Opinion: unlike other Celtic festivals, Imbolg features a key central figure revered in both pagan and Christian times, namely Brigid

The commencement of spring is celebrated in Ireland on February 1st. It is beyond doubt that the light is clearly returning and the snowdrops and emerging daffodils tell of a shift upwards in temperatures, whether we feel it or not. The trees are alive with songbirds marking breeding territories and calling for a mate to create family. In plant and animal, the sap is rising and we are not immune from this cycle. Although the early weeks of spring may still have all the personality of winter, the new season asks us to feel the turn of natural earth energies with walks in the fresh blustery air.

To our ancestors, the cross-quarter time between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox marked the cosmic beginning of spring. They innately understood how the season was created and timed by the earth's elliptical journey around the sun. They called this phenomenon Imbolg (also Imbolc), deriving from an older vernacular of Irish (Gaelic) it refers to "in the belly", a reference to the swollen bellies of ewes with lambs soon to be born. The exact moment of Imbolg in Ireland in 2021 will be Wednesday February 3rd at 2.40pm under the waxing Half Moon. Communally, the festival of Imbolg has been celebrated in ancient and increasingly modern times from the night of January 31st up to the "true" cross quarter time and this year we have a whole weekend to revel.

Unlike any of the other eight Celtic festivals, Imbolg is unique in having a key central figure revered in Pagan and Christian times – Brigid. The demands on our ancestors were great as they prepared to clear, sow and plant for a good harvest. They needed fitness, nourishment and inspiration at the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring. Brigid gifted them new vision for future prosperous times heralding the warmer, bright days.

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From RTÉ Archives, Paul McGrath shows Mary Fitzgerald how to make a Saint Brigid's cross on How Do You Do

As recorded and documented by Dr Noel Kissane in his book "Saint Brigid of Kildare", a woman was born in the 5th century who epitomised the attributes of the Spring Goddess: a quintessential Irish woman in her power and strength, standing up for herself and those who need her guidance. St Brigid was born at Faughart near Dundalk, Co Louth, the daughter of Pagan Chieftain of Leinster, Dubhthach and his Christian servant woman Brocca (also known as Broicsech/Brocessa). She was raised in the Druidic tradition, but lived at the time of St Patrick, who it is said she met and converted her to Christianity.  

As we now know, pagan traditions were subsumed by the Catholic Church and most of St Brigid’s traditions are indeed pagan in origin. Most Irish schoolchildren will remember the myths and legends of this Irish female patron saint from spreading her cloak over the plains of Kildare to weaving her iconic equilateral cross of reeds. St Brigid founded a spiritual community for both women and men in Kildare and she is the patron saint of babies, midwives, blacksmiths, scholars, crafters and nature-lovers inspiring poetry and the creative arts.

Both Celtic goddess and Saint Brigid are associated with the elements of fire and water. Her perpetual flame burned in Kildare’s Fire Temple for centuries but was extinguished by Cromwell’s soldiers in the 16th century. It was relit in the 1990s by the Solas Bhríde Sisters and now is tended in their beautiful Solas Bhríde Centre near her healing and garden holy wells in Kildare.

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From RTÉ Archives, folklorist Angela Bourke talks to Cynthia Ní Mhurchú about Saint Brigid on Cúrsaí

Her many wells throughout the country are visited on February 1st in tandem with an increasing number of events including Féile Bríde in Kildare, the Brigid of Faughart Festival in Dundalk and a revival of her Lá Fhéile Bríde festival at her well in Clondalkin, Dublin. The Herstory initiative to uncover the stories of forgotten but fascinating women from history, mythology and contemporary culture includes a Brigid’s Global Fire Blessing

READ: St Brigid's Day and the relevance of saints to the Irish

On January 31st, Imbolg Eve, women put out a Bhrat Bhríde strip of red or blue material to catch the morning dew. This became the symbol of healing in the house as Brigid bestowed her blessing for the year ahead. Another classic tradition was for a young girl representing Brid Óg to come with reeds to the front door as the family waited inside in the dark representing wintertime. Once welcomed, Bríd Óg entered representing spring's arrival. The family then made their Brigid Crosses placing them at doorways for their protection.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ