Hopefully by now you will already have woven your traditional St. Brigid’s cross so that nothing I have to say on the subject of the eponymous holy woman will stay your hand as you twist the strands into their intricate pattern, and clip off the ends so that the extremities are neat and flush.
Because you may not like what you are about to hear.
Tradition has it that Brigid was born in Faughart, Co. Louth in the year 451, two decades after the advent of Christianity in Ireland. Her mother is said to have been a Scottish slave baptised by St. Patrick, so Brigid herself was born into slavery. She is recorded as having founded a number of monasteries, most notably in Kildare, or Cill Dara, the ‘Church of the Oak’. Among the Lilywhites she is known as Brigid of Kildare. While abbess of that monastery she founded a school of art which produced the Book of Kildare. This beautifully illustrated volume managed to draw the praise of the infamous Hibernophobe Gerald of Wales, making it the only thing about Ireland Gerald ever saw that he actually liked. Tradition has it that she died in Kildare in 525 at the grand old age of seventy-two.
Brigid is informally recognised as a saint in no less than three Christian religions, Roman Catholicism, the Anglican communion, and Eastern Orthodox Catholicism. But the devil is in the word ‘informally’ because in 1969 she, along with dozens of other virtuous early Christians, had her name expunged from the list of saints by the Vatican. The Vatican doesn’t just remove things, it ‘expunges’ them. It was a bit like a drastic cabinet reshuffle with lots of patron saints losing their portfolios.
Among those deprived of their haloes in this cull was Saint Christopher, patron saint of travellers and, worst of all, Saint Nicholas, the man who later became Santa Claus. So, while good old Father Christmas can still climb up and down chimneys, and bring presents to millions of children, as far as the Vatican is concerned he can’t perform miracles. Brigid was handed her P45 because there were serious doubts as to whether she ever existed. So, was she real, does she have anything to do with the weaving of reed crosses on 1 February – and please keep this to yourself—was she actually a pagan goddess?
As Brigid was one of ninety-three saints removed from the universal calendar in 1969 she also had her feast day officially revoked. So, technically, 1 February is no longer St. Brigid’s Day. There is still a saint called Bridget, but she’s Bridget of Sweden. She seems to have three different feast days, one in July and two in October. Meanwhile our unfortunate Brigid has none.
The suspicion is that she was stripped of her status just because she shared a name with a pagan goddess.
The eminent Irish historian Daithí O’hÓgáin thinks the woman we now know as Brigid might well have been chief druid at the pagan temple to the goddess of the same name, and that she was responsible for turning the temple into a Christian monastery. Her Christian feast day, also happens to be the date of the pagan feast day of Imbolc. Imbolc is up there with Bealtaine, Lúnasa and Samhain as one of the four great pagan seasonal festivals. Because it was equidistant between the winter solstice and the spring equinox Imbolc celebrated the beginning of spring. Which, in an Irish context is, you would have to say, the perpetual triumph of optimism over experience. Can any Irish person put their hand on their heart and recall a single St. Brigid’s Day that felt even remotely spring-like?
The Christian Brigid had a heavy portfolio of responsibilities– in alphabetical order these included babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, brewers, cattle, chicken farmers, children in trouble, dairymaids, fugitives, infants, Ireland, Leinster, midwives, nuns, poets, the poor, poultry farmers, printing presses, sailors, scholars and travellers. The pagan Goddess Brigid had it easy by comparison, she was in charge of fertility, which, let’s face it, can’t have been a major problem in pre-Christian Ireland.
The Christian Brigid had two miraculous talents which must have made her very popular indeed and will have convinced a lot of pagans that Christianity wasn’t so bad after all. She could control the rain and the wind-always a good trick on the rainy, windy, periphery of Europe and, with even more mass appeal, she could turn water into wine.
But is she a canonised saint? Sadly, not since 1969. It’s fake history.