The festival of Brigit the Holy Woman
By Séamas Ó Catháin
Celtica Vol. 23 (1999)
Introduction: In her monumental The Festival of Lughnasa, Mire Mac Neill writes:
Fuller understanding of the old goddess’s part in the harvest festival must wait on studies, still to be made, of the local legends of the myth of the mythological old woman known as the Cailleach Bheara, and also of the cults of St Brigid and St Ann . . . Brigid must have been closely connected – at least two important Lughnasa sites were dedicated to her, and she is named at several others. Still she hardly appears in the festival legends. She has only a passive part in the Lughnasa complex.
Just as was the case for MacNeill’s brilliant expose of Lunasa, so also much of the raw material which would form the basis for the kind of studies mentioned by her above is to be found in rich abundance among the manuscript collections of the Department of Irish Folklore. The Feast of Saint Brigit, in common with the other Quarter Days of Irish tradition, was the target of particular attention being the topic for an Irish Folklore Commission Questionnaire and also a popular and constant subject of enquiry among folklore collectors over the years. The purpose of this article is to attempt to isolate and highlight certain hitherto largely ignored or, at best, badly understood aspects of the cult of Brigit which feature prominently in Irish folk tradition and which cast her in the role of a fertility figure comparable to her harvest counterpart Lugh.