The late Hubert Butler once wrote a delightful essay called Influenza on Aran in which he examined the evidence for the early Irish saints. His title is explained in the first few sentences: “When I arrived in Aran by the Naomh Eanna at Kilronan I was sneezing and, by the time I had raced to St Enda’s Church at Killeany and seen the stone on which he had floated in from Connemara, I was feverish and coughing. I spent the rest of my time in bed reading the only two books on Aran and its saints that I could find, a big one by Mr O Siochain [Aran: Islands of Legend] and a small one by Father Scantlebury [Saints and Shrines of Aran Mor]”.
Later, during the week, a learned friend came to see him, and Butler, excited by the two books, attempted to communicate some of his enthusiasm to his visitor, “but I failed miserably”. The reason for his failure, Butler tells us, lay in the fact that the study of the Aran saints – and by extension the majority of the saints of the early Irish church – had been taken over by “textual criticism and philology and scientific excavations”, which he regretted as the Medusa-gaze of dry as dust.
“Were Enda and his colleagues just ‘folklore’, the unmotivated fabrication of country people?” he asks.
This Tuesday – February 1– was the feast day of St Bridget. The day also marks the beginning of spring and the old Celtic festival of Imbolc – one of the four, along with Beltaine, Lughnasa, and Samhain, that punctuate the old Celtic year. Imbolc is associated with another Bridget or Brighid, the daughter of Dagda, the high god of the Tuatha de Danann, the people who inhabited this island before the Celts.
First of all, St Bridget (c453-523 ). Not much is known about her, though early sources tell us that she was, like many of the early Irish saints, probably the daughter of a king or even a druid, and that she founded a convent and church at Kildare (Cill Dara – the church of the oak ).
Many stories are told of St Bridget. In one she asks the King of Leinster for land to build her convent, saying she will take only what her cloak will cover. However, hers is no ordinary cloak. As soon as she lays it on the ground, it spreads until it covers the area on which both convent and church were to be built. A sacred fire was kept burning in the convent, tended by nuns, and finally extinguished, according to which source you favour, by the Normans or Cromwell.
For the Irish, St Bridget has a special connection with both Mary and the Christ child. She is sometimes called the foster-mother of Jesus, and in popular tradition, she is known as ‘Mary of the Gael’. Not only is she the second patron saint of Ireland (St Patrick being the first ), but she is also the patron of teaching, healing, and the domestic arts.
What of Brighid, the goddess daughter of Dagda? She is said to be descended from Danu, the earth mother, ancestor of the Tuatha, or people, of Danu. Brighid was the patron of the crafts, poetry, the hearth - site of the central fire which gives warmth and heats the cooking pot - and the life-giving, healing water.
Butler argued that many of the early Irish saints were given or gathered about them the attributes of the old gods and goddesses, baptised, you might say, by Christianity. In the case of St Bridget and Brighid, what they have in common certainly lends itself to such a theory. Not only do the convent and church dedicated to St Bridget stand on a pre-Christian site, possibly Druidic as the oak was a sacred tree, but the attributes of saint and goddess are strikingly similar. Other suggestive links include the four-armed St Bridget’s Cross, still found throughout Ireland, a symbol of home and hearth, and Ireland is full of holy wells dedicated to St Bridget – one of the most famous is at Liscannor, Co Clare - the sacred associations of which, in many cases, pre-date Christianity.
Whether or not there was an actual St Bridget – I believe there was – Butler’s conclusion still applies to those who would “unweave the rainbow” of an ancient and cherished legacy.
“For the Irish people to forget the saints is for them to forget their childhood. We are emotionally and intellectually committed to them. They beckon us along a private road that leads not only to the Irish past but to the past of Europe ... Whether they really lived or not, they belong to us more than to anybody else.”