Posts Tagged ‘holy well’

The Saint, the Goddess and the Hope of Spring

February 1, 2020

St. Brigid, Imbolc and the Hope of Spring

Today, February first, is St. Brigid’s Day.  In Ireland it’s been celebrated for thousands of years. I know, someone will point out that Christianity has only been in Ireland for fifteen hundred years.  But, thanks to Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) missionaries were encouraged to adapt local holy places to Christian saints.  So Brigid, the Celtic Goddess, became Saint Brigid, a miracle-working abbess.

There may have been a real woman named Brigid, born sometime in the sixth century, who was first married to the lord of a feuding family to bring peace.  It didn’t work and, in on battle, her son was killed.  Converted by St. Patrick, she asked the local king for land to build her monastery.  He refused and so she asked only for the land that could be covered by her cloak.  The king agreed.  She lay out her cloak and it grew and grew until it covered acres and acres.  This became her abbey of Kildare.

Bridgid.jpgHowever, the goddess and the abbess never really separated in the minds of the Irish and still live comfortably together in rituals and art. In the picture to the left, Brigid holds her symbolic cross, which is made of reeds on January thirty-first.  The cross is placed over a door or window to protect the house from evil.

February first is Imbolc, one of the four Irish fire festivals to mark the seasons.  The name means ‘in the womb’ or ‘in milk’, apparently referring to the hope of a successful lambing season.  The next festival is Beltane, ‘bright’, at the beginning of summer.  Harvest season is marked by the feast of the sun god, Lugh, called Lughnasagh.  Finally comes Samhain ‘summers end’ now celebrated universally as Halloween.

In her other hand Brigid holds eternal fire.  That was another aspect of the goddess.  Both women watch over new mothers and protect cows. The goddess also protected poets and sailors.

“St. Brigid is the patron saint of babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, cattle farmers, children whose parents are not married, children whose mothers are mistreated by the children’s fathers, Clan Douglas, dairymaids, dairy workers, fugitives, Ireland, Leinster, mariners, midwives, milkmaids, nuns, poets, the poor, poultry farmers, poultry raisers, printing presses, sailors, scholars, travellers, and watermen.”

          There are many shrines to Brigid, many of them at holy wells.  We visited one the other day, near the Cliffs of Moher. It’s a grotto where a stream runs through a small hallwaySt. Bridget's Well 2.jpg. On the ways are hundreds of photos of people who have died.  There are also religious statues festooned with rosaries.  Sometimes toys or other mementos are also left.  Looking at these was very poignant.  People come here to grieve and find comfort.  It’s a place of shared sorrow.  They know that, since St. Brigid lost a child of her own, she would be kind to those who had also lost someone.  The day we were there, late January of 2020, we were the only pilgrims.  Having had three friends die in the proceeding weeks and feeling weighed down with the state of the world, I found solace in the thought that for so many centuries, both Brigids have been comforting people and reminding us that there will be another spring.

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