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If you really want to celebrate Brigid, eat colcannon on Wednesday and then make your cross

St Brigid of Ireland is associated with new life and nurture, attributes inherited from her ancient namesake

With its origins in the Celtic fertility festival of Imbolc (giving birth), St Brigid’s Day on February 1st marks the start of spring, with new life beginning, and signals an end to the darkness of winter.

The ancient goddess Brigid was one of the main deities of the mythical Tuatha Dé Danann. As a fertility goddess, she had links to other spring deities across Europe.

Christianity adopted the ancient Celtic feast days that were linked to nature and amalgamated them into its religious calendar. St Brigid’s Day was one of the quarter days that marked a transition from one season to the next – Bealtaine celebrated Summer; Lúnasa heralded harvest; Samhain was the beginning of the dark season. These, like other festivals, were linked to dates in the solar calendar.

Brigid, the holy woman from Leinster, had hills, wells, shrines and churches in Co Louth (her birthplace) named after her and throughout Kildare where she founded her church. The foundations of a fire temple for an everlasting flame were located in the domains of Kildare Cathedral.


None of Ireland’s patron saints – Brigid, Patrick or Columba – were canonised by the church.

St Brigid of Ireland is associated with new life and nurture, attributes inherited from her ancient namesake. The interlacing and merging of the characteristics of the goddess, the pagan symbolism of fire and water, into those of the saint, is similar to the weaving of the straw to form St Brigid’s crosses.

Irish feast days were most often celebrated on the eve of the day itself – on Wednesday January 31st for Brigid. This was considered to be a very liminal time when the otherworld was close and appeals for protection were more effective.

The festive meal in honour of the saint was a supper of mashed potatoes and freshly churned butter; colcannon was made by adding chopped cabbage to the mashed potatoes. Family members would take turns at pounding the potatoes for luck. The feast was to give thanks for the previous year’s crops, tempered with hope and the seeking of protection for the vegetable crops still to be sowed. Afterwards, the family made their St Brigid’s crosses.

The crosses were pinned above the front door or in the kitchen and are still a familiar feature inside many Irish homes. The most recognisable cross is the four-armed St Brigid’s cross (popularised since 1961 by its use as an emblem by the national broadcaster, RTÉ). This style, now so popular, was in the past, more prevalent in the north of Ireland. The most widespread across the island of Ireland were variations of diamond-shaped crosses.

There are more regional styles of St Brigid’s crosses and often numerous styles were made in each home. Traditional designs were diamond, interlaced or wheel-shaped. Straw, rushes and reeds were the most common materials used but grass, hay, wood, goose quills, wire and fabric also featured. Whatever the material, it was sprinkled with holy water before being made into a cross, while a prayer to welcome the saint was often recited.

St Brigid’s crosses were also hung in animal sheds. The previous year’s cross was often left in its place and the new one placed beside it. Or, the old dried out one was broken into fragments and scattered over the land or animals.

Also on January 31st, a piece of cloth or ribbon (Brat Bríde or Ribín Bríde) was left outside on the windowsill to be blessed by the saint as she passed, blessing homes honouring her. The material was safely kept and used for healing both people and animals.

The many holy wells dedicated to St Brigid were visited around this time. Communities celebrated the saint with processions which included a doll figure. “Biddy Boys” went from house-to-house with the “Biddy” doll in a veil (like a bride) collecting money and food for a St Brigid’s party, reciting the rhyme (or one similar): “Here is St Brigid dressed in white,/Give her something in honour of the night.”

The Biddy Boys were especially popular in Co Kerry, where straw Brídeógs were almost life-size and were carried through the streets in elaborate parades. In parts of Connacht, the Biddy Boys would carry a large plaited straw belt (Crios Bríde) incorporating straw rope crosses. The inhabitants of each home passed through the circle of the belt, reciting a prayer to gain St Brigid’s protection from illness.

Brigid is also honoured in many of our communities with names and surnames, placenames, churches, schools, and GAA clubs. There are lots of events and activities happening this weekend, and resources on cross making and traditions, and galleries of images of objects from our collections, are available on the website of the National Museum of Ireland. The website also has great resources.

Beannachtaí na Féile Bríde oraibh go léir!

Clodagh Doyle is Keeper of the Irish Folklore Collection at the Museum of Country Life, Castlebar, Co Mayo