Saint Brigid’s Day

Wednesday, 1 February, 2012

Anois teacht an Earraigh
beidh an lá dúl chun shíneadh,
Is tar eis na féil Bríde
ardóigh mé mo sheol.

So wrote Raftery (1779-1835), the last of the Gaelic-order poets. His beautiful verse here says that spring is coming and the days will begin to lengthen, so he’s going to move out in the world once the feast of St Brigid has been celebrated.

Today, 1 February is the St Brigid’s Day that Raftery commemorated in Anois teacht an Earraigh, but there’s certainly no evidence of the coming of spring where your writer is typing this. The temperature is firmly under zero and while it’s not as cold in Ireland, the weather there is anything but springy. To be sure, there’s “a stretch in the evening”, as the people say, but conditions are chilling. An unscientific analysis of Raftery’s poem then might lead one to conclude that our winters are getting colder, not warmer, as some alarmists would have us believe. The poet certainly suggests that it was quite mild in early February around the end of the 18th- and the beginning of the 19th century.

Why would the wandering poet Raftery have been so aware of St Brigid’s Day? Well, back in his time, when Ireland was an agrarian society, the first of February was considered the start of the growth season. The date had long been held sacred as Imbolg, the Celtic festival of Spring, but after Christianity arrived, Saint Brigid was honoured instead of the pagan gods. She was a fifth-century mystic who became the patron saint of blacksmiths and healers. By the way, my mother will attend the “blessing of the scarves” in the local church today and, like many believers, she considers the wearing of such a scarf to be far better protection against a sore throat that any amount of antibiotics. Saint Brigid was also the patron saint of poets, a second reason, perhaps, for Raftery’s mentioning of her feast day.

RTE logo 1961 Being a saint, Brigid was able to perform miracle. Most of hers involved the multiplication of food such as providing butter for the poor. It is said that she once caused cows to give milk three times the same day to enable visiting bishops to have enough to drink. As Irish monks wandered through Europe, they carried their belief in Brigid with them. In England, many churches were dedicated to her, most notably St. Bride’s Church in London’s Fleet Street. Designed by Wren, it was the spiritual home of the printing and media trades for 200 years. And now it’s in cyberspace — where most hacks and ink-stained drudges (St. Matt?) hang out.

Apart from the blessed scarves, the last vestiges of the Brigid cult in Ireland today are plaited crosses fashioned from rushes. In 1961, when the Republic decided to launch a national television service, the St Brigid’s Cross was chosen as its logo and it remained part of the station’s corporate identity for many years before being reduced to such a stylized form as to be all but unrecognizable. Then it was disappeared.

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