February 1 is the feast of St. Brigid, often called the Mary of the Gael.
Her feast day, along with that of St Patrick, and Our Lady of Knock, are
the official holy days of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who gather annually
for a Mass in her honor.
St. Brigid's life was a remarkable one, and the places
in Ireland, associated with her, are scenes of pilgrimage throughout the year.
She was born in a society ruled by the old Gaelic Order and the Druidic religion.
St. Patrick had already reached Ireland, and was in the process of changing all
that, but though his message had reached the court of Dubhtach, the powerful
Leinster Chieftain held firm to the old religion. In his religion, one of the
most powerful Goddesses was Brid or Brigid, the Goddess of Fire whose
manifestations were song and poetry, which the Celts considered the flame
of knowledge. Her feast day was the first festival of the year and was held on
February 1. It was the beginning of Spring; the working season for farmers and
fishermen, and a time of husbanding of animals, and the Celts called on Brid
to bless their work, and bonfires were lit in her honor.
Patrick did not
condemn the Celts as idolatrous pagans, but explained their druidic customs in
Christian terms, and gradually, Bible heroes and Christian saints began to replace
the Celtic Gods and Goddesses on the Irish calendar. However, the personalities of
some of the Celtic deities was so strong that they could not be replaced and one of
these was Brid, and the rites associated with her continued to be practiced each
February 1 right into Christian times. But that was soon to change.
about 453 AD, a child was born out of wedlock between Dubhtach and one of his
Christian slaves named Brocessa. The slave girl was sent to a cabin at the
foot of the Cooley Mountains near Dundalk, Co Louth, to have the child. The
baby was a healthy girl, which was no great joy to Dubhtach who wanted a son.
The mother was sold to a Chieftain in Connaught, and the child was given to a
Druid to be raised and educated. The child was named Brigid, perhaps to seek
the blessing of the Goddess, for from the very beginning, there were indications
that she was special. It was reported that she was born at sunrise, and that
the cottage in which she was born burst into flame when she left it.
Brigid grew in beauty, and her love for all of God's creatures knew no bounds.
After her fosterage, she returned to her father's house as a slave, although she
enjoyed the privileges of family. She was given to solitude, and loved to wander
the woods befriending the animals. She was renowned for her generosity, giving
much of her father's wealth away to the poor. Many are the stories attributed
to this remarkable lady, including her journey on foot from Leinster to Connaught
to find her mother, whom she freed from bondage, and returned to the house of Dubhtach.
In keeping with the life planned for her, she became a vestal virgin in service to
the Goddess Brid, and eventually high priestess at the Kil Dara (the temple of the oak),
a pagan sanctuary built from the wood of a tree sacred to the Druids. There she and her
companions kept a perpetual ritual fire, in honor of Brid.
The exact circumstance of
her conversion to Christianity are unknown, though it is certain that her Christian mother
was a guiding influence. Some claim that she personally met St Patrick, which is possible
since she was ten years old before he died, but there is no proof of that. Whatever the
circumstances, Brigid and her companions in service to Brid, all accepted the Christian
faith, and formed Ireland's first Christian religious community of women. Legend tells
that upon her acceptance of her vows, fire appeared above her head.
the pagan sanctuary of Kil Dara into a Christian shrine, which gave its name to the present
County Kildare. She extinguished the ritual fire of the Druids, and lit a flame dedicated
to Christ which was thereafter maintained by her followers until it was doused by the forces
of Henry VIII. Brigid's wisdom and generosity became legend, and people traveled from all
over the country to share her wisdom. Her monastery at Kildare became one of the greatest
centers of learning in Europe.
She continued her holy and charitable work until her death in
525 AD, when she was laid to rest in a jeweled casket at Kil Dara. In 835, her remains were moved
to protect them from Norse invaders, and interred in the same grave that holds the remains of St.
Patrick and St. Columcille at Downpatrick.
So strong was the respect and reverence for this
holy lady that she became the patroness of parishes, towns, and counties, not only in Ireland,
but all across Europe.
During the age of Chivalry, she was so revered as a model for women of
every age, that gentlemen, knights, and nobles began the custom of calling their sweethearts,
their Brides - a custom that has come down to this very day. In Ireland, the people likened her
to Brid, the ancient Goddess of fire and wisdom - for wasn't Brigid's life touched with fire,
and as for her wisdom - that was undisputed. She even had a symbol.
As the shamrock became
associated with St Patrick, a tiny cross made of rushes was linked with St Brigid. Supposedly
woven by her to explain the passion of Christ to a dying pagan, similar crosses are fashioned
to this day as a defense against harm, and placed in the rafters of a cottage on the feast day of
St Brigid - February 1.
So it was that reverence for this holy child of Ireland grew so strong
that she not only eclipsed Brid, for whom she was named, but was given her feast day. And the
Irish gladly accepted their new saint, and revere her to this day in place of a forgotten Celtic Goddess.