Calendar customs were the customs linked with the different seasons of the year in olden days. They were of great importance, marking the demise of one season and the birth of another. In the days before the written word, customs were used together with astronomy to record the year. I wish to draw attention to the season of spring, particularly focusing on St Brigid’s Eve and Imbolic. St Brigid is honoured annually on February 1st. This feast day is held in honour of St Brigid, a 5thcentury saint, but this celebration goes back much further into our past, to a time when deities representing the seasons of the year were honoured by the Celts. In this presentation we will look at the customs and beliefs celebrated in Pagan and Christian times.
The Celts believed in Gods which represented the various elements such as wind, fire and water. The celebration of the end of winter and the coming of spring was called Imbolic. According to Kuno Meyer Imbolic derives from the Old Gaelic word Oimelc meaning Ewe’s Milk. It refers to the milking of livestock in preparation for the birth of new babies in the spring. It was celebrated on the second day of February. They were celebrating the darkness of winter and the longer days of spring. Interestingly, Brigid was a set of three gods all called the same name, similar to the Christian Most Holy Trinity. Brigid the goddess of fire, thresholds and transformation, Brigid the patron of the arts and the protector of crops, pregnancy and sexuality and Brigid the goddess of magic, seership and prophecy were all honoured as one on this day.
As goddess of fire, thresholds and patron of the arts such as blacksmithing, she was linked with the rekindling of sacred fires, an association that was later carried on by Christians with the celebration of the feast day of St Brigid of Kildare, the 5th century holy woman.
St Brigid’s Day falls on the first day of February. It is held in honour of St Brigid. It was considered lucky, to name girls born on this day Brigid. Her feast day was celebrated in different ways throughout the country, but in general they included eating a supper and making crosses out of rushes or straw from the previous harvest.
According to Padraic O’Farrell writing in 1978, a doll representing the saint was carried about in some villages. This doll was called Brídeog. A churn’s dash-the wooden disc on the handle that poured the butter- was sometimes used to make the Brídeog, and all the women had to bow before it as it was paraded about the villages. St Brigid’s day was the feast day when crosses woven from rushes on the eve of the feast day were placed in tillage fields and in the rafters of cow-byres to bring good luck on the harvest and the yields. He went on to tell of the children laying beds of rushes pulled by hand in front of the fire on St Brigid’s Eve in case the saint wished to rest during the night. Cutting the rushes with a knife was considered wrong. The St Brigid’s cross tradition is said to have originated when a golden cross commemorating the saint was stolen and the manifold weaving the humble rush type commenced to replace it. The Irish television service, RTE, used the cross as its emblem during its formative years.
In an account from Máire Ní Bhaoill Scoil na gCailiní, Doirí Beaga, Tír Chonaill, part of the 1937 Schools Folklore Collection and published in “Amach as ucht na Sliabh le Donall P. Ó Baoill “Long ago on this night the man of the house would take a creel with him. In it he would put an item of clothing from everyone in the household. He would also put straw in the creel. He would leave the creel at the closed door and he would say these words three times after each other; ‘Gabhaigí ar bhur nglúnaibh, fosclaigí bhur súile agus ligigí isteach Bríd’, (Go on your knees, open your eyes and let Brigid in). The woman of the house would say, ‘Sé beatha, sé beatha na mná uaisle’, (You are blessed, you are blessed, noble woman). He would then come in and make crosses out of the straw. They were put in the rafters of every room in the house, in the cow-byre and the cró or hen house outside. This was done in honour of St Brigid. It wasn’t right to leave the house that night”.
In another account given in Ross Goill, North Donegal to the Folklore Commission, “After the prayer and entrance of the man of the house, the rushes were placed under the freshly boiled pot of potatoes. Milk and butter was added to the potatoes, then mashed to make Brúitín. The family sat around the pot and ate their supper from it. When everyone was feed the rushes were taken from underneath and crosses were made from them”.
In other places in the country, a female by the name of Brigid carried the creel of rushes or straw to the back door. In any case, the person walked around the house in the direction of the sun, similar to a turas to holy wells throughout Ireland.
There are many different designs of St Brigid’s crosses made, the one most common in Donegal is of the swastika design. It is made entirely from straw or rushes with no wooden centre. It is made by folding a single straw on to another, making the cross the required size. Thomas Mason states that Mackenzie noted, the use of swastika crosses in pre-Christian Ireland was used to represent the Sun and it was found throughout the world.
The three armed design is of a much older vintage, dating back to the Iron Age according to Mason. This cross was mainly used in outhouses.
The people believed that no evil spirit would enter their home while a cross was placed above the door. The old crosses were still left on the rafters. It was said that one could tell the age of the house by the number of crosses.
Small necklaces were made with the leftovers from the crosses by the man of the house and were kept until the lambing season. They were then put on the new born lambs to protect them from disease. The waste from the cross making wasn’t destroyed. It was placed on the hearth and a white cloth placed on top of it. This was called Leabha Bhríde or Brigid’s Bed. A path from the hearth to the doorstep was made with the larger cuttings so St Brigid could go to bed, if she needed, while she passed the house.
In coastal areas, fishermen inserted a ribbon of straw into their clothing to protect them at sea. The coastal people called the spring tide around this time, Rabartha Mór na Féile Bhríde or the spring tide of St Brigid’s Feast Day.
They took advantage of it to cut wrack which was used as fertiliser for their crops. They also gathered shellfish. On the shores of Galway Bay shellfish was left at each of the four corners of the kitchen, so that they would be blessed with an abundance of fish for the rest of the year.
In Donegal, any available rags were put into a basket and left outside so that Brigid would bless them while she passed by during the night. This was not the case in other parts where the rags had to be a particular colour. In Mayo they had to be red while in Tipperary, black rags were preferred. Fishermen wore the Bratóg to protect them from the elements.
In other parts of Ireland Bratóg Bríde was called Ribín Bhríde or Brigid’s Ribbon and Cochall Bhríde or Brigid’s Mantle. The Bratóg was worn by woman who had labour pains and those who couldn’t have children. It was also worn by young children to protect them from the fairies.
No work was done on St Brigid’s Day that involved turning, twisting, weaving nor did the folk travel on wheels.
In olden days, signs from nature were the only guide the people had to forecast the weather. There were signs observed around the St Brigid’s celebration that would forecast the weather for the coming year. The art of wind that blew on this day was said to be the main direction for the rest of the year. If the weather is exceptionally good on that day, it was considered a bad sign. If a hedgehog was observed on St Brigid’s Eve it was a sign of good weather, but if it returned to its nest, bad weather was to follow. If a lark was heard singing on this day it was a sign of a good spring.
Brigid was also associated with the linnet, oyster catcher and the dandelion.
In an article in the Irish Independent of 1939, the following was stated. The Girdle of St Brigid is made of straw or rushes, plaited trebly with three crosses worked in. Also known as a crois, it is still made in some homes, but the ceremony that formerly ensued is now extinct.
In each townland a chosen one carried the girdle aloft from house to house, the while repeating in Gaeilge:-
“The girdle of St Brigid of the crosses,
The girdle by which Christ was conceived,
Arise, mistress of the house,
And get out three times.”
At this utterance, all the members of each house came out-of-doors and had the girdle thrice hung about in turn.
There are a number of native Irish trees linked with St Brigid and Imbolic. Namely the Rowan, the Birch and the Broom.
The rowan shares St Brigid’s link with fire and the protection of livestock, it was tied to tails of young animals to protect them. The birch and the broom were used to make St Brigid’s Wand which was placed in a cradle to welcome Brigid to the home. The birch was also associated with the re-birth of the year.
In conclusion, I believe that the tradition of St Brigit and that of Imbolic originates as early as the Iron Age, but it is possible that it goes further back to the evolution of the Celtic Race itself.
© Jimmy Duffy 2016