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Inspirational Irish women who followed in the trailblazing shoes of Brigid


Sarah Webb, Martina Devlin, Lise-Ann McLaughlin and Zainab Boladale at Wild Women: A St Brigid’s Day Celebration

Sarah Webb, Martina Devlin, Lise-Ann McLaughlin and Zainab Boladale at Wild Women: A St Brigid’s Day Celebration

Sarah Webb, Martina Devlin, Lise-Ann McLaughlin and Zainab Boladale at Wild Women: A St Brigid’s Day Celebration

A saint. A goddess. A shapeshifter. A healer. A lesbian.

Brigid's tale has been retold and reinterpreted down the centuries, and she has been an icon to many different groups with disparate beliefs.

In Christian interpretation St Brigid is Ireland's only female patron saint whose feast day falls on February 1.

In the Celtic tradition it heralds Imbolc, which falls under the pagan tradition as the start of spring.

She was also a trailblazer who despite her death almost 1,500 years ago, was a true inspiration for “unconventional, unruly, swashbuckling and dynamic women”.

That's according to a high profile panel of Irish women writers, activists and journalists discussing her legacy at the Dun Laoghaire’s Lexicon library and cultural centre on the eve of St Brigid’s Day on Tuesday.

As we celebrate the first official St Brigid’s Day bank holiday this weekend, journalist, writer and playwright Martina Devlin hosted 'Wild Women: A St Brigid’s Day Celebration’.

The aim was to delve into who this enigmatic legend was, and what impact her life had on generations of women to follow.

According to Ailbhe Smyth, academic, feminist and LGBTQ activist, St Brigid, according to ‘myth, legend and history’ was “a wonderous elastic figure, a shapeshifter.”

“She was a multi-talented woman,” who was worshipped as a pagan goddess of “healing, water, fire and alchemy and poetry.”

“She was also worshipped, of course, as the Goddess of Imbolc – the Goddess of spring, fertility, life, regeneration.

"For the Catholic Church, she is revered as the first nun, at least in Ireland that we know of, as the founding abbess of a religious order; the order of the Brigidines take their inspiration from her life – and as a healer and a protector – especially of women and of animals.”

She also dedicated her life to the care and protection of the poor, the sick and the hungry.

“This remarkable woman, in both legend and history was undoubtedly a visionary as well as a healer, a warrior as much as a protector, defending the rights and lives of those in her care also, I would suggest to you, a rebel and a very astute strategist,” she said.

“After all you don’t end up owning half of Kildare without being clever, ambitious and I’m speculating, probably as tough as old boots.

“Legend tells us that she had no truck with conventions or rules and was a bit of a rebel. She refused to marry as her father ordered her to do, declaring instead that she would lead her own, independent life,” she said.

“She is reputed to have taken a woman to her bed,” she said.

Meanwhile, Irish revolutionary Constance Markievicz, the legendary suffragette and socialist who made history as the first woman elected as a TD here and to the British parliament – who subsequently refused to take her seat - was among those unconventional Irish women who followed in Brigid’s footsteps and ‘broke the mould’, according to the panel.

After reading an excerpt from Martina Devlin’s play 'What Would the Countess Say?' which imagines the late countess Markievicz returning to modern-day Dublin from the great beyond, actress Lise-Ann McLaughlin said despite the incredible strides Countess Markievicz made in her day, “sadly so little has changed.”

“We are lacking a legacy from Constance Markievicz,” she said, of the fact no woman has ever been elected as Taoiseach while the number of women in senior political and leadership roles is low.

“To think we haven’t carried on the fight is dreadful,” she added.

Meanwhile, journalist and columnist Justine McCarthy said both former Irish presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese are both pioneering Irish women whose legacies irrevocably changed the Irish political landscape for the better.

She said the election of Ms Robinson as Ireland’s first female president “changed Ireland”.

“Overall she made Ireland grow up,” she said, adding Ms Robinson still commands massive crowds during speaking engagements as the chair of Nelson Mandela’s human rights organisation The Elders.

Among other Irish women whom the panel credited with following in the selfless, warrior spirit of St Brigid included the late cervical cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan, the late industrial school scandal campaigner Christine Buckley and historian Catherine Corless - who uncovered the Tuam Mother and Baby Homes scandal and continues to campaign on behalf of the women and children who were incarcerated there.

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