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Biddy Boys, holy wells and dreams of love: How to mark St Brigid's Day

Today is St Brigid's Day, a day in praise of either a saint or a formidable pagan goddess, depending on your preference. Marion McGarry outlines some ways to celebrate

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Tradition: Oisín Lee and Sofia Hannon from St Brigid’s Primary School, Kildare town, with St Brigid’s crosses which they made for President Michael D Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin last year. Photo by Kenneth O’Halloran

Tradition: Oisín Lee and Sofia Hannon from St Brigid’s Primary School, Kildare town, with St Brigid’s crosses which they made for President Michael D Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin last year. Photo by Kenneth O’Halloran

Many customs: St Brigid was born in the 5th century

Many customs: St Brigid was born in the 5th century

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Tradition: Oisín Lee and Sofia Hannon from St Brigid’s Primary School, Kildare town, with St Brigid’s crosses which they made for President Michael D Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin last year. Photo by Kenneth O’Halloran

These days as the month of January turns into February, many of us don't give it a second thought. While it is acknowledged today as St Brigid's Day, or Lá Fhéile Bríde, February 1 was once a major turning point in the Irish calendar and was celebrated widely.

It represented a new year, the beginnings of spring and a time to take stock of the present and to think about the year ahead.

It was known too as Imbolc, an ancient festival meaning 'in the belly', connected to the time of pregnancy for sheep and the beginning of the lambing season in the rural calendar. This became Christianised in Ireland as the feast day of St Brigid - the foremost female Irish saint - and a version of the universal pagan goddess Brigid. A formidable woman with the power to influence kings, the rural people looked to her to intercede on their behalf with God. As a testament to her popularity, it is worth noting that until the mid-20th century Brigid was one the most popular names for Catholic girls.

Who exactly was worshipped on St Brigid's Day - Christian saint or pagan goddess - was interchangeable according to the ritual practices people partook of. Many attended Mass and holy wells but also partook of some older customs, the exact origins of which are unknown.

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Many customs: St Brigid was born in the 5th century

Many customs: St Brigid was born in the 5th century

With all major ancient Irish/Christian festivals, the big celebration happened on the eve of the feast day, in this case at sundown on St Brigid's Eve, January 31. At this time, St Brigid was said to pass over Ireland bestowing her blessings to all. Food offerings were ceremoniously left out for her and a simple festive supper would take place in the home. Fresh rushes were spread on the floor of the house (a traditional sign of welcome), and the door was left unlatched. St Brigid's crosses were made at this time.

The St Brigid's cross is as popular as ever, an emblematic simple shape made usually from rushes - always pulled, never cut. The real St Brigid of Kildare was said to have explained the concept of Christianity to a pagan king by taking rushes from the floor and making a simple cross. The cross is an ancient design of simple beauty: easy and fast to create, a characteristic that makes for a popular project for Irish primary school children. Crosses are still hung today in Irish homes, classrooms, even cars.

Burning of the cross

The cross offered protection for the household, farm and land. In some areas, when a new one was made, the old one from the previous year was burned. Burning a holy object may seem disrespectful to us today, but the act marked concepts of death and rebirth that underpinned many pagan beliefs connected to the natural calendar.

There are a myriad of customs associated with St Brigid's Eve and Day that have largely died out. One custom the reader might revive is to leave a pocket-sized piece of cloth or rag outside on a bush on St Brigid's Eve. This could be blessed by St Brigid on her travels and transformed next day into the Brat Bríde, an amulet with curative properties. It was worn within clothing for protection, or used as a cure for headache, toothache, earache and even for labour. On St Brigid's Day itself, another old custom practised in some parts of Ireland is the 'Biddy Boy' procession. This involved groups, often dressed in straw costumes and playing music, going from house to house collecting food or money. It was considered unlucky to refuse them a donation. They carried a straw doll clothed in white known as a brideóg, an effigy of the saint.

Sometimes they carried with them a Crios Bríde, a long straw rope formed into a large circular shape, with three woven crosses in its design. People would step through the crios or pull it over their heads - this was believed to ensure luck and health for the coming year.

It was also a day of stocktaking in the house, for farmers and housewives to try to figure out how long more stores of fodder and food would last. It was also a day off work, and the turning of wheels was to be avoided, including bikes, sewing and spinning machines.

To mark the beginning of the tillage season, a farmer might symbolically break the soil with a spade. Some believed if the first lamb of the season was born black, there would be mourning for the family within the year.

St Brigid's Day itself was a day for visiting holy wells devoted to the saint. Holy water was believed more potent if collected from these on her feast day and was sprinkled on objects, people and animals to offer protection. 

St Brigid's Day signalled better weather and longer days, and was a time for weather divination. Good weather on February 1 was an omen of bad to come, while a rainy month of February indicated a good summer. Finally, people could look forward to brighter things after a winter of cold and dark.

And we cannot have an ancient Irish festival occur without a little marriage divination. Any excess rushes were woven into little ladders or wheels and were placed under pillows so that the single might dream of their future spouses on St Brigid's night.

Dr Marion McGarry is a lecturer at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, an author and historian. Her latest book 'Irish Folk Customs: How our Ancestors Celebrated Life and the Seasons' will be published by Orpen Press in the summer

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