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Brighid - Druidic Goddess & Celtic Saint


 

Brighid an important Leinster saint, and Ireland’s most famed woman saint, who died about 524 AD, was foundress of a celebrated convent at Cill Dara (Kildare) The earliest surviving reference to her dates from around the year 600 where it is claimed that she was of the Fotharta sept. The early development of her cult was closely connected with the rise to power in Leinster of a new sept, the Ui Dhunlainge. This was a couple of hundred years before the rise to prominence of our own Clann Chaomhánach. The Dunlainge leader, Faolan mac Colmáin, sized the kingship of leinster around the year 633.His wife was of the Ui Fotharta, his brother, bishop of Kildare, and so it would have been moot to promote importance of Brighid. The most important source of information on Brighid, Brigid or Bríd, the saint is to be found in a biography written about 650 by the cleric, Cogitosus.

However there is a notable lack of real historical information on Brighid, who had lived in the previous century, but it contains an informative description of Kildare as an important ecclesiastical centre, along with details of numerous miracles attributed to the saint.

Cill Dara means ‘the church of the oak-tree.’ The oak was important in druidic culture so it is probable that this was a sacred pre-Christian centre. The feast day of the saint, February 1, is the beginning of spring and was anciently known as ‘Imbolg’ which means ‘giving birth’ While Cogitosus stated that it was the date of the saints death, it is just as likely to have been an apt Christianisation of an important date in the Celtic cycle.

The pre-Christian Brighid was a poetess and daughter of the Daghda with agricultural fertility as one of her functions along with the inspiring of poetry. The Lebor Gabala, an ancient source, in listing Brighid among the Tuatha De Danann, calls her Brighid the poetess, and states that she had two oxen, one of which was called Fea and the other Feimhean, and from them were Magh Fea (the plain of the Barrow in Co. Carlow) and Magh Feimhin (in County Tipperary) The mythical boar called Torc Triath was also associated with the goddess. It is suggested through inferences that in Lebor Gabala that Brighid was a sort of guardian-goddess of domestic animals.

In Irish Christian tradition, St. Brighid has always been regarded as the special patroness of farm animals and of crops, and these parallel the functions associated with the pre-Christian goddess, Brighid. It is also probable that a pagan sanctuary at Kildare was Christianised by a holy woman of the Fotharta. This would have meant that the cult of that sanctuary became attached to her, including the goddess-name Brighid which probably was a title borne by the chief druidess there. The name ‘Brighid’ means ‘the exalted one’ and would have been an appropriate for epithet for either saint or goddess.

This transition from druidism to Christianity is reflected in the wonder stories associated with Brighid as pagan goddess and as Christian saint. The saint is portrayed as having the power to multiply such things as butter, bacon, and milk, to bestow sheep and cattle, and to control the weather. Celtic goddesses were frequently associated with fire, light, and water. The main difference between the Christian Brighid stories as detailed by Cogitosus and the druidic tales is that the saints stories reflect the Christian ethos of charity and faith in God as well as respect for nature and the environment. Moreover, the style in several places echoes phrases the Bible and other early Christian literature. For instance the saint changed water to ale, gave sight to a blind man, and tamed fierce animals.

Traditionally a cross made from rushes was hung each year in the cow byre to bring good luck. Even still it is possible to find the odd cobweb encrusted specimen hanging in old farm outbuildings. In recent years the St. Bridget’s Cross has been used as a symbol of peace in a strife torn world. There has also been renewed interest in Brighid as a focus for women’s spirituality.

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Clann member Bridget Kavanagh Dalton.
This article originally appeared in the Clann Chaomhánach newsletter.