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St Brigid: the new Irish cool

Ireland’s superstar Saint Patrick gets his day this week – but there’s a strong challenge to his status by a saint called Brigid of Kildare.

Last month, Ireland observed its first public holiday honouring St Brigid. For Christians, she is the patron saint of learning, peacemaking, poetry, protection, blacksmithing, livestock and dairy production.

It is said St Brigid brewed ale and was a founder of churches and religious communities.

Like many saints’ feast days, Brigid’s February 1 is shared with a pagan festival in Ireland: In this case, Imbolc, heralding the return of the season of light and growth.

The ancient Celtic goddess linked with Imbolc shares the name Brigid and is also punching above her weight. A giant mural painted in 2020 in Dundalk, County Louth, near Brigid’s purported birthplace of Faughart, depicts the woman as half Christian saint and half fiery deity.

Choose your Brigid – saint or goddess – but most admirers link the name with women’s empowerment.

Living in Ireland four years ago, I became aware of the movement to get Brigid up there with Patrick. Children brought home the usual woven Brigid’s Crosses in February, but it was much more than crafts.

More groups of women were meeting at ancient sites to do mysterious things with candles and lamps, burning the “Fire of Brigid” at dawn and dusk. Around her feast day, there were St Brigid’s lunches, sports events for women, festivals, pilgrimages, and other things with her name on. She was becoming cool, with suitable stories attached.

Legend has it, she tricked the King of Leinster by asking him to give her as much land in County Kildare as her cloak would cover. As the man laughed, Brigid threw her cloak into the air, where it spread across acres, securing her enough land to start her religious communities.

Brigid’s Day feels more magical than Patrick’s raucous booze-fest, bolstered by heaving green waves of tourists. [I think Irish people in Ireland have a clandestine, tourist-free level of celebrating Paddy’s Day – but it’s hush-hush.]

A classic online video shows an elderly Dublin man telling a reporter why he does not attend the annual St Patrick’s Day parade. After a string of expletives, he says he’d rather hide at the bottom of his garden with his dog.

But for Irish expats across the world, a St Patrick’s Day parade is the pinnacle of Irish pride. It’s giant green fun.

In Ireland, the campaign for a Brigid’s Day national holiday was spearheaded from 2019 by HerStory, an organisation promoting achievements by Irish mná [women].

The new bank holiday is part of Ireland stretching out of a time when women were stymied by the constraints of religion and patriarchal laws. And it’s recognising Brigid of Kildare’s global reach.

Because, after all, Ireland’s “matron saint” made her mark on the world many moons ago. Her spirit was carried overseas by women navigating beloved tradition, ingrained ritual – and massive change.

Here in Wairarapa, we had a thriving convent of Brigidine Sisters, who lived up to Brigid’s saintly patronage of learning and staffed a network of Catholic schools. Nuns chosen as principals were charismatic and skilled women.

A group of former Catholic Women’s League members still meet in Masterton. As they told Midweek this week, the Brigidine nuns had a lasting influence on the young lives of many Wairarapa women.

To them, Brigid’s spirit has always been alive and well.

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