Wednesday 31 January 2024

Saint Brigid's Eve

As we approach the feast of Saint Brigid, below is a 1927 account of the celebrations held on its eve in rural Ireland. What is striking about the ritual associated with the Cross, Shield and Veil of Saint Brigid is its entirely Christian character. I have previously posted a 1914 account of the same ritual as carried out in the Omeath area of County Louth here. It would be interesting to know if it still survives anywhere in Ireland today or when it finally died out. Two things struck me, first the central character is a young girl who instructs the male head of the household, an echo of how the female saint addressed rulers and bishops. Secondly, there is an emphasis on the purity of Saint Brigid. In this I see an affirmation of the 1500 year tradition of Saint Brigid as Muire na nGael, type of the Virgin Mary, which is how the Irish people actually related to their patroness.  It's thus a reminder that 'folk tradition' isn't necessarily synonymous with thinly-disguised pagan goddesses, despite the claims to the contrary which surround us at this time of the year.



The Mary of Ireland.
QUAINT and beautiful old customs of the early ages of Faith are handed down in the traditions and legendlore of our race. In remote parts many of these survive in actual practice. Some are relics of a pagan past, retained by the first missionaries, when the pagan feast was replaced by the Christmas festival.
It would be interesting to trace back the sources of the amusements of Shrove Tuesday, St. John's Eve, and Hallow E'en. These are common to many countries, not to Ireland alone. Some customs peculiar to our own land are still with us, such as the hunting of the wren on St. Stephen's Day, the 'Wake,' the wearing of Shamrock and St. Patrick's Cross on the feast of the Saint. Others have been allowed to die out. The making of the rug of St. Brigid's square cross, the hanging of a ribbon on a handkerchief from the windows on St. Brigid's Eve, and many others have almost disappeared.

The celebrations on the Eve of Ireland's patroness show in what veneration the Saint was held. Her feast was kept as a Holiday of Obligation in the parishes and villages dedicated to the holy virgin. She is called the 'Mary' of Ireland' and is the patroness more especially of the young maidens of the land.
As a girl of sixteen, she took the white cloak and veil of religious life, and with her entered eight other girls of similar age. Their convent was founded at a spot called Brigid's town in the Co. Meath.

Brigid was summoned from place to place by Bishops and Abbots. Wherever she went convents — the first to be founded in Ireland — were quickly peopled by young souls desirous of the life of perfection. Fearful that she might leave them for ever, her own people of Leinster demanded her return, and it was there she founded the famous Monastery of Kildare, the Church of the Oak. The fame of her sanctity and miracles drew pilgrims and strangers thither, and one of the largest cities arose on the once solitary plain.
Keeping Her Feast. 

The Eve of her Feast was kept in a very impressive way. The preparations were more penitential and austere than festive. Perhaps, for that reason, they do not appeal to our pleasure loving age. But for centuries after the time of St. Brigid they were carried out with great fidelity.

In the country villages and townlands, the people spent their time on the Eve in plaiting the Cross, veil and shield of St. Brigid. The strong grass of the bogs and marshes, or oaten straw was used. Great emulation arose between the different villages, and the most wonderful skill and ingenuity were displayed in the production of these emblems.
At dusk, when each family had finished preparations, the people assembled, as was their custom, at some appointed spot.

Now came the most important ceremony of the day. No partiality, no family interest of any kind was allowed to decide the election! The 'Queen' of a 'fair' or a 'pattern' might be chosen for some worldly motive or some human satisfaction, but nothing of that kind entered into this semi-religious ceremony.

This was the choosing of the 'Brigid Oge,' 'the Little Brigid,' who was to preside over the celebrations of the evening. 

Whether the daughter of the chief, or peasant mattered not, she was chosen,  whose life was known to be the most pure and spotless. If she happened to bear the name of Brigid, it was a blessed coincidence. 

When the 'Brigid Oge' was chosen a procession was formed at the head of which she took her place. Prayers were then offered up for the preservation of all present from evil of soul and body until the next Eve of the Saint. Each home was visited. The closed door was incidentally thrown open at the knock of the 'Brigid Oge,' and she was invited to enter.
Holding the Cross in her hand she addressed the head of the family and reminded him that the Cross was the emblem of salvation, and that it was by devotion to Christ's Cross and Passion that the Holy maiden Brigid had obtained eternal life. Then, pausing, she asked solemnly, if all in that house would promise to imitate the virtues of St Brigid. When the promise had been given, the 'Brigid Oge' presented the Cross to the head of the family, and at once it was placed over the doorway that it might be a reminder to all.
Presentation of Veil. 

Next came the presentation of the veil.

Again the members of the household were admonished to practice the purity the Saint, of which the veil was the emblem, that like her, they might attain their eternal reward. They were asked once more if they would imitate the piety and the purity of Brigid, and on promising to do so the veil was given.

The 'Brigid Oge' then held up the Shield, which she said was the shield of  the true faith bequeathed by St. Patrick and St. Brigid to those beloved children of Eire: It would help them to overcome their spiritual and temporal enemies. All present then bound themselves with the help of God to preserve holy Faith pure and strong until the next Eve of St. Brigid. Then, falling on their knees, they asked for grace and strength to be faithful to their promises.
Each house in succession was reached in this way and the same custom repeated. This pious and simple custom was very efficacious in preserving the faith pure and strong during the ages of persecution, when Ireland suffered so nobly for her religion. St. Brigid proved herself to be then — as she will always be—a true friend to her people, ' and a guardian of their spiritual interests.
Una Constance, in 'Catholic Pictorial.'

ST. BRIGID'S EVE. (1927, November 10). Freeman's Journal Sydney, p. 35 

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Monday 22 January 2024

Two Lives of Saint Brigid


It's always a pleasure to see new translations of medieval Lives of Irish saints being issued and so I was delighted to receive this notice of a forthcoming publication by Four Courts Press. Even better, I see that the Latin originals of both texts are included. It will be interesting to see how these new translations differ from those I already have by Seán Connolly and J.M. Picard. Have to get my order in!


St Brigid is the earliest and best-known of the female saints of Ireland. In the generation after St Patrick, she established a monastery for men and women at Kildare which became one of the most powerful and influential centres of the Church in early Ireland.

The stories of Brigid’s life and deeds survive in several early sources, but the most important are two Latin Lives written a century or more after her death. The first was composed by a churchman named Cogitosus and tells of her many miracles of healing and helping the poor. The second source, known as the Vita Prima, continues the tradition with more tales of marvellous deeds and journeys throughout the island. Both Latin sources are a treasure house of information not just about the legends of Brigid but also about daily life, the role of women, and the spread of Christianity in Ireland.

This book for the first time presents together an English translation of both the Life of Brigid by Cogitosus and the Vita Prima, along with the Latin text of both, carefully edited from the best medieval manuscripts. With an Introduction by Professor Freeman, this book makes these fascinating stories of St Brigid accessible to general readers, students and scholars.

Philip Freeman received his PhD in Classics and Celtic Languages from Harvard University in 1994. He has written extensively on Christianity in early medieval Ireland, as well as the Roman world in late antiquity. He currently serves as Fletcher Jones Professor of Humanities at Pepperdine University in California.

 For further details see the publisher's website here:


Content Copyright © Trias Thaumaturga 2012-2024. All rights reserved.