Life

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Poll: Is it time to 'give St Brigid the reins' as patron saint of Ireland?

St Patrick has had his day - Kildare's 'Mary of the Gaels' is more deserving of the title of Ireland's leading patron, writes professor Dr Kelly Fitzgerald, a lecturer with the School of Irish, Celtic Studies and Folklore in UCD.

Reverence: The statue of St Brigid in Kildare beside the well named after her
Reverence: The statue of St Brigid in Kildare beside the well named after her

Dr Kelly Fitzgerald

St Patrick may well continue to be seen as the patron saint of Ireland. He has held this position since the seventh century after Armagh claimed him for their patron and won the battle for church control in Ireland as far as Rome was concerned. Granted, he commands international attention on his day in March, with green rivers and green beer along with elaborate parades.

But in the current climate, is that enough to hold the title of patron saint? It may be time to reassess his claim and allow for a change to this poll position.

We may ask what has Patrick ever really done for us anyway? He has been the stern father figure that keeps his distance and maintains a formality. If you were really stuck in a bind, would you turn to Patrick? He might give out and set your clothes on fire, or he might be too caught up proving how much better he was at Latin, as we find in the stories told about him.

Patrick's attitude and his approach to life, in some ways, might find a parallel with the ambitions of the elite - he was not as concerned about the people in need as he was in showcasing his power and influence.

Recent events throughout the world have demonstrated there is a greater need for multiple and different voices to shine through. It is not that these are new voices. They have been there all along, but perhaps they have been overshadowed and now it is time to give them a chance to speak out and be heard.

As we begin the month of February and become excited about the prospect of the coming spring, we can reflect on why there's no better candidate for patron saint of Ireland than St Brigid.

She has maintained a relevance in Irish society since the early medieval period, despite her Church of Kildare losing out to Patrick and Armagh. If Patrick devoted his time to support the desires of the hierarchy, Brigid gave her time to appease the needs and anxieties of the common people.

Our events around Patrick's Day are very public and set out in the community, whereas rituals around St Brigid's Day can be private, within the home, creating an intimacy with the saint.

Five things you might not know about St Brigid:

She is said to have made a pregnancy miraculously disappear

Her CV runs a mile long, depicting the ways in which she has assisted those that sought her help - she even managed to make a pregnancy miraculously disappear. In the Kildare monk and writer Cogitosus's Life, from the early medieval period, we find a pregnant woman turning to the saint in her hour of need so that what was conceived in the womb was no more. Instead, she was spared birth-pangs and restored to health.

Over the years, there has been much written on whether Brigid was actually a Christian saint or a pagan goddess. An answer which should satisfy everyone is that we will never know. Possibly more important is why do we continue to ask ourselves this question? Is it that we want to understand why we are so drawn to her in the first place? Are there qualities to her that we feel we need?

At this time of year, we are beginning to experience the stretch in the days and we feel it lighten our mood.

We might lovingly recall our days in school, making a Brigid's cross and look back on it merely as a class exercise. But we would be wrong to assume that is all Brigid has to give.
We might lovingly recall our days in school, making a Brigid's cross and look back on it merely as a class exercise. But we would be wrong to assume that is all Brigid has to give.

We can turn to lore found in the collected traditions from Donegal to the southernmost tip of Kerry to try and understand how this superior female saint was communicated in Irish tradition.

She has been called 'Mary of the Gaels'

Brigid has been referred to as 'Mary of the Gaels' and stories around the relationship between Our Lady and Brigid abound throughout the landscape.

The legend of how she helped Mary after the latter gave birth

St Patrick float
St Patrick float

Irish people saw the women as being on a near equal footing, and created a folk narrative to explain why St Brigid's Day, February 1, is before Mary's feast day, Candlemas, February 2. They may have been born hundreds of years apart, but often in the folk imagination, we find a timelessness around characters held in high regard. The legend goes that the Virgin Mother had just given birth to Our Saviour and she was quite self-conscious about people staring at her when she came back into the community.

Like any good friend would do in such a situation, Brigid drew attention to herself in order to detract the onlookers from staring at Mary. The story draws on other examples of Brigid making a real show of herself, by putting on outrageous clothing, for instance. This is something Patrick would never do.

She turned water into ale

Her best friend qualities similarly shone through when she turned water into ale. If we'd prefer not to promote alcohol, we could turn to the flitch of bacon she gave to a begging dog - only to find it had been restored and was still intact, as if she never gave it away in the first place.

After all the food and drink has been provided by her, make sure you leave out 'Brigid's mantle' on Brigid's eve. According to tradition, Brigid will bless this small piece of cloth at some point in the night. It is renowned for having a number of curative powers, but one in particular is the cure for a headache.

She protected cattle and milk supply

Her protectant powers associated with cattle and the supply of milk quite clearly refer to the mothering nature of the saint, but perhaps we feel we no longer need such protections as we have moved away from an overwhelmingly agricultural society.

We might lovingly recall our days in school, making a Brigid's cross and look back on it merely as a class exercise. But we would be wrong to assume that is all Brigid has to give. Let us re-engage with the past with a new perspective to satisfy the needs of the present.

Celebrating and honouring Brigid in the beginning of February continues to recognise her important role and the necessity of her compassion.

She has been there all along and it would only be fitting to give her the proper acknowledgement she deserves. Brigid's confidence and assuredness, but without arrogance, should be brought to the fore. The promotion of such attributes could prove to be beneficial to our society.

The need for strong women to be highlighted is crucial in this day and age.

This allows us to stay true to traditions, but to place a different emphasis on them. Patrick has served us well but it may be time for him to step aside and give Brigid the reins.

Dr Kelly Fitzgerald is a lecturer with the School of Irish, Celtic Studies and Folklore in UCD.

Irish Independent

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