Growing up in Ireland, February 1st was a most important day. It was the first day of spring and it was St. Brigid’s Day. Brigid is our other patron saint – and when I was growing up I assumed that every country in the world must have a male and a female patron saint. It amused me that our two saints – Patrick and Brigid – had the same names as my parents (my mother has a variant spelling). I liked Brigid a lot. Not only was she Ireland’s female patron saint. She was also the patron saint of my county – Kildare. The ruins of the convent she founded are in Kildare Town and the flower associated with her, the lily, is my county’s flower and is the reason the Gaelic football team is known as the Lily Whites (spot any connection with either of my daughters here?!). I took ‘Bridget’ as my confirmation name when I was 12.
In preparation for St. Brigid’s Day I would walk down to the banks of the River Boyne, which has its source only five miles from my home, and is a slow, sluggish narrow little river at the point where it passes closest to our house. There I would pick the long green spongy rushes that grow in profusion along the riverbank. As some other children did, I would bring the rushes to school, and in class we would make St. Brigid’s Crosses. While making these crosses, Brigid had spread the word of God, converting the pagan Irish to Christianity as she explained the meaning of the cross.
I’ve always liked Brigid. She abhorred injustice and inequality. She seemed like a girl who wouldn’t take no for an answer. When she wanted to build a convent she asked a local landowner to give her some land. He said no. But she persisted. Eventually, he relented and said that if she placed her cloak on the ground, the land it covered would be hers. So, she put her cloak down and it miraculously grew to cover a large plot of land big enough to found her convent.
Years later I discovered that before this Christian Brigid – young, pure, virginal – there was another Brigid and the two have become syncretised in the way that pre-Christian deities and Christian saints have the world over.
The earlier Brigid is a fertility goddess, celebrated on the feast day Imbolc – February 1st, which marks the start of spring and the start of the lambing season. The site of St. Brigid’s convent is on the site of an earlier temple of the goddess Brigid, where a sacred fire was kept alight. The lily was first associated with the goddess Brigid, as was the cross – a pre-Christian sun cross symbolising fire and rebirth. Healing wells that pre-Christian Brigid-worshippers had flocked to became, in Christian Ireland, holy wells associated with St. Brigid.
In all likelihood, neither of these women ever existed or, if they did, they were women very unlike the Brigids who have been committed to legend and hagiography and who have been blended together into one determined, pure, young woman.
But their existence doesn’t really matter. It is the idea of Brigid that is important. She is inspirational. My Brigid combines what is best of both the saint and the goddess. She symbolises the return of spring, rebirth and renewal. And she symbolises a strong woman who is driven by conviction and a desire to do what is right. I don’t think that my belief in neither a Christian nor a pre-Christian deity matters to my fondness for Brigid.
This week I learned of the sudden death of a dear friend and the death of my great-aunt. The week before the first book I’ve written was rejected by the publisher. My husband and daughters are hundreds of miles away. As the week progressed I became more and more despondent, maudlin and melancholic. I decided I didn’t want to write any more. I wallowed in thoughts about the pointlessness and futility of life.
And then, somewhere in the corner of my mind, I started to think about February 1st, the first day of spring, St. Brigid’s Day, Imbolc, and my heart started to climb out of the doldrums. I awoke this morning believing in the message of the saint-goddess Brigid – that this is a time for rebirth, for new life, for keeping the flame alive. It’s like New Year’s Day all over again, only better. Because now there are visible signs of renewal in the world around us, as we inch ever closer to the spring equinox and the days grow longer and warmer.
We lose our loved ones, but their spirit lives on in their children and in the lives of everyone they touched. We face rejection and defeat, but we have to pick ourselves up and carry on, try again, persist in what we believe in. We need to preserve symbols of hope and light, such as Brigid, to lift our spirits. As Seamus Heaney wrote, sometimes we need to
‘Believe in miracles,
and cures and healing wells’.
I wish you all a happy first of spring xx