Spring is here at last! Yes, dear readers, let us get things straight once and for all.
From now on, ignore all those French and other Continental European calendars, which assert that March 21 is the first day of spring. Utter rubbish! As any self-respecting Celt will tell you, in the Celtic calendar the first day of spring falls on February 1, the feast of St. Brigid. March 21 is mid-spring, just as June 21 is mid-summer. When Christianity came to Ireland, it surperimposed itself on much of Celtic tradition rather than supplanting it and the feast of St. Brigid replaced the great druidic spring festival of Imbolc, which opens the second quarter of the Celtic year.
So, what do we know about Saint Brigid? Well, for a start, she was the first in a long line of Irish nuns and is the secondary patron of Ireland, a country that never does things by halves. Just to be on the safe side, it has three patron saints - Patrick, Brigid and Colmcille. Unlike Saint Patrick, neither Brigid nor any of her contemporaries left any writings, which makes it very difficult to separate historical fact from legend.
According to tradition, Brigid was born in Faughart, Co. Louth, about 450 A.D., the daughter of Dubthach, a pagan chieftain, and Brocseach, who may have been a Christian slave in his household. Dubhtach's jealous wife forced him to send Brocseach away and she was sold first to a poet, then to a druid, in whose house Brigid was born and grew up, later returning to her father's household.
Many legends are told of Brigid's great kindness and generosity to the poor. As a child, she once gave away her mother's entire stock of butter, but thanks to her prayers, the butter was miraculously renewed and her mother was none the wiser. Brigid appears to have had a difficult relationship with her father, no doubt exacerbated by her strong will and the fact that she was forever giving away his property to the poor and needy. Once she gave away her father's most valuable sword to a leper and in his fury, he resolved to sell her to Dunlang mac Enda, King of Leinster. However, Dunlang, also a Christian, saw that Brigid was no ordinary woman and advised Dubhtach to give her her freedom. He then presented him with an ivory-hilted sword to replace the one Brigid had given away!
Brigid now resolved to become a nun and rejected all suitors, even disfiguring herself so that no man would look at her. Saint Mel, the abbot and bishop of Longford, who received her vows, is said to have consecrated her a bishop by mistake (will the Vatican please note). When Brigid took her vows, her beauty was restored. She then went on to found a double monastery, where both monks and nuns were under her sole authority, at Kildare (in Irish, Cill Dara, the church of the oak), the place most closely associated with her.
When seeking land for her monastery, Brigid asked the King of Leinster for as much land as her cloak would cover. The cloak spread out until it covered the whole of the Curragh, then as now, an area famed for horse racing. Sound woman, Brigid! There are many legends and prayers associated with Brigid's Òbrat's or cloak. An old Anglo-Scottish nursery rhyme refers to "Seynt Brigd and her brat, Seynt Colum and his cat" There is even a large semicircular cloak venerated in Bruges, Belgium*, as Saint Brigid's! Saint Brigid is the patron of dairy workers and the protector of flocks and herds and is also associated with brewing (see this month's recipe). She had a great love for animals and in later times was invoked as a patron of travellers, due to her travels throughout Ireland by chariot. The object most closely associated with Brigid is, of course, the Saint Brigid's cross made from rushes. The shape of these crosses varies from region to region, but the most familiar is the "swastika"-shaped one which was for many years the logo of RTE, Ireland's national television station. It is still customary in Ireland to make Saint Brigid's crosses on February 1 and place them in the rafters of houses to protect them in the year ahead.
By the time of Brigid's death around 525, Kildare had become an important centre of learning. A sacred fire tended by 19 nuns was kept burning in the convent until the suppression of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the 16th century. Many churches around the world are dedicated to Saint Brigid due to the work of Irish missionaries, but the only cathedral bearing her name is still in Kildare and well worth a visit. In the words of the distinguished Irish scholar, G.O. Simms, Brigid was a remarkable person...the roll-call of the saints of the Celtic church in Ireland is so male-dominated that the honoured place given to Brigid of Kildare is itself a testimony to her leadership qualities.