounding the life of St Brigid.

SPRING HAS SPRUNG. As we enjoy the brighter days and flowers starting to bloom, we can see that St Brigid has been busy bringing and protecting new life with the arrival of a new season. 

The first day of February heralds a sense of renewal and rebirth across nature. This rejuvenation is thought to be overseen by St Brigid, the mother saint of Ireland. February 1 is also known as the traditional festival of Imbolc, which translates to modern Irish as “i mbolg”, or “in the belly”. Of course, this relates to and coincides with the period when ewes are pregnant with their young.

Imbolc is one of 4 significant dates in the Celtic calendar along with Bealtaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain. The relevance of  St Brigid’s connection to Imbolc, which falls almost exactly in the mid-point between the Winter solstice and the Spring equinox, goes back to the folklore surrounding the identity of the Brigid celebrated on February 1. 

Who exactly was St Brigid? Why is she celebrated in Ireland and in the company of St Patrick and Columba as our national saints? Unfortunately, as is the case with many of these mythical figures and saints, there are many different accounts surrounding her life. 

There are, however, various aspects of the myths about St Brigid that have been perpetuated to the present day; notably her nurturing qualities with newborns and livestock, which attribute to her being seen as a symbol of fertility. Some dispute that she was even a real person, while others believe that she is connected to the Celtic Goddess, Brigit who, in the pre-Christian period oversaw midwifery and healing, primarily and was reborn as a human in the 5th century. 

Amongst the early written accounts of St Brigid’s life which add to the mystery include 2 separate hymns about her, both of which date back to the 650s. Ancient works by Cogitosus – an Irish monk who lived in the 7th Century and is regarded as the first known source to have written about St Brigid – suggest that the feast of St Brigid has been observed from the period in which he was writing. Elsewhere, there are debates that St Brigid was in fact born in Dundalk in 451 and that her mother had been baptised by St Patrick. 

agreenst-brigidscrosslyingonabedof Shutterstock / John And Penny Shutterstock / John And Penny / John And Penny

What we do know and are universally united on is the many things St Brigid symbolises in Celtic tradition. She is a patron of things such as poetry and dairy production and blacksmithing and healing. 

She is also commonly known as a figure of protection, especially for the home. This is why people braid the distinct St Brigid’s cross on the day of her feast. Woven with rushes, the striking cross was made and hung within the home to ensure that St Brigid would oversee the home and protect its inhabitants. The cross made from the previous year is taken down and either burned or buried so that the natural materials are restored to the earth. This tradition – in varying degrees – with some people choosing to make their cross while others purchase one continues today and the St Brigid’s Cross is an official symbol of Ireland. 

Other significant symbols of the feast of St Brigid include the pretty and delicate snowdrops. As described on the website Brigit’s Garden, they “represent her warming breath upon the land.” Dandelions, too, hold significance in the tradition of St Brigid as it is highly likely she would have used this in medicines. 

This year’s St Brigid’s festivities will be different with the inaugural Bank Holiday across the Republic of Ireland on Monday, February 6. This is also significant as it is the first holiday observed in Ireland named after a woman.

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