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    Irish Folklore, Myth and Legend: St Brigid

    By Dawn Rainbolt, PR Manager
    More by Dawn

    Who was St Brigid of Kildare?

    Anyone who knows even a bit about early Christianity knows that there are quite a lot of saints. Alternatively known as St Brigid of Kildare, or St Brigid of Ireland, she is also one of Ireland’s three patron saints, alongside the world-famous Saint Patrick and St Colmcille, founder of the iconic Iona Monastery in Scotland.

    Most of the “history” of Brigid is based more on myth and legend than actual historical records. In fact, some debate exists over whether she was even a real person. According to early Irish sources, St Brigid was associated with a number of elements – poetry, healing, protection, smithcraft, and domestic animals, amongst others – that overlap with the Brigid of Celtic mythology.

    Much of her early life takes on a legendary aura, making it hard to separate fact from fiction. Some stories of the saint are reminiscent of Bible tales while others have more in common with druids. Like St Patrick, most stories say she spent much of her childhood as a slave before later being recognised for her “miraculous” and charitable qualities.

    Supposedly born around 451 CE, it was said she founded a monastery in Kildare in 480, hence her saintly name, St Brigid of Kildare. Many other abbeys followed. Taking on a matronly form, Brigid is often credited with organising structured religious life for women in Ireland. She is said to have died on 1 February 525 – the day that still bears her name more than 1,000 years later.

    Who was Brigid the Celtic Goddess?

    Brigid (or Brigit) is also the name of a Celtic goddess from pre-Christain early medieval Ireland. She is an established member of Irish mythology as part of the ancient mythical race of fairies, the Tuatha Dé Danann.

    Often called a “mother goddess,” her feast day is also February 1st, or the ancient pagan festival of Imbolc – the celebration of the end of winter and the coming of spring. With similar attributes to the saint, Celtic Brigid is associated with wisdom, poetry, healing, protection, smithing and domesticated animals. It is easy to see the overlap.

    Brigid: Saint or Pagan Goddess?

    Sharing a feast day, similar attributes, the same name and falling within a similar epoch, it’s impossible not to connect these two impressive female figures – and many historians and folklorists have done so over the years.

    So was St Brigid a Christianisation of the Celtic goddess? Or did she take on her persona in order to attain popularity – a sort of medieval identity theft, or at the very least, rebranding? This is a tantalising mystery that is still up for debate.

    It’s no secret, though, that in modern times, the two figures have become incontrovertibly linked to the point of more or less merging into a single legendary figure embodying feminity, healing and the heralding of spring.

    Brigid & Imbolc

    Black Sheep Lambs

    Imbolc is an important point on the Gaelic calendar. The traditional Gaelic calendar is based on astronomy and the change in seasons. Festivals are held on the summer and winter solstices, as well as spring and autumn equinoxes. These celebrations mark the change in seasons; Halloween (or Samhain) is the start of winter, Bealtaine is the start of summer, Lugnasadh is the start of the autumn harvest, and Imbolc is the start of spring.

    Imbolc, better known as St Brigid’s Day and Ireland’s new bank holiday, is held on February 1st. Associated with the lambing season in Ireland and, of course, Brigid the goddess, St Brigid’s Day is a Christianised version of an ancient pagan feast day.

    Today, it’s celebrated by weaving St Bridgid’s Crosses from thick reeds that are folded a certain way. The crosses adorn doors, windows and other thresholds, typically to ward against bad spirits, sickness and ill luck. People sometimes leave out offerings – food, drink, a place to sleep – for Brigid, who is said to visit houses on her feast day and offer blessings.

    Christianisation of Irish Folklore

    Holy Well Ireland

    Holy wells are common sites in Ireland, each associated with different saints, cures and miracles.

    St Patrick spread the word of Christianity during the early Middle Ages, around the 4th century, but converting a very rural and sparsely populated island did not happen quickly. In the beginning, Christianity and paganism sat side by side, if not comfortably, with a modicum of respect.

    This uneasy alliance was not meant to be. Over the following decades and centuries, Christianity prevailed. The Norman Conquest of Ireland in 1169, followed by British rule in Ireland for the next 800 years, cemented the prevalence of Christianity in Ireland. Paganism fought hard but was ultimately doomed to fail.

    In order to expedite the island’s Christain status amongst the Irish, Christianity carefully fused pagan practices and beliefs with Christain principles. The “otherworld” of the fairies became “Hell”. This is seen most ostentatiously at Rathcroghan, the birthplace of Halloween. Once the entrance to the otherworld, it is now often called the “Gateway to Hell.”

    Ancient pagan sites were noted for their spiritual value and incorporated into Christian sites, such as holy wells or monasteries. Important dates on the pagan calendar were morphed into important dates on the Christian calendar – most famously, the Nordic Yule became Christmas. The spring equinox Imbolc became St Brigid’s Day.

    And of course, a pagan goddess called Brigid became a saint – one of Ireland’s three patron saints.

    St Brigid’s Day

    Folding St Brigid’s Day crosses from reeds in the traditional manner.

    St Brigid’s Day is celebrated on February 1st, the supposed date of Brigid’s death as well as the date of Imbolc, the first day of spring. Starting in 2023, St Brigid’s Day has become Ireland’s newest bank holiday.

    With the recent interest in revitalising the Irish language, culture and traditions, Celtic traditions like St Brgid’s Day, the solstices and other important days on the Celtic calendar have seen a resurgence in popularity.

    In a place as proud of its heritage and folklore, and a country as ancient, as Ireland, St Brigid’s Day officially joins other ancient holidays Samhain (Halloween – October 31st) and St Patrick’s Day (March 17th), on the list of official government holidays. Perhaps the solstice will be next!

    Read More About Irish Folklore

    From selkies to witches, bloodthirsty creatures that inspired Dracula, tragic lovers, magic bulls, warrior queens and warring giants, read more about the fascinating world of Irish myth and legend in our series on the topic.

    Read More

    Visit Ireland

    Meet the Author: Dawn Rainbolt

    American by birth but European in spirit, Dawn has called the US, Costa Rica, Spain, England, Poland, France and now Ireland home over the years. While she has travelled to more than 30 countries, she has fallen in love with the rich Irish culture and sweeping landscapes of Ireland. Armed with a Masters Degree in Tourism Marketing and a love of writing and photography, she is Wilderness Ireland's Marketing Executive since 2017.

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