St. Brighid’s Day: Comes the Irish Springtime

Crois Bhríde
Míle buíochas do mo chara Bríd, a rinne an crois Bhríde álainn seo!
Many thanks to my friend Bríd, who made this lovely St. Bríd’s cross.

Gabhaim molta Bríde.

Ionúin í le hÉirinn.

Ionúin le gach tír í.

Molaimís go léir í.

I sing Bríd’s praises.

She is Ireland’s beloved.

She is beloved of every land.

May we all praise her.

This lovely song — a hymn to St. Bríd (or “Brighid” in the older style of Irish spelling) — is one of the first sean-nós (“SHAN-nohss”), or “old style” songs I learned in the Irish language.

As her feast day is on February 1, which also marks the beginning of spring in Ireland, this song tends to pop into my head at about this time every year.  St. Bríd is an intriquing and complex figure, and she’s an intrinsic part of Irish culture.

Wait a second…isn’t it “Brigit”?

As this blog is tied to the Irish language, I want to get pronunciation straightened out right away. Yes, in English, she is often referred to as “Brigit.”

This pronunciation and spelling, however, is based on a misunderstanding of the pronunciation of Brighid. It’s pronounced “Breej,” or in some parts of Ireland, closer to “Breeds.” In contemporary Irish spelling, it’s spelled Bríd.

Because of this misunderstanding, Ireland’s saint is sometimes confused with St. Bridget of Sweden. In fact, “Bridget” isn’t an Irish name at all; it’s Germanic.

What about “Bride”?

 

You’ll sometimes see “St. Bride” or “St. Bridie” as well, but neither of these is correct either. Bríde, as you see it in the song above, is the genitive case of Bríd, and is pronounced “BREEJ-eh.” In the old spelling, it would have been Brighde.

The genitive case can’t stand alone as a name. It’s used in the same way we use apostrophe + s in English, and would be the equivalent of saying “Bríd’s.”

For the sake of simplicity, and because contemporary Irish is the language I speak, I’ll be using Bríd from here on out.

Saint or goddess?

One of the things that makes St. Bríd so intriguing is that her story is both pagan and Christian, and it’s hard to tell where one story ends and the other begins.

What we know is that there almost certainly was a real woman named Bríd who became the abbess of Leinster, and whom the Catholic Church honors as St. Bríd of Kildare. Along with St. Patrick and St. Columba, she is counted as one of Ireland’s patron saints sometimes referred to as “The Mary of the Gael.”

She is said to have been born sometime in the late 4th or early 5th century, the daughter of a druid and a Christian slave. She founded two monasteries in Kildare, one for women and one for men, and has had many miracles attributed to her. Shrines and holy wells dedicated to her can be found all over Ireland.

There is also, however, an ancient, pre-Christian, Irish goddess named Bríd, and here’s where the two stories get pretty tangled.

The goddess Bríd was the patron of poetry, smithing, medicine, arts and crafts, cattle and other livestock, and spring. She’s also said to have invented keening — a particular style of Irish lament — upon the death of her son Ruadán.

We can guess, at the very least, that Bríd of Kildare was named for the goddess. We know that the Catholic Church chose to place her feast day on February 1, which is also the pagan Irish feast of Imbolc, the coming of spring, which is also associated with — you guessed it — the goddess Bríd.

Further, many of the miracles attributed to St. Bríd involve things that were sacred to the goddess Bríd, including miracles involving cattle and butter, as well as healing miracles.

And, of course, there are those holy wells, which pre-date Christianity in Ireland by quite a bit, and of which many would have been sacred to the goddess Bríd.

We may never know whether the church co-opted the pagan traditions wholesale or whether the traditions surrounding the worship of the goddess and the veneration of the saint merged naturally (I’m inclined to think that a mixture of the two is most likely).

Regardless, the traditions of St. Bríd’s Day, aka Lá Fhéile Bríde (Law leh BREEJ-eh), aka Imbolc, are a deeply ingrained part of Irish culture, and a wonderful way to celebrate the coming of spring!

Some ways to celebrate St. Bríd’s day

Here are some things you can do to celebrate St. Bríd’s day:

Make a St. Bríd’s Cross (Cros Bhríde: “krus VREEJ-eh”)

As the saint (or goddess) is said to travel the countryside blessing households on this day, you can:

Hang a piece of white cloth or ribbon on an outside door for her to bless as she passes by.

Put a bit of bread and butter on your windowsill to refresh her on her journey. As she’s usually accompanied by her red-eared cow, a bit of corn would also be appreciated.

Because she was known for caring for the poor, a donation of food to your local food bank or soup kitchen would not be amiss.

Give your pets a special treat. Bríd is a patron of farm animals, but for those of us who don’t have farms, a treat for a beloved pet or a donation to your local humane organization is a great way to honor her special day.

Raise your glasses!  Bríd is also the patron of brewing.

Learn something of her language. Goddess or saint, Bríd’s language was Irish! We’ll be happy to help you start to learn Irish, if you like! At the very least, you can learn a traditional greeting for the day:

Lá Fhéile Bríde Sona Duit (Law leh BREEJ-uh SUN-uh ditch): Happy St. Bríd’s Day To You!

Did you find this post interesting?

Let us know your thoughts below!

Irish for Beginners free one-month course

Learn to introduce yourself in Ireland's native language. Sent directly to your email inbox.

What you get for signing up:

"We don't sell or spam your details." - Eoin Ó Conchúir, Founder, Bitesize Irish.

4 thoughts on “St. Brighid’s Day: Comes the Irish Springtime”

  1. If you look up the name ‘Brigid’ in the original texts that make up the Cath Maige Tuired, in some of the manuscripts it’s simply spelled Brig (no fada) and Brigit (pronounced Brigid) appears too. So for the original Old Irish spelling of the Goddess (as opposed to the Saint), named as the daughter of the Dagda and mother of Ruadán, it should be either Brig or Brigit with a T.

    1. Hi Meghan,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Due to the fact that Irish spelling has been evolving and non-standardised for the past few thousand years, you will find widely varying spellings for the same word. To save precious space on parchment, vowels were often left out.

      In printed copies of older manuscripts, accents are often left out for a number of possible reasons; the accent may have been too difficult to see, the printer was unable to make the accent sign, the original was translated and anglicised, the transcriber saw it as irrelevant or the original writer did not bother including an accent as he expected any future readers to recognise the name.

      Therefore, all such spellings would be pronounced either as “Breed” or “Breej,” as both pronunciations are used to this day. I would suspect “Brig” to have the latter pronunciation.

      When looking for ancient spellings, from my experience, the only reliable sources are scans of the original manuscripts.

      Le meas,
      Siobhán

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.