The tale of Saint Brigid's Cross the first symbol for RTÉ television.
Alice Curtayne, the well-known writer, tells the story of how the cross came into being.
Saint Brigid was called one day to the bedside of a dying pagan chieftain. Many members of his family were Christian and they wanted him to be baptised before he died, but when Brigid reached him, he was already beyond speech, and it seemed too late to hope for his conversion.
She sat down quietly by the bedside, ready to help the family through their difficult hours. All the legends credit her with brevity of speech, and an epigrammatic turn of phrase, but this time she surpassed herself by saying nothing.
Rushes liberally strewn in the livingrooms were the favourite floor-covering of the fifth century. Presently, to beguile the vigil, Brigid pensively stooped and picked up a handful, weaving them into the form of a cross.
Suddenly she was startled by the faint question: "What are you doing?" The sick man had recovered consciousness. Brigid made the half-formed rush cross in her hands the starting point of the whole Christian story. The Chieftain believed, was baptised and died a happy death.
A Busy Life
Saint Brigid's cheif establishment on the grassy plain of the Curragh in Kildare became a double monastery of monks and nuns under her direction. Its activities included a famous school of metal-work, but mainly the legends show her as busy over tubs of home-brewed ale or making butter in the dairy; she herds cows and sheep, she supervises the reapers in a harvest field.
Rain does not deter her: she returns to the convent with her clothes saturated. Her pets include the shyest of untamed creatures, like a wild duck, or a fox.
When Brendan the Navigator paid her a surprise visit, according to the Irish life in the Leabhar Breac, "She came from her sheep to welcome him." Fittingly is she the tutelar spirit of farm and field. Her feast is celebrated at the opening of the agricultural year, the beginning of spring., the season of sowing when hope is renewed.
But the whole point about Saint Brigid is that possibly no one has ever combined so successfully the roles of Martha and Mary, for she was a contemplative, too. Face to face with her, we have to learn again how to link qualities falsely dissociated in the industrial age.
She was an intellectual dairymaid, a cultured cowherd, a field-labourer who was patron of art and letters, a shepherdess who had learning. According to the Book of Lismore, "The comradeship of the world's sons of reading is with Brigid..."
In nearly all parts of Ireland on the eve of her feast-day, February 1, crosses are woven out of rushes, or straw, in commemoration of that story. They are hung up inside the front door, or in kitchen, dairy or cow-byre, to invoke her blessing on the family, home and farm for the coming year. The crosses of the previous year are then burned.
This living tradition is one of the most remarkable examples of continuity to be found anywhere in the world.
About twenty years ago, the Irish Folklore Commission made a survey of all traditional lore connected with Saint Brigid. The results are embodied in nine large manuscript volumes of information. These returns have established that the swastika type of cross is the one most frequently used throughout Ireland, so that it may be taken as the standard.
The four-armed cross was known as a religious emblem in many countries hundred of years before the Christian era. It is possible that Saint Brigid's pagan chieftain was already familiar with it as a symbol of the sun and of new life. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that Nazi Germany gave this emblem a sinister significance. There are several other recognised types of Saint Brigid Crosses. One of these is three-armed, and the others are simply the Roman cross deviously decorated with "lozenges" of woven rushes or straw.
The traditional link is still strongly maintained in the county. Saint Brigid's Well near Kildare has been cited as a model rural shrine in its uncommercialised simplicity. In a nearby cottage live a family expert in weaving the rush crosses. In recent years, too, Irish souvenirs have included a hand-made silver brooch, authentic replica of the standard pattern of the rush cross made by a Naas jeweller, thus transferring the homely cottage art to enduring metal for permanence.
Now adopted as the symbol of Telefís Éireann, Saint Brigid's Cross conjures up in the mind the image of quiet, secret places in the springtime of our history, of rush-bordered rivers in a serene arcadian landscape. Token of the happy absorption of paganism into Christianity which took place on this island fifteen hundred years ago, it is peculiarly apt in this age of ecumenism - a primitive symbol in the proud sense of what is fresh, distinctive and un-derived.
Alice Curtayne writes in the RTV Guide (now RTÉ Guide), 19 January 1962, page 6.
Broadcast on 19 March 1987, the programme 'Mailbag' looks at the history of the RTÉ logo and the reaction to a new version.