Thursday 29 September 2016

Mary Kenny: The first Irish feminist?

St Brigid's Cross is a symbol of a powerful, independent woman

Published 21/08/2016 | 02:30

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

Tourists in Ireland this summer will observe, and even purchase, many examples of 'St Brigid's Cross' - that rather unusual variation of a conventional cross, fashioned out of straw.

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Despite a decline in religious practice - humanist weddings are growing, church weddings declining - the St Brigid's cross retains its revered place in Irish life. But is St Brigid more legend than fact?

The standard dictionary of the saints sniffily says that "ascertainable facts about her life are few", and written accounts are merely anecdotes, "sometimes very far-fetched and not unmixed with folklore". There are even suggestions that the identity of Brigid of Faughart, who died in 523AD, is really a continuation of some remote Celtic pagan goddesses, who, in Druidic style, would also have been associated with wells and water, as Brigid is.

All the same, a biography of Brigid I've recently unearthed, written by Alice Curtayne and published back in 1955, is an affirmation of the 'Mary of the Gael' as an early feminist. Brigid was born in 450AD, into what would then have been called a mixed marriage: her father was one Dubthach (the modern equivalent is Duffy), who was a "pagan petty king, or chieftain". Her mother was a bondwoman, that is, a slave, by name of Brocessa, "who belonged to his household". Dubthach seemed to have availed of his right of droit de seigneur, and duly got Brocessa pregnant.

Ireland in 450AD was on the cusp of transiting from paganism to Christianity, in the wake of Patrick's conversions. Women had a surprising array of rights under Brehon law, but as our greatest mediaeval scholar, Donnchadh Ó Curráin of UCC, has underlined, these rights were class-based. They applied to women of the chieftain class. Slaves were without rights at all, and were even forbidden to convert to Christianity, since that might prove inconvenient to their masters.

Brigid, therefore, grew up with a mixed heritage. But according to Alice Curtayne - a renowned Irish author who died in 1981 - the saint's childhood was happy, notwithstanding the continual state of war in Ireland. Between 452 and 517AD, 15 major battles took place - a constant struggle for dominance under the High King.

Brigid seems to have inherited her father's upper-class confidence and easy command, along with her mother's practical skills in household and farm. Household women were subjected to an enormous amount of skivvying - let us count our blessings for the vacuum cleaner and the electric light. Brocessa and her kind were consigned to milking, butter-making, swine-herding, grinding corn, washing the feet of guests and holding lights during the entertainment of company. Holding these torchlights was particularly tedious, as the entertainment could endure for hours. The poet, or bard, was a person of great significance in ancient Erin, and should such a celebrity be visiting, you'd be holding up the torches all night, which must have been killing for the feet.

Brigid's father sent her away in fosterage to another chieftain - actually, he sold her. But Brigid had spirit. The first thing she did while awaiting in her Pa's chariot was to donate his sword, complete with embedded gem, to a leper seeking alms. Contrary to the Biblical lepers, lepers in Ireland were not treated as outcasts. Celtic Ireland, fierce in some ways, was compassionate to the afflicted.

And so began Brigid's life of independence and defiance. She rejected marriage - Dubthach hoped she might wed a poet, but she wasn't having it - and began travelling around the country to assemble a community of women. She had seven companions with her when she was received into religious life, and by the time she died, she had some 14,000. She rescued women from "the fortresses of chieftains and the hovels of bondwomen, offering them a haven". Among her early achievements was to obtain liberty for her mother.

Everyone needs a friend at court and Brigid's was Bishop Mel at Croghan Hill in Offaly (said to be a nephew of St Patrick). With Mel's support, she founded a community at Croghan Hill - the site of early Christian monasticism - and then another in Westmeath. Eventually, the bishops of Ireland extended their friendship to Brigid, and this "developed into a kind of fellowship with the episcopacy": that is, she was accepted as an honorary bishop herself (which was sometimes a courtesy title for all abbots). Is there a bishop in the country today, in the 21st century, who would accept a particularly effective nun (we have all known them) as an episcopal equal?

Brigid was a powerful abbess and an initiator of women's communities. The annals describe her as strong, compassionate and gay (in the old sense of the word), "imbued with a shining charity". She was also opposed to war. For all that it is distant history, Brigid's personality was stamped into Irish history, and folklore. The place-names of Ireland carry her memory: Kilbride, Templebreedy, Toberbride, Kilbreedy, Rathbride, Drumbride. Kildare is still Brigid's county, though Alice Curtayne notes that there has always been special devotion to her in Offaly.

The Danish Vikings destroyed many artefacts associated with Brigid, but the straw cross - which she wove from floor straw while comforting a dying man - lived on, and is ubiquitously with us, as a reminder of a great woman.


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