Tuesday 31 January 2012

First Vespers for the Feast of Saint Brigid

Below is the text and translation of an antiphon at First Vespers from the 15th-century Sarum-rite office for the Feast of Saint Brigid. It is track 30 on the recording 'Flame of Ireland - Medieval Irish Plainchant: An Office for St. Brigit' by Canty and has been reproduced from the sleevenotes which accompany the CD. The Office survives in a number of manuscript sources and reflects the standard Sarum Rite usage introduced by the Anglo-Normans. The antiphon refers to one of the miracles often recorded in later medieval notices of Saint Brigid's feast - the dead wood that was restored to life at her touch.

Antiphona: Deo carnis dedidit

Deo carnis dedidit
Brigida candorem
relativum reddidit
benignus honorem
sic cum lignum niveum
designans pudorem
ad tactum virgineum
resumpsit virorem

Brigit devoted to God
The purity of her body
And in His loving kindness
He gave her honour in proportion due.
As when the dried out wood,
In token of her modesty,
At her virgin touch
Resumed its green freshness.

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Saint Brigid's Eve: The Cross, Shield and Veil

Below is an extremely interesting account of the rituals of Saint Brigid's eve as they were practiced in Omeath, County Louth, presumably up until the nineteenth century. I was struck by the strongly Christian aspects of the ritual here, the emphasis is on being girded with the cross and shield the better to fight the good fight, rather than on fighting rival groups or on corn dollies. The Brideog here is more of what the Americans would call a 'homecoming queen' type of figure, and there is a strongly moralistic tone to the ritual.


I intend to describe one of the old religious customs of Omeath which, unfortunately, has been allowed to fall into disuse.

The ceremony, which took place on St. Brigid’s Eve is now remembered by only a few of the older people in Omeath. Nicholas O’Kearney gives a good description of it in one of his manuscripts, and to him I am indebted for the following account:

It was the universal custom to prepare the Cros Bhrighite, the Sgaith Bhrighite and the Crothan Bhrighite -i.e., the Cross, Shield and Veil of St. Brigid, on the eve of the Saint’s festival. They were generally platted from the strong grass which grows in morasses or about lakes, and they were done with great ingenuity, for the inhabitants of the different townlands vied with one another in producing the neatest and most ingeniously wrought shield and cross. In the evening, the people of each townland assembled into one place to perform the pious ceremony. The most exemplary virgin in the townland was always chosen as An Bhrideog, to bear the cross, shield and veil, and if her name was Brigid it was an additional recommendation.

The maiden thus selected put on the veil, took the cross in her right hand and the shield in her left and proceeded to each house, followed by the people who were engaged in humble prayer, invoking the Almighty Ruler of the universe to fill, with His Holy Spirit, those of His servants who dwelt in that house, and to enable them to keep His commandments according to the example of the great St. Brigid. When the procession reached the house, the Brideog put the question to those inside: "Are you resolved, with God's assistance, to obey His laws and those of His Church and to lead blameless lives like the great St. Brigid?" The answer was usually in the affirmative, upon which the Brideog presented the cross made for that house. with the words, “Take the sword with which the great St. Brigid fought against her enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil, and remember to bear the crosses of this life with true Christian fortitude after the example of the great St. Brigid."
On presenting the shield, she said, “ Take ye this shield, the shield of Faith; remember the many victories gained by St. Brigid under its protecting influence, and bravely follow her example.” On presenting the veil, she asked, “Will you follow the rules of virtue. piety and general good conduct laid down for your guidance by St. Brigid ?" The mistress of the house then called on the daughters and female domestics to answer in the sincerity of their hearts, and she presented the veil, saying, " Be modest, chaste, and virtuous according to the example which the saint, whose festival we celebrate, has left for your imitation." Then the cross was held up, and the whole assembly were called on to remember their redemption on that instrument, upon which exhortation, all would fall on their knees and join in fervent prayer to Almighty God that with the assistance of His divine aid, they might spend the coming year in piety and virtue.

Thus the pious procession proceeded from house to house, and after the ceremony the crosses, shields and veils were placed over the doors, in order that they might never be out of sight of the inmates, and especially that their attention might be frequently called to the promises made to God on St. Brigid's Day. In case the sons or male inmates were suspected of a breach of the laws of God, parents did not fail to call their attention to the cross and shield placed over the door, and the mothers frequently put their daughters and female domestics in memory of the veil and ceremonies of St. Brigid’s eve. Rarely, we are told, were they appealed to in vain. It was by these and similar means that the seeds of piety, virtue and morality were sown and nurtured in the minds of the people of Ireland, and it is to be regretted that these old customs were often ridiculed, even by some of those whose duty it was to guard the morality and piety of the people.

In Omeath, this custom was sneered at so long that it gradually fell into disuse, but St. Brigid’s crosses can still be found in a few of the houses.

In the following poem, attributed by some to Peadar O’Doirnin, the poet approves of the custom, and encourages the Brideog to go on with her work, unhesitatingly :-

Virgin, pure as bright sunshine, whose converse so pure
Often forced my poor frail heart sharp pains to endure
Bear the shield, I beseech you, like heroine true,
For black guile never marked a foul stain upon you.

Oh, dignified maid of the silk tendrilled hair, 
Let pure virtue blush not, though vicious eyes stare;
Take the shield, and remember ‘tis pattern for thee,
And ask the high powers of heaven for me.

From the task never shrink, ‘tis a pious old rite,
Many maids, humbly praying, confess it this night,
Though not mine, bloom of beauty, what feelings of pride
I conceive, when I see you so brightly preside.

We are told by the Church that St. Brigid's bright shield
Can defend us 'gainst sin in temptations dread field:
Yet I'd choose, modest maid, heaven pardon the crime,
That thou wert by blessed wedlock my fair captive prize.

Since the strong inspirations of virtue prevail, 
How divine is the face that blooms under the veil;
‘Tis your last pious shield; the last veil you’ll receive,
For I hope you'll be mine before next Brigid's eve.

From Fr. L. Murray – “Omeath” in County Louth Archaeological and Historical Journal. 1914.

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The Beaufort Biddy Boys

A 2011 account of the tradition of 'Biddy Boys' in rural County Kerry. In 2009 I posted a newspaper article on the revival of the Biddy Boys in rural County Fermanagh. Although it was portrayed as a bit of harmless fun, I suggested that there might also be a darker side to the Biddy as it once operated in Kerry, and so it is interesting to see how it has developed there. The masks have been abandoned and the money now collected is being given to charity. 

Dancing for St Brigid: Charities gain from festival set dances

ANNE LUCEY in Killarney

THE ANCIENT tradition of “the Biddy”, to celebrate the coming of spring and events surrounding St Brigid’s Day today, continues in the southwest, with just a few concessions to modernity.

This week will see white-cladded, straw-hatted, accordion-bearing men and women tour the villages and households from Glenbeigh to Kenmare to Ballyvourney over the Cork border to dance around kitchens and pubs.

Instead of collecting house- to-house for a Biddy ball, the Biddy groups nowadays collect money for charity.

One of the largest Biddy groups is that of the Kerry Parents and Friends charity in aid of people with intellectual disabilities. It is drawn from parishes in rural Killarney.

“People welcome us when we call to the doors asking if they have any objection to the Biddy and we dance a half set,” Paul Cremin, one of the organisers said. “Then we do the brush dance [a dance with a sweeping brush].” When members of the household want to join in, a full set is danced. Generally they call to houses where they know there is Biddy knowledge.

The Parents and Friends Biddy, drawn from a panel of 25 musicians and dancers, travel by bus.

In Beaufort in the foothills of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, where Mr Cremin lives, the Biddy has been known for hundreds of years.

There are a number of modern concessions, though, and the homemade and often- frightening masks – which once disguised the identity of the members of the Biddy group – are no longer worn.

The tall straw hats are removed to protect the lighting in many houses and pubs. However, it is still a case of dancing around kitchens, even in the most modern of houses.

“We have two sets of hats, small hats for the houses in case we break anything, but fair play to people, they welcome us.”

Mr Cremin’s group has collected thousands of euro for charity over the past decade.

Meanwhile, the tradition of the Biddy has developed into a cultural festival in south Kerry.

The Éigse na Brídeoige cultural festival which takes place during this coming weekend, the first weekend in February, in the Gaeltacht areas of Iveragh opens on Friday and will explore the ancient links between south Kerry and northern Spain.

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The Darker Side of the Biddy Boys

Unlike the County Fermanagh portrayal of the revival of the Biddy Boys as a bit of colourful rural fun, this account of the Biddy Boys as they used to operate in County Kerry hints at a darker side to this tradition:
A number of young men disguised themselves and dressed up a figure which they called 'Breeda'. It was the custom to call to every house in the neighbourhood. On entering a house they demanded money for 'Breeda' and generally danced for a few minutes with the girls of the house. In a house in which the owner took the whole thing as a joke they departed quietly, but when they were taken roughly they generally took all the bread they could find in the house away with them. On entering a Public House they took whatever drinks were on the counter. This often caused a row with the people who had paid for the drinks, but as the 'Brideogs' were always in considerable numbers they generally came out as best. When two bunches of 'Brideogs' met there was some excitement as the strongest party always relieved the other of whatever money they had collected.

J. O'Donohue, In Kerry Long Ago, (1960), 64.

I have no difficulty in seeing some of the less savoury aspects of Irish culture reflected in the Biddy Boys. We have a history of faction fighting and of secret agrarian societies prepared to use intimidation, so it comes as no surprise to find these elements in this tradition, in certain parts of the country at least. This type of behaviour is associated with exclusively male groups of 'Brideogs', but as we shall see, there was a feminine tradition associated with popular rituals on the eve of Saint Brigid in the Irish countryside as well.

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Brigid's Belt in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney

The Crois Bhríde is the inspiration behind two of contemporary poet Seamus Heaney's compositions:

A Brigid's Girdle

Last time I wrote I wrote from a rustic table
Under magnolias in South Carolina
As blossoms fell on me, and a white gable
As clean-lined as the prow of a white liner

Bisected sunlight in the sunlit yard.
I was glad of the early heat and the first quiet
I'd had for weeks. I heard the mocking bird
And a delicious, articulate

Flight of small plinkings from a dulcimer
Like feminine rhymes migrating to the north
Where you faced the music and the ache of summer
And earth's foreknowledge gathered in the earth.

Now it's St Brigid's Day and the first snowdrop
In County Wicklow, and this a Brigid's Girdle
I'm plaiting for you, an airy fairy hoop
(Like one of those old crinolines they'd trindle),

Twisted straw that's lifted in a circle
To handsel and to heal, a rite of spring
As strange and lightsome and traditional
As the motions you go through going through the thing.

The Spirit Level (Faber & Faber Ltd., 1996)

and this poem from the collection 'Crossings'

On St. Brigid's Day the new life could be entered
By going through her girdle of straw rope
The proper way for men was right leg first
Then right arm and right shoulder, head, then left
Shoulder, arm and leg.
Women drew it down
Over the body and stepped out of it
The open they came into by these moves
Stood opener, hoops came off the world
They could feel the February air
Still soft above their heads and imagine
The limp rope fray and flare like wind-born gleanings
Or an unhindered goldfinch over ploughland.

Saint Brigid's Eve: Brigid's Belt

A specialized form of the Saint Brigid's cross was known as the Crios Bhride or Saint Brigid's belt. It was associated particularly with the County Galway area. The belt was a rope made or straw or rushes, in the form of a ring with one or more crosses on it. It would also be taken around the various houses on Saint Brigid's Eve and people would be passed in and out through it to secure the protection of the saint for the coming year. A ritual verse or 'rann' was associated with it:

Crios, Brigid's crois, my crios, crios of the four crosses, it was Mary that went into it and Brigid who came out. If you are well off today, may you be seven times better off a year from today.

As An t-Athair O Duinn explains, the actual ritual of passing through the Crios was relatively simple:

It appears that the person first kissed the cross jutting out from the crios. Then, he lifted the crios over his head, opened it so that it formed a circle and let it fall down around him so that when it fell on the floor he was actually standing inside the crios as at the centre of a circle. Then, putting the right foot first, he stepped out of the crios. This was repeated three times.

Sean O Duinn, OSB, The Rites of Brigid- Goddess and Saint (Columba Press, 2005),147.

As a picture is worth a thousand words, here is a woman being passed through the crios at Liscannor, County Clare:

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Saint Brigid's Eve: The Biddy Boys of Fermanagh

On the eve of Saint Brigid's Day there were a number of customs popular in the rural Irish folk tradition. It is interesting to see that they are making something of a comeback in our own time, presumably encouraged by the wider vogue for New Age neo-paganism. I am saddened to see the way in which the Irish people are embracing Brigid the Celtic goddess at the expense of our Saint Brigid. But it's trendy, it sells books and it fills retreat houses with seekers keen to recapture the goddess from the clutches of the church.

One of the traditions which is being revived is that of Biddy Boys. The Biddy Boys are a group of males who dress up in straw hats and women's clothes and who go around houses carrying a straw doll or Brideog. They demand entrance to the house and entertain the occupants with music and song and then demand a reward. It is all highly ritualized and the details vary from one part of the country to another. Below is an account of how the Biddy Boys have been revived in County Fermanagh:

The Fermanagh Herald

In Focus

St Brigid Festival Activities helps us look to Spring

Biddy boys from Aughakillymaude mark Saint Brigids Day by re-enacting a Biddy boys procession, each holding aloft a freshly made Biddy straw doll effigy in honour of Saint Brigid.

As peoples minds turn optimistically towards the prospect of lengthening days and greeting the return of the rising Spring season, the Mummers Foundation is organising a popular series of events at Aughakillymaude Mummers Centre this weekend to mark the changing season to come i.e. the 1st of February which is the official start of Spring or what was called a "Quarter Day" in the Celtic Agricultural Calendar.

As with all quarter days e.g. mid summer solstice and Halloween it was customary for customs, festivities and rituals to be enacted and these have remained an unbroken folk tradition in practice in many west of Ireland's rural communities.

One such enduring tradition marking the 1st of February are the distinct strawcraft folk rituals associated with Brigit who symbolically on the same date deposes the goddess of winter thereby marking the beginning of Spring.

Loved by young and old is the fashioning of various Brigit crosses, 3 armed, four armed, diamond and interwomen which occur in prehistoric stone carvings throughout Europe where they are understood to be ancient symbols of the life giving earth mother goddess.

In Fermanagh the emphasis is clearly on the 4 legged crosses and for the children who will be helped making them this weekend it was customary to have these hung over their beds for protection against illness or epidemic disease. On the other hand, the 3 legged crosses (horse cross) is mostly hung in byres symbolically offering protection against lightening and illness.

A more common type of Brigit's cross resembles what is known as the "god eye" design and is a diamond or lozenge made of straw wound on a wooden cross shaped frame.

All crosses, sprinkled with holy water and hung above entrances remained as a sign of protection against fire, lightening and evil spirits couldn't enter a house where it was hung near the door. Also, the crosses were interpreted as a sign of plenty for the whole year.

The straw or rushes which were laid on the threshold on St Brigid's Eve 31st January or at the hearth place on which Brigit would kneel to bless the house was called a Brigit's bed or cradle. After the making of the crosses, the residue was also fashioned into rushlights which were lit in honour of the Saint. Even these were believed to have curative powers. Alternatively, they were put under pillows to ward off disease.

This weekend, the emphasis will also be on the making of straw Brigit dolls called Brideoga as effigies of Saint Brigit. As a folk tradition, popular up to the 1950's in rural Fermanagh bands of young people, dressed in straw masks, white shirts and skirts would carry aloft a straw made doll effigy of Brigit as part of a procession to the doors of their neighbours. Called Biddies or Biddy boys and armed with musical instruments they sought permission to enter and then all would jump inside with a leap reciting a rhyme in the saint's honour. As a reward, the collection for the biddy party would consist of food or money and a Biddy feast would be held that same evening.
Sometimes the straw Biddy doll was made from the last sheaf of the previous harvest, called the Cailleach.

Three days of public strawcraft workshops on this Friday 30th, Saturday 31st and Monday 2nd February will have both schools and the public making both Brideoga and specific Biddy boy straw masks with the diamond figured, "God eyed" cross made as an integral part of the straw mask. A typical rhyme of the Fermanagh Biddies from the 1950's was as follows;

"Something for poor Biddy
Her Clothes are torn
Her shoes are worn
Something for poor Biddy
Here is Brigit dressed in white
Give her a penny for her tonight
She is deaf, she is dumb
She cannot talk without a tongue
For Gods sake, give her some"

Next Monday night 2nd February starting at 8.30pm sharp the Mummers Foundation have "finally got their woman" to present a lecture and visual demonstration, on the folk craft and rituals practiced to mark St Brigit who personifies the femine face of Celtic spirituality.

Clodagh Doyle, archivist at the National Museum of Country Life in Castlebar, will have, on hand, rarely seen straw artefacts such as the sacred Saint Brigit's straw girdle.

A custom no longer practiced, this eight foot long loop of plaited straw with 3 straw crosses attached was also taken from house to house by young "Biddies" where males were made go through the loop three times whereas, the girls had the plaited loop put over the heads invoking protection.

As if this is not enough, the annual mummers ball is being held this Friday evening marking both the closure of the traditional mumming season, and also marking twenty years of the Aughakillymaude, "actually mad" mummers (founded 1988).

As a special celebration to mark the loosening of winters grip and as a sacrifice to invoke new spring growth there will be a special burning of a twelve foot tall John Barley Corn otherwise known as the infamous Wickerman at 10pm sharp. Made by Gordon Johnson, all twelve foot of the wickerman stuffed with straw will be set alight at 10pm sharp alongside the lighting of the Beacon to symbolically welcome the return of the sun in Spring.

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Saint Brigid's Eve: The Threshold Ritual

The popular customs for Saint Brigid's Eve seem to have varied a great deal between different parts of the country. Another ritual which took place throughout Ireland was the 'threshold rite' in which Saint Brigid would be symbolically admitted to bless the family home. In the early 1940s, the Irish Folklore Commission undertook a survey of popular traditions practiced in honour of Saint Brigid. An t-Athair Sean O Duinn, OSB, has collected and translated a number of the IFC transcripts in his book 'The Rites of Brigid - Goddess and Saint'. The basic elements of the threshold rite were that the family would gather together to make a special meal of mashed potatoes, rushes would be gathered to make Saint Brigid's crosses, and then someone would symbolically take the role of Saint Brigid, knocking at the door and asking 3 times to be admitted. The door dialogue usually included the phrases 'Go down on your knees and let Holy Brigid enter' to which those inside would reply 'She is welcome; she is welcome'. There was a link between the food and the rushes in that the rushes had to be brought in by the person playing the role of Brigid and placed under the pot of potatoes. After the supper the family would then make crosses from the rushes. An t-Athair O Duinn draws parallels between this threshold ritual and some of the liturgical rites found in the great cathedrals of Europe and the Roman rite of dedication of a church.

He ends the accounts of the threshold rite with a report from County Leitrim where the door dialogue had fallen into disuse but where the elements of the rushes and the food were retained. The respondent to the Folklore Commission survey in 1942 described the making of the crosses in exclusively Christian terms:

On the evening of the feast, a bunch of rushes is cut, and placed under the table. After the supper, the cross is made. The cross I always make is the rush cross, and to make this properly you require 49 rushes. One of these is unbroken and the other 48 bent and form the 4 sides of the cross. The unbroken rush represents Jesus Christ and the twelve on each side represent the 12 Apostles. St Brigid always had great devotion to Jesus Christ and the 12 Apostles and hence the number of rushes...

When the cross was made, the head of the house went round the house with it and placed it in every window and door round the house and said at each entrance or window: 'St Brigid, save us from all fever, famine and fire'

Sean O Duinn, OSB, The Rites of Brigid - Goddess and Saint, (Columba Press, 2005) 119-120.

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Saint Brigid's Eve: Cross Making

Some posts originally made in 2009 on my former blog describe the revival in the the tradition of making Saint Brigid's crosses:

Sligo Weekender

Carrying on Sligo St Brigid tradition

SUNDAY next, February 1, marks Lá Fhéile Bríde or St. Brigid’s Day. Keeping up the tradition of making St Brigid’s crosses, classes were held in the Northside Centre on Tuesday last, with another this Thursday (7-9pm).

There are many traditions and customs associated with this feast-day, as Clodagh Doyle, curator at the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life, Turlough Park, Castlebar explains: “St. Brigid promised fine weather from her feast day onwards. Spring, the season of hope and new life, brought better weather, longer days. With it came new life on the farm and new growth on the land.

“On St. Brigid’s Eve, a festive meal of potatoes and butter was eaten and all of the family made special crosses in honour of the saint. They sought St. Brigid’s protection for the fertility of the household, farm and land and to safeguard them from illness and disease.

“In parts of Connacht, people would carry a large straw belt (a Crios Bríde) through which the inhabitants passed while saying a prayer to St. Brigid, in the hope of gaining the saint’s protection from illness during the coming year.

“Throughout Ireland, there are many holy wells dedicated to St. Brigid and it was traditional to visit these either the evening before or on her feast day. Water obtained at this time, was believed to be particularly blessed.

“Sometimes a piece of cloth or ribbon (Brat Bríde or Ribín Bríde) was left outside on the windowsill or near the door for the night. It was believed it would be touched by St. Brigid on her travels and thus be endowed with the power to ward off illness and pain in both humans and animals. For the coming year, it was kept safely and used for healing, or incorporated into clothing so as to offer protection to the wearer. In many parts of Ireland Biddy Boys‚ (or girls) went from house to house with Biddy, an effigy of the saint, often a straw doll, collecting money and food for a party in her honour.

“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 making of crosses - in a variety of styles - biddy-boys, brídeoga and visiting holy wells are all traditionally associated with the celebration of the feast of St. Brigid.

“The most recognisable is the four-armed St. Brigid’s Cross, popularised by its use as an emblem for RTÉ television since it started broadcasting in 1961. This style was favoured in the north of Ireland. Regional styles and variety existed throughout Ireland and the Irish Folklife Collection, located in the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life near Castlebar has an example of most of these.

“Although straw, rushes and reeds were most common, grass, hay, wood, goose quills, wire and fabric were also used to form crosses. Whatever material was used, it was sprinkled with holy water beforehand and a prayer to welcome the saint into the home was often recited.

“Traditional designs were diamond, interlaced or wheel-shaped and could have two, three or four arms. In some areas of the west coast, two strips of wood were tied together to form a simple cross.”

In this report from County Donegal, making crosses is also a communal event:

St. Brigid's night cross-making in Frosses and Glen Tavern
By Noel Slevin

St. Brigid’s Night which takes place this Saturday, January 29th has traditionally been celebrated with greater enthusiasm and devotion in the Gaeltacht areas along the western seaboard than in many inland areas where the tradition of making St. Brigid’s crosses is fast dying out except in select areas.

The art of making crosses is still alive and well in many areas of Donegal, however, and none more so than in the Gaeltacht Lar and in the Kilcar, Carrick and Glencolumbkille areas of the County where expert cross makers still teach the youth this ancient craft.

One area rich in this tradition is Edeninfagh where the annual cross-making night takes place in Cormac Dinny Quinn’s Glen Tavern at Greenans on Saturday night, commencing at 9.p.m.....

“Cross-making is still very much alive and we have some great exponents of the art. They will all be coming along as usual on Sunday night and a very pleasing feature in latter years was the many young people we had coming along to learn”, commented John Byrne....

“We will be having the usual meal of “Boxty” available free on Saturday night for those who attend and the Campbells will be on hand to provide the traditional music associated with this, our annual celebration of St. Brigid”, said Mary Quinn of the Glen Tavern.

This picture below shows parishioners making crosses after a service at St Brigid's well at Liscannor, County Clare. 

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The Silver Cup - A Story for Saint Brigid's Eve

Below is a story featuring Saint Brigid which was published in The Irish Rosary, a magazine founded by the Dominicans at the end of the nineteenth century. As with many periodicals of this type, it sought to bring Catholic teaching to a mass audience but in a format which included elements from secular magazines, including fiction. Unlike the 'penny dreadful' literature designed for popular consumption, religious fiction had a strong moralistic tone. The story below, however, is somewhat different from the usual tales. It is set in the time of Saint Brigid and concerns the conversion of Finola, a young pagan girl and the consequences for her chieftain father, Ronan, and her harp-playing suitor Diarmaid. The druid Mornac features as the villain of the piece, for this 1921 writer is not under any pressure to appear 'pagan-friendly'. His fictional Saint Brigid reflects all of her traditional attributes - she is 'the fairest of the women' , 'gentle and calm-browed' , speaking with a 'sweet voice' who dismisses attempts to praise her with humility and who, needless to say, has no trouble seeing through the schemes of the druids. Another feature I enjoyed was the curiously stilted dialogue which supposedly adds historical authenticity, as in this example featuring our very own Ben Hur:
"It is Diarmaid Og who drives the black horses of Jarlait Mór."

" He brings his great harp in the chariot.''

" Noble is he of look, and masterful with the proud steeds."
I am interested to note though that the author has described his tale as a story of Saint Brigid and Saint Patrick, for the national apostle does not feature directly at all. Does it reflect some anxiety about allowing our female patron to stand on her own? I don't know. Anyway, I found this story great fun and hope you will too.


FIONOLA, the daughter of Ronan the silversmith, was ill nigh unto death with a strange fever, and her father was sorrowful. He had sent for Aengus, the physician, who came in haste over the plains of Druim Criaidh, and made secret potions of herbs for her healing. But his tendance and simples availed not against this sickness, the like of which he had not known until now.

Thereupon Ronan, staring in bitter melancholy at the perplexed physician, called a messenger and bade him go with all speed for the magnus. But the unhappy physician glided across to the silversmith and spoke to him in low tones, with a look of cunning on his sombre, lean face.

"Stay a little," he said, "I have thought of the cause of this strange fever that wastes the beautiful Fionola. It is a punishment, Ronan. It is a punishment. Mark how she speaks foolishly in her sickness of this young woman, Brigid, who has come to lead our children from the gods of our fathers. Look: yonder are her houses set in pride upon Magh Liffe. Beside the oak tree, as if deriding the strength of our druids, stands the temple she has raised to the God of Padraig a slave who herded swine upon Sliabh Mis! But this Brigid is young and beautiful and gentle-"

" She is young, and she is beautiful, and she is gentle. I have seen her," said Ronan. " She is not like other women. Her beauty shines about her like a soft light. She is gracious as a queen. It is a great pity that she has been false to Crom Cruach and the gods we love."

" She and all her like, who followed Padraig, the priest of the Gall, will turn again to Crom Cruach, Ronan. Such fevers as this, ..." said Aengus, pausing with meaning in his look.

Ronan scarcely heeded him. He beckoned to the messenger, who stood waiting, and told him to go to the arch-druid himself, and to bring him speedily.

" He shall have choice of the richest treasures in my workshops," he added, as the messenger flashed forth.

With a sign to the attendant, the silent Aengus went once more to the chamber in which the sick girl lay. For some moments he stood with her worn hand in his, and strove to soothe her. But she continued to toss her head uneasily upon the silken cushions of her couch. Her delirious crying and crooning abated not. She snatched her hand from his cool clasp, and struck at him; then waved her frail arms about her, clutched wildly at the purple and green tapestries, and shrank away from him, twisting and moaning, hiding her face in the confusion of her loose tresses, that fell about her stricken loveliness like a shower of gold.

With a troubled countenance, the old man left the room. He met Ronan the smith in the outer apartment, and glanced uneasily at the grim features of him.

'' In truth it is a punishment," he said. ''Brigid, or the false Nadfraoich, or perhaps Clonlaedh who is Brigid's chief counsellor, one of these has cast a spell upon the fair Fionola. She has been drawn to one of them in her childish wishing and unwise curiosity, not understanding her folly. Even now but listen! Listen, Ronan: she is singing in her wild fever of Brigid of Cill Dara!"

The silversmith frowned quiet scorn on the physician, with whose impotency he had scant patience.

" She is dying in her wild fever," he said slowly, " and you cannot heal her for me."

"Unless we offer sacrifice, beseeching our gods: -"

“I have offered sacrifice, and besought all our gods," snapped the smith, without reverence. "I have spoken to the druids that are left us, but even they in their wisdom have failed me. And now I have sent to the grove of the arch-druid ah !" he said, listening an instant, "Fionola is singing the song that I made !''

" The song that you made? " said the physician, wondering.

He watched the smith grasp the silver-spun tassels and draw the heavy saffron curtains a little apart. Then he was listening to the weird voice of the sick girl. The room, with its pagan tapestry and rich-hued curtains, its ornaments of silver and bronze, its shaggy rugs, and oddly-fashioned couches, faded from him. He could not see Ronan, who was very still and mute. Groping blindly, as if a mist enshrouded him, he struck against a harp. There was a musical crash, and he stood motionless, amazed, hearing the girl's wild song, which was eloquent of desolation; of shadows; of despair.

The darkness passed from him, and upon his vision there broke now a very glory of light. Countless shining figures seemed to move before him. There was a flashing of white wings. There was the gleaming of bright faces. He heard music of triumph; voices of gladness, giving praise; and he shook to the delicate might of them.

He became aware all at once of a change in the voice that sang. It was tranquil and happy, very tender and clear in its tones, dying away at last in a tremulous cadence that was awed and yearningful. There was silence for a time, during which he realised that the singing of Fionola had been the cause of those imaginings which had so strangely bemused him. He heard the silversmith's voice, quivering a little :

"It was the song that I made of her chaste beauty'' he was saying. " While I wrought in my workshop one day, carving flowers of gold to set in the silver girdle of the druid, Erva, she went by in her chariot with others of the virgins from yonder cloister. And seeing Brigid, more stately than the swan upon Loch Darvra, more gentle than any other maiden I have seen-: "

" She is not more lovely than Fionola of the golden hair," said Aengus with a suave gallantry.

" My daughter is beautiful. But this Brigid, for all her disbelief in the truths of old, is more fair to see, as though some power of mystery had touched her. And seeing her when she passed by, I was moved to song. Unbidden, to my lips came happy music, and while I graved the gold, I sang like a poet in her praise. And -"

" And now," cried the physician, " now, for your chastisement, Fionola is stricken. The child suffers for the father's deed; and, until you repent your treachery to our gods, the witching fever will possess her."

"Perhaps it is my chastisement," said Ronan, subdued a little. ''Yet, as I tell you, Aengus, the song came unbidden. It seemed but my innocent tribute to one who shone wondrously fair. I forswore not a word, not a hope, of my ancient creed, which is yet, I say, as proud and lasting as your own, my good man. Nor did Fionola turn from the worship of our true gods. Only, like myself, she has looked upon Brigid passing by with her virgins, one stainless blossom, tender and bright amongst the clustering of other blossoms nigh as fair as she. And now Fionola has added to my little song, that came I know not why, and has wrought a gentle, sad magic in my heart, winning me to kinder thoughts of Brigid's faith-".

" O Ronan, Ronan, you grow pitiful because of your visions when Fionola sang ! I also had visions of darkness and of brightness; but know you not that our youngest bard can work such enchantment with his voice and harp? Why, but yesterday," said the old physician, craftily, "I heard Diarmaid, the son of Jarlait Mór; and, as I listened to his music, I saw again the Battle of the Ford. I heard the cries of challenge and of death. I saw the strife of warriors. I saw the blood steam red along the grass. Music brings dreams, Ronan. It soothes our griefs. It fires the brain to passion. So the harp of Diarmaid, and this strange chaunting of Fionola, brought the visions that were as changing dreams."

“I heard her sing, and saw the world in darkness. I saw a King, forgotten by his people, returning to them, cleaving the shadows that had hidden them. I saw reviled," said Ronan, speaking like one whose memory strains for the utmost truth, "I saw reviled One of boundless kingly glory, Who died, for the sake of His people, upon a great cross raised amidst the darkness. And then and then, behold! I saw a white brightness shine upon the world, and One whose Face was more beautiful than the light of the sky seemed to speak and bless His people. So the wonder of it passed from me, in the strange thanksgiving of Fionola's song."

Ronan gazed long and earnestly at the physician, who returned the pondering look with a stupid amaze. Then into the dim eyes of Aengus there came a quickness of deceit. And he said, shrewdly-seeming:

" O my friend, I also had such visions while the poor Fionola sang. I saw darkness, and I saw light in which strange figures moved. And the darkness is this house of Brigid overshadowing Druim Criaidh. And the light is the joy that will fill your heart when your child will be healed because of your ceasing to praise the goodness of Brigid. And the moving figures are the followers of Padraig and of her, fleeing before the wrath of our gods."

" And the cross on which died the King?" said the silversmith, looking rapt, gazing afar off.

"I did not see a cross. I did not see a kingly One," said the physician.: ''Read these signs yourself, Ronan, as you deem wise and true. The greatest of our druids will tell their secret meaning when he comes to you."

'' Wanderers have told me of the faith that Padraig preached," said Ronan, reflecting. " And Brigid believes as Padraig believed. They spoke of a cross ... of One who died ... of One who rose up, casting the cromlech aside . . ." They spoke: and so memory brings their light words to shape a lighter vision, Ronan. If you had not heard them speak '' I saw it not like this before. I saw not such wonder and such sacrifice."

"Because a maiden, uplifted in her fevere, sang enchantment ! I shall bring Diarmaid Og with his harp," said Aengus, bondsman in allegiance to the druids; his calling, too, being close akin to theirs. "I shall bring Diarmaid of the cunning fingers to work his music-spells on your troubled brain perchance to work, besides, a wholesome change in the girl's fever."

" You call it fever," said Ronan. " If it be so, why does it not come with you to cool its burning? Where is the magic in your herbs and secrets, that cannot cure a fever as of old?"

" It is a wicked and strange sickness, like to a fever, and yet unlike. I know it not. But look, Ronan: here comes Mornac, driving like the wind in his chariot !"

"It is Diarmaid Og who drives the black horses of Jarlait Mór."

" He brings his great harp in the chariot.''

" Noble is he of look, and masterful with the proud steeds. He hastens for Fionola's sake," said Ronan, going to the bawn, urging the attendants in their welcoming of the arch-druid and the young bard.

Aengus bowed low as the great Mornac swept past, in grave speech with the sad Ronan. The place became silent. In the bright workshops, where the tinkle of silver and instruments had hinted busy pagan craftsmen, there was now a hush. In the household awe grew more and more: the sonorous voice of the druid rose and fell in mystic chaunt, vibrating weirdly as he wrought his spells. Only in the spacious banquet-hall was there a sound, while serving-women moved swiftly hither and thither, setting forth fruit in silver dishes, wines and meads in fine-carven goblets and meythers, venison and game, and delicate little cakes in abundance.

Then, breaking that respectful silence, there rang an anguished scream. The druid was compelling the stricken girl to partake of the magical posset which he had mixed with his own hand. She refused to drink it. He touched her with the slender, gold-tipped wand that he bore. He laid his palm upon her brow, and droned druidical incantation, making odd wizard-signs with his slow wand. Crom Cruach, and all the lesser gods, he invoked in solemnity of beseeching; Dagda, and Aengus of Brugh, and all the magi of the Tuath. But the sorcery and supplication proved vain: Fionola refused the magician's cup; grew, indeed, more violent in her distemper because of Mornac's presence.

"It is the coming of this daughter of Dubhthac and Brocessa, She and her virgins have cast new spells into the winds that sweep Magh Liffe. But we shall vanquish their enmity, and the gods aiding us, as they aided our fathers . . ."

Mornac's vibrant deep voice broke murmurously. His handsome and venerable face worked as if to the confusion of very fierce emotions. For some moments, driving his long fingers through the snowiness of his locks, from the big brow to the hood of his cloak, he looked wild and repellant. Presently, uttering a low cry to his gods, he snatched at the leathern wallet that hung from his cincture on a gold chain, and unclasped it. From his robe he drew forth a parchment which, when he had opened the wallet of dried herbs, he studied with frowning eagerness, peering now and then keenly at the herbs in the little compartments into which the pouch was divided. At last, turning away from Ronan, who was anxiously contemplating Fionola and him, he moaned within himself, and appeared to be more grievously confounded than he had been.

At that moment a silent messenger touched the silversmith on the arm, and whispered him: '' Diarmaid the son of Jarlait Mór begs urgent speech with you."

Ronan went out at once, and met the handsome young chieftain in the ante-chamber.

"Great Mornac delays long," said Diarmaid. " What wondrous deed has he done for our beloved Fionola?"

''He cannot lessen her sickness," said Ronan, gazing in melancholy on the solicitous face of his daughter's noble lover.

"Listen then, O Ronan, my true friend," said the young chieftain.'' I fear that I may deserve rebuke, and I would confess a secret to thee quickly. When I came to woo the beautiful Fionola, she returned not my love. And because she did not love me as I had hoped, I sought the aid of Mornac, who pledged to me the strength of all his love-potions in my cause, which I had deemed just and worthy. And Mornac, going to Slana, who makes the little golden honey-cakes that Fionola loves, bade her mix with the wheat and honey a fine powder ground from herbs of great magic. So did Mornac tell me for my good cheer. But now, Ronan, this fever this lasting sickness it troubles me, and I feel, even as I speak to you, a secret surge of shame."

They had moved slowly across the threshold while Diarmaid spoke. Hearing of this hidden tampering with his daughter's food, the silversmith was sorely smitten with misery, and stood silent for a space, wringing his hands, striving to control the rage that he felt rising within him. Standing there in the sunshine, the two men heard sweet voices near them; and wheeling a little, they perceived a group of gentle, calm-browed women moving to them; bearing to them, it seemed, a very radiance of youth, and mildness and beauty. And having saluted them, the fairest of the women, whom Ronan recognised as Brigid of the Church of the Oak, spoke to the silversmith, and said:

"Erca, the daughter of the shepherd, who came to us yesterday, has told us that your daughter is ailing with a dangerous fever."

" She is ill nigh unto death," said Ronan quickly, ''and in her sickness she has sung of you, and made songs in your praise."

"Truly, it is a strange fever which afflicts her, that she would be making songs in praise of me," said Brigid cheerfully. "But be of good heart, O my friend, for the Bishop, Conlaedh, has offered the Holy Sacrifice for her, and we have prayed long and humbly. Now we come to see her.''

" A thousand welcomes before yourself, O generous maiden, and before the noble maidens who are with you," said the silversmith, with childlike fervour.

And bidding them follow him into the house, he went tremulously within. Diarmaid remained in the bawn, where he lingered for some minutes beside the chariot from which the horses had been unyoked considering without pride the great harp that had been brought because Mornac wished it. And of a sudden, as he waited alone, there came to him a joyous voice.

" O Diarmaid," cried Fionola from the threshold, " O Diarmaid Og, I am cured of my poisoning !"

" Great Mornac and our gods be praised!" said Diarmaid, hastening to her. " O Fionola, a mhuirnin, there is great gladness ''

" Mornac poisoned me, and could not stay the fever that sprang from his evil. It is she," said Fionola in happy triumph. ''It is she, the noble Brigid, who healed me through the great power of her One High God the Saviour God the Three-in-One that Padraig preached !"

''Then praise, O Fionola, to the God of Padraig and Brigid ! Praise to that God for ever!" said the young chieftain with reverence.

"Bring your harp into the house, and let us make a great poem of praise," said Fionola, and she turned to send an attendant for the beautiful instrument in the chariot.

Within doors the druid and the physician were disputing with Brigid, whose power and its source they questioned, seekly subtly after that which they lacked, pretending to be dissatisfied with her answers, but finding their arts futile before the wisdom and simplicity which were of Truth alone.

The silversmith had hurried to his workshops. He returned with a massive silver cup, very graceful of line despite its solidity, chased delicately to a design of intricate, but artistic interlacing of wolfhounds and snakes, and studded with eight circular facets of highly-burnished gold, whose plainness but enhanced the beauty of the engraven polished silver. Ronan had wrought this cup with his own hand, as a gift for Fionola on her marriage festival. He offered it now to Brigid as a token of his gratitude and veneration. But although sensible alike of the silversmith's kindness and of his exquisite workmanship, she preferred that he give it to Fionola as an espousal gift.

" For Fionola has whispered to me a holy whisper," Brigid said with a sweet seriousness, "and in a little while she will make her vows to the Son of God. In marriage of the spirit He will be her Heavenly Spouse, and her great blessing will be shared with you, O Ronan of the shining gift."

The silversmith glanced for an instant toward Diarmaid, who had heard this speech where he stood beside his harp.

''I have come to make a poem of praise," the young bard said simply, and his clear eyes moved from Ronan to Fionola in a calm gaze that betokened understanding of all that had happened.

"Sing in praise of a King that died upon a cross for His people, and rose again to bless them," said Ronan.

He beckoned to Fionola, and having kissed her on the forehead, presented his gift to her.

" Drink from this, O my daughter, of such holiness as hers," he said in low tones of affection.

Then Diarmaid Og struck the strings of his harp, and sang his song in praise of God, the King. And it was majestic, it was beautiful, and it was holy, as befitted the King. For Diarmaid, the son of Jarlait Mór, was a great bard, and of noble blood.

And while the young musician played, Aengus arose and strode rudely out, praying evil prayers, begging of his gods swift vengeance on Brigid, and Fionola, and Ronan, and Diarmaid. His face was dark and vindictive as he halted without, to await the coming of Mornac the druid.

But the old druid did not come. He had heard of Padraig; and now he had seen Brigid, in whose virtue he saw GOD.

His wand snapped into two pieces. In the glory of the young chieftain's music the sound of its breaking was unheard. Only Brigid, indeed, saw that it had been broken.

Irish Rosary, Volume 25 (1921), 194-202.

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