Chapter Five: Rituals of the Feast of St. Brigid
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The combination of effects of the Protestant Reformation of the 17th century and the Great Famine of the 1840s changed the nature of all religion in Ireland, from the monastic houses to the island crofters. Despite these hardships, many echoes of the medieval festivals were still strong throughout Ireland even through the begining of this century. The final straw seems to have been the secularization, urbanization and Americanization of the country which have driven many of these practices to the remotest rural parts of the country and the memories of its older inhabitants. This chapter begins with a brief description of the changes brought by the early attempts to make the Irish Church conform to more Continental standards, the English Conquest and subsequent Protestant Reformation, all of which attempted to end the "superstitious" practices of the Irish peasantry which was often seen as idolatry and demonism. In the sense that much of these practices were vestiges of pagan god and goddess worship, the reformers were, in a sense, correct.
Fortunately, many travellers, folklorists and ethnographers have recorded their observations of Irish folk customs. The earliest document of this type we have is that of Gerald of Wales, written in 1185. Since then many others have written accounts of their travels, and later ethnographers and folklorists have gone around collecting stories from all over Ireland.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Irish folk life is the observance of the pattern days of local saints. St. Brigid, a Christianized Celtic goddess, was and still is venerated in on her feast day, February 1, also known to as the first day of spring. There were many elaborate rituals performed both on her feast day and the day before, as well as at other times of the year when her protection and assistance was needed. From these customs we can learn what many of the concerns and activities of the Irish peasant may have been. The majority of these traditions are not entirely dead, but have fallen into disuse and obscurity, and are therefore discussed here in the past tense.
English Conquest, and Protestant Reformation
Begining in the 12th century, religious reforms swept through the Catholic Church both on the Continent and the islands, though it would be several centuries yet before the first Protestant movements. Many new monastic groups arose, including the Franciscan order, the Cistercians, the Dominicans and others. There were closer links between the Irish and Continental monastic orders than there had been for many centuries, and these new orders found their ways into Ireland. However, the majority of Irish religion was thought to be backwards and morally corrupt due to the continued adherence to the Brehon Law and the effects of the years of Anglo-Norman invasions. The Synod of Kells in 1152 marked the completion of the restructuring of the Irish Church, which made the archbishop of Armagh the Primate of All Ireland. It seems, however, that the Church had fallen back into more secular ways by the 14th century, and even the Sees of the New Orders were being passed down to their children and kept within the royal familes.
In the second half of the 12th century, Pope Adrian IV gave his papal blessing to King Henry II of England (1154-1189) the right to rule Ireland. In addition to the religious corruptions percieved by the Continental reformers, the English aristocracy was offended by the apparent barbarism of the Irish people. Irish kings frequently ate outside to the horror and distress of the English. The Irish diet was also disturbing to them; they saw the Irish diet of "undercooked meat, raw salads, milk products and little to no bread an abomination." It was during this period of the late 12th century that Gerald of Wales or Giraldus Cambrensis visited Ireland four times and wrote his History and Topography of Ireland, and dedicated to the King, Henry II, a distant relative of his. The portrayal of the Irish people by the English was very similar in art and literature to their perceptions of the Native Americans in the New World 500 years later. They were described as wild, dirty, uneducated, uncultured and savage.
Begining with the fall of Dublin (a Viking town) to the English in 1170 and the arrival of Henry II in Waterford in 1171, a precedent was set for multiple invasions of Ireland over the next 5-600 years. The need for these many invasions was created by the Irish refusal to be ruled by the English manifested by equally multitudinous rebellions. It wasn't until the late 16th and early 17th century invasions by Queen Elizabeth I's forces (and later Cromwell's) that established a permanent military occupation of Ireland. As a result of the initial invasions in the 12th and 13th century, by the 15th century the English "Pale" made a barrier around Dublin approximately 30miles long by 20 miles deep. However, the English inhabitants of the Pale quickly became interbred with the Gaelic-speaking Irish, so that when Henry VIII was proclaimed King of Ireland in the Irish Parliament, the announcement had to be read in Irish.
However, with the founding of Trinity College in 1591 by Elizabeth I, an intellectual and cultural imbalance began that paralleled the religious one. As an English-speaking, Protestant school, the Gaelic-speaking Catholics were forbidden from attending, and thus doomed themselves to ignorance in the academic and intellectual world of their conquerors. Throughout the 16th century there were small invasions and rebellions throughout Ireland. But it was only after the Flight of the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell in 1607, that the English were finally allowed a strong foothold in Ireland. A vast portion of Ulster was seized by the English, and plantation of the land with Protestant Scots and English commenced.
The period from 1607-1641 was relatively peaceful; Catholics were tolerated, blind eyes were turned, and the Old English of Dublin were openly Catholic and retained political power even in rigged parliament sessions. However, the religious tolerance in Northern Ireland was a political state, and was not due to any real coming to terms between Catholics and Protestants. In 1641 another rebellion in Ulster led to the war between the Catholic Irish and the Protestant Royalists, which lasted 10 years and only ended with the invasion of Puritan Oliver Cromwell in 1649. Had the Protestants and Catholics joined together to fight Cromwell, they may have won. However, the Catholics refused to see the difference between one English Protestant group and another, and thus Cromwell's victory was assured.
1649 saw the execution of Charles I of England, the assasinations of several Irish political leaders, and the arrival of Cromwell in Ireland. Cromwell was not necessarily more brutal or cruel than other military leaders, but much more effective and systematic. By 1653 all of Ireland had been subjugated by Cromwells forces. The vast portion of the Catholic, Irish-speaking mostly illiterate population of Ireland was forced off their land, and many Catholic leaders were murdered. Under the Penal Codes of the 17th century, the practice of Catholicism became illegal, and Catholics were not allowed to hold office or own land. However, the Puritans did not seek to convert the Catholics, merely to subjugate them. Some converted in name only in order to retain land and political power, but only a small number.
Eventually, the rift between the Penal Laws enacted and those enforced grew. The laws against Catholics bearing arms were widely disregarded, as were those against the practice of the Catholic faith. The clergy was under more attack in the 17th century than the laity, and consequently the majority of people were left to their own practices. The state of the Church is described as having "her buildings destroyed, her schools forbidden, and her priests in lay attire performing their duties surreptitiously." Churches and cathedrals were overtaken by Purtian forces or destroyed, priests and higher church clergy were murdered or exiled, and people had to fend for their own spirituality. The use of less prominent ecclesiastic buildings and ancient churches that had formerly fallen into disuse and other secred locations were not as affected, and became popular meeting places. The Catholic faith moved into the homes and fields of the peasantry, where rites and rituals were carried out in secrecy.
Gradually emphasis on the differences between Catholic and Protestant faded, and the differences between the English government ("court") and the Irish patriots ("country") became more important. By the 1800s the war between the English and the Irish had become as much political as it was religious, a state that has continued until this very century, decade, even year. I will not discuss here the struggle between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but much has been written on it, and it continues today, despite an uneasy truce as a result of the granting of autonomy of Northern Ireland.
Life in rural Ireland was not much different in the 1600s than it was in the first few decades of the 20th century. Tools, styles of dress, and many of the customs, both religious and secular remained the same. However, in the more urbanized areas, or more English, one might say, there are great differences between the cities of the 17th century and the 20th. It was not until the 19th century decline of Irish as the vernacular language were the religious practices of the people seriously affected, causing them to give up practices still in effect in the 17th century. The rural peasant communities of the 1600s were nearly self-supporting: food was grown on the land, cattle and sheep grazed, from which clothing and other products were made. Money was hardly used at all, and indeed the only things it was really necessary to purchase with cash were salt, snuff and tobacco.
During this period, the primary forms of entertainment in rural Ireland were dancing, hurling, wrestling and bull-baiting, though the most common and widespread was dancing, however there was also a large propensity towards gambling with cards and dice. "Forty years ago customs and beliefs now condemned by the Church as superstitious, and preserved only in the pages of antiquarian journals, were as common as is the practice of raising the hat passing a Catholic church to-day." Many sources describe singing, dancing, drinking, gambling and faction-fighting as all a part of the pattern day of a saint. It was probably these activities at religious festivals that brought scornful attention to the rural Catholic Irish, and caused their eventual discontinuation.
The Eve of St. Brigid's Day
The veneration of a saint on the anniversary of the day of his or her death has been a part of Christian worship since the first Chrisitian martyrs, as discussed in Chapter Two. Each saint has his or her own particular series of actions and prayers to be performed, though usually a Church service or Mass is a part of the day's activities. The particular rituals to be conducted are often said to be relevant to or in imitation of the actions of the Saint during his or her life. This is no less true of St. Brigid of Kildare.
Brighde was one of the most popular and widely worshipped Celtic goddesses, and when she became Christianized as Saint Brigid her worship remained as widespread throughout Europe as it had been as a goddess. Churches dedicated to St. Brigid can be found in the UK, France, Germany and other countries that had at one time been occupied by Celts. Her worship was further spread when the Irish tribe of the Scoti invaded and settled what is now Scotland in the 6th-9th centuries. Nearly identical practices in the remote areas of Scotland and Ireland are found celebrating the feast of St. Brigid.
As with all Celtic Festivals and many other Catholic Saint's days, the celebration of the Feast of St. Brigid began on the evening before her official day, the 1st of February. Many writers have given accounts of how this feast of was (and in some places still is) practiced in both Ireland and Scotland. The rites are complex and highly elaborate, with symbols of fire, human fertility, animal fertility and motherhood often appearing in the same ritual. In many places the rituals are the same or contain many of the same elements. There is usually an image of Brigid, which can be a doll, or be made out of straw, a churn-dash from a butter churn, or a bundle of cloth. In some areas she is then decorated with locally available decorations, like flowers, shells or ribbons. The Bridóg (or "Little Brigid") is ether put in a position of honor, and the family feasts, carried from house to house in a procession, or taken out and left until the ritual meal is prepared. She is always brought back into the house with an elaborate ritual, often involving call-and-response greetings repeated three times.
Another variation involves the procession of the effigy of Brigid, or sometimes just the churndash, by either young girls (again, often named Brigid) or young boys in drag, called "Biddies." It is thought that the young boys "replaced female surrogates of the saint, exemplary virgins of the townlands who often bore her name." The boys or girls would go from house to house begging for flowers, shells, beads, and other decorations for the Bridog, and mothers would donate dairy products of cheese and butter, called Bride bannocks, Bride cheeses and Bride rolls. In Ireland the girls would gather and the one with the prettiest dress gave it to the Bridóg to wear, and the "little star of Bride" made of straw (probably the St. Brigid's Cross) was attatched to the Bridóg's chest. Gifts of pins, needles, stones, straw food and other things were then given to Bride.
The Bridóg was then placed on rushes, under the table, or on the table, for the eating of the meal, which was also ritually prescribed. In Ireland the meal came before the preparation and procession of the Bridóg, but in Scotland it seemed to be after. Though milk was usually scarce at this time of year, butter and milk were often hoarded for the occasion, and if a family had any to spare, it was given to poor women of the community. The meal was simple and consisted of tea and bread cakes of some sort, depending on the area and time.
The weaving of St. Brigid's crosses and other symbolic objects would have been created either after the meal or in conjunction with the creation of the Bridóg. Before the family retired for bed, rituals with the crosses and straw objects would have been performed in the house and byre. This will be discussed further in the next section.
After the processing with the Bridóg, and the subsequent feasting, the figure is put into a bed made of woven straw, and a staff is placed in the bed beside her, as described in the Carmina Gadelica:
"They place a small straight wand (the bark being peeled off) beside the figure. This wand is variously called 'slatag Bride,' the little rod of Bride, 'slachdan Bride,' the little wand of Bride, and 'barrag Bride,' the birch of Bride. The wand is generally of birch, broom, bramble, white willow or other sacred wood, and 'crossed' or banned wood being carefully avoided. A similar rod was given to the kings of Ireland at their coronation, and to the Lords of the Isles at their instatement. It was straight to typify justice, and white to signify peace and purity--bloodshed was not to be needlessly caused."
The wand of Bride can be interpreted in many ways. There is the obvious phallic symbolism of the male consort of the Goddess/Soverignty Queen, which is refered to in the mention of the coronation of the kings of Ireland. It may also be a reminder of Brigid's role as a shepherdess of both animal flocks and human. Also, the mention of specific types of wood, sacred in Ireland and Scotland as "holy" reminds us that the festival is clearly pre-Christian. It is also the same symbol as the wand carried by the Biddy boys in the processions with the Bridóg. It is also possible that on some level it symbolizes the churn-dash which is clearly associated with the milking process and Brigid's animal fertility powers.
When the preparations are finished "one woman goes to the door of the house, and standing on the step with her hands on the jambs, calls softly into the darkness ... Brides bed is ready." This is reminiscent of the stories of Brigids birth in which she is born on the threshold. Sometimes it is a young girl of the house, often named Brigid, who goes to the door. In some Irish cases, it is the man of the house who goes outside and begs entrance with the Bridóg.
In both Ireland and Scotland, the bed containing the Bridóg is put into the hearth overnight, and in the morning the ashes are carefully examined in the morning for signs of the presence of Brigid. If they find evidence of the wand of Brigid, it is believed to be a favorable sign. However, if they find a "lorg Bride" or "footprint of Bride" they are even happier, because this means that "Bride was present with them during the night, and is favourable to them, and that there is increase in family, in flock and in field during the coming year." Here we see Brigid in her role as ruler of animal, human and crop fertility. If no marks of Bride's passing are visible, there may be a sacrifice of a "cockerel, some say a pullet, burried alive near the junctin of three streams" and burning of incense on the hearth at night. The relationship between these practices and a fertility/fire goddess is easy to see.
Other associations with this festival are cock-fighting; in the Highlands, the day was also called "Day of Cock-fighting." Boys would bring cocks to school and the winner would be king for the year. The losing birds would go to the schoolmaster.
Another animal association with this day is the serpent. We see the origins of the American Groundhog's Day in the serpent associations with St. Brigid's Day. The serpent comes out of its hole for the first time on this day, which marks the first day of spring. There is no mention of the viewing of the shadow, but there is at least one saying that mentions the fact that the serpent will emerge "though there should be three feet of snow" on the ground, which is, of course, a spring tiding. There are other sayings in which the All of the rhymes about the serpent, the "daughter of Ivor" on the feast day of Bride specifically mention that the person will not harm the serpent, nor will the serpent harm the person. One example from the Carmina Gadelica goes as follows:
On the day of Bride of the white hills
The noble queen will come from the knoll,
I will not molest the noble queen,
Nor will the noble queen molest me.
Despite all the assertions of not hurting the serpent, there is, however, evidence of a tradition of killing the serpent in effigy, by pounding a chunk of peat in a stocking. It is Carmichaels opinion that this is a symbol of something much older and now lost, since "Gaelic lore is full of sayings about serpents." I find this very curious since the myth of St. Patrick banishing the snakes from Ireland predates the arrival of the Gaelic-speaking Irish in Scotland. Also, the coat of arms for County Kildare is a single green serpent on a red background.
In Ireland, and elsewhere in Christiandom the first or second day of February is known as Candlemas. The association with St. Brigid is a bit of a stretch; the tale says that Brigid "walked before Mary with a lighted candle in each hand when she went up to the Temple for purification." Because of this, the day is called both The Feast of Bride of the Candles or of Mary of the Candles, or Candlemas Day. This is another story in which Brigid is supposed to have been in the Holy Land at the time of the birth of Christ, a bizarre anachronism that reveals her Mother-Goddess aspect in this case the equivalent of Mary, just as in other stories she is the birthing woman and foster-mother of Christ.
St. Brigid's Crosses
One of the major elements of the worship of Brigid on her feast day is the making of St. Brigid's Crosses and other items out of locally accessible grasses. Not only were there many varieties of St.Brigid's crosses made throughout Ireland, there were also quite a few other symbolic or ritualistic items made of straw on St. Brigid's feast, as well as at other feast days. There is no evidence given in the literature as to the reasons behind making a cross in honor of St. Brigid. However, on the backing of a St. Brigid's cross sold at a tourist shop in Kildare is a story which explains why the crosses are made:
"The Saint was renowned for her charity and once acted as nurse to a pagan chieftain. While he slept, she made a cross with some rushes from the floor (rushes were the usual floor covering in olden times). On waking, the chieftain inquired her reason for forming a cross, whereupon Brigid told him the story of Calvary. The man was deeply impressed and his subsequent conversion and return to health were attributed to her prayers."
According to Evans, the Irish made all sorts of household items out of straw, rushes, heather, hay, seaweed, animal hair, various grasses and apparently anything else that could be twisted and braided, including twigs and tree bark. Common household items like baskets, ropes, brooms and other "utility" objects were made in addition to toys, decorations and religious or ritual items, like Brigid's crosses and Harvest knots. From the wide variety of harvest knots and other "harvest items" made of straw and grasses, in addition to the Brigid's crosses, one can assume that there must have been some significance to the creation of such elaborate items with no functional value or usage. Talking about rope-making, Evans says we must not forget "their functions in ceremony and magic as represented by Briget's crosses, harvest knots, the blackberry baskets of Lammas and the rush ladders of Hallowe'en."
Evans also suggests that the St.Brigid's crosses represent "magic symbols of suns or eyes" based on his comparisons to the Celtic triskele similar in form to the three-legged Brigid's cross, the Huichol "'god-eyes'" nearly identical to one of the forms of multiple diamond Brigid's crosses. He sites similarly constructed crosses used for ritual purposes in other areas of Europe, as well as "Africa, Tibet, Burma, Assam and Indonesia...Melanesia, Polynesia and Australia." He also implies there may have been a more general cult of "crosses," based on crosses of wood straw and rushes found in Halloween (Samhain) rituals, a partially burned rush cross in a megalith, and a "love-knot" with similar design popular in South Wales.
There were various rituals involved in the harvesting, storage and preparation of the materials used for making the Brigid's crosses. Several writers note that the grasses are not to be cut with iron, but pulled, and it is usually the first grasses harvested the previous year and set aside, or they are gathered on St. Brigid's Eve. Some reports state that the rushes were to be gathered in silence, and others say that the rushes were to be hidden from other members of the family until the Eve of the Feast. Still others state that the young girl of the household named Brigid should be the one to collect the sheaf of grass or straw to be used.
There were also rituals surrounding the usage of the rushes before and after making the crosses. Sometimes the rushes were spread on the table and the meal was eaten off of them, sometimes the meal was eaten off of the crosses once they were made, and in some cases the rushes were put on the floor. Often the remnants of the sheaf not used to make the Bridóg are used for the crosses, and in other areas the sheaf used as the Bridóg were used.
O'Sullivan describes 10 major types of crosses made on St. Brigid's feast day:
Single diamond, multiple diamond, plaited, "swastika," three-armed, wheel, interlaced, and latin crosses made of straw, wood or other materials. In Evans' Irish Folk Ways, he illustrates several more of St. Brigid's "crosses and charms," including a conical item with "ears" identified as a St. Brigid's cross from Co. Armagh, a St. Brigid's Girdle with latin crosses suspended from it, and a few variations on the multiple-diamond model not depicted by O'Sullivan. Elsewhere he depicts a "'Briget's rag' of oat straw" from Tory Island, which appears to be a wide, flat strip of woven straw folded with the ends of both sides gathered at the top. He also mentions straw masks worn by the "Biddy Boys" which are similar to those worn by "mummers and by strawboys at weddings."
Different styles of crosses were made for different areas of the house and holdings. One style of cross might be found under the rafters in the kitchen, and another in the byre. Somteimes there was one family member chosen to make the yearly cross, while in other cases each family member made one and a friendly competition was held to see who could make the best one. There is also vastly different folkloric and ethnographic evidence of the proper positioning of the crosses. Some were only hung in one room, which varied. In other areas of Ireland the crosses were hung in every room or over every window. Some ethnographers report that the age of the house could be gauged by the number of Brigid's Crosses in the rafters.
The functions of these crosses varied as much as the styles of creation and positioning. The crosses in the house was believed to protect the family from all sorts of illness and misfortune and to ensure fertility of the crops and fields. Once source quotes as saying that beseeches Brigid to protect them from "fever, famine and fire," a triad that clearly corresponds to the tripple goddess of Healing, Fertility, and Fire. Her cross stuck in the roof-thatching was also supposed to prevent the roof from flying off the house in a storm, to prevent intrusion of fairies and other evil spirits or "mischeif."
In the byre the cross protected the animals from illness, and ensured fertility, good milk-production and protection from fairies and fire. The need to protect the livestock "and in particular cows and their milk and butter, which are peculiarly reliable to supernatural influences" is demonstrated throughout Irish folk religion. There are multitudinous rituals surrounding the protection of the animals and their milk, and just as many magical cures should they become stricken by evil eye or fairy dart. In addition to the animals, Evans says that the "protective charms and prognostications connected with churning are legion." It is no wonder that the farmers would seek the blessings of the goddess-saint of animal fertility, of milk and butter, as well as the crops and fields by tying intricate creations of corn straw in their barns and byres.
Depending on the area and the era, some crosses were kept up for one year, some seven years, some forever. The disposal of the old crosses also varied, but it was always done in a very elaborate ritualized manner. They were burned, mixed into the years threshing, mixed into the seeds to be sown, fed to the livestock, planted with the first potato of the year, or "scattered over the land to bring St. Brigid's blessing on the crops that would be planted that year."
Feast Day Rituals
On February 1st, Imbolc, the festivities in honor of St. Brigid continued, usually begining with Mass at the church. If the worshippers had come on a pilgrimage and had spent the night in vigil, the service could also be held at the holy well. In Barra, Scotland, the fishermen of the village cast lots for their fishing-banks for the season outside the door of the church after Mass.
The fishermen's lot-casting is just one exampe of the ways in which the festival acknowledges St. Brigid's Day as the first day of spring, as do the Serpent rituals. The association with animal and crop fertility is another aspect of this, since the term "Imbolc" itself meand "ewe's milk," in reference to the advent of the lambing season. Many of the sayings and prayers of this day reflect Brigid's apparent control over the seasons, in which she puts her hand or finger in the river on her Day, causing the weather to warm, and her palms in the water at St. Patrick's Day, making the weather even warmer. The Carmina Gadelica says: "Bride with her white wand is said to breathe life into the mouth of the dead Winter and do bring him to open his eyes to the tears and the smiles, the sighs and the laughter of Spring." In the Celtic calendar, however, Imbolc was still in the Winter half of the year, which began at Samhain (roughly Nov. 1) and did not end officially until Bealtaine (roughly May 1.)
The most significant portion of the day of St. Brigid's Feast is that of the pilgrimage to the Holy Well. Although the town of Kildare where Brigid's monastery is located contains a beautiful and elaborate shrine and holy well, there are dozens of wells across Ireland that are dedicated to St. Brigid. The most popular, according to some authors, is at Faughart, in Co. Louth, one of the legendary birthplaces of Brigid. Perhaps the focus of the pilgrimage shifted from Kildare to Faughart when Kildare became part of the English Pale in the 15th century, and the seat of the high governorship of Ireland under Henry VIII.
The shrine at Faughart, as with other holy wells in Ireland, contains evidence of having been a sacred site long before Christianity or even the Celts came to Ireland. There are megalithic tombs, souterrains, ring forts and other artifacts found at the Hill of Faughart. This is not unusual for a place considered holy in the Celtic or Christian tradition to have been considered holy by previous cultures, as we can see by the numerous locations that have both neolithic, Celtic and Christian cult centers.
The activities at various Holy Wells, many dedicated to St. Brigid, have been described in great detail by Irish writer Patrick Logan, a native of Co. Leitrim. He describes the ritual of prayer on February 1st as he remembered and experienced it:
The rosary was recited by the pilgrims singly or in groups, as they walked towards the old graveyard and the writer can remember the murmur of the prayers heard in the darkness of the morning as the groups of pilgrims approached. The pilgrim entered the graveyard and first walked three times round an old ash tree, which stood near the site of the medieval parish church. Again, I remember being checked as I began to go round the tree to the left. A few Our Fathers and Hail Marys were said while going round the tree. The pilgrim then repeated the ritual at another tree and then returned to the site of the old church where he knewlt near a carved stone which wa said to represent the head of St. Brigid. Again a few Our Fathers and Hail Marys were repeated and it was the custom to leave a few pennies on the ground near the stone.
...The pilgrim then went along a lane and across three fields to St. Brigid's well saying another rosary as he went. At the well he knelt and prayed for a few moments before walking three times round the well. He then drank some of the water from the well and might leave a rag tied on one of the bushes near the well. Religious medals, fragments of rosaries, small crosses and other such things were thrown into the well or left on the ground around it. A third rosary was recited as the pilgrim returned home.
It seems that this custom of going around trees, wells and stones at the site of the holy wells dedicated to St. Brigid are common. Several other times he mentions them, and specifically that they were circumnavigated clockwise (or sunwise, "desoil," in Irish) while praying. One well in Brideswell, Co. Roscommon has a ring of five standing stones which pilgrims walk around saying five Our Fathers and Hail Marys.
Sacred Spaces: Holy Wells and Holy Trees
According to Eliade, sacred trees often serve the same religious function of the sacred stone or pole--to connect the realm of the gods (sky) to the realm of man (earth). There are contemporary mentions of the sacred groves of the Druids, as well as later evidence of sacred trees at Christian sites. The sacred tree, or "bilé" in Irish, is often left in the place-name of an ancient sacred site that has become Christian. Some examples are Moville ("Magh a' bhile) in Co. Donegal and Tobar a' bhile in Co. Kerry. From this second name we also see clear association of trees and holy wells.
There are many stories dating from the earliest of Christian times about the sacred trees of saints. Many trees are described as having grown as a result of a saint putting a stick into the ground and it sprouting. There are also several stories of immortal trees. The types of trees that are considered holy are often the standard otherworldly or "fairy" trees: ash, oak, holly, whitethorn, yew and willow. In addition to many holy wells named for her elsewhere, St. Brigit has a well at Kildare, along with a tree called "St. Brigidss Oak," the trunk of which was still remaining at around A.D. 980. This trunk is said to have had curative properties, but only if it was untouched by weapons, which were iron.
As previously mentioned, many churches were built at the site of other sacred objects. According to Logan, "In the great majority of cases the holy well can be found close to the ruins of the medieval parish church or to the ruins of some other ancient church." This does not say whether or not the "ancient church" has been excavated and positively identified as a church, or what the building could also have been used for, nor a date of construction/usage.
On the eve of the saint's feast day for the one hour after midnight the wells were supposed to be able to cure any ailment. Many of the wells also had magic or immortal fish, usually salmon, trout or eels, which were said to appear only at midnight. The appearance of these supernatural fish was also allegedly an omen that whoever saw it would have their prayers granted. Similarly, Logan also tells of a nun who waited for hours to catch sight of an immortal frog that was "a sure sign that her request would be granted.
In addition to praying and performing the pattern ritual, pilgrims to wells almost always left votive offerings. These ranged from the symbols of their sickness--crutches, rags, bandages, etc.-- to money, bits of rosary, jewelry, broken dishes and pins & nails. The most interesting of these when looking at the pre-Christian tradition are the gifts of pins and nails and the broken dishes. They have the least monetary value, and lack the obvious symbolism that the crutches, rags and rosaries have, and clearly have some other significance to the pilgrims than their secular meanings.
Beyond Feast Days
The assistance and patronage of St. Brigid is not only invoked on her Feast Day, but on many other occasions. Her nature as a pre-Christian goddess and Christian patron of Motherhood and Fertility, Hearth and Fire, Healing and Art made her the ideal figure to supplicate during difficulties of childbirth, crop planting, butter making, each day before and many other times during daily living. She was a protectress against all that threatened the very existence of the rural Irish peasant, and it is no wonder she was more widely worshipped throughout the Celtic lands than any other female figure, and still is today.
On to Conclusion.