From an Irish Goddess to Saint Brigid
I often hear from readers who are frustrated with the number of Johns, Marys, Williams, Catherines etc. in their Irish family tree as it makes it nearly impossible to sort out who is who with any degree of certainty! Today, we’ll focus on one of these “recurring” Irish names, a name with ancient gaelic origins – whereas many familiar Irish names were often Hebrew and Greek names imported from the bible.
The name in question is a girl’s name – “Brigid” (or Bridget). Do you have any Brigids in your family tree?
An Irish Saint or An Irish Goddess?
The first mention of the name “Brigit” (meaning “exalted one” or “worshiped one” in old Irish) is believed to be from the 800s. It was from “Cormac’s Glossary” – a compendium of Irish names and terms which was based on earlier lost sources. It described Brigit as a pre-christian goddess of Ireland and Scotland. She had associations with nature, healing, fertility and crafting/smithing. Unsurprisingly, a similar goddess is found in many pre-christian cultures across Europe – but the name Brigid/Bridget seems to have a special presence in the English language denoting the feminine/fertility with the use of “bride” as one half of a married couple.
However, the main reason for Brigid becoming a popular Irish girls’ name was due to a Saint of that name – Saint Brigid of Kildare – who has assumed a place as the mother saint of Ireland. Brigid is believed to have been born north of the modern town of Dundalk about the year 450 AD. Over her lifetime, she became a christian nun and started an abbey in what became the town of Kildare. You can still visit the site of her abbey should you ever visit that town today. Brigid died about 525 AD in Kildare and was recorded as performing many miracles during her lifetime – leading to her veneration as a Saint by the 800s.
However – and here is the thing – we don’t actually know for a fact if Saint Brigid was even a real person! You see, she lived through a time when written histories were thin on the ground and many of them were lost over subsequent years. One thing is for certain, Irish people took to venerating St. Brigid with great gusto and devotion. Much of this adoration was probably based on the existing pre-christian rituals around the goddess of the same name. These included lighting fires (to symbolise cleansing), healing powers of holy wells bearing Brigid’s name and the tying of rags of cloth near these wells. All of these practices, and more, are associated with Saint Brigid to this day.
Even St. Brigid’s feast day falls on February 1st – which is also a date marking the ancient Celtic fertility festival of “Imbolc” (meaning the lactation of the ewe in old Irish). We have many place-names associated with the Saint/goddess – with too many River Brides to mention and her name is present in many Irish and Scottish surnames such as Kilbride and McBride.
So, it’s not surprising that this saint/entity that has been in our consciousness for so many centuries has assumed a place as one of the most numerous and popular girl’s names in Ireland and beyond!
This year, Saint Brigid takes her rightful and equal place alongside Saint Patrick in Ireland as we have established a new public holiday – around February 1st – in her honour. While there may be no parades on the street on that date, I have a feeling there will be plenty of people going to Kildare and the various holy wells around Ireland to celebrate this saintly/goddess symbol of healing, love, shelter, connection and motherhood.
So here’s to Saint Brigid, the goddess Brigit and all of the many Bridgets that have lived on this island and beyond over the years and centuries.
I leave you with Saint Brigid’s blessing – a protection prayer recited by our ancestors on St. Brigid’s Eve:
May Brigid bless the house wherein you dwell
Bless every fireside every wall and door
Bless every heart that beats beneath its roof
Bless every hand that toils to bring it joy
Bless every foot that walks its portals through
May Brigid bless the house that shelters you.
Happy St. Brigid’s Day – Happy Imbolc,
Slán until next week,