Attending a Holy Faith School during my childhood and teenage years ensured I had a particular devotion to St Brigid. Apart from knowing the stories that every schoolgirl knew about Brigid and her cloak, her kindness to strangers and animals, her cross of rushes and her convent in Kildare we also had the advantage of having a free day from school on February 1st in honour of her feast day. There was always something special about not having to go to school when others did.
One of our local churches was St Brigid’s in Killester, on Dublin’s Northside. There was huge backdrop to the altar which was a painting depicting the profession of St Brigid. As a child I thought it was probably ancient as the world it portrayed looked like a medieval church (now I know that it was commissioned in 1952). But it was a significant painting and it was one of the few that I had come across depicting a girl with whom I could identify. How many hours did I spend staring at that backdrop imagining myself as that young girl being confirmed, that young woman becoming a nun or perhaps a bishop.
When I would eventually study feminist theology I would meet a multilayered Brigid, an ancient mother goddess, a triple goddess and a saint. I would discover a Brigid that was a matron of poetry, healing and smith work. I would learn that she was in fact one of the few women who were ordained bishops in the early church, that she was radical and prophetic and unafraid of Rome and its strict rubrics. She would rather give the Church’s vestments to beggars, and couldn’t help it if her sisters invented their own rituals in their Kildare convent. The messenger on his way back form Rome may have been eaten by wolves or something.
In Irish tradition she became knows as Muire na nGael – Mary of the Irish. She is associated in folk tradition with hiding Mary and the infant from Herod’s soldiers, and for her reward we are told Mary gave her the first day of February as her feast day and took her own on Feb 2nd. (The Presentation in the Temple).
In the Celtic tradition February 1st was known as Imbolg and associated with lactating ewes and the turning of the first sod. In many European traditions there were rituals associated with this day which involved processing through the fields with images of saints (associated with the tradition of the ancient goddess) invoking her power through ritual ensuring fertility for the land in the coming year.
Brigid has long been associated with midwifery and the blacksmith. These spaces of womb and forge are the true alchemical spaces where genuine transformation is possible. The poet has also been revered as working in a similar alchemical space where the raw material of the poet’s words may be transformed through craft into the gold of the poem. The effect of reading or hearing the poem may also bring about a similar change in the reader or listener. This is a healing alchemy and Brigid’s role can be seen in terms of forging us and our souls anew.
In ancient Ireland the chief poet (or ollamh) was graced in recognition of their craft with a golden branch with tinkling bells.
In honour of Brigid and her role as sacred alchemist of the soul I have written a poem called Brigid which you can read and listen to in my Poem of the Day Area.