Monday 24 December 2012

Patrons in Poetry: Saint Brigid's Lullabies

Below is a poem by Ethel Rolt-Wheeler (1869-1958) which draws on the legend that Saint Brigid assisted at the birth of Christ, an event made possible by her miraculous transport to Bethlehem. The author also wrote about Ireland's patroness in her 1913 work, Women of the Cell and Cloister, which is available to read through the Internet Archive here. There she examines Saint Brigid in relation to two themes - milk and fire. Rolt-Wheeler's work is representative of the various influences which went into the 'Celtic Revival' and she embraces the idea of Brigid goddess and saint, a concept which modern scholarship is starting to question.


(The Legend tells that Brigid was the Foster-Nurse of Jesus.)


FIRST I kiss the eyelids sweet
Little eyes that soon shall know
All the dark of human woe
Peace that comes when sorrows seize us
Fill the dreams of Baby Jesus.

Then I kiss the little feet
Hard your way, and sharp and fierce
Little feet the nails shall pierce.
Hope that lifts and Faith that frees us
Guide the feet of Baby Jesus.

Then the kisses I repeat
On the hands in slumber curled
Little hands that hold the world.
Love whose circling arms appease us,
Cradle softly Baby Jesus.


The burning blight of the midday might on meadow and city falls,
And shadow fails, and a Terror pales the dazzle of eyeless walls,
Fierce stifling gusts of the desert-dusts up lanes and up alleys beat
And all things gasp in the fever grasp of the merciless hands of Heat.

I chant the tune of a mountain rune to screen my Babe from the glare.
And spells I weave of the dews of eve and of Ireland's radiant air,
I loop a twist of her rainbow mist, and a film of her twilit skies,
And silver strains of her rills and rains through the liit of my lullabies.

As low I croon of the pale green noon and the long Atlantic roll,
It sometimes seems as if Ireland's dreams may slide into Baby's soul.
That in the prime of a future time, on my hills and my isles remote
His words of speech all hearts shall reach with a sweet familiar note.


The Dublin Review, Volume CLV, Quarterly No.310, 311; July-October 1914, 60-61.

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Thursday 13 December 2012

Saint Brigid and Saint Lucy

December 13 is the feast of Saint Lucy of Syracuse, an early virgin martyr whose feastday is still celebrated in Lutheran Sweden. There is a good illustrated summary of the Swedish celebration of Saint Lucy here. According to a modern scholar of Irish folklore, the cult of Saint Lucy may have directly influenced the cult of our own Saint Brigid, both in the use of the hagiographical motif of the plucking out of the eyes and in some of the ways in which Saint Brigid's day was celebrated in popular culture. Dr Dáithí Ó hÓgain writes:

Narratives of Brighid were developed through medieval times by further additions from Continental hagiography. A ninth-century text describes how a man comes to woo the young, and as yet unprofessed, Brighid. Her stepbrothers try to compel her to accept the marriage, but she knocks out one of her eyes so as not to be attractive to the suitor. When the family allow her to remain a virgin she miraculously restores sight to herself. The story is repeated in later sources, and it survived in the recent folklore of north Leinster and south Ulster. The name of the suitor, Dubhthach mac Lughair, is borrowed from the early Patrician texts, and it is obvious that the story cannot be older than the eighth century. It was, in fact, taken from the lore of the continental saint Lucy and was suggested by the symbolism of light associated with both of these holy virgins. It is apparent that the cult of Lucy influenced that of Brighid in other ways also in medieval times. Lucy's feastday, December 13, coincided with the winter solstice in the old calendar and was thus seen to usher in the lengthening of daylight. In Irish the saying which refers to Brighid's feastday, February 1, is that 'from Brighid's feastday onwards the day gets longer and the night shorter', although in fact that change occurs from the winter solstice, and the presumption must be that this saying was in origin a rather inaccurate borrowing from the Lucy lore. It could well be, also, that some of the paraphernalia associated with the feast of Brighid in Irish folk life - such as processions of young girls with the leader dressed up as the saint - shows the influence of the Lucy cult, which was very popular in western European countries in the Middle Ages.

Dáithí Ó hÓgain, Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encyclopaedia of the Irish Folk Tradition (Ryan, 1990), 62-63.

Something else which struck me as I looked at the picture above of a celebration of Saint Lucy's Day in Sweden in 1943, was that the round headdress of candles worn by the young girl representing the saint has echoes of another tradition associated with Saint Brigid - her connection with the feast of Candlemas:

Ireland: Folklore

108. A Legend of St. Brigid

In further reference to the spring feature of Saint Brigid I am indebted to Miss Delap for a curious legend from Valentia Island which, with fine disregard of chronology, makes Saint Brigid a friend of the Virgin Mary. It is said that when the Virgin was shy about facing the congregation in the Temple, Saint Brigid procured a harrow, took out the spikes and putting a candle in every hole, placed it on her head, walked up before the Virgin and escorted her down again. According to another version, which it is believed came from the north of Ireland, it was a hoop with lighted candles which the Saint wore as she danced up the aisle before the Virgin and down again. For this service Saint Brigid’s Day is the eve of Candlemas or the Purification of the Virgin.

Elizabeth Andrews, Man, Vol. 22 (December 1922), 187.

I don't know if the 'hoop with lighted candles' is also borrowed from the Saint Lucy tradition, but in view of what Dr Ó hÓgain has said, it seems to me an interesting coincidence.

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Tuesday 11 December 2012

Prayers to our Patrons: For those at home and far away

Brian O'Higgins (1934)

The 1934 edition of the Prayers of an Irish Mother, published by Brian O'Higgins at his Dublin office in Upper O'Connell Street and bearing his splendid illustration on the front cover, contains a few prayers to Ireland's patrons. I note that the three saints are allotted their familiar roles in Irish culture- Patrick as guardian of the faith he brought, Brigid as exemplar of chastity, charity and humility and Colum Cille as patron of those in exile. Although the three prayers form an obvious group, they are actually published two pages apart. The book is a product of the confident Irish Catholicism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which simply couldn't foresee the secularist, consumerist Ireland of the twenty-first.

For those at Home

St.Patrick, Apostle of the Gael, keep the light of the True Faith ever brightly burning in the hearts of our people!

St. Brigid, Mary of the Gael, keep the virtues of Chastity, Charity and Humility in our hearts and homes for ever!

For Our Loved Ones far away

St. Colmcille, who suffered the pain and grief of exile, watch over the children of Ireland, scattered throughout the world. Obtain for them solace and courage, and keep them true to God in every trial and temptation!

Prayers of an Irish Mother compiled by Mary T. Dolan (Dublin, 1934), 48, 50.

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Friday 7 December 2012

The Nativity of Saint Colum Cille, December 7

December 7 sees the commemoration on some of the Irish calendars of the birth of Saint Colum Cille (Columba). The Martyrology of Gorman records for this day:
The nativity of chaste, dear-white Colomb, the festival of Buite the fair and vigorous.
while the later Martyrology of Donegal simply records 'The Birth of Colum Cille' in its entry for December 7.

In his 1857 edition of Adamanan's Life of Columba, the Irish Anglican Bishop, William Reeves, commented:
St. Columba was born at Gartan, a wild district in the county of Donegal, on the very day that St. Buite, the founder of Monasterboice, departed this life. Thus the 7th of December is determined for an event, the date of which might otherwise have been unrecorded. Authorities vary as to the year, ranging from 518 to 523; but calculation from Adamnan's data gives 521 as that most likely to be the true period.

Gartan. The earliest authority for St. Columba's birth-place is probably the statement in the old Irish Life: 'Gartan, now, is the name of the place in which he was born.' O'Donnell and the Calendar of Donegal cite the alleged lines of St. Mura :

'He was born at Gartan by his consent;
And he was nursed at Cill-mic-Neoin ;
And the son of goodness was baptized,
At Tulach Dubhglaise of God.'

None of the Latin Lives make any reference to the place of his birth. Local tradition, however, is very decided in confirmation of the Irish account.

Seventh of December. The Irish Life adds: 'on Thursday, of the week-days.' This will give the choice of 517 and 523 for his birth: for, Dec. 7 is e, therefore, it being Thursday, A is the Sunday letter, which belongs to the above years.
William Reeves, ed., The Life of St Columba written by Adamnan (Dublin, 1857), lxix.

The later life of Saint Colum Cille, written by the 16th-century Donegal prince Manus O'Donnell, records a number of the traditions associated with the birth of the saint. These include prophecies and visions, but also some very tangible relics: 

51. On a time Ethne the mother of Columcille was in the place that is called Gartan, and it was the night before Columcille was born, and there appeared a fair youth in shining raiment, and he said she should bring forth on the morrow the son that was promised her to bear. And he told her there was a broad flagstone in the lake, to the south of the place where she was, and that is today called Loch mic Ciabain. And he told her to let bring that flagstone to a certain place called Raith Cno and that thereon should God will the child to be brought forth of her.

"In what manner shall I get the flagstone, seeing it is under the lake," saith she, "or whereby shall I know it from other flagstones?"

"Thou shalt find it floating on the bosom of the lake," saith he.

And Ethne found the flagstone on the morrow as it had been told her, and she let bring it from the foresaid place. And albeit it floated on the surface of the lake, and Ethne's folk brought it away with them with out labour, certain it is that it were a task for thirty men to bring it from the lake to the place where it is to-day.

And when the sickness of childbirth came upon Ethne, she went to a lonely valley hard by a little stream. And she sat down in a certain spot there, and in that place she left some of the blood that is wont to come before the child.

And not finer and not whiter is flour than the clay that is found there. And whoso eateth or bringeth with him of that clay is never burned nor drowned, nor may he be killed by one cast that day till night. Nor shall he get a death without priest. And every woman in pangs of childbirth that eateth thereof is helped forthwith. And whoso putteth thereof on his tongue the first day that a fever seizeth him, there is no bitter taste in his mouth from that time the while the fever lasteth. And it is its nature to heal every distemper. And it must be that one of the natives of this place, to wit, Gartan, should dig this clay to bestow on all, for men say a stranger once went to dig it, and it fled from him and entered the heart of a tree or a great big trunk fast by, nor was it found again in its own place until holy water was sprinkled there on and it was blessed.

Then went Ethne thence to the place where she brought forth Columcille, the time when the age of our Lord was five hundred and twenty years.

52. In Gartan, in sooth, in Cenel Conaill Gulban, Columbcille was born. And Raith Cno is the name of the very spot in Gartan where he was brought forth, on the seventh day of December. And it befell that the foresaid flagstone was under him at his birth, and the child rested him crosswise thereon, and the flagstone opened for him in such wise that it left a place for him therein. And the figure of that cross is in that stone from that time to this day. And that flagstone remaineth in that place for working of marvels and wonders. And his mother brought forth a round stone of the color of blood along with him and it is called the Red Stone. And he left that stone in Gartan to work marvels and wonders ; and it doth not take a covering of gold nor of silver, albeit men have oft endeavored to cover it, but a case of silver or of gold it suffereth.

A. O Kelleher and G. Schoepperle, eds and trans. Betha Colaim Chille - Life of Columcille Compiled by Manus O Donnell in 1532 (Illinois, 1918).

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