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A step in your spring – Frank McNally on vernal Februarians, St Brigid’s Fire, and the origins of Bridewell prisons

Whenever it starts, spring is a season of the mind

By ancient Celtic tradition, February 1st marks the start of Ireland’s annual argument about when spring happens. This will now rage until March 20th, when the vernal equinoxers finally declare the season open, while claiming to have science on their side. In the meantime, vernal Februarians will quote Raftery: “Anois teacht an earraigh/Beidh an lá ag dul chun síneadh/Is tar éis na féil Bríde/Ardóidh mé mo sheol” (Now as the spring comes/The day will be lengthening/And after St Brigid’s Day/I will hoist my sail.”

Others may prefer TS Eliot, who considered this an unofficial fifth quarter of the year: “Midwinter spring is its own season/Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown/Suspended in time between pole and tropic,/When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire ...”

The truth is that, whenever it starts, spring is a season of the mind. More than the other three, it is synonymous with hope and renewal. Whether it begins early or late may depend on how big an optimist you are.

The usual compromise between Februarians and equinoxers is March 1st. That date is popular with the Welsh, among others, being St David’s Day. But if their rugby team should beat Ireland this weekend, you can be sure that Celtic spring will have burst the banks of the river Taff by Saturday evening.


Poor Raftery was an optimist too. Despite being blind and penniless, or maybe because of that, he hoped for an imminent upturn in his lot. At the very least, he seemed to be saying a relieved farewell to Dry January: “I gClár Chlainne Mhuiris/A Bheas mé an chéad oíche/Is i mBalla taobh thíos de/A thosóidh mé ag ól/” (“In Claremorris/I will be the first night/And in Balla just below it/I will begin to drink.”


Speaking of the Welsh, it is to the historian Gerald of Wales (1146-1243) that we owe a valuable account of “the fire of St Brigit”, believed to have burned continuously in Kildare for centuries.

During the saint’s lifetime, he wrote circa 1188, she had been one of 20 nuns who tended the flame. But centuries after her death, she was said to remain a member of the team, along with 19 living nuns, who kept it lit: “Each of them has the care of the fire for a single night in turn, and, on the evening before the twentieth night, the last nun, having heaped wood upon the fire, says: ‘Brigit, take charge of your own fire, for this night belongs to you’.”

Next morning, the historian added, “it is found that the fire has not gone out, and that the usual quantity of fuel has been used.”

Not that he could check the story’s veracity. The fire was in an enclosure admissible only to women: “and if anyone should presume to enter, which has been sometimes attempted by rash men, he will not escape the divine vengeance.”

It is now widely doubted that St Brigid was a Christian saint at all – the Catholic Church delisted her in 1969 – but rather a Pagan goddess appropriated by the new faith. Her cult was a powerful one, clearly, and remains so in 2023, having just inspired Ireland’s newest holiday.

As for Gerald of Wales, as official apologist for the Anglo-Norman invasion, he had little good to say about this island, regarding the Irish as savages in severe need of colonisation by our civilised neighbours.

Perhaps, now she is no longer required at No 20 on the Kildare fire roster, the goddess-saint might lend her spirit at No 24 in the Irish rugby panel at the weekend, in case the latest revenge mission to Cardiff needs help.


It is to the same Brigid, strange to say, that we owe the term for a kind of prison: Bridewell. This is because the original such lock-up was in an area of London synonymous with St Bride (as she was known there), via a holy well and church.

In time, the word was applied to similar prisons for petty offenders around the world. But Dublin’s Bridewell, now a Garda station, at least carries a hint of things celestial, via the inscription: Fiat Justitia Ruat Caelum (“Let Justice be done though the heavens fall”).

It is for similar reasons that, as well as being patron saint of poets, blacksmiths, and dairy workers, Brigid also has responsibility for print workers and journalists.

The London St Bride’s is known as “the printer’s church”, having housed England’s first printing press, and being in Fleet Street, where many other presses followed.

Aptly, it was in St Bride’s that the press baron Rupert Murdoch married his fourth wife, Jerry Hall, in 2016.

Alas, if she was trying, that was one flame not even St Brigid could keep lit. The couple divorced in 2022.