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St. Brigid - The Giveaway
No matter how poor the household, the mother would always try to prepare a festive supper or at least some tasty dish. Boxty pancakes, apple cake, dumplings and colcannon were favorites, and in some parts of Ireland a fruit bread called barm brack was served. (See recipe: Barmbrack)
Butter always formed a part of the meal and fresh butter was sure to be churned that morning. To honor the saint's renowned generosity and ensure prosperity in the coming year, the wealthier farmers gave gifts of butter and buttermilk to less fortunate neighbors; some killed a sheep and sent portions to friends and to the needy. Special crosses made from reeds and rushes were made and put up over the doorways and the ones from last year were taken down and put up elsewhere in the house. Since any kind of effort that required the turning of a wheel was also to be avoided on this day, it's probable that even in modern Ireland, children won't be permitted to ride their bicycles! You're also likely to see handkerchiefs hanging from washing lines all over the country. Nowadays, it's done to ensure the health of the household for the coming year, but it evolved from the old custom of putting up a strip of cloth or ribbon called Brigid's Mantle. It was said that if the saint touched it, it would have curative powers.
But, oh to be in Ireland on St. Brigid's Eve in the old days. That's when groups of young people dressed up in costume and went from house to house carrying a straw doll called the Brideog. These groups were known as The Biddies or Biddie Boys and, in return for entertaining those they called on with songs and dancing, they'd be rewarded with candy, cookies and possibly enough cash to finance a caeli or party.
But back to the saint and her remarkable position in Irish affection - second only to St. Patrick. In researching her life, I was taken with her generosity which so closely resembled that of my mother's. I told the story in a previous article A Powerful Woman, how Helena Bridget O'Flaherty gave everything away. For my mother, with all respect and love, I share with you this poem. I wish I'd written it:
Saint Brigid was
To any soul
Her father's gold,
She could not quit.
An easy touch
Well, one must love her.
I found this poem on a web site where it was also reported of Francis of Assisi that as a young man he had a dream in which God said to him, "Francis, repair my church." He took this to refer to a church building near Assisi which was in need of repair, and he sold a bale of silk from his father's warehouse to obtain building materials. His father was furious. Francis had not asked for permission: he simply took it for granted that his father would wish to contribute to such a worthy cause. It is said of Brigid that as a young girl she made similar assumptions about her own family. Whether this is true or not, we may never know. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints "Historical facts about her are extremely rare; some scholars have even doubted her existence altogether."
What we do know of her is mainly through anecdotes and miracle stories, some of which are deeply rooted in Irish folklore. She is said to have been born out of wedlock to a maidservant seduced by a prince, sold into slavery by his jealous wife, and then raised by Druids near Kildare where she later founded a monastery on an ancient pagan site. It was there that a fire, tended by twenty nuns, burned continuously for hundreds of years after her death.
So, who was she really? A figure based on a Celtic goddess which was later adapted by the Roman Catholic Church when Christianity came to Ireland? Or was she the daughter of a pagan prince? While many Roman Catholics are often troubled by the inconsistencies of our spiritual heritage, she is so deeply rooted in our Irish customs and culture that the majority of us find ourselves accepting her existence simply on faith.
So, every year, on the eve of her feast day, I will continue to fashion a cross of straw in her honor, call on her for inspiration when the inevitable writer's block occurs, and, most of all, try to live the legacy she left us - especially that of giving to those in need.
Notes: A reader generously provided a link to a site with comprehensive information on the existence of St. Brigid: St. Brigid of Ireland
Called whin in the north and gorse in the east, furze was once a symbol of wealth and fertility of land as is emphasized by the saying: "gold under furze, silver under rushes and famine under heather."