Legends of the semi-mythical St. Brigid were important to the early Irish Catholic Church.

These same legends have recently proved less convenient.

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In Ireland, the first day of February is the feast day of St. Brigid. We call it Lá Fhéile Bríde. This will also be the name of the new annual public holiday to honor frontline workers. Atheist Ireland has criticized the saintly name of this public holiday. They correctly feel there is enough Catholic Church in Irish public life.

When I was in school in the 1980s, we would make a little woven decoration out of reeds called a St. Brigid’s Cross as in the image above. I don’t know if children still do it, but at the risk of stating the obvious, there is nothing particularly Christian about the practice. 

They didn’t even bother changing the name.

Originally, this was the pagan festival of Imbolc, the start of Spring. Early Irish Christians had a practice of subsuming local pagan customs and legends. With a minimal amount of tinkering, they re-packaged them as Christian. In this case, they didn’t even bother changing the name.

The features and responsibilities of the Celtic goddess Brigid were grafted onto an abbess in Kildare of uncertain historicity to form the myth of St. Brigid. They are “both” responsible for poetry, learning, healing, protection, blacksmithing and domesticated animals. They are also both resonsible for holy wells (which almost uniformly used to be pagan healing wells) in Kildare and elsewhere. 

The reclamation of St. Brigid

In more recent times, modern Irish feminists, inspired by her legends, have reclaimed the myth of St. Brigid. “Thick-skinned and defiant,” she navigated the patriarchal and misogynist society of mediaeval Ireland. Conditions were so restrictive for women that her primary form of rebellion was a refusal to get married.

During 2018, Ireland was racked with tender and vicious abortion referendum debates. In the middle of this a Galway feminist claimed that St. Brigid was Ireland’s first abortionist. The claim comes from “Of Vanishing Foetuses and Maidens Made-Again” by Maeve Callan. An early source relates that a woman with a crisis pregnancy approached Brigid. The saint then “caused the foetus to disappear without coming to birth, and without pain.” This abortion miracle was apparently common among early Irish saints.

Brigid was a lynchpin legend of the early Catholic Church in Ireland. It is ironic that feminists can deploy her life and deeds against the restrictive and harmful laws promoted by the Catholic Church.

There will be a protest outside the Dáil (Irish parliament) today to protest the troubling rise in cases of violence against women. Organizers have named it the St. Brigid’s Day Protest.

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Barry Purcell lives in Ireland and writes about religion, philosophy, psychology, politics and language for a variety of paper and online publications. He has been involved in campaigns to counteract the...