Saint Brigid

St Brigid – Mary of the Gael – is second only to St Patrick in the esteem of the Irish people. She is, of course, specially associated with Kildare and the whole area of Magh Life (The Liffey Plain). It would appear that the veneration of St Brigid incorporates elements of a much older tradition. When the Celts came to Ireland, maybe around 500 B.C., they brought with them their Druidic religion. They had many gods, who interacted with the people, sometimes for good, and sometimes for evil. Many of the gods and goddesses were associated with cult sites at particular places. The pagan religious framework of the Celts is not well documented, and what details we have, are mainly of the religious practices of the continental Celts as described by Roman writers, who most likely never visited Ireland. So their accounts would not relate directly to the practices in Ireland, though there must have been broad similarities. The pagan religious practices of the Irish Celts were not encouraged by the Christians, and when they did record them, they would not have wished to present a balanced picture, even if they fully understood the rituals. So we actually have very little knowledge of the religious practices and rituals of the Druidic religion. On the other hand, the early Christian Church in Ireland did not seem to associate the Druidic religion with cruel and barbarous practices, which would have to be eliminated entirely. The names, and many of the attributes, of the Celtic Irish gods were preserved in an oral tradition though the Gods themselves were reduced to the ranks of fairies; they were not gods, but they were greater than human, they were the Sidh or the Tuath de Danann. The Christian traditions treated the Tuath de Danann with a certain sympathy and they are frequently shown as coming forth from their pagan world, being embraced in the Christian fold, and entering into heavenly bliss e.g. the stories of the Children of Lir, Oisin, and the tale of Eithne. It was not so easy to get the ordinary people to completely forget the pagan Celtic gods and elements of paganism survived for hundreds of years after Christianity became firmly established. Indeed there is evidence to suggest that some of the more popular deities were absorbed into the Christian tradition as local saints, and the rituals associated with their worship survived as folk customs right up to very recent times. This would appear to have happened, at least to some extent, in the case of St Brigid.

The head God of the Irish Celts was The Dagda. The Dagda Mor was the father and chief of the people of Dana (the Tuath de Danann). He was a master of music, as well as other magical endowments, and owned a harp that came flying through the air at his call.

Dana was the greatest of the de Danann goddesses; she was the mother of the Irish gods. Daughter of the Dagda, and like him associated with the ideas of fertility and blessing, Dana was also known as Brid “the poetess”. Brid is identified with the goddess Brigantia, territorial deity of the Brigantes, a powerful Celtic tribe of North Britain. Brigantia was associated with water and gives her name to rivers; the Brighid in Ireland; the Braint in Wales; and the Brent in England. Place name evidence would also suggest that the goddess Brid was known in Celtic Europe. The name Brid was originally an epithet meaning “the exalted one”. She is sometimes mentioned as a triple goddess i.e. three sister goddesses named Brid; one goddess associated with poetry and traditional learning in general; one associated with the smith’s art; and the third associated with healing. However over time the separate attributes of the three goddesses became merged in the one figure. The Irish goddess Brid was specially concerned with the arts and with poetry. As such she was venerated by the filidh who were poets and prophets, and who had perhaps a rather academic interest in her. The Christian approach to the filidh seems to have been to allow them to maintain their literary, historical and legal responsibilities while suppressing their ritualistic role. However, it is mainly as a goddess of the ordinary people, concerned with healing, with flocks and stock and the yield of the earth, that she has survived to become a Christian saint.