Cleveland Comhrá: The Festival of Imbolg
By Bob Carney
February is recognized as the beginning of spring in Ireland, a time of growth and renewal. The Festival of Imbolg, on the first of February, celebrated the arrival of spring as the earth awakened after the dark winter months.
Goddesses were important deities in the ancient religions of the celts, as they were thought to play a daily role in the lives of the people. Brigid was the goddess most associated with Imbolg. Her name means, “the exalted one”. She was the patron of poetry, craft and healing and was often called upon by women in childbirth for protection and safe delivery of their child.
Brigid was the daughter of the Dagda, chief god of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the Morrighan. With her flame red hair,she was also the goddess of fire and hearth, and a patron of warfare. She appears in many stories in Irish mytholog. In one, she is the wife of Bres, the ruler of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Their son, Ruadan, is killed in the second battle of Magh Tuireadh after wounding the god Giobhniu. Brigid went to the battlefield to mourn his death.
This is said to be the first caoine (keening) in Ireland. The practice of hiring women to caoine at a graveside continued up until recent times. Brigid’s caoine was so sorrowful that it caused all of the combatants to lay down their arms at the sound of it. As a result, the warriors of Leinster would seek her protection in battle.
In other stories, she is wed to a different king, and her three sons slay Cian, the father of Lugh the Long-Arm. She is still known as the “Goddess of the Well” in pagan customs, a link to the fertility and life giving waters of Mother Earth. There has been a resurgence of pagan and druadic beliefs and practices in recent times.
In Lough Gur, Co. Limerick, her feast day is celebrated with “green man” dances around the fields symbolizing the fertilizing of the earth. In the evening, her followers gather around a communal fire and listen to stories of the goddess. Of all the Celtic deities, she is the most universal and can be found in the mythologies of Northern Britain, Scotland, Western Europe, as well as Ireland.
Patrick’s success as a missionary was partly a result of his ability to incorporate the familiar into his message of the Christian beliefs. The story of the shamrock to explain the Trinity is one example. He took traditions of the druids in Gaelic culture and tried to explain them according to the teachings of Christianity.
Later missionaries in other parts of the world would try to erradicate old beliefs and impose their Christian ideals by any means necessary. The chieftain of Leinster, a man named Dubhtach, and his people were ardent worshipers of the goddess Brigid, and refused to recognize any teachings that cast doubt on her position as the mother goddess. Yet, this is where the origins of Brigid the saint are found.
Brigid of Kildara (Kiladare)
It was told a Christian slave woman was impregnated by Dubhtach. When the woman delivered a girl, she was sold to a chieftain in Connaught and the child given to a druid to be raised and educated as one. The child was named Brigid in honor of the goddess.
She returned to Dubhtach’s home as a young woman, as a slave, but with some privileges. She remained a virgin and a devoted follower of her namesake, eventually becoming high priestess of the Temple of Oak, Kil Dara in Irish.
After her conversion, the site of the convent she established became known as Kildare. At the temple she kept watch over the eternal fire honoring the goddess. Later, she and her followers extinguished the fire of Brigid and lit a new one in honor of Christ. According to legend, it remained lit for seven centuries, until put out by Henry II during the Reformation.
The First Community of Nuns in Ireland
Very little historical information is available concerning Brigid; even her conversion and it’s circumstances are unclear. Some accounts have her being converted and baptized by Patrick himself, others cite the influence of her mother. However it came about, Brigid and her followers became the first community of Christian women in Ireland, the first order of nuns there.
In the early 1800s, a manuscript was found in Listmore Castle in Co. Waterford that became known as “The Book of Listmore.” In it’s pages was “The Lives of the Saints,” believed to have been written in the 16th century.
The sections on Brigid appear to have been written earlier in the 7th and 10th centuries. It is not a biography, but more a list or catalog of miracles attributed to her. It was said that a flame appeared above her head when she took her vows and that the words the bishop used ordained her as a bishop as well. He claimed he had no control over the words he spoke and that a spirit had spoken through him.
As Abbess of the community at Kildare, she was known for her generosity and kindness to all. In “The Lives of the Saints,” her hospitality was said to cause others to act the same. She is credited with numerous miracles and it was believed even her shadow could heal the sick.
Over time, some of the myths surrounding the goddess have been added to and applied to the Christian saint’s life. Both were born in the house of a druid. St. Brigid, according to legend, was nursed on the milk from cows of the Otherworld, giving her control over that world.
It also allowed the old beliefs to survive while being Christianized. Imbolg itself was connected to the ewes coming into milk. In Christian tradition, St. Brigid is associated with sheep and the success of pastoral life. “The Oxford Companion to Irish History” even suggests that the goddess and the saint were one and the same, while acknowledging that by the 9th century she was Ireland’s most widely known saint.
Brigid died around the year 525 and was buried by her altar in Kildare. Her remains were moved in the 9th century to Downpatrick, and placed beside the remains of Patrick and Columcille. That tomb was desecrated during the Reformation and the relics became scattered across the Island.
After her death, her fame and reputation grew, and many churches were named after her. It is more difficult when it comes to place names as to which Brigid they should be attributed to. So it is with February 1, the Festival of Imbolg or the Feast Day of St. Brigid.
To celebrate the Festival of Imbolg, solar crosses were woven with four arms, equal in length. These symbolized the goddess Brigid’s control over the changing of the seasons. They were kept in the homes of her followers to invoke the goddesses’ protection in the coming year.
The story is told of a pagan chieftain in Kildare that was dying. Christians in his household sent for Brigid to talk to him about Christ. By the time she arrived he was delirious with fever. She sat at his bedside and began to console him.
As was the custom, the dirt floor was covered with rushes for warmth and cleanliness. Brigid stooped down and picked some up and began weaving them into a cross with the points together as she spoke. The chieftain asked what she was doing, and as she weaved, she explained the significance of the cross. As she talked, his delirium subsided and he questioned her deeply about Christ and her faith. He was baptized before his death and the cross of rushes has existed in Ireland since.
*Bob Carney is a student of Irish history and language and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday @Pj McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhounds and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hound Morrighan and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be contacted at [email protected]