Before there was the mighty feminist prototype Abbess of Kildare, aka St. Brigid, there was a goddess of the same name. She had nineteen priestesses who maintained an eternal flame. On Day 20,the Goddess Herself kept watch. The abbess kept up that tradition until Henry VIIIth broke up the monasteries. The embers of the extinguished went out and the ruins of the Fire Temple can be seen behind the Protestant Cathedral in Kildare Town.
But Brigid never left Ireland. In 1993, at the close of the AFRI conference, a Brigidine nun, Sister Rita Meehan, re-ignited the sacred flame and the Sisters have maintained it ever since. The return of the sacred flame has coincided with a great opening and new flourishing of Irish society since. I do not speak of the Celtic Tiger that ran out of fuel in 2008. It has been the liberalising of Irish society that has seen a leap from the 19th to the 21st centuries in mere decades. The country has passed two referendums where the majority population voted for the legalising of gay marriage and abortion. Former President Mary McAleese campaigned for the passage of gay marriage as the mother of a gay child. Such high profile testimony would have been unthinkable back in the 1990s.
This weekend Ireland is celebrating its first St. Brigid’s bank holiday weekend. The theme is Celebrating Women’s Creativity.. The Irish government is running an ad, which I saw on YouTube, celebrating the many names of Brigid (Brīd, Breda, Bridey, among many variations), as well as the many activities that are her concern and matronages. We see the faces of woman poets, healers, goldsmith’s, musicians, activists and athletes. Each concludes with the statement” I am Brigid.”
Most importantly we see the faces of black immigrant and Irish born black women. Ireland is no longer a monoculture. Since the eternal flame was re-ignited Ireland is no longer a nation exporting her nationals. She is giving refuge just as St Brigid was famous for her open hand and table. I routinely meet and speak with Ukrainian refugees at the bus stop these days. This is not to say that our politicians cannot be tight-fisted, but it helps that there is a paradigm and principle of hospitality embodied in one of Ireland’s great saints. It gives you a stick to poke them with. Which is exactly what Brigid would have done. She was a neat, acute operator with politicians in her own time.
Brigid is the coming of springtime and the symbol of renewal. Even though we woke up to frost, the snowdrops and primroses are appearing in our garden. The rushes from which I wove the traditional crosses this week are plump and a deep green.
Brigid is the poet’s mentor. I rarely fail to write at least one poem for this season we call Imbolc, the Irish name for the month of February. This is mine for 2023. Blessings of this season of lengthening light and renewal!
The blankness of fog banked sky
Tight buds of snowdrops
Light filtering through fog
A new day rolling in
On a tideline of dreams
Light creaks against the clock
Each morning more minutes
We do not know what shall be
But we do. Of course we do!
The old year and all its poor choices
Is behind us
The foggy dawn beckons with its chorus of new voicezs
What new song? What new story
To make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry
But always always always
Leave them with some small joys
Copyright Bee Smith 2023
We have passed the midpoint between Yule, Winter Solstice, and the Vernal Equinox at Spring. In Ireland the month of February is Imbolc, meaning in the belly. Despite the fact that we have had hail stones hurled at us and sleet falling since St. Brigid’s Day on February 1st, the earth’s belly is quickening. I flicked the gardening calendar over and found that this month I can sow parsnip seeds. We are figuring out what surfaces can be cleared for seed incubating. Slowly, slowly, we notice that sunset is getting later and day break is less smudgy. Slowly, tentatively, we emerge from hibernation and isolation. The first snowdrop appeared just days before St. Brigid’s feast day in our garden for the first time in years. Normally, it would be another couple weeks before the snowdrops showed up.
I have written many poems inspired by St. Brigid and by the goddess who gave her name and many of her matronages to her over the years. Patricia Monaghan has written of the goddess Brighid as emblematic of survival. Along with Mary the mother of Jesus, St. Brigid is the relic of the cults of the divine feminine that simply would not disappear no matter how hard patriarchy tried to disappear Her. While Brighid is a fertility goddess of abundance She handed on her sacred association with poetry and song making, smith craft and healing to St. Brigid who moved with the times generation upon generation. The fertility preferment made Brigid the patron (matron?) saint not just of mothers, infants and midwives, but of dairy maids, butter and cheese making, and the protector of lactating animals – cows, ewes and nanny goats. She also gathered in poultry and egg sellers. The corn sheaves were symbolic of the abundant harvest at Lunasa in pre-Christian Ireland. With Christianity, the four legged St. Brigid’s cross made of humble rushes became more popular than corn dolly making. (though that craft is not completely extinct.) The corn dollies can become life-size has mummers don extraordinary straw woven hats, masks and outfits to stroll as Biddy’s Boys. That custom has died out in most of Ireland, but County Kerry has had a resurgence in the 21st century Imbolc celebrations.
Both the goddess and saint are beside blacksmith’s forge fire, hammer and anvil. Whether you are a blacksmith who works with iron, tinsmith, or a jewellery maker working in any other metal, the goddess and saint are with you and your craft. Likewise, poetry and song makers, harpers and writers can apply to both. The sacred, spring fed holy wells that are associated with cures of various ailments are also associated with both the deity and saint. But given that vision and prophecy are key elements to both, wells that have the cure for the eye are particularly under their care.
You can see where this is going. Basically, St. Brigid is for everyone whether you are seeking justice at the Bridewell court or are incarcerated in a Bridewell gaol. Several English cities still have law courts or police stations with the name Bridewell, notably Leeds Crown Court and London. The Irish Travelling community hold St. Brigid particularly dear. In the 1990s the Irish peace and reconciliation organisation AFRI held a conference where one Brigiding nun, reignited St. Brigid’s Eternal Flame in Kildare Town. And, yes, you can see the remains of the pagan fire temple of the goddess where 19 priestesses tended this eternal flame. Whereas after founding her abbey in Kildare, 19 nuns did the flame keeping.
Fisherfolk come under her care, too. When Ireland was about to have Russian war games start in our economic zone start on 1st February I almost felt sorry for them. The Cork fishing fleet was intent on going out and interfere with anyone who was interfering with their livelihoods. This was all supposed to kick off on St. Brigid’s Day and those who farm in the sea are dear to her. And she was allegedly a very cunning negotiator with those in power in her time. They never came off looking good or gaining anything. She heard our prayers and the Russian navy did not play war games in our waters.
As you can see, adaptation and moving with the changing times has been part of Brighid’s strategy for surviving, and becoming ever more relevant, in the 21st century. All those plants and flowers make her a Climate Change Saint I reckon – the oak, feverfew, the dandelion, the bee who pollinates.
If you would like to learn more about various traditions and associations with the goddess and saint, I invite you to scroll back to past January and February posts on this blog. Google Sojourning Smith St. Brigid and you will find lots of posts.
After my own hibernation this past month I can confirm that I have been writing, just not posting. This felt very restful. But I felt spurred to post today after last week’s modest Brigid’s Day festivities were over. I read two poems on John Wilmotts Nature Folkways yesterday if you would like to listen.
The various animals associated with St. Brigid or the goddess are many and various. This year’s Imbolc poem celebrates some of them.
Bear, Swan, Cow and Calf
Bear bones buried in pre-history’s caves.
Mama licked her cub, giving it its shape.
Devotion her art, giving her infant
the strength from her mighty beating heart.
Each winter the whoopers return to Lough Moneen,
swan’s down littering lough’s verge,
their harsh honking a joyful noise, their flight
a confident formation, each knowing their place
in the scheme of things.
The cow keens in the pasture,
her calf sold off. This one would never
find the kine to offer strangers a third milking
in a single day. Her mourning echoes
round the townland.
A child is given, lives by your side,
sucking, grazing, lying by your side.
A child is given. It grows. It goes away.
A cow keens for her calf lest we forget
The fox flicked its tail. It danced a few tricks.
It kept the King happy enough before
the fox flicked itself again. And disappeared
right under the hedge. Gone.
King out-foxed. Again.
Timing. Everything. All.
We wild things.
In the islands of Skye, Lewes and Uist
they say that it was a seal swimming out to sea
and the oystercatcher flying above the waves
that acted as pages for St. Brigid’s mortal remains
when the angels carried her beyond
the Ninth Wave, out of sight
until there was just a shimmering
of her at the turn of the tide.
a white bird singed its feathers when it flew
too close to the smithy’s forge.
It flew out black as the anvil,
its golden beak ember bright.
Only its song remained the same.
A blackbird visits my garden.
It has two white spots either side of its beak.
Those were the feathers spared the flame,
the badge of what it once was until
the forge made it what it became
what it is now.
I hope that this slow accretion of light bring you new opportunities, projects, or people who come to inspire you and blow the fresh winds of spring through your life.
Belated greetings for the feast of Brigid, goddess and matron saint of Ireland. Her feast runs from the eve (31st January) to 2nd February. Celtic festivals generally run three days. But feasts are flexible things – if you go by the lunar calculations it was just past 10pm last night in my time zone. Spring comes slowly. Just as healing often does. Brigid, both as a goddess and saint, is associated with healing. Which I have – impatiently – been doing.
Keyboard typing still tires and feels sore if I overuse it. But I did not want to miss out on sending out harbingings of renewal. I picked green rushes on Monday in the rain and wove a few St. Brigid’s crosses to give to friends and family. I also hung out my Brat Bríde on Sunday night to collect St. Brigid’s blessings and healing energy. It has been suggested on Brigid’s Way’s website that we should hang out our face masks. Good idea. Last year I used mine as the inner layer of my first handsewn face masks during Lockdown 1. This year I sent some to people I know recovering from Covid19.
Brigid’s Day is ideal for a celebration in isolation. It was, until recent years, a home made celebration of hearth and farmyard. Its myths tell of the Winter Hag, the cailleach, who tries to hang on to her season. Yet, the maiden, the new life, will have its season. She is coming, inexorably, inevitably. Even the frosted snowdrops know this. They can feel the earth beneath us warming. The hibernating animals known their drowsy days are numbered.
I spent Monday writing poems, too. Because Brigid is the matron of poetry, too. She also is the Skill Woman, the smithy at the forge, creating by changing. She encompasses all the elements – water of the holy healing wells, the forge’s fire, the whisper of balmy air some days, the earth that is silently greening even under the frost or snow.
Imbolc is considered a threshold time of year. St. Brigid is said to have been born on a threshold. The folklore is that her dairy maid mother was taken in labour while she was milking. The legend says that she grasped the doorframe to support her as her daugher slid to earth just as dawn broke. Sort of a double liminality – dawn and doorway.
St. Brigid's Day
The hinge creaks, stiff with winter's ice and cold,
wind battered, rain rusted. The door's swollen.
It needs elbow grease to give. Go Heave-ho!
The door's wood's expanded, shut tight, chosen
to block out winter's worst. But now it's time
to open the door, welcome this season.
There's still snow on the mountain if you climb
but down low the pasture is beginning to green.
The birds have changed their polyphany, too.
This morning the blackbird turned, stared me down,
daring winter to stay. We have got through.
Light after darkness. The wheel circles round.
The door opens. So it creaks. May it sing!
The blackbird knows that it is time for spring.
Just this...that all we have is each other.
This earth I stand upon and walk
is my spine and skeleton bone.
Water that runs through us, underneath.
surrounding, was amniotic ocean,
arterial flow, a body glowing,
sap in each limb rising, reaching
to sun and air. Oh breathe, Tree! Inhale!
Exhale your sweet self so I may inhale.
Lightening was fire's first spark, electrified.
Thunder rolled off the mountain,then came rain,
wind swept and angled, falling fast and hard.
Huddled in caves with each other we yearned
until flint on flint sparked, lighting dry twig.
May you feel the blessings of increasing light and warmth this Imbolc season.
The Sunday Weekly poem falls on the Christian feast of Candlemas. It is the day after St. Brigid’s Day, and, according to one bit of folklore, Brigid, aka the Mary of the Gaels, was midwife at Jesus’ birth in the manger. The Gaels get metaphor and myth, so please do not try and figure out how a woman allegedly born around 450 AD was in attendance at a birth in 0 AD. Time travel of the literal, or sci-fi kind, does not enter into it. Or our Weekly Poem this week. Though St. Brigid, and her predecessor, the goddess Brighid, is the inspiration for the Weekly Poem.
Yesterday I had the honour and pleasure of co-facilitating a Day Retreat on the theme all things Brigid with my creative colleague, Morag Donald. Morag is probably the only certified teacher of Touch Drawing™ practicing in the island of Ireland. It’s a brilliant way of cutting through all your objections that you are not artistic, or can’t draw, are not visual or particularly creative.(Yes, dear Reader, I have been one of those people.) But each session always leads to a sense of surprise and discovery. Also, it’s fun. Like an adult version of finger painting, but I mean it in the sense that you are approaching it with the innocence of your child self.
My session was a creative writing session that used Brigit themes and symbols associated with both saint and goddess . These are, I found in further research, myriad. My own ‘sparks’ were not exhaustive. Just take it as granted that both the goddess of myth and the feisty Abbess of Kildare are much beloved for being ‘nasty women’ who generally managed to spread the wealth around and have their way. (Plenty, or galor in Irish, is the same word for enough in Irish.) The eternal flame re-ignited by nuns in Kildare Town Square in 1993 has coincided with the slow, but inexorable rise in the esteem and self-esteem of women globally. The Abbess of Kildare, St. Brigit, (also going as Bridget, Brede, Breege, Bríd, Ffraid, Bride) is invoked in labour wards, by the children of abusive fathers, and at LGTQ gatherings. She is matron saint of sailors, farmers, dairymaids, prisoners and judges, poets and scholars. She was fond of cows, sheep, poultry, and in a story I only just discovered this week, one who had a way with feral foxes. She is particularly classless in gathering all in her capacious mantle of compassion. The greedy generally bend to who will and behave better. But, most markedly, she was a canny woman to have navigated an increasingly patriarchal medieval world. While the Abbess of Kildare obviously had the political skills of a ‘cunning hoor’ (as they say in Ireland), she also respected the wildness of the natural world. A mighty woman altogether, she managed to be ordained a bishop by chance (or the work of the Holy Spirit depending on how you want to read that story.)
While I did not have the scope of going into the technicalities of poetry making in the workshop I did stress that Jane Hirshfield says that good poems have the element of surprise in them. By grabbing four symbol cards, I encouraged participants to try and make connections with all of them, even the really random ones and that these might be the building blocks of poem once they had more leisure at home.
This is what I made of these four symbols associated with St. Brigit: poultry, cows, forges, printing presses.
We had an afternoon of making non-traditional Biddy Dolls. It was an old custom in rural areas to make a kind of infant Baby doll Brigid, representing the new life of the earth, in doll form to bring into the house. But St. Brigid is all about adapting. It’s how she has remained a living presence, never quite culturally forgotten, in Ireland.
It is funny how things that we think are non-traditional actually turn up to have some sort of folkloric truth. The creative DNA never forgets. This watercolour shared with me by artist Amy Bogard (www.amybogard.com) is of St. Brigid holding two of her more traditional symbols, snowdrops and a flame. The little fox in her lap insisted on being in the picture. Amy went with her creative instincts anyway although she was a bit bewildered. She asked me at the time if I knew anything about a fox and St. Brigid. I didn’t. And then! And then! Years later I discovered just this week this bit of Brigid folklore on this website. http://www.askaboutireland.ie/learning-zone/primary-students/looking-at-places/kildare/saint-brigid/legends-of-st.-brigid/. Who knows what archive of folklore yielded that nugget which is now preserved on the internet.
Amy also created the cover art for my ebook of praise poems to Brigid, both goddess and saint. Please check out her blog Micromovements. Support artists. We are collaborating, no matter the form our art takes. It is Brigid as the weaver of all creation made manifest.
High summer may seem like an odd time to be thinking of St.Brigit, whose feast is after all on frosty 1st February. But since she took over the mantle of the Celtic goddess Brighid, she is a saint for all seasons and many eventualities. The main folklore about her involves her cloak, or mantle, which miraculously expanded to the point where she had enough good land from the King of Leinster to build her monastery in Kildare. The Poetry Daily poem references that piece of folklore.
On days the world is just too full of holes in the universe threatening to open like the polar ice caps I plain knit woolen squares.
I'm knitting a blanket as large as St. Brigit's mantle that got her enough to build her sanctuary. She did it large. She could share.
I'll knit the largest sofa throw, large enough to cover the whole globe, invite everyone to find their square, secret names encoded in yarn.
Some are menders. Some are weavers. Some have a talent for making holes. But we all need Brigit's blanket. She won't leave a soul out in the cold.
Everything before written records is mystery and speculation. That makes it a writer’s imagination’s playground. Even archaeologists speculate and best guess on the assembled evidence. But it is palimpsest, the layers of our own conditioning and experience inform the guess. Back at the Cavan County Museum another artefact grabbed me. The Corleck Head was found near Kilbride, Brigid’s Church. From that I infer that the cult of the goddess Brighid was important here before the Christian St. Brigid took over all Her associations and pre-occupations (fertility, poetry, healing, smithcraft). It is supposed that the Celts thought the human soul resided in the head, although I am unclear of the provenance of that belief. Brighid was a triple goddess – the triune maiden, mother, crone – and the Corleck Head with it’s three-way visage does echo that, although the faces look quite masculine to me.
At any rate this Sunday you can have fun making up your own story!
For those who live outside of Ireland, or upland parts of other parts of the British Isles, the rushes used to weave a new St. Brigid’s Cross each year must seem an oddity. They are greening up even in January, in the snow, which is why they are perfectly symbolic for a season heralding renewal of the land, the new growing season. I know some women who are devotees of the saint and the goddess use old corn to weave them. A friend in Canada caught in the polar vortex made hers from pipe cleaners! And somehow I figure that adaptability and evolution would please the saint. After all, She took on the mantle of the goddess of the same name and has survived as a potent feminine symbol of divinity right into the 21st century. Brighid, whether as goddess or saint, is global.
Yesterday, I read poems and wove St. Brigid’s Crosses with my artist/healer friend Morag Donald at the local open prison, Loughan House. (You can learn more on her blog https://moragdonald.wordpress.com/)
St. Brigid is patron (matron?) saint of poets, healers, craftspersons and more…prisoners being one group who received her kind attention in the annals that have come down to us. The St. Brigid’s Cross is a symbol that has survived, been adapted and repeatedly adopted. It is made as four, equal-armed cross with fresh, green rushes that flourish in typically ‘bad’ land. (See, even ‘bad’, i.e. less fertile, land comes good with St. Brigid.)
St. Brigid's Cross
Its God's eye never blinks sees from every angle east, west, north, south
Its God's eye has wings flying in every direction east, west, north, south
Its God's eye spirals round as it angles arms all reaching east, west, north, south
Its God's eye aerial views land, sea brushfire and tree east, west, north, south
Its God's eye is a woman's vision is a man's seeing east, west, north, south
Its God's eye sees equally woman, man air, sea, fire, tree east, west, north, south. This is its prophecy.
This isn’t a new poem written today, but it takes its starting point from St. Brigid as a matron of justice. Several courts and prisons around the British Isles have been called The Bridewell. This goes straight back to Brigid as justice bringer, emancipator of slaves and prisoners. Brigid is associated with sacred springs and holy wells.
Bridewell If you cannot forge something new from forgiveness you stand there hovering on the rim of what if and what is and what is yet to be.
Reconciliation is a sacrament, a woman talking to Jesus at a well.
The wise woman Bride holds court at the well where the deep, dark, down below is the source, bubbling up breaking the surface rippling out, catching light and shining.
Stare down deep. Drink that holy water. Be healed, not judged, she says.
Happy St. Brigid’s Day! For those of you who live outside the British Isles, more particularly Ireland and Scotland, you may never know the exquisite excitement of this celebration. It is ancient and modern. Originally, there was a goddess Brighid who had a fire temple in what is now Kildare, tended by nineteen priestesses. Then, in 453 CE, along came a child named Brigit, daughter of a dairy maid slave woman and a noble, or maybe Druidic, father. She was born on the cusp of a new day and slid into this world on the threshold of the dairy where her mother laboured. Later she spurned marriage as an inevitable option for a female, founded an order of nuns, wangled land from the King of Leinster, founded and abbey and was a bishop. She also had nineteen nuns who tended that eternal flame, just as the priestesses had for the goddess Brighid. When Henry VIII smote the abbeys that flame was extinguished. But it was re-kindled in 1992 by some Brigindine nuns in Kildare at the end of an AFRI conference considering Peace and Reconciliation.
So whether you like the ancient version or the modern version, this is her holiday season. Last night I pegged out some cloth as Brat Bríds. One is made of Irish Prison Service sheet. St. Brigit is the patron saint of prisoners. Some will be sent to friends who are ailing. St. Brigit and the goddess have a mission for healing, for bringing peace and reconciliation into a fevered world. I shall keep some for making clouties to leave at her holy wells, for St. Brigit (and the goddess) not only are associated with the eternal flame of hope and faith, but all the holy wells where you can plunge to the source of unconditional love and inspiration.
Basically, the feisty abbess of Kildare is an all round good model for the 21st century. She was kindness itself to the lame, sick, distressed and marginal. She had no truck with accumulated wealth in the face of suffering and famously sold her father’s sword to pay for a cloak to cloth a beggar. (She really was an Aggravating Woman to both her father and the King of Leinster. In this way, she worried patriarchy. So she is a bit of a feminist icon, too.)
But I digress from the poetry practice. Because she is also the patron saint of poets. Last night I hung out the bits of cloth to capture her blessings as she walked across the land on the eve of her feast day. There was frost on that sheet when I brought it in this morning. It is gently steaming dry for me to take to my re-scheduled workshop.
St. Brigid takes a night walk even though the moon's glow is low. She passes through every parish, past badgers' dens and hare hollows. Brigid walks along coastal strands, hailing oyster catchers and sea gulls. At dawn she walks into the sky having spread her blessings trailing from her miraculous cloak upon the land, having left her blessings to invoke renewal within the land, having brought Her blessing spreading her mantle of love over everyone across the land.
It is one of those bright winter mornings where there is real fire in the sun’s rays. You can understand why Brigid’s feast day is this time of year. You can also understand why some translate her name as ‘bright arrow.’ She is also described as a ‘sun gold’ or ‘red gold’ woman. On this Irish morning I get it. It is very real and imminent.
For my poetry practice this morning I felt drawn to writing haiku, senryu and micropoems. Micropoems are little things. Haiku celebrate a (hopefully) epiphanous moment in nature; senryu look (often wryly, frequently fondly and humourously) at human nature. They do it in seventeen syllables or less. Micropoems cover the rest of the tiny poems that fulfill neither technical description. They have a wider thematic brief and also tend to have titles, whereas haiku and senyru go out into the world nameless.
This was actually how I started the day.
A thump as beak meets glass Hey! Open up the Birdy's Café!
This time of year in Celtic lore is considered a wrestling match between Mother Winter, the Cailleach, and the Maiden, Brighid.
The Last of the Cailleach
Safe in her cave Sucking marrow from bone Bright rays piece her fastness
Actually, it is often the coldest weather right at this time of year in Ireland. Often this is the the last push for snow and ice at Imbolc, so we acknowledge this by making hearty stews and mashed potato or ham and colcannon. Neeps are not just for Burn’s night either. Turnip and bacon is pure January comfort food. Making a stew from shin of beef probably inspired this.J
To fire our bellies We want to sup marrow from bone Hungry days
But then the Maiden Brigid is right on the threshold of the season and year. Spring is coming. We see it in the bulbs popping up. The gorse has bloomed again in this upland country. (And it’s scent is almost tropical! True!) This little poem is a riff on the old custom of welcoming St. Brigid into you house, opening your front door and saying the welcome aloud.
These fiery rays Melting morning's frost Brigid is welcome! She is!
This is a week where I will be giving public readings of some of my Brigid inspired poems, weaving St. Brigid’s crosses, telling Her folklore to groups and generally having a lot of fun. It is time to bake my special seed cake because we are on the threshold of new growth. It’s time! We can feel it in our belly.
St. Brigid’s Day is coming in a week’s time. Last night my Scotland born friend Morag sent me a message with John Duncan’s St. Bride Carried by Angels attached. Brigid is not just an Irish saint. She has a strong following in Scotland and the Welsh version of her name is Ffraid. As it happens, for the past twenty years (maybe more!) a framed print of that painting has hung in my bedroom. Poets have a long tradition of using artwork as a touchstone and starting point for poems. So today, it is this art work that inspires the Poetry Daily.
St. Brigid is borne to heaven
On angelic shoulders, in angel's pale hands, the maiden saint, the strands of her bright hair, cascading waves above the sea, borne up into heaven, escorted by those soulful dwellers of earth, keened by cawing cries from the sky.
Even in death her stiff fingers point heavenwards with prayerful hands. The first miracle maybe. Showing no need perhaps for any other sort of transport to carry her across that final, ninth, wave.
To where the old people call the Summerlands that perpetually golden place where one will be maiden once again forever, all gates and boundary walls dissolving behind the wave.