Tucked away under the shadow of Carrauntoohill lies the parish of Kilgobnet, the last stronghold of the 'Biddy'.

Kilgobnet is similar to many places in rural Kerry, spreading itself across exposed slopes and sitting between wild mountain terrain of the Macgillycuddy Reeks and the gentle flow of the river Laune below.

The land there has been farmed by familiar surnames for generations. Kilgobnet is a vast parish, a maze of backroads and boreens. The sod and stone walls anchor hardy mountain trees such as ash, holly and rowan, all sculpted by the harsh winds which blow from the mountain. Settlement is sparse but the community is strong.

It’s St Brigid’s Eve and darkness has descended. The evening is calm and the mountainside has fallen quiet.

But then, the sound of music can be heard in the distance, signalling their approach: tin whistles, accordions, guitars, drums - the solid beat of a marching tune.

Jeremiah O'Sullivan claps his hands amid the celebrations

The elderly O'Sullivan brothers, David and Jeremiah, have been waiting patiently at the door of their small cottage with ears cocked. They've been looking forward to this since Christmas. The music draws nearer and then, like a parliament of snowy owls, 'the Biddy’ emerges from the dark in their blazing white costumes.

There are over 20 of them, marching in single file, each wearing the distinctive straw hat.

Pinned to their white jackets is a mixture of green and red ribbons and miniature Brigid’s crosses, rushes freshly harvested in the nearby marshes.

They are led by their captain, who holds aloft a hand-painted sign proudly proclaiming in colourful bold lettering the arrival of ‘The Kilgobnet Biddy’.

They also carry the ‘brídeog’, a handmade doll, about three-foot tall with a crudely-painted face, but elegantly dressed in a flowing lace veil and frock. The brídeog represents St Brigid, the centrepiece of the parade and she is carried with respect and care.

One-by-one the members of the Biddy stoop through the cottage door, continuing to play as they step in from the winter chill to the warm glow of a turf fire.

Members of the Kilgobnet Biddy marching in the dark

The O’Sullivan brothers eagerly shake their hands and slap their backs in welcome as they enter. Then the evening takes off, the music fills the kitchen, the gathering is infused with a powerful energy, the set-dancers step and spin to the loud claps and excited shouts of ‘hup’ and ‘yeeow’. They have scarcely drawn breath when one of the younger men in the Biddy creates a clearing amongst the crowd in the kitchen and launches into a hectic brush dance.

Jeremiah O’Sullivan claps wildly, unable to hide his glee. Down through the generations the much-loved visit of the Biddy was always the annual highlight in this house, but for the last number of years an inability to pay house visits due to Covid-19 has denied the brothers its joy.

"We’re all day waiting for them. It would lift your heart to see them coming. We missed them for the last three years. But Christ this is mighty. Having them here tonight - it’s like winning the Sam Maguire!" says Jeremiah.

The nature of this gathering is rooted in a strong sense of present-day community, but the tradition itself may have ancient origins. Many such as Bernie Costello believe the symbolism and the style of costume could hold echoes of pre-Christian rituals.

"We believe this tradition goes back thousands of years. It’s how the pagans welcomed the arrival of Spring. The white costume symbolises the light. We wear all white and we carry the light into the house after the dark winter. The straw hats of course have connections with the land and hopes of a good harvest. And then of course the crosses, well that’s the Christian-ising of the tradition I suppose."

Mike Coffey is the last straw hat-maker and a stalwart of this Biddy group. The intricacy and symmetry of his designs are a thing of beauty, drawing from rich local heritage of such craftsmanship.

Mike Coffey making his straw hats

Mike carefully integrates different styles of crosses and patterns in the tightly woven plats, before festooning the straws with colourful ribbons, tinsel and little crosses. His craft is a defining feature of the Kilgobnet Biddy and is greatly appreciated.

"My grandfather was great with his hands and I suppose he gave me the interest for it. Over the years then I started adding my own style to them. It’s slow work but I enjoy making them."

"The secret is in the straw, the right straw, and we’re very lucky that we can get the best of straw locally, you need a long run in the straw because some of the hats are very tall."

The Biddy tradition remains strong in the Kilgobnet/Beaufort area, but it was once found throughout the south Kerry region. In the 1960s great rivalries existed between the neighbouring groups and Biddy competitions were even held in Killorglin to determine the best-dressed group.

In the 1930s, Seán Ó Conaill, the great storyteller from Cill Rialaigh at the western end of the Iveragh peninsula recounted the Biddy of the 19th century. He said it was predominantly children that travelled from house to house.

They carried the brídeog, whose body was made with a patchwork of white sheets and stuffed with balls of cloth. The head was created using a turnip, with the eyes and mouth cut out. The Biddy group was rewarded with a gift of eggs, rather than money or drink.

Set dancing held inside the cottage on St Brigid's Eve

The captain of the Biddy wore a special straw garment called a cliteán which ran around the waist and fell to the ankles. Another straw cliteán was mounted on the shoulders.

The captain’s face was blackened with soot, and to complete a garish look false teeth made from potatoes were inserted into his mouth and blackened with soot. The woman of the house would rise when she saw the brídeog enter the house and would place a pin in her garment as an offering to secure protection for the household and the animals on which they relied.

The Kilgobnet Biddy witnessed considerable decline from the 1970s onwards and was in danger of dying out, but the last ten years has seen revived interest and the Biddy continues to grow.

Local school children have also formed their own Biddy.

The adult group will travel the roads of mid-Kerry for the best part of a week on either side of St Brigid's Day. While the house visits are motivated by a loyalty to tradition and a desire to entertain and lift spirits, they are also used as an effective means of raising funds for local charities and causes.

This year the Kilgobnet Biddy is collecting for a new children’s playground and their arrival is rewarded by generous donations in each house.

Set dancing held inside the cottage on St Brigid's Eve

Back in the O’Sullivan cottage the roof is lifted by a rousing rendition of ‘Will You Go Lassie Go’ before the musicians immediately slide into a waltz. The brothers are hauled out onto the middle of the floor by the Biddy and are wheeled around the kitchen.

Máire O’Connor says the sense of community spirit generated by the Biddy is extremely rewarding and especially important for neighbours who might be isolated or living alone.

"We really enjoy it, the spirit of it. There’s something special in bringing the music into a house. Especially the older people, it gives them a lift. The joy we get from it is seeing the joy in others when we arrive. That’s what it’s all about. The bringing of the light," she says.

Eventually the music takes rest, the chatter of conversation fills the kitchen, and mugs of hot tea and iced buns are generously handed around by the O’Sullivans.

Some in the Biddy gratefully accept a taoscán of something stronger, in honour of the saint!

It’s then time to move on and rattle the next house. There's money to be collected. They strike up the music one last time – Roddy McCorley - as one by one they exit the cottage.

The O’Sullivans bid them a fond farewell as they depart - a mixture of delight, pride and gratitude fill the brothers’ eyes.

With their brídeog hoisted the white troop marches down the narrow boreen before being swallowed once again by the dark - their faint tune continuing to spill out across the mountainside as they are spirited through the still night.

It’s a sound that feels part of the landscape there. An ancestral sound from the Kingdom.