Why St Brigid’s Day is an important new holiday in Ireland
The Irish calendar has a new notable date in 2023: Monday, February 6th will be the first instance of a brand new permanent public holiday. The new February holiday marks the feast of St Brigid, which takes place on February 1st each year, and which will now see the first Monday in February—or Friday, on the years when February 1st falls then—become the 10th Irish public holiday, and the first additional public holiday since “May Day”, the first Monday in May, was introduced in 1994.
But who is Brigid?
Why has she been deemed important enough to be given a public holiday all of her own?
And why now?
Firstly, for the nerds among us, it might be interesting to note that in the Irish calendar, just two of the other nine holidays are designated saint days.
These are St Patrick’s Day on March 17th, and St Stephen’s Day on December 26th. Celebrating Ireland’s patron saint, who brought Christianity to the country, notoriously casting out all of Ireland’s slithery snakes while he was at it, St Patrick’s Day is by now a globally recognized event.
For many people in Ireland and elsewhere, St Stephen—the first Christian martyr, stoned to death in Jerusalem in or around AD 36 after proclaiming that Jesus’s coming had been foretold by Moses and accusing the powers-that-be of murdering Jesus—is quite an obscure figure.
For all but the most devout, the St Stephen’s Day holiday is celebrated much more as “Christmas Day, Part Deux” than any true attachment to the Christian saint.
Brigid, then, has generally been seen in an Irish context as a much more important saint than Stephen, and after several years of campaigning by the Herstory organization, a movement established in 2016 to elevate and retell women’s stories through the arts, education and spectacular light shows, the true importance of Brigid in the Irish culture will now be given the recognition many people feel she has so long and so richly deserved.
But whether Irish people will now be celebrating Brigid as a real Christian saint, as an ancient Irish goddess, or as a symbol for something that has more modern resonance … well that really depends on your viewpoint.
Let’s dive in.
Photo of Saint Brigid's Church in Castleknock, Dublin
1. Who was Brigid the saint?
St Brigid—or St Brigid of Kildare to give her the full title—lived approximately 100 years after St Patrick had brought Christianity to Irish shores. As Patrick was born in then Roman Britain and the other best-known Irish born saint, Columba, came approximately 75 years after Brigid, perhaps the first important thing to note about St Brigid is that she is the first Irish-born Roman Catholic saint. (And you might ask, if that doesn’t deserve a national holiday by itself, what does?) Brigid, whose saint’s day has long been marked into the calendars—if not widely celebrated—on February 1st each year, is said to have been born in or around 450 in County Louth, north of Dublin on Ireland’s east coast, and died in Kildare about 75 years later.
There are few known historical facts about St Brigid of Kildare, but we do know that she became a patron of a number of pursuits, including poetry, healing and blacksmithing. (Let that sink in, because we’ll be hearing a bit more about it later.)
In the Christian tradition, sainthood is only bestowed after the verified attribution of miracles, and there are a number of miracles that have become associated with Brigid.
These include the turning of water into beer, presumably a skill that was highly-valued, bringing with it a little light-headed brightness to the dark days of the Dark Ages. On one occasion Brigid is reputed to have given to two mute girls the power of speech. But perhaps the most famous legend of St Brigid concerns her dealings with the King of Leinster in negotiating a parcel of land to erect a convent. (You might think of it as the earliest known example of something that has become something of an ever-present in Ireland: contentious planning rezoning!)
Anyone who has paid any attention to the 800-year history of Irish occupation, or seen John B. Keane’s The Field, will be aware how deeply Irish men are attached to ownership rights of the ground beneath their feet, so it might be no surprise that the King initially laughed off Brigid’s request.
Eventually, Brigid asked him to award her as much land as her cloak could cover, a request to which he promptly agreed. You might consider the king’s creeping sense of alarm, then, as he watched Brigid fling her cloak in the air and see it fall upon an ever-increasing body of acres. Perhaps understandably, not being the first or the last Irishman to regret underestimating the power of an Irish woman, the King relented, gave her the land she was after, and Brigid had her convent.
After her death, Brigid’s remains and associated relics were interred at the altar of Kildare Cathedral, the stories of the life led before her death eventually attracting pilgrims from near and far.
Approximately 350 years after her death, as the Viking raids of the 9th century gathered force, the contents of the saintly crypt were moved and placed alongside those of St Patrick and St Columba at Downpatrick Cathedral about 100 miles north.
Thereafter, there is more than a little doubt about what exactly happened to the relics and remains, but two different historical records declare that the skull of St Brigid subsequently made its way to Portugal, either through the Aragonese Crusade of the 1200s or following the destruction of the Downpatrick relics in 1538.
And so, two Lisbon churches now lay claim to holding relics of Brigid—the Igreja de São Roque, or Church of St Roch, one of the earliest Jesuit churches, where a frontal part of her skull is still said to be venerated; and the Igreja São João Batista, or Church of St. John the Baptist, near Lisbon airport, where a 16th century inscription reads that three Irish knights brought her head there in the 1283 and that her relic is preserved in the chapel.
2. What is the St. Brigid's Cross?
According to Christian legend, St Brigid sat in end-of-life care for an old pagan chieftain—some tellings of the story claim that the old man was her father—and witnessed his conversion to the Christian faith before his death.
While sitting at the gravely ill man’s bedside, Brigid had gathered up a handful of rushes from the floor—grasses such as this strewn on the floor are believed to have been commonplace in homes across Ireland at the time—and weaved them together into the shape of a cross. When the old man, who had in life been a staunch pagan, asked what she was doing, and subsequently heard the story of the meaning of the cross, of the death and resurrection of Jesus, he was so overcome that he pledged his faith to Christ before his passing.
Whatever the truth behind the story, there’s no doubt that the St Brigid’s Cross has since become one of Ireland’s most recognizable emblems—religious or otherwise. A simple and typically hand-woven cross made out of tough grasses, often straw or rushes, the St Brigid’s Cross is a common site in homes and hospitality all over Ireland (and, increasingly, further afield too) around February 1st.
It is traditionally believed that the St Brigid’s Cross protects the home in which it’s placed and all its inhabitants—including animals—from the threat of evil or the specter of scarcity.
Here at Real Irish, we’re proud to showcase St Brigid’s Crosses handmade in Ireland by Naomh Padraig Handcrafts.
Image of Patricia O'Flaherty from Naomh Padraig Handcrafts
Based in Strokestown, County Roscommon and run for more than 20 years by professional craftworker and qualified craft teacher Patricia O'Flaherty, Naomh Padraig Handcrafts produce a range of handmade products, notably including St Brigid’s Crosses, which Patricia makes in three different designs and several sizes. Shop our authentic Naomh Padraig St. Brigid's Crosses at this link.
We also carry a collection of St. Brigid's Cross products at this link. These products are produced by Irish brands like McHarp, Wild Goose Studio, Solvar and more.
Video from Michael Fortune on Youtube
3. Who was Brigid the goddess?As is the way of things, lines blur across centuries.
There are many who argue persuasively that the ancient pagan midwinter festival, the celebration of the passing of the darkest days and the slow and steady journey back into the light, was usurped by Christian tradition to become Christmas, a celebration of the birth of Christ. Whatever the truth of that, and it may well be that we must forever lean on the wispy and imperfect shapes of ancient history and mythology, there are similar echoes and blurred lines in the history of Brigid.
One important thing to note about Brigid the goddess, and the entity which at least some people will be venerating as most precious as the calendar turns to February each year, is that the stories predate Christianity by at least many hundreds and perhaps many thousands of years. As outlined by the Herstory campaign to recognise Brigid with a new national holiday, Ireland has long had deep links to feminine deities, and that over many centuries of political and religious influence, the patriarchal system had papered over Ireland’s divine feminine past.
The first clue of this divine femininity lies in the name of the country itself. Eire or Eireann in the ancient Irish, often reworked in English as Erin, is named after the goddess Ériu. According to readings of Irish mythology, Ériu was one of three daughters of the Dagda, a god, king and druid of the Tuatha Dé Danann, which was a superhuman, supernatural race native to Ireland. Ériu and her sisters, Banba and Fodla, were described in medieval texts as “fair women of the Tuatha Dé Danann” and as “bright women of spirited speech”, and the legend of Ériu saw her heralded as the goddess of Ireland.
It’s perhaps interesting, then, that in one of the defining texts of Irish mythology, Lady Gregory’s much-admired Gods and Fighting Men, first published in 1904, the very first page gives a little mention of Ériu (written in the form of “Eire”), but dwells a lot on Brigid (or “Brigit”).
“And the greatest among their women were Badb, a battle goddess; and Macha, whose mast-feeding was the heads of men killed in battle; and the Morrigu, the Crow of Battle; and Eire and Fodla and Banba, daughters of the Dagda, that all three gave their names to Ireland afterwards; and Eadon, the nurse of poets; and Brigit, that was a woman of poetry, and poets worshipped her, for her sway was very great and very noble.”
Lady Gregory elaborates:
“[Brigit] was a woman of healing along with that, and a woman of smith’s work, and it was she first made the whistle for calling one to another through the night. And the one side of her face was ugly, but the other side was very comely. And the meaning of her name was Breo-saighit, a fiery arrow.”
So Brigit, or Brigid (or the many other evolutions of the goddess’s name, including Bríg, Bríd, Breege and Breda), whose face was at once both beautiful and ugly, was a woman of poetry worshiped by poets, she was a smith, and she was a healer—hinting at a major overlap between the woman venerated by Christian tradition and the goddess of ancient Irish mythology.
Some accounts suggest that the identity of the goddess Brigid was split across more than one person. Cormac’s Glossary, a text written by monks in monasteries of the 800s, recounts that Brigid represented three sisters.
This form, the goddess as three sisters, suggests that Brigid was indeed a “triple deity”, or a God with three forms.
Variations on the triple deity theme are commonplace among mythologies all over the world, most famously perhaps, in the father, son and holy spirit deity of Christianity. (Indeed, Brigid might not be the only Irish triple deity, as Morrígu was another Irish feminine triple deity, the three Morrígna often characterized as three sisters Badb, Macha, and Nemain, war goddesses who themselves are said to be sisters of the three land goddesses, Ériu, Banba and Fodla.)
While other ancient Irish feminine goddesses were associated with land or with war, Brigid might be viewed as having a deep connection with the spiritual plane.
The inventor of something that would allow travel under the cover of darkness (named in some mythologies as a “whistle”, elsewhere understood as a light or flame ), and named after a flaming arrow, possessing both beauty and ugliness in one face, as much as anything Brigid might be seen as an intangible spirit.
As a bridge between worlds. As a distiller of magic. And as a companion, inspiration and muse on life’s transcendent journey.
Photo of Cathedral of Saint Brigid, Kildare, County Kildare
4. What does St Brigid’s Day mean to modern Ireland?
At one level the decision to instate a new public holiday recognizing St Brigid, the first Irish-born Catholic saint, is a straightforward one.
At another level, though, it’s important to view the development as another significant step in the continued liberation of Irish people—and in this case specifically Irish women—out from the control of a constricting, devoutly religious, and often male-dominated past. During the six-year campaign led by Herstory that culminated in the announcement of a new February public holiday, it was clear that the femininity of Brigid, and just as importantly the fact that such femininity had been ignored and covered up for the first century of the Irish state, were critical aspects in the movement’s motivation. Perhaps more than any other place on earth, Ireland’s relationship with ideology, theology and religion has evolved rapidly over the past few decades.
It’s easy to forget that to be gay was still to be a criminal in Ireland as recently as 1992, or that divorce was prohibited by the constitution until 1996. Undoubtedly the biggest shake-up in the relationship between Irish people and their Catholic-influenced laws came in 2018, when the eighth amendment to the constitution—enshrined in law in 1983, prohibiting abortion in almost all cases—was repealed by a national referendum in 2018 that was as bitterly fought during the campaign as it was clear-cut afterwards. (The Irish electorate voted by a margin of 67% to 33% to repeal the eighth amendment and allow Irish women rights to abortion for the first time.)
The place of Brigid—whether as goddess, or saint, or symbol—must be seen in the light of such developments over the course of just three decades.
There are other, much less political and much less adversarial, ways to see Brigid, however.
February 1st has traditionally been seen as the first day of the northern hemisphere spring, so St Brigid’s Day on the calendar was always overtly connected to that.
Where the midwinter and Christmas festivals celebrated the passing of the longest, darkest days, St Brigid’s Day celebrated the first actual day of spring. (The new holiday is labelled in some places as “Imbolc”, the name of a traditional old Gaelic festival that marked the beginning of spring.)
Yes, there is still plenty of cold and night through February and into March before April brings more warmth and perhaps the first migrating swallow. But by February many snowdrops will have bloomed, daffodils aren’t far behind, and everywhere life is springing into being again. So Brigid, Ireland’s ancient triple deity, has evolved into a modern day triple entity too.
Brigid is the first female Irish-born saint, whose miracles included the conventional, such as curing the disabled, and the unconventional, like fooling a king with a cloak.
Brigid is also the ancient Irish goddess, a healer, a creator and a muse to the poets, who brought light where there was darkness.
And Brigid is finally, too, a powerful and empowering symbol for Irish women, a divine feminine who has been placed in the shadows and is now back in the glory of her own light.