St. Bridget’s Day in the Blackstairs

Today, St. Bridget’s Day/ Lá Fhéile Bríd or Imbolc, is traditionally the first day of spring although winters bite is still definitely in the air and snow lies on the mountains. Given the importance of the calender event, the day and night was steeped in custom and tradition in the past. The following information from the National Folklore Archive was mainly collected by Cáit Ní Bolgubhair, Rathnure, from the people of the village in the foot of the Blackstairs in June 1942 (as the Battle of Midway took place on the opposite side of the world) along with smaller accounts from Rossard and Bunclody:

A Novena was begun in the households of the locality on January 23rd in preparation for the day. By 1942 the day was only marked by a mass in honour of St. Bridget however; the oldest man in Rathnure at the time, Mr. William Graham (86 [born 1856/7]) had a number of stories about St. Bridget’s Day eve which were told to him by his father who died 50 years before [1892] aged 93 [born 1799]. According to Mr. Graham’s father, St. Bridget’s Day was celebrated in every household in the district. Just after sunset on the 31st of January, the man of the house went out and cut a bunch of rushes with a reaping hook and hid them outside the house until feast time that night [time unspecified]. When the feast time arrived he would go back out and collect the rushes and walk around the house clockwise – the direction of the sun. When he reached the open door, the family inside knelt and listened to his petition: “Go down on your knees, open your eyes, and let St. Bridget in”. The family would respond with “She is welcome, she is welcome”. He repeated his circuit, petition and response twice more. On the third circuit he entered the house, put the rushes under the table, said Grace and invited his family to dinner. After they ate, the rushes were put in the middle of the floor and the family sat around making crosses.

When the family went to bed, the man of the house collected a garment of clothing for each person in the house and hid them outside. This was done so that St. Bridget and her holy women would find warm wraps on their journey to visit all those who honoured her. The door of the house was also left open that night so they could come inside and warm themselves by the fire. (The version of this custom is slightly different to that recorded elsewhere in the country. See Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland’s post for example)

The following day, St. Bridget’s Day, the crosses were blessed and hung in each room and outhouse. P.T, O’Riain noted that in the Rossard area, the garments that had been hung out the night before, were known as the Brat Bríd or St. Bridget’s Day ribbons and were used to cure any pains.

According to C. Mac Niocláis, Bunclody (Feb. 1942) the tradition of making Bridget’s crosses had died out at that stage also. The crosses that had formally been made were diamond shaped and made from straw with a grain of corn set in the middle. These were then hung from the rafters with a nail. When sowing of the crops started on the land, the grain was taken from the cross and placed in the first bucket of seed. The crosses were never removed and you could establish the age of a house by counting the number of crosses in the rafters.

Another old custom remembered in the Bunclody district at this time was that of the “Brídeóg”. These were made locally from a large turnip like a jack-o-lantern. The eyes, nose and mouth were blackened with soot or shoe polish. People would dress in old clothes and go from house to house asking for money “for the Brídeóg”.

The Birth of Spring

The Dandelion and the delicate anenome were believed to be Bridget’s flowers. The linnet was commonly known as “Bríd’s little bird” as it is one of the earliest spring songbirds. The year’s agricultural work was started on this day as the farmers turned the sod in preparation for sowing crops. It was believed that starting on this day would make the crops prosper. Fishing also started in the rivers, in Rathnure’s case, the River Boro, which continued until October.

A St. Bridget story told in the Rathnure locality

There are many stories and traditions associated with St, Bridget which most of us will remember from school or our families. The following was one such story told to the children in the locality at the time:

St. Bridget was a dairy maid in her youth to a druid who had 12 cows. When she made the butter, she split it into one large and twelve small parts in memory of Christ and the Twelve Apostles. She gave the large part to the poor or strangers as she believed Christ was in every beggar and wanderer. The druid found out and suprised her one day by demanding the butter he knew she had given away. She told him she would get it from the kitchen and went in alone and shut the door. She began the following prayer, “O my sovereign Lord, Thou who give increase in all things, bless O God of unbounded greatness, this storehouse with they right hand. My storehouse will be a storehouse of bright testimony; the storehouse which my king shall bless; a storehouse in which plenty shall abound. The son of Mary, my beloved one, will bless my storehouse; this is the glory of the whole universe, may that glory be ever multiplied and be given unto Him”. She carried the butter to the druid and there was so much that “if the hampers which all the men of Munster had possessed had been given to her she would fill them all”. The druid said to her “Both the butter and the kine [cow] are thine, thou shouldst be serving not me but the Lord”. She gave the cow to the poor and the druid and his wife were Bridget’s first converts.

Bridget – The Name

In the three accounts of St. Bridget’s Day all refer to the widespread use of the the name Bridget in the locality. Girls with that name were often nicknamed Bridgie (pronounced “Brudgie” in the Bunclody district)Breda, Bride or Bridie.

Bibliography

Information collected by C. Mac Niocláis, Bunclody (Feb. 1942). MS 907, p. 162-165.

Information collected by Cáit Ní Bolgubhair, Rathnure from children and people of the district (June 1942). MS 907, p. 166-181

Information collected by P.T. O’Riain from John Long & his wife from Rossard (Jan. 1940). MS 1063, p.5-7

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