An Irish Spring

Today is Saint Brigid’s Day – traditionally the first day of Spring in Ireland.

The rest of the world might wait for March, but we’ll stick to the old dates here. Especially after the winter we’ve had!

Snowdrops herald Spring

Brigid, or Bridget, is our second patron saint; patron of cattle and dairy work. Her feast day and myths associated with Brigid tie in to earlier pagan practices. The renewal of the Earth’s fertility, and longer daylight hours, are a part of the cult of Brigid. She is supposed to have said:

Every second day fine,

from my day onward

and half of my own day.

Or, as we say – often with our tongues firmly fixed in our cheeks – ‘ Grand stretch in the evenings.’

Traditionally, farmers and fishermen noted the wind direction on the eve of the Saint’s day – it might indicate the prevailing wind for the rest of the year. A rainy February was supposed to indicate a good Summer. If a  hedgehog popped out for a look at the day and stayed out, it was a good sign of weather to come. No need for groundhogs in north Clare, then! Perhaps we Irish carried that tradition to the U.S.

It was also a time to take stock of what foodstuffs were in the home and farm. In some places around Galway Bay there was a custom of placing a live shellfish at the four corners of fishermen’s homes, to bring them luck. After the great spring tide, seaweed was gathered to use as fertiliser.

Brigid's Well, Liscannor - exterior

Today, people from north Clare are making their way to St. Brigid’s Well in Liscannor. There will be prayer, and a coming together for food and chat.  The Saint is celebrated, but the origins of visiting places associated with pagan customs are also being continued. Holy statues, medals, and rosary beads line the walls of Brigid’s Well, but so do favours: scraps of ribbon and cloth left at the sacred place; carrying the invisible imprint of prayer or invocation.

St. Brigid's Well, Liscannor

The custom goes back a long way, when the trip to Dabhach Bhríde was a local holiday. Food played its part. There are various foodstuffs associated with the feast day, such as colcannon, and apple-cake. In 1781 one commentator reported:

‘ On St. Bridget’s eve every farmer’s wife in Ireland makes a cake called bairín-breac, the neighbours are invited, the madder of ale and the pipe go round, and the evening concludes with mirth and festivity.’

Nowadays in Ireland, bairín-breac – barmbrack – is associated with Hallowe’en.

Food was given to poorer neighbours as a gift. Bread, water, meat, pats of butter, or cakes were left on windowsills, as tradition had it that the Saint passed through the country on the eve of her Feast Day.  The food was left out to be taken by tramps or the poor.

One of the popular traditions is the making of the St. Brigid’s Cross – usually from straw or  rushes. As children, we learned how to make them at school in the last days of January. In recent years, Brigid is often celebrated by groups of women who come together on the day to make crosses, but also to celebrate Brigid as an eternal feminine symbol.  Another chance for for food and drink and conversation.

In earlier times, there were many prayers and family ceremonies associated with gathering  rushes, bringing them into the house, and the making of crosses. Many traditions involved thanksgiving for food, calling for blessings on the home, and for good health for the family and farm animals. In the northern counties, there was a festive meal before crosses were made by the family. Often the left-over rushes were used as rushlights – lit in the Saint’s honour.

Sometimes, an effigy of Saint Brigid – the Brídeóg – was carried from house to house, accompanied by song and recitations, rather like mummers perform at Christmas. Here is a rhyme from Co. Clare:

Here is Bridget, dressed in white.

Give her a penny for her night.

She is deaf, she is dumb,

She cannot talk without a tongue.

These are only some of the customs associated with St. Brigid and her feast day.  This Brigid’s Day in Ballyvaughan, the sky is blue, there is a bit of heat in the sun, and Spring is making a fair attempt at launching itself. The wind is up, though – so perhaps any fisherman should put a few periwinkles at each corner of the house!

A selection of St. Brigid's Crosses


SOURCE: The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs, by Kevin Danaher (Mercier Press, 1972)


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