February 1st is celebrated as the Feast of St Brigid of Kildare in Ireland. Brigid is one of the three patrons of Ireland along with St Patrick and St Colmcille (or Columba if you’re a Scot). These three essentially make up the Irish ‘Holy Trinity’. One of the medieval legends of Ireland held that at the Last Judgement everyone has to go to Jerusalem to be judged by Christ.
Unfortunately for Ryanair, this will not apply to the Irish – because they have to gather in Armagh to be judged. And the judges will be the three members of the Irish ‘Holy Trinity’ – Patrick as president of the tribunal, with Brigid and Colmcille as assisting judges. The authority of this tribunal would be symbolized by the Bacal Isu – the staff that was said to have been given to Patrick by Christ. This is the same staff that Christ used in his travels about the Holy Land and it had been used by Moses to part the waters of the sea to allow the Hebrews to escape from Pharaoh. During the medieval period this staff was preserved in Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin. Archbishop Browne (the first ‘reformed’ archbishop of Dublin) is said to have burned it in the late 1530s, but he denied this when questioned by the government of the day. In short, the staff disappeared, presumably until the Last Judgement.
Back to Bridie (the affectionate version of her name!). February 1st is also seen in Ireland as the first day of spring. Now, before all the meteorologists get upset by this bit of folklore, I must admit that I am perfectly well aware that the met people here insist on starting spring on 1st March. The idea of spring starting on 1st February has a stronger grip on the popular Irish division of the year than the scientific notion of starting the season on 1st of March or ever on 21st of March. Life, you see, is made up of more than just scientific facts! Messy custom and folklore can be a stronger fact of life!
One difficulty that raises suspicion is the coincidence of her feast with the ancient festival of Imbolc. Imbolc was one of the cross-quarter days of the Celtic year, being half way between Samhain and the spring equinox, but also between Samhain and Beltaine (now fixed as 1st of May, the first day of summer). Imbolc was the festival of the goddess Brigit. It is likely that there has been serious conflation of the goddess with the saint, but I’m taking it that Brigid of Kildare was a real person.
Saint Brigid was seemingly born as the daughter of a slave and her master. Brigid was noted for her household husbandry – that is, she knew how to keep a good house. When she wanted to set up a monastery on the plain by the Curragh, she was jokingly offered land by a local chief in Kildare – but only as much as her cloak would cover. When Brigid placed her cloak on the ground, it suddenly expanded as far as the eye could see. The chief was clearly one who would never have made a good bargain during the Celtic Tiger years! Certainly St Brigid would be an ideal candidate as patron saint of property speculators!
St Brigid’s cult spread beyond Ireland – St Bride’s church in Fleet Street, London, is dedicated to her. Her cloak apparently ended up in Bruges, and one of her shoes in Lisbon. There is a fine reliquary for another shoe in the National Museum of Ireland – she really had very dainty feet! There are even places in Germany named after her – we know they take their name from Brigid of Kildare (or Ireland) because they existed before the canonisation of St Bridget of Sweden (her name was actually Birgitta, not Brigida, indeed the Swedish name has nothing to do with Brigid of Kildare). However some of the cult centers of the Irish Bridie ended up being associated with the Swedish saint in later years. Oh woe, the ignorance!
Brigid’s monastery was a double house – of monks and nuns, with an abbess in charge of both. There was a bishop attached to the monastery, but he was under the thumb of the abbess. The wooden church in the centre of Brigid’s monastery was really a large timber basilica with painted walls. The round tower is the only part of the original monastery to survive, except for the ground plan of the precincts that can be traced on maps. Today the wooden basilica has been replaced by a medieval cathedral which was heavily restored for use by the Church of Ireland in the nineteenth century. Happily the original appearance and dimensions of the medieval structure were respected during the restoration.
The Irish tradition is to hang a St Brigid’s cross in the house on the 1st of February. These crosses are made of rushes, apparently devised during an idle moment when Brigid was looking after a sick chieftan who converted to Christianity on his recovery. Brigid is also associated with cows – although such images are more likely to be late medieval German than Irish. Still, cows were important to the Irish economy in the early medieval period.
There is, however, just one problem…..St Brigid’s feastday can be bitterly cold. Indeed we are going through a cold spell at the moment, with the prospect of temperatures going to minus 8 degrees centigrade! Spring is on hold it seems! No wonder lighting a fire was part of the ritual of Imbolc – and Brigid’s monastery of Kildare was associated with a Holy Fire! All the better to ward off the bitter winds of late winter and early spring – especially today’s north westerly winds!