Féile Bride, the ‘Festival of Brigid’

My stepfather is from Armagh, one of the southernmost counties in Northern Ireland on the border with the Republic, and so I spent a few days there this week in the original See of St. Patrick. Because of the area’s important history in the church, even today the Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, is still recognized as the Primate of All Ireland. The communities where I spent most of my time, Newry and Jonesborough, have long lived in the shadow of The Troubles, the politically combustible conflict with Great Britain that all too often descended into violence. Fortunately, the chilled relations have thawed a bit in recent years, though the scars on both sides run deep, particularly in that part of the country.

I was in town during Féile Bríde, the Festival of Brigid, a week of prayer, pilgrimages, lectures, and workshops marking the co-patron of Ireland’s feastday on Feb. 1. The preponderance of her name and handmade reed crosses in families of Irish descent attest to St. Brigid’s importance in the history of the Emerald Isle. On the actual feast, I visited her shrine in the mountains of Faughart, still capped in white from a blustery snow squall, where people from around the country waited to be blessed with the sacred water from her miraculous stream and by her relics themselves. Our prayers were more of thanksgiving than intercession, as the family member who drove us there completed his last successful round of chemo-therapy the day before, and now is fully on the path to recovery.

St. Brigid was a fifth-century Irish nun, the daughter of a slave, who tradition holds knew Patrick personally. The sources about her life are somewhat confused and often exaggerated, and so much of her biography and relationship to ancient Celtic spirituality remain a mystery. This is especially so regarding older pagan festivals sharing her feastday, which long celebrated the return of spring. It is largely agreed upon that she founded the monastery at Kildare, from the Gaelic “Church of the Oak,” and is associated in most Irish minds with the approach of Lent, and its related “lengthening” of daylight (where we get the liturgical word in English).

She is almost always depicted in art with her familiar reed cross made of intertwined rushes and a crozier, because of her important role as an abbess, the leader of an abbey.

Many of the traditions surrounding her miracles involve healing or multiplication of domestic local products, like butter and bacon. It struck me what a difficult life it must have been in ancient times during winter in these dark and windy moors, and so her association with lamps and sacred flames makes a good deal of sense for this hardscrabble (but always welcoming) population.

I have been here a number of times and in all honesty did not plan this visit around Brigid’s feast, but was delighted to experience the simple, local traditions surrounding it, which I learned while sharing in “the lovely craic” (hospitable chatty conversation) with everyone here. Sitting around the fireplace discussing it warmed me up in more than one way. And the Guinness didn’t hurt the process.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.

Categories: Columns, Growing in Faith

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