By Mervyn Ennis
There are as many strands to the story of St Brigid as there are reeds in the crosses that bare her name. There was the ancient Goddess, Bridget, who represented poetry and wisdom. This strand provides a link with the primordial divine feminine, ancient as the hills and wells of Ireland. She gave her name to the rivers Brigit, Braint, and Brent in Ireland, Wales and England respectively.
Then there was another Bridget, a famous law giver, whose dictums were quoted well into historical times. Finally, the Celtic Saint Brigit from the fifth century who is believed to have heard St Patrick preach and becoming a Christian, was to rise as Abbess of Kildare, on parity with a bishopric.
In her lifetime Bridget was looked up to by the nuns in Ireland, just as the Primate of Armagh was looked up to by the clerics. Before she died it was said that as many as thirty religious houses were under her obedience. It is recorded that her feast on the 1st February was celebrated, in every Cathedral from Grisons to the German Sea. Over thirty Continental cities are quoted for their devotion, in the middle ages, to Irish Bridget. Her feast day the 1st of February, Imbolg, is one of the four hinges on which the Celtic year swung. The others, Bealtine, on May 1st, Lunasa, on August 1st and Samhain on November 1st. In fact the name Imbolg means ‘giving birth to’. The festival of Imbolg is a real turning point, ushering in a new dawn, to breathe with new life vision and activity, an era of light, and life and hope for a new and Christian world.
In the ninth century, her relics were moved to Downpatrick because of the threat of Viking raids and in accordance with her status, she was interred in the same tomb as St Patrick
There are many customs associated with St Brigid and represent what could be described as folk liturgy. For instance up to to relatively recently, it was the custom for the Bridegroom to carry his Bride over the door when first wed. It symbolises a new beginning, entering a new realm together. The very word Bride comes from St Brigid our Irish Saint from Kildare. When the Knights went to the Crusades they adopted St Brigid as their patron. It was they began the custom to call the girls they married their Brides, a variant of the name Brigit. They brought a token from their girlfriends to carry into battle as a charm or protection. There are many more customs but the focus of this article is on St Brigid’s Cross, which is made of rushes, the great emblem of the Brigidine tradition.
It is part of a deep rooted tradition going back to St Brigid herself and became a powerful symbol of protection. Indeed, in 1690, when King William’s army invaded the country near St. Brigid’s site (Faughart) all the people fled their houses. In each house they found green St. Brigid’s crosses. The soldiers believed the crosses were placed to protect the house from them.
Some representations of the St Brigid’s cross bears a similarity to the Mexican ‘God’s eye’, others to ancient North American Indians of California, the Wailaki tribe, while others are similar to the straw squares worn as a decoration at Christmas time in Estonia.
But to understand the enduring tradition of the St Brigit’s cross one has to recall the subjugation of the dispossessed Irish people. This involved a planned deliberate systematic attempt to deprive them of any means to practice their religion under the draconian Penal Laws. These were rigorously enforced and not fully repealed until the latter part of the 1800’s.
In the dark days of the Penal Laws, Irish Catholics were driven to live in the worst available wetland, forbidden to exercise their religion, attend Catholic worship or hold or have any religious objects. Religious practice went underground. Relegated to the last rung of the social class ladder, denied education and any form of advancement, they remained there but for the escape hatch of emigration. At home they began to improvise. If they could not write or talk about Ireland they spoke of Rosín Dubh. When edicts were passed banning the use of bagpipes, they found a way around it by developing Uileann Pipes or elbow pipes. (Strictly speaking they complied with the Law and were not blown into. Rather the air was pumped in by way of a bellows attached to the pipers elbow.) When schools were banned, they resorted to providing hedge schools.
Equally without any form of iconography, they developed many versions of the simple St Brigid’s crosses as their theology became hidden in the straw. They were to turn the simple rushes, sign of poor land, into an incredible art form. Made of golden straw with corn heads woven into it, it was a reminder of Christ, the Bread of Life. Another version , resembles a fish like the early Christians who drew the image of a fish over their meeting place – the Greek for fish Icthus was an anagram in Greek for Jesus Christ, Saviour Son of God. Yet another version symbolises the Trinity, the three persons in the one God. Others the five wounds of Christ; a further one is wound on the wood of the cross, while another depicts the crucifixion of St Peter who was crucified upside down. So the maker and owner of a St Brigid’s Cross was able to use it to meditate on and visualise the stories and truths of their religion using the grass reeds they were forced to live among. An impoverished people traditionally used rushes in the birthing place according to Irish folk custom. They are therefore intimately connected with new life. They are connected with the Birth of Jesus in the Stable and of Moses’ rescue in a basket made of rushes.
Crois Bríd Mhuire na Gael
protected the household.
Denied the right to practice their belief
They kept it hidden in their hearts,
Found Christ in the gold of the harvest
And truths masked in the straw or reeds.
They sustained themselves by visualisations
Unknown to the stranger.
A real presence in straw.
A promise of a great harvest
When we, like grain, will rise again.
For me, the St Brigid’s cross is living proof that prejudice and anti tolerance will not win. It is a symbol of defiance, resistance, struggle, perseverance. It bares the true hall mark of the Irish people, resilience.
When the Irish emigrated and took refuge in other nations around the world, they brought St Brigid with them. Whereas Brigid, the Celtic Goddess is remembered in rivers, St Brigid is recalled in schools, hospitals and churches round the globe. Closer to home, church attendance declined when people were scandalised by the extent of clerical child sexual abuse . For many their observance became private and interior. But over the door, a St Brigid cross of reed and straw retains pride of place and Brigit whose name means ‘exalted one’ is venerated with the zeal of old.
Mervyn Ennis has an M. A. from University College Dublin in Social Work. He recently retired as head social worker from the Irish Defence Forces after 21years service in the Personnel Support Services which he helped found in 1992.