Today is Imbolc or Imbolg (pronounced i-MOLK or i-MOLG ), also known as saint Brigid’s Day (Irish: Lá Fhéile Bríde, Scottish Gaelic: Là Fhèill Brìghde, Manx: Laa’l Breeshey), a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of spring. Most commonly it is held on 31 January–1 February, that is, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. It is observed in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Kindred festivals were held at the same time of year in other Celtic lands; for example the Welsh G?yl Fair y Canhwyllau.
Imbolc is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and it is associated with important events in Irish legend. It has been suggested that it was originally a pagan festival associated with the goddess Brighid and that it was Christianized as a festival of Saint Brigid, who some scholars take to be a Christianization of the goddess, while others believe that Brigid was a real person. At Imbolc, Brighid’s crosses were made and a doll-like figure of Brighid, called a Brídeóg, would be carried from house-to-house. Brighid was said to visit one’s home at Imbolc. To receive her blessings, people would make a bed for Brighid and leave her food and drink, while items of clothing would be left outside for her to bless. Brighid was also invoked to protect livestock. Holy wells were visited and it was also a time for divination.
Irish imbolc probably derives from the Old Irish i mbolg “in the belly”. This refers to the pregnancy of ewes.
Since Imbolc is immediately followed (on 2 February) by Candlemas (Irish Lá Fhéile Muire na gCoinneal “feast day of Mary of the Candles,” Welsh G?yl Fair y Canhwyllau), and has customs associated with it that very close to those of Candlemas (see 2 Feb), Irish imbolc is sometimes rendered as “Candlemas” in English translation; e.g. iar n-imbulc, ba garb a ngeilt translated as “after Candlemas, rough was their herding.”
The date of Imbolc is thought to have been significant in Ireland since the Neolithic period. This is based on the alignment of some Megalithic monuments. For example, at the Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara, the inner chamber is aligned with the rising sun on the dates of Imbolc and Samhain (six months later).
In Gaelic Ireland, Imbolc was the feis or festival marking the beginning of spring, during which great feasts were held. It is attested in some of the earliest Old Irish literature, from the 10th century onward. It was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (1 November), Imbolc (1 February), Beltane (1 May) and Lughnasadh (1 August). Studies by folklorists from the 18th to 20th centuries tell us how Imbolc was celebrated then, and shed light on how it may have been celebrated in the more recent past.
Imbolc has been traditionally associated with the onset of lactation of ewes and the lambing season. This could vary by as much as two weeks before or after the start of February. Also, the timing of agrarian festivals can vary widely, given regional variations in climate. This has led to some debate about both the timing and origins of the festival. The Blackthorn is said to bloom at Imbolc. The holiday was a festival of the hearth and home, and a celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of spring. Celebrations often involved hearth fires, special foods (see recipes), divination or watching for omens, candles or a bonfire if the weather permitted.
Imbolc is strongly associated with Saint Brigid (Old Irish: Brigit, modern Irish: Bríd, modern Scottish Gaelic: Brìghde or Brìd, anglicized as Brigit, Bridget, Bridgit, Bríd, and Bride). There is considerable controversy as to whether Brigid is a humanized and Christianized version of the goddess Brighid of Imbolc, or whether she was a real flesh and blood woman. Quite a number of pagan festivals were Christianized in the Middle Ages in order to make conversion to Christianity more palatable. Christmas in northern Europe is the commonest example used, a conversion of pagan midwinter festivals with all the old pagan symbols remaining – evergreen trees, holly, mistletoe, etc. – but with the focus shifted to the birth of Jesus (whose actual birth date is unknown).
In the controversy about the historical existence of Brigid that erupted in the last third of the 20th century, researchers noted that eleven people with whom Brigid is associated in her Vita are independently attested in other annals, sources that place her death on 1 February 523 (in the Annals of Tigernach and Chronicon Scotorum) and her birth at 451 (calculated from the alleged age of 72 at death). The differing biographies written by different authors, giving conflicting accounts of her life, are regarded as having considerable literary merit in themselves, but their legendary nature and seriously conflicting accounts undermine the notion that Brigid actually existed. Three of those biographies agree that she had a slave mother in the court of her father, Dubhthach, a king of Leinster.
Some scholars suggest that believers syncretised St Brigid with the pagan goddess Brighid. According to medievalist Pamela Berger, Christian “monks took the ancient figure of the mother goddess and grafted her name and functions on to her Christian counterpart.”
Brigid may have been born in Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland. Because of the legendary quality of the earliest accounts of her life, there is much debate among many secular scholars and even faithful Christians as to the authenticity of her biographies. According to her biographers her parents were Dubhthach, a pagan chieftain of Leinster, and Brocca, a Christian Pict and slave who had been baptized by Saint Patrick. Some accounts of her life suggest that Brigid’s father was in fact from Lusitania, kidnapped by Irish pirates and brought to Ireland to work as a slave, in much the same way as Saint Patrick. Many stories also detail Brigid’s and her mother’s statuses as pieces of property belonging to Dubhthach, and the resulting impact on important parts of Brigid’s life story.
The Vita outlines Brigid’s early life. It says that Brigid’s mother was a slave, and Brigid herself was born into slavery to a druid. From the start, it is clear that Brigid is holy. Before a name had been given to the infant, Dubthach dreamt of three clerics baptizing her. One of the clerics told her father, “Let Brigid be your name for the girl”. When the druid tries to feed her, she vomits because he is impure. Dubhthach recognises his impurity and finds a white cow with red ears to sustain her instead. As she grows older, Brigid performs many miracles, including healing and feeding the poor. Saint Brigid is celebrated for her generosity to the poor. According to one tale, as a child, she once gave away her mother’s entire store of butter. The butter was then replenished in answer to Brigid’s prayers.
Brigid committed to the religious life as a young woman. The ceremony was performed, according to different accounts, by one or the other of the bishops Mel (d. 487) or Mac-Caille (d. c.489), the location probably being in Mág Tulach (the present barony of Fartullagh, Co. Westmeath). Mel also granted her abbatial powers. She followed Saint Mel into the Kingdom of Teathbha, which is made up of sections of modern Meath, Westmeath and Longford. This occurred about 468. According to some sources, Brigid was ordained bishop by Bishop Mel at Mag Tulach, and her successors have always been given Episcopal honor.
Brigid’s small oratory at Cill-Dara (Kildare) became a center of religion and learning, and developed into a cathedral city. She founded two monastic institutions, one for men, and the other for women, and appointed Saint Conleth as spiritual pastor of them. It has been frequently stated that she gave canonical jurisdiction to Saint Conleth, Bishop of Kildare, but, as Archbishop Healy points out, she simply “selected the person to whom the Church gave this jurisdiction”, and her biographer tells us distinctly that she chose Saint Conleth “to govern the church along with herself”. Thus, for centuries, Kildare was ruled by a double line of abbot-bishops and of abbesses, the Abbess of Kildare being regarded as superior general of the monasteries in Ireland.
Brigid also founded a school of art, including metal work and illumination, over which Conleth presided. The Kildare scriptorium produced the Book of Kildare, which elicited high praise from Giraldus Cambrensis, but which has disappeared since the Reformation. According to Giraldus, nothing that he had ever seen was at all comparable to the book, every page of which was gorgeously illuminated, and he concludes by saying that the interlaced work and the harmony of the colors left the impression that “all this is the work of angelic, and not human skill”.
There is evidence in the Trias Thaumaturga for Brigit’s stay in Connaught, especially in County Roscommon and also in the many churches founded by her in the Diocese of Elphin. Her friendship with Saint Patrick is attested by the following paragraph from the Book of Armagh: “inter sanctum Patricium Brigitanque Hibernesium columpnas amicitia caritatis inerat tanta, ut unum cor consiliumque haberent unum. Christus per illum illamque virtutes multas peregit”. (Between St. Patrick and Brigid, the pillars of the Irish people, there was so great a friendship of charity that they had but one heart and one mind. Through him and through her Christ performed many great works.)
On Imbolc Eve, Brighid (the goddess) was said to visit virtuous households and bless the inhabitants as they slept. As Brighid represented the light half of the year, and the power that will bring people from the dark season of winter into spring, her presence was very important at this time of year. In the 19th century, families would have a supper on Imbolc Eve to mark the end of winter. Often, some of the food and drink would be set aside for Brighid. Before going to bed, items of clothing or strips of cloth would be left outside for Brighid to bless. Ashes from the fire would be raked smooth and, in the morning, they would look for some kind of mark on the ashes as a sign that Brighid had visited. The clothes or strips of cloth would be brought inside, and believed to now have powers of healing and protection. In Mann during the 18th century, the custom was to gather a bundle of rushes, stand at the door, and invite Brighid into the house by saying “Brede, Brede, come to my house tonight. Open the door for Brede and let Brede come in”. The rushes were then strewn on the floor as a carpet or bed for Brighid. In the 19th century, some old Manx women would make a bed for Brighid in the barn with food, ale, and a candle on a table. In the Hebrides in the late 18th century, a bed of hay would be made for Brighid and someone would then go outside and call out three times: “a Bhríd, a Bhríd, thig a sligh as gabh do leabaidh” (“Bríd Bríd, come in; thy bed is ready”). In the early 19th century, the people of the Hebrides held feasts, at which women would dance while holding a large cloth and calling “Bridean, Bridean, thig an nall ‘s dean do leabaidh” (“Bríd Bríd, come over and make your bed”). However, by this time the bed itself was rarely made.
In Ireland and Scotland, girls and young women would make a Brídeóg (also called a ‘Breedhoge’ or ‘Biddy’), a doll-like figure of Brighid made from rushes or reeds. It would be dressed in bits of cloth, shells and/or flowers. the Hebrides of Scotland, a bright shell or crystal called the reul-iuil Bríde (guiding star of Brighid) was set on its chest. The girls would carry it in procession while singing a hymn to Brighid. All wore white with their hair unbound as a symbol of purity and youth. They visited every house in the area, where they received either food or more decoration for the Brídeóg. Afterwards, they feasted in a house with the Brídeóg set in a place of honor, and put it to bed with lullabies. When the meal was done, the local young men humbly asked for admission, made obeisance to the Brídeóg, and joined the girls in dancing and merrymaking until dawn. In the late 17th century, Catholic families in the Hebrides would make a bed for the Brídeóg out of a basket. In parts of Ireland, the Brídeóg was carried from house-to-house by children who asked for pennies for “poor Biddy”. In many parts, only unmarried girls could carry the Brídeóg, but in some places both boys and girls carried it.Up until the mid 20th century, children still went from house-to-house asking for money for the poor. In County Kerry, men in white robes went from house-to-house singing.
Brighid’s crosses were made at Imbolc (top image). A Brighid’s cross consists of rushes woven into a shape similar to a swastika, with a square in the middle and four arms protruding from each corner. They were often hung over doors, windows and stables to welcome Brighid and protect the buildings from fire and lightning. The crosses were generally left there until the next Imbolc. In western Connacht, people would make a Crios Bríde (Bríd’s girdle); a great ring of rushes with a cross woven in the middle. Young boys would carry it around the village, inviting people to step through it and so be blessed.
Today, some people still make Brighid’s/Brigid’s crosses and Brídeógs, or visit holy wells dedicated to St Brigid. Imbolc (and Candlemas) was also traditionally a time of weather divination, and the old tradition of watching to see if serpents or badgers came from their winter dens may be a forerunner to the North American Groundhog Day. A Scots Gaelic proverb about the day says:
Thig an nathair as an toll
Là donn Brìde,
Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd
Air leac an làir.
The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bríde,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.
Imbolc was believed to be when the Cailleach—the divine hag of Gaelic tradition—gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she wishes to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. Therefore, people would be relieved if Imbolc is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over. At Imbolc on the Isle of Man, where she is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to take the form of a gigantic bird carrying sticks in her beak.
Brigid, usually using the spelling “Bride” has given her name to numerous towns, wells, churches, and locations. Kilbride (Brigid’s church) is one of Ireland’s most widely spread placenames, there are 43 Kilbrides located in 19 of Ireland’s 32 counties, as well as two Kilbreedy’s in Tipperary, Kilbreedia and Toberbreeda in Clare, Toberbreedia in Kilkenny, Brideswell Commons in Dublin, Bridestown and Templebreedy in Cork and Rathbride and Brideschurch in Kildare. Similarly, there are a number of placenames derived from Cnoic Bhríde (“Brigit’s Hill”), such as Knockbridge in Louth and Knockbride in Cavan.
St Bride’s church in Fleet Street in London is conjectured to have been founded by Celtic monks in the 7th century. The current church was designed by Christopher Wren in 1672 after the previous one (sixth to stand on the site) was destroyed by the Great Fire of London (see 2 September). The spire was the inspiration for modern wedding cakes – presumably because of a misunderstanding concerning the meaning of “Bride.”
You get a three-fer of recipes for Imbolc/Brigid today – Colcannon, Boxty Cakes, and Oat Cakes.. All three are strongly associated in Ireland with 1 February, although all of them are eaten throughout the year. Colcannon is very popular across the Celtic regions of Britain and there are numerous recipes. Oat cakes or oat bread are essential on this day. All these dishes go well with corned beef which is sometimes served on this day in honor of the druid’s white cow with red ears.
1¼ lbs Kale (preferable) or green Cabbage
2 cups water
1 tbsp olive oil
1¼ lbs potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 tbsp chopped parsley
1 cup leeks, chopped (white part only)
1 cup milk
pinch ground mace
salt and ground pepper to taste
½ cup melted butter
Simmer kale or cabbage in 2 cups water and oil for 10 minutes, then drain, and chop fine.
Boil potatoes and water, and simmer until tender.
Simmer the leeks in milk for ten minutes until tender.
Drain and mash the potatoes.
Add the leeks and their milk and the cooked kale, and mix in. Add mace, salt and pepper to taste.
Mound on a plate and pour on the melted butter. Garnish with parsley.
½ lb hot cooked potatoes
½ lb grated raw potatoes
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1½ cups buttermilk
butter for frying
salt and pepper
Drain, peel and mash the hot potatoes.
Stir in the raw potatoes, flour and baking soda. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Mix well with enough buttermilk to make a stiff batter.
Shape into 3 inch patties about ¼ inch thick and fry on hot greased griddle until crispy and golden on both sides.
Yield 12 cakes
St. Brigid’s Oatcakes
2 cups uncooked, old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant)
1 ¼ cups buttermilk
2 ½ cups sifted bread flour
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
A day ahead, combine the oats and buttermilk in a small bowl. Blend thoroughly, cover and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C.
Remove the oat mixture from the refrigerator.
Combine the bread flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Slowly add the oat mixture and stir with a wooden spoon 20 to 30 times, or until you have a smooth dough.
Grease a baking sheet with the vegetable oil.
Turn the dough on to the baking sheet, and use your hands to form a round, cake-shaped loaf about 1-inch thick. Use a sharp knife to cut the dough into 4 quarters. Move the quarters apart slightly, but keep them in the original round shape.
Bake until the cakes are light golden brown and firm to the touch, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool slightly on a rack, and serve with butter and jam or preserves.
Yield: 1 loaf (in quarters).