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St Brigid’s Day - a weaving tradition of Celtic rituals, Christian faith and enduring folk customs

Clodagh Doyle, Keeper of the Irish Folklife Collection, outlines some the history of St Brigid's Day and associated customs and traditions.

With its origins in the Celtic fertility festival of Imbolc (giving birth), St Brigid’s Day on February 1 signals the beginning of spring and an end to the darkness of winter, ushering in a new season of hope and growth on the land and the birth of animals on the farm and in the wild.

Our rural ancestors celebrated the day with a festive meal and a host of customs, all aimed at securing St Brigid’s protection and promise of new life and abundance for the year ahead.

The ancient goddess Brigid was associated with the main deities of pre-Christian Gaelic Ireland, the mythical Tuatha Dé Danann. As a fertility goddess she had links to other spring deities across Europe associated with rebirth of nature.

The Christian church adopted the ancient Celtic feast days that were linked to nature and amalgamated them into the Christian calendar. St Brigid’s Day was one of the ‘quarter days’ that marked a transition from one season to the next.

There followed Bealtaine at the start of summer (May 1); Lúnasa, which heralded the harvest season (August 1); and Samhain (November 1) was the beginning of the dark season. These quarter days and many Irish calendar festivals were linked to dates near to solar cycles of solstices and equinoxes.

Brigid the holy woman was a member of the Fogharta sect and has strong connections to the Leinster counties of Kildare and Louth, with hills, wells, shrines and churches in Faughart, north Louth (where she was born) and throughout Kildare where she founded her church. The possible foundations of a fire temple which held an everlasting flame is located in the lands of Kildare Cathedral (a flame continues to burn in the Solas Bhríde centre nearby).

Brigid the saint, along with the other patron saints of Ireland, Patrick and Columba, was never officially made a saint by any Pope (in 1999, however, Pope John Paul II declared another Brigid, St Bridget of Sweden, founder of the religious order of Bridgettines, a patron saint of Europe).

St Brigid in Ireland is associated with nurturing, caregiving and protection from illness - attributes inherited from her ancient namesake.

The interlacing and merging of the characteristics of the goddess and the pagan symbolism of fire and water into those of the saint is similar to the weaving of the natural materials to form the St Brigid crosses.

Irish feast days were most often (or mostly) celebrated on the eve of the day itself as this was considered a very liminal time when the otherworld was very close and appeals for protection and blessing were most effective.

The festive meal in honour of the saint was a supper of potatoes and freshly churned butter; colcannon was made by adding chopped cabbage to the mashed potatoes.

Family members would take turns at pounding the potatoes. This was thought to bring luck and is prevalent in folk traditions, like taking a dash of a churn when making butter.

The feast meal was in thanksgiving for the previous year’s crops, tempered with hope and protection sought for the vegetable crops still to be sown. Afterwards the family made their St Brigid’s crosses.

The St Brigid’s Cross, pinned up above the front door or in the kitchen, is still a familiar feature in many Irish homes. The most recognisable cross is the four-armed St Brigid’s cross (popularised since 1961 by its use as an emblem for the national broadcaster RTÉ). This style was much favoured in the north of Ireland, yet the most popular throughout all of Ireland were variations of diamond-shaped crosses.

Regional styles and variations of St Brigid’s crosses existed and often numerous styles were made in each home. Traditional designs were diamond, interlaced or wheel-shaped and could have two, three or four arms.

The simplest crosses consisted of two strips of wood or straw plaits tied together to form a cross. Straw, rushes and reeds were the most common materials used but grass, hay, wood, goose quills, wire and fabric were also employed, and even sheaves of ripe corn and potatoes. The material was sprinkled with holy water before been made into a cross, while a prayer to welcome the saint into the home was often recited. 

St Brigid’s Crosses were also hung in animal sheds. Leftover materials were sprinkled on the crops or incorporated into ropes or bedding for animals to invoke the saint’s blessing as she passed through the country on the eve of her feast day.

The previous year’s cross was often left in its place and the new one placed beside it or the old dried out one broken into fragments and scattered over the land or animals. Newlyweds or those with a new home were often gifted a St Brigid’s Cross for protection and to wish the couple well in starting a family.

On the eve of St Brigid’s day, a cake of bread or a piece of cloth or ribbon (Brat Bríde or Ribín Bríde) was left outside on the windowsill or near the door. It was believed it would be touched by St Brigid on her travels and have the power to ward off illness and pain in both humans and animals. The material was safely kept and used for healing, or incorporated into clothing to offer protection to the wearer.

As for St Brigid’s brat (mantle or cloak); legend has it that in Co Kildare the local king agreed to give Brigid the amount of land that her cloak covered. Once laid, her cloak expanded over much of the county and the king had to forgo much of his land! (A relic of St Brigid’s cloak is kept in St Saviour’s Cathedral in Bruges, Belgium).

Spring, the season of hope, brought better weather and longer days. With it came new life on the farm and new growth on the land. St Brigid offered protection towards fertility for the household, farm, and land, and safeguarded people from illness and disease.

Communities venerated the saint and there were processions where her effigy was paraded represented as a doll. ‘Biddy Boys’ (or girls) went from house-to-house with ‘Biddy’, often a straw doll in a veil (like a bride) and cloak, collecting money and food for a St Brigid’s party, while reciting a rhyme similar to this one:

Here is Brigid dressed in white. 
Give her something for the night.
She is deaf, she is dumb,
For God’s sake, give her some.[i]

The Biddy Boys were especially popular in Co Kerry where the dressed straw Brídeogs (brides) were almost life-size and were carried through the streets in elaborate parades.

In parts of Connacht, the Biddy Boys would carry a large plaited straw belt (Crios Bríde) often with incorporated straw crosses. The inhabitants of each home passed through the circle of the belt while reciting a prayer to St Brigid in the hope of gaining the saint’s protection from illness during the coming year.

The belt was raised over the heads of the women and dropped down for them to step out of it. The male occupants had to go through sideways from left to right – arm, leg, head, then the other leg and arm.

This idea of passing through a portal is replicated at many of the holy wells dedicated to St Brigid. One can be found at Brideswell, Co Roscommon. The well was reconstructed in 1625 by the Earl of Antrim, Randal Mac Donnell (he had come with his wife and she partook of the spring waters and later became pregnant with their first child). The stone enclosure around the well allowed for pilgrims to make a stepped journey, as through a portal, to the depths of the well.

Holy wells are found all over Ireland. They are often located by a tree where votive offerings, usually of ribbons and rags are left by pilgrims, in the hope that their prayers will be remembered. It was traditional to visit these holy wells the evening before or on St Brigid’s feast day. 

Blessed water from the wells was believed to be a cure for infertility, and for eye cures, based on the legend of St Brigid removing her eye so as not to be married to a suitor.

Beannachtaí na Féile Bríde oraibh go léir!

This article by Clodagh Doyle, Keeper of the Irish Folklife Collection, National Museum of Ireland, was first published in the Irish Arts Review, Volume 39 (4), Winter Edition December 2022 - February 2023, page 128


[i] Danaher, Kevin, The Year in Ireland, Cork, 1972, p30

Further reading:

Danaher, Kevin, “The Year in Ireland”, Cork, 1972.
O’Dowd, Anne, “Straw Hay and Rushes in Irish Folk Tradition”, Dublin, 2015.
Ó Dúinn, Seán, “The Rites of Brigid, Goddess and Saint”, Dublin, 2005.
Ó’hÓgáin, Dáithí, “Myth, Legend and Romance - An encyclopedia of Irish Folk Tradition”, London, 1990
McClintock, H. F. “The ‘Mantle of St. Brigid’ at Bruges.” The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. 6, no. 1, Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1936, pp. 32–40.
Connolly, Sean, and J. M. Picard. “Cogitosus’s ‘Life of St Brigit’ Content and Value.” The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. 117, Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1987, pp. 5–27,

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