On February 1st people all over Ireland collect fresh rushes and weave them in the shape of a cross. This is known as a Saint Brigid’s cross and the tradition continues to this day. It’s particularly popular with parents of young children
There are many stories about St Brigid and the origin of the cross that bears her name. One such story is that she was tending the sick bed of a dying pagan chieftain. She began telling the story of Christ, his sacrifices and his death on the Cross. To demonstrate she picked rushes from the ground to make a cross to show the chieftain. Before his death, the chieftain asked to be baptised.
The cross of rushes is actually much older than the life of Brigid and is derived from a sunwheel which is found in the prehistory of many cultures. It has various meanings but in Ireland it promises protection from fire and harm. Indeed, people still hang the crosses in their homes for just such protection
But who was Brigid? There are plenty of written accounts of the saint born in 451 AD north of Dundalk in County Louth who founded two monastic institutions, one for men, and the other for women - the first of its kind in the country. According to the Book of Armagh, she and Saint Patrick were great pals Between St Patrick and St Brigid, the pillars of the Irish people, there was so great a friendship of charity that they had but one heart and one mind. She was the child of a baptised slave and a Leinster chieftain.
But there is another Brigit, a goddess and poet of pagan Ireland who was a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann and daughter of the Dagda. She was the goddess of flames, smithing, healing, wisdom, cattle, poetry and her devotees tended a sacred flame in her honor. Imbolc was the pagan festival associated with the goddess which also falls on February 1st.
There is some evidence that the characteristics of the saint and the goddess have merged and many of the aspects that are associated with the Saint are actually far older than 451 AD.
One example of this is that Saint Brigid is associated with perpetual, sacred flames, such as the one maintained by at her sanctuary in Kildare. Brigit is the goddess of flames. Gerald of Wales wrote that the sacred flame was surrounded by a hedge, which no man could cross. Men who attempted to cross the hedge were said to have been cursed to go insane, die or be crippled. Perpetual flames are the pagan influence over the Christian saint.
Lots of legends to discover on your tour of Ireland in 2020. Tours are filling up quickly so book while there is still some places!