An exhibition of 21 St Brigid's crosses have gone on display at the Museum of Country Life in Castlebar, Co Mayo.

It marks the 21st anniversary of the opening of the museum in Turlough Park and features regional crosses from all around the country.

The Government is now proposing St Brigid's Day as a new bank holiday from 2023 onwards, and staff at the museum expect renewed interest in this ancient festival.

FOLK21 will showcase four sets of 21 objects from the Irish Folklife collection, beginning with the St Brigid crosses to mark the first quarter of the year.

The quarter day festivals in Ireland traditionally marked the beginning of the seasons on 1 February, 1 May, 1 August and 1 November. This became known as the Celtic Calendar.

St Brigid was believed to have travelled through the land on the eve of her feast day and gave blessings and protection to homes and farms where crosses were hung in her honour.

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While the four-armed cross is the most familiar St Brigid's cross, there are many different regional styles and variations.

Although rushes were very popular, crosses were also made of straw and wood. Families would recite prayers, bless the rushes or straw with holy water and each make the crosses.

They would then hang them over the door of the home and farm-buildings to welcome St Brigid.

Clodagh Doyle said there are 369 crosses in the National Museum's collection

"Diamond shape crosses were the most popular," said Clodagh Doyle, Keeper of the Irish Folklike Division at the National Museum of Ireland.

"We have 369 crosses in the National Museum's collection from all over Ireland. Everyone thinks that the one made famous by RTÉ is the definitive St Brigid's cross, but the four-armed cross isn’t as popular as all these diamond shaped ones.

"So there's different variations of diamond shapes, there's some three-armed crosses. There are many different types.

"Some have the potato incorporated into the straw design, others have the sheaf of corn wrapped around the cross, looking for protection for St Brigid to look after crops.

"There's also a small little Bratóg Bride which would have been made around St Brigid's Eve and brought out in the boat with fisherman.

"The girdle, or Crios Bríde, was a belt with crosses woven into the design and was seen to offer protection from illness when you said a prayer to St Brigid.

"The 'woman of the house' would put the girdle over her head and down her body before stepping out of it. She would repeat the ritual three times to bring her luck and health for the coming year."

There are also straw effigies of the saint and they are often brought by the "biddy boys" who are dressed in straw or children who would go from house to house with the biddy. Some are 1.21m (4ft) high and 'scary'.

Traditionally, crosses were most common in rural areas outside Leinster. They were made on St Brigid's Eve with the old one from the previous year burned beforehand. It marked the seasonality of the ritual, the death of the old year and the start of renewal in the next. This ancient religious folk custom was carried out alongside conventional Christian practice.

The new cross was blessed with holy water before being placed high in the house.

There are also straw effigies of the saint

Ms Doyle explained how in the past, particularly in Connacht, a female member of the family, often called Brigid, would represent the saint carrying a bundle of rushes.

"This person would leave the house before returning to knock three times on the door calling out 'let St Brigid enter the house'," she said.

"Those inside would respond 'you're welcome St Brigid' and on entering she would sit at the table laid out with food and would lead the occupants in saying a prayer before eating.

"After the meal, the rushes she had brought in would be made into crosses. Green rushes were also laid on the floor as an old symbol to welcome important guests and indicate the dwelling was clean and prepared for the visit."

Crosses are still found hanging in homes and schools around the country with design variations for different regions. The oldest design is believed to be the three-legged cross which pre dates Christianity. They were usually consigned to out buildings for the protection of animals.

Today, the most familiar and popular style is still the four-legged cross, which is seen as simple and fast to make, thereby making it a popular choice in workshops for children.