Honoring St. Brigid

She was the protector of women, children, homes, and cattle.


Ireland’s ancient goddess, Brigid, long beloved and venerated in the hearts of the people, has been granted national recognition with an annual public holiday. Her official status is now recognized as equal to that of St. Patrick, and her day is the first national holiday recognizing a woman. The new holiday has been greeted with great enthusiasm by the feminist organizations who advocated for Brigid’s elevation, and with quiet satisfaction by the women of Ireland.

The name Brigid means “exalted one,” and the goddess of that name featured in pre-Christian Ireland as the protector of women, children, homes, and cattle. She represented spring and the renewal of the year, and was honored as a smith, a poet, and a warrior. She was the goddess of fire and fertility.

With the coming of Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century, the goddess Brigid became St. Brigid, but the association with women’s strength and power remained. The ancient symbols of protection for the home made by the people from reeds and placed on the walls of their houses became known as Brigid’s crosses. That custom of making those crosses continues today all over Ireland. Schoolchildren are taught how to make them, and the symbol has been used as a representation of Ireland. It was the first logo for RTE Radio, the Irish national radio and television service. There are many tales of St. Brigid, and the most famous involves her cloak. She had demanded land from a local chieftain to build a monastery, and he said he would give her as much land as her cloak would cover. She laid down the cloak on the ground, and it covered four counties. She got her land, and built her community to include men and women. She lit a fire at her monastery that was stoked every day, and burned for several hundred years.

Until quite recently, the custom of the “Biddy Boys” involved parades with dolls made from straw carried by young men in costume. They called at every house and were given coins. It was considered very bad luck not to pay them.

Today the custom of honoring Brigid by visiting the holy wells named in her honor and meditating or praying to her for protection happens throughout Ireland. It is advised to drink a little of the water from the well as part of the ritual. Speaking at St. Bridget’s Well in the village of Kilfian in County Mayo, retired school principal Philomena Moore, who looks after the well, spoke on her view of Brigid’s legacy: “It’s compassion and mercy for all of us. When I come out here to the well, sometimes there’s many people there and sometimes just a few, but I know that we all have our own thoughts and our own need for protection for ourselves and for everyone. There is no judgment here; we pray for everyone who needs us.”

There is a tree in the small town of Bangor in County Mayo known as the “rag bush,” where traditionally rags have been tied to bare winter branches to honor Brigid, ask for protection, and to bring the spring and the light. The custom continues. The rags are tied and the wishes made.

Celebrations have been taking place in every part of the country. Light shows are very popular, usually projected on one of the main buildings in the town, and depicting women from all walks of life who have achieved recognition. The use of light is to demonstrate how women’s lives and achievements have been kept in darkness, and now they may step into the light. Films, workshops, and concerts honoring Brigid are featured everywhere.

The old custom of placing a rag outside the door on the eve of Brigid’s day, with a bowl of salted water, so that Brigid can bless them as she passes over Ireland that night, was well observed in Crossmolina in County Mayo. In the morning, the rag and the water are brought into the house, and both are believed to have healing powers. A young farmer, Sinead Walshe, made sure that she followed the custom: “I have sheep ready to lamb, and we need her protection.” The mood among the women was celebratory, though many felt that the recognition of Brigid was long overdue. “St. Brigid was a contemporary of St. Patrick, and he has had endless recognition, and she has had to wait nearly 2,000 years,” noted local educator Kathleen Walshe.

It is that sense of being recognized that has animated women across Ireland. “For me, this is about women’s work and their power being honored, and that is important. I feel inspired by the wisdom and skills of the older people in our community. They are our most valuable resource,” observed Vivian Wood, who coordinates a community program that connects people who need help with those who can help them. “When I am making the crosses, my hands know exactly what to do to create all kinds of designs. You don’t get that knowledge out of a book. I am making those crosses in the way that the generations of women and men before me made them.”

Though Ireland has had two women presidents, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, and both served with distinction, there is still a sense that women have not achieved fair recognition. Reflecting on that, writer Lara O’ Brien noted, “What could be more important than protecting the land, the children, the women, and the animals? If she is honored in every town and village in Ireland, then surely she should proudly be claimed as our matron saint, and the value we place upon her should speak for us as a nation before the world.”