Fiann Ó Nualláin reflects on the customs and celebrations associated with Saint Brigid's Day.
Today is February 1. To some that means Lá Fhéile Bríde or a Christianised Saint Brigid’s Day and to others it is Imbolg.
To everyone in Ireland it is the first day of spring. Don’t throw the woolly hat away just yet but instead do tip it to the start of rejuvenation and warmer days ahead.
Not having succumbed to Roman invasion, we kept our birth of spring with the impending lambs and the lush green rushes as cues, and not the thawing of the iced-up passes in the Alps and a return to war or resupply of the military outposts — the reason March is named after Mars, the Roman god of war.
Yes, our ancestors preferred our spring to be about rebirth and growth and not about reconquest and decimation.
And later on in our history, not having adopted all of Romanised British customs either, we maintained our uniqueness in the world as celebrating spring a month in advance of everywhere else on this planet — and boy, do I love us for it.
It’s not a stubborn streak, it’s much more character-defining than that.
Long before the shamrock met with a certain Christian’s fingers, three was a sacred manifestation in Ireland; from the other trefoil spirals carved on ancient boundary rocks and at sacred sites to our poetic and wisdom-invoking triads, to triple deities and so on.
So, it is fitting that the first sacred day of renewal has a facet of three.
Let’s look at the three aspects of today’s date and how they may pertain to the art of gardening.
Lá Fhéile Bríde relates to a day of celebration of the Irish goddess Bríde whose name can be translated as “the exalted one”.
As a triple goddess, she does not have three personas but her triplet beat is in her tending of the three fires: the fire of smithcraft representing physical fire and exertion/action; the fire of healing, representing the fire of life within and the power of knowledge; and the fire of inspiration and poetry or the fire of the spirit and the participation with the divine.
Thus she represents all life and life-giving and life-supporting energies.
Other than fire she is also water, the maintenance of life to humans and animals and fertility of the land.
She presides over many healing springs and wells and her emblem is the woven stems of rushes harvested from damp ground — that emblem is mostly known as the bogha Bríde or St Brigid’s cross and here there is crossover with the Christian Brigid, but its origins were to manifest the sun’s rays and not the crucifix.
By all means make a bogha but the cueI take from this is a good opportunity to pull some weeds today and make them productive, be that a chickweed salve for my gardening hands or a fermented liquid feed for my garden plants.
There is craft, there is healing and there is inspiration in that, so a fitting way to pay homage if not outright cherish.
Saint Brigid’s Day pertains to the Irish Christian calendar and Saint Brigid, born at Faughart in Co Louth, who founded a convent in Kildare and legend has it, maintained a sacred fire, adapted the sun’s ray rushes to the cruciform emblem and over time shifted the other attributes of Bríde to a Christian context.
One of the more prominent legends is of the sacred fire maintained in continuous flame for over 500 years all without ash.
In tidying the garden in the past week as a way to get back into the swing of things, as per every other year I amass a variety of pea sticks and plant support canes that are always good for a small bonfire.
Adding some birch paper (easily peeled from the tree with no harm) as tinder and some straw and dry leaf litter I can get something going easily.
That backyard fire won’t last 500 years and it won’t be ashless but that’s fine by me.
Not only will I warm my hands and let the flames be a symbolic prayer but the small fire will yield ashes that contain most of the 13 essential nutrients that your soil must supply for healthy plant growth.
Tomorrow I can simply rake it in, or add it to the compost heap.
You can also save a little in a jam jar for later use as an organic pest-barrier; sprinkle around plant bases at surface level to deal with slugs, snails and cutworms who can’t abide the texture.
Imbolg is actually one of those moveable festivals, being a cross-quarter day marking the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
It can thus fall anywhere between January 31, February 1 or 2 (but often as late as February 7).
To simplify things, it is most often in modernity nodded to on the first of this month.
It is about acknowledging the return of growth, the rebirth and regenerations of spring.
Imbolc derives from Imbolg, literally “in the belly” and is a recognition of lambing and the lactation of sheep, the next generation, the ongoing continuity of life.
We leave the dormancy or gestation of winter and enter the next phase of life now.
We can take a spiritual cue from that but also it is opportune to think of the vegetable food you want in your belly and to get the seed of that into the belly of the ground, or at very least into a seed tray.
To the gardener, February is a month of sowing.
Today is a nice day to make a fortuitous start.
It doesn’t have to be lamb’s lettuce but the greatest celebration is a smile and in getting your giggles where you can: Remember the old proverb “maireann croí éadrom i bhfad” — a light heart lives a long time.