Tuesday, 31 January 2012

St. Bridget's Day in Ireland


Only a year before we moved in, the site of the Dublin house that I grew up in was a field. Down the road, after the house was built and the developers had moved on, there was a scrubby patch of trees. They've disappeared now, under concrete and more housing. But when I was a child a spring rose in the scrubland, flowing briefly between two oaks and disappearing again among their twisted roots.

I remember hours spent swinging out over the water on a rope tied to a branch, and letting go at the crucial moment to land in squelching mud on the other side.That survival of the countryside, hemmed in by two roads, was a favourite playground for us local kids. We called it St. Bridget's. And at the time I never asked myself why.

I don't know now if Bridget's name survives there. But I know that for thousands of years before I swung out across that water, people had come there to pray. It was the site of a holy well.

Wells dedicated to Bridget are found all over the country. She's a saint associated with fertility and healing; and with bees, birds, flowers and water. In the past, women prayed to her for help in childbirth. Water from her wells was used in healing, and Bridget's crosses woven out of rushes on her feast day were hung over doorways, and in cow sheds, to protect households and farm animals. They're woven here still every year.

St. Bridget's day is February 1st. It's still celebrated in Ireland as the first day of spring. And in many places here, even now, people still gather at holy wells to perform communal rituals passed down through generations.

The rituals vary from place to place but each contains elements that echo all the others.

People circle the well, usually three, five, seven, nine or nineteen times, praying. They move in the direction of the sun. They kneel and take three, seven or nine drinks of water from their bare hands. Then circling begins again, each round marked by touching a stone or throwing a pebble into the water. 

When people leave, they often take water away with them. But if they do, something is always left behind - a flower, a feather, a pin, a rag or a coin. You still see them fluttering in the wind or gleaming in the water. They're gifts to remind the saint of the people's prayers. 

But they also embody the ancient belief that, for the universe to remain in balance, humans must make restitution for whatever they take from the natural world. Because thousands of years before the holy wells were dedicated to Christian saints, people here prayed beside them to a goddess. 

In Corca Dhuibhne they called her Danu. Her name, which means 'water', is still echoed across Europe in rivers like the Danube and the Donn. She was the Good Goddess of the ancient Celts.
 
To the ancient Celts, the holy wells were places where awareness of the energy of the universe was heightened, and ritual gatherings of the people could support its endless flow. For them, the feast day that's now called St. Bridget's was the start of the second season of the year. The first was Samhain, the time of darkness, when the earth is pregnant with hope.The second was Imbolc, when the fertile goddess gives birth to new beginnings and the promise of plenty to come. 

Without water nothing can grow. So Danu was an image of fertility and hope. Her husband was Lugh, the sun-god. Their union ensured fertile livestock, rich harvests and good health. 

Here in Ireland, Danu's story has echoed down across thousands of years of mythology and folklore, sharing her symbols and images with the Christian St. Bridget. And for thousands of years people have circled the same springs of water here, asking for protection and help. 

The well that I swung across as a child is buried now. I don't know if anyone remembers its name. But it's still there, linked to all the other hidden waterways that flow together in darkness, bringing life to the earth.


6 comments:

  1. Lovely blog, Felicity. I wonder when the holy well that was in your town was buried. What a pity. I've read that holy wells are quite vengeful, so whoever did that may have paid the price!

    When I was on Inishmore I had a great experience of being guided by a local through the circling of Tobar an Ceathrar Alainn, the Well of the Four Beautiful Persons. We picked up seven small stones from beside the well, circled seven times around a dirt track that ran through the churchyard, and each time we placed a stone back on the well, and at the end we could either touch or take a sip of the water.

    I thought it was a beautiful ritual. The power of it seemed to lie in the meditative aspect of circling around the well for a period of time before touching the water, to bring my attention to the act I was performing, and giving me a greater sense of awareness of the earth I was walking on and the water I was about to touch. It's an awareness I think we ought to try to bring to the everyday, not just on special occasions like doing the rounds.

    Thank you for writing this blog. It added more depth to my understanding of the ritual.

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  2. Heaven knows how many holy wells have been swallowed up by property development - maybe we're all paying the price now in so-called toxic debt!

    I'm glad you liked the blog. And thanks for sharing your own experience. I've always loved the name The Well of the Four Beautiful Persons and I've been there, but I've never participated in or seen the ritual. Is there a particular pattern day it belongs to?

    You're right, I think, about the need to bring that level of awareness to the everyday. Repetition seems to be a central part of it, so we may lose a lot when we throw out tools and other things that belong to particular activities and substitute shiny, must-have new ones.

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  3. Lovely, evocative writing, Felicity!

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  4. Felicity - I loved the blog too. In the course of carrying out research on her images in medieval Irish art, I also looked at the folklore associated with her. One ritual in particular fascinated me - in parts of Ireland (but especially around Mayo) people brought in periwinkles and left one in the four corners of the house. It was believed to protect against drowning at sea but the spiral on their shell also has echoes with the sacred spiral and the circling at wells. Interesting too are the three armed Bridget's crosses - most commonly left in animal byres while the four armed cross was placed over the doorway inside the house. I think the cross is a sun symbol myself - maybe the 4 armed one a later Christian adaptation. Perhaps most fascinating of all is that when a chaplain travelling with the Williamite army in Ireland in the 1690's asked a local the purpose of putting up a cross over the doorway on the eve of Bridget - he was told "it has always been so" suggesting an established practice going back into antiquity. I love Bridget and all the traditions associated with her. Thanks for a lovely piece.

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  5. A lovely reminder of Danu and one I relish today. Looking forward to the longer evenings and the first flowers of February. Isn't it great that Spring starts so early for us? My sister lives in Sweden and it could be May before she even sees a flower. Thanks for always connecting us to our roots Felicity, you do a wonderful job:~))

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  6. imbolc

    so what is brigit to us
    gathered around our fires on the Canadian shield?
    in that old old country where she was young
    her day is the first day of spring
    but there are no lambing ewes where we are here
    snakes still knotted in their nests
    the bear cubs born but still asleep
    suckling their still sleeping mothers
    mothers dreaming of apples to come and that have been
    even the cubs dreaming of apples they have never seen

    imbolc is a celebration of the power of frost
    cold so intense like the surface of the moon
    drawn down to where we dwell
    we are bundled but the naked queen does live
    the rising pregnant moon wears a purple veil
    but as we watch the night progress
    the goddess is revealed
    she sheds her dress of flesh
    and dances in her bones

    her crown the aurora borealis
    pale fire of an idea so high and far
    its heat can never reach us
    cold and pure like the chanting of her priestess
    we are bundled against the naked beauty of brigit
    for we are human and can take only so much purity

    but if there is to be a night
    when grandmother must walk out into the snow
    this is that shining silver night
    late so the children will never know
    and when they ask they are told
    grandmother has gone to sleep so eat
    she will be back in summer
    when the apples are sweet

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