Brigid: A guide and a muse to modern women

Joyce Fegan takes a look at the name in history connecting in with both Oliver Cromwell and Adolf Hitler.
Brigid: A guide and a muse to modern women

The Brigid 1500 logo illuminates the Wonderful Barn, Leixlip. Picture: Steve O’Connor

As many of us relax and enjoy our newest Bank Holiday on St Brigid’s Day, we honour the saint herself by meeting the people who use Brigid in her many forms as both a guide and a muse. 

Joyce Fegan takes a look at the name in history connecting in with both Oliver Cromwell and Adolf Hitler.

Laura Murphy: A modern poet fuelled by an ancient Celtic practice

For Laois poet Laura Murphy, her connection to Brigid profoundly guides her work.

"I first connected with Brigid in 2013, on St Brigid’s Way — it’s this pathway discovered in 2012, a straight alignment of sacred sites from Co Louth to Co Kildare, it was an ancient pilgrim route," explains Laura.

She was part of the first group that walked that path in more than 1,000 years, alongside its pioneers Karen Ward and Dolores Whelan.

"We set the group intention to awaken Brigid consciousness or the divine feminine in Ireland again, understanding the damage the patriarchy had done for hundreds of years," says Laura.

"I set the personal intention of how I would use my gifts of poetry and healing. I was 33, in a corporate job at the time, and my poetry was not public at all," she adds.

Laura Murphy. Picture: Michael O'Rourke Photography
Laura Murphy. Picture: Michael O'Rourke Photography

It was on day three of this pilgrimage that she had a profound experience that would change the course of her life. 

The group was on the Hill of Slane and a fire was lit, it was the same spot where St Patrick had lit his paschal fire in 433 "announcing the death of our old ways and heralding the introduction of Catholic faith".

However, at this fire ceremony Laura felt something awaken in her.

I went into this experience, it felt like I was going to faint for about 20 minutes.

"Everyone was invited to speak and I couldn't hear what people were saying and I couldn't really speak and all that came through me was Maud Gonne's motto 'Through fire to light', and the more I said it the better I felt," says Laura.

The poet later found out that Brigid was an inspiration of Maud Gonne's, and the suffragette had her as her patron of Inghinidhe na hÉireann, the Irish nationalist women's organisation.

"From when I stepped away from the fire, poetry started coming out of me, and as I was walking over the Boyne River the next day," says Laura.

But it wasn't just a poem, or a few poems, but a place of inner depth that Laura was now able to access, what entrepreneurs and influencers might call "flow state" in 2023, but what our ancestors and old poets called "imbas forosnai".

"Imbas forosnai is the gift given to people by Brigid and by the goddess Boann. Boann, by creating the River Boyne released imbas, and imbas forosnai is an ancient phrase meaning illuminated inspiration.

"I started to study imbas forosnai and saw how central it was to how pre-Christian Irish society functioned. The poet had the same status as the king, because they were trained for 20 years in this practice of imbas forosnai to bring truth to power and healing to society," says Laura.

"The kings used the poets' abilities to harness higher truth that enabled them to lead the right relationship with the people and the land," she adds.

The practice, where poets would go into a place of darkness for meditation and chant a mantra for several days, was forcibly repressed in Ireland.

Imbas started to inform my poetry, and my poetry started to become a lot more healing.

One example of this is in a 12-minute open letter she wrote to Taoiseach Micheál Martin, that was published in the Irish Examiner, after the State's Mother and Baby Homes apology in January 2021.

"I am the daughter of a mother and baby home survivor, so when the Taoiseach apologised and said it was society’s fault I had to write. I wrote that letter through imbas, it went viral," says Laura.

"These are the words that turned what should have been a watershed moment of healing into a whitewashing of trauma. An expounding of truth became a distortion of history.

"An unequivocal assumption of responsibility descended into a dispersal of blame," read her letter.

The letter ironically ended calling for a public holiday in Brigid the goddess, saint and symbol's name, and Laura would later read it aloud on the Abbey Theatre's stage, airing to the nation on St Patrick’s Day.

Small three-line poems started to come to her next, haikus for healing.

Now, any time she sits down at her desk, Brigid is called in.

"I go into the space where I invoke Brigid all the time, be it poetry, activism, for my corporate job, whenever I want to make an impact. And when I am low in energy I go into nature and I attune my body to nature, and that ignites imbas in me," says Laura.

Inspiration always flows after that, says the poet.

"I get warm, my face goes red, it's like I can disengage the mind and I just let inspiration flow. That's Brigid energy coming through me, and I sit and connect with Brigid the goddess.

"I want to give people an understanding of how important imbas was in ancient Ireland, but we wonder why does Ireland punch above its weight in terms of writing?" says Laura.

Laura is @everose on Instagram

Kitty Maguire: 'When I hold any of my circles, I tune into Brigid asking her to be my guide, to be my ally'

When you enter Kitty Maguire's home you're met with Brigid crosses and art. Since attending St Brigid's national school in Baldoyle, Dublin, the yoga teacher and menstrual mentor has always had a relationship with Brigid.

Indeed, it was 18 years ago, in another hemisphere when she found herself and her friends calling for a public holiday in her honour.

"When I was in Australia at 24, as a young adult, sitting up one of the nights with my pal, we were talking about the things we loved in school. We were asking things like why did Patrick get a day, and why didn't Brigid? I remember singing: 'I’m bringin' Brigid back', to Justin Timberlake," says Kitty.

Kitty Maguire at St Brigid's Well.
Kitty Maguire at St Brigid's Well.

While not a practising Catholic, Kitty became more interested in Irish spirituality and pre-Christian Ireland as her yoga career evolved.

"Once I found out about the goddess Brigid, I thought: 'That’s what we’re missing'," says Kitty.

"There was so much in her that resonated with me, and it gave me a lot of comfort. I was impressed by how diverse and creative she was, and at the root of her was this unconditional love," she adds.

Brigid the saint is a patroness to midwives, yet the goddess Brigid works with fertility.

In Kitty's own work, she says the goddess Brigid acts as her guide and "ally". 

She holds abortion care circles and hosts Red Alchemy courses, which run from five weeks to one year in duration, and centre on the womb from menstruation to menopause weaving in Irish mythology and ancestral healing.

Everyone from midwives to accountants, people on fertility journeys, people transitioning into perimenopause, and people who work in sport who want to learn more about women’s bodies have taken her training.

"When I hold any of my circles, I tune into Brigid asking her to be my guide, to be my ally.

"For me, Brigid was able to see the person that was in front of her, there was no judgement, she was just being of service to her community, she embodied compassion in a crisis. I identify with that. It even moves me now," says Kitty.

Kitty wears a Brigid's cross pin on her clothing and gives similar ones to her closest friends. And Brigid is woven into all the work she does.

Over the years I've brought Brigid into my work through storytelling, art, and guided meditation — it’s a felt sense with Brigid.

"When I do the closing ceremony at Red Alchemy I anoint each person as a red alchemist to Brigid, because Brigid is at the womb heart of it," she says.

Last year Kitty and her partner visited Brigit's Garden in Oughterard to mark February 1, but this year was different when she did a lot to honour her mother (the late Jo Egan) on February 1. 

Going forward she doesn't see St Brigid's Day being just a day in Ireland, but a "Brigid's season", that will only grow in momentum.

"I think it’s a huge step forward for womankind, it wasn’t even probably conscious to a lot of people that we weren’t honouring a female saint and a goddess, until now."

Kitty is on Instagram @kitty_maguire_menstrual_mentor

Kathy Scott: 'Brigid is a badass. She is an inspiration to me as the ultimate creatrix'

Kathy Scott is a cultural activist and producer, having founded The Trailblazery in 2011 which is home to monthly events called Moon Medicine and more recently, Hedge School or Scoil Scairte. 

Born during the pandemic, the latter is a nine-week course that goes "into the heart and soul of Irish culture, heritage and language".

It's sold out more often than not, and it attracts people from all over the world, not just Irish people looking to explore their native language.

Kathy Scott: Feels totally differently about Brigid now compared to what she learnt in school.
Kathy Scott: Feels totally differently about Brigid now compared to what she learnt in school.

Through Kathy's work around Irish culture and ancient Celtic practices, she has long followed the Celtic calendar or wheel, living in alignment with nature and the various festivals throughout the year, from dark Samhain that falls at Halloween to the "quickening" of Imbolc that comes at spring.

"Brigid is a badass. She is an inspiration to me as the ultimate creatrix, trailblazer and carrier of the alchemical flame. When we align with her we tune into a powerful feminine creative life force that is rising all over the world," says Kathy.

"Her Irish name is Breo Saighit which means fiery arrow."

But Brigid was not always a source of inspiration to Kathy, but that was due to how the woman and saints were represented to her in Irish society.

Brigid was something you learnt at school and someone who was very saintly and I ran a mile from that.

"I was more connected to Imbolc, the quickening for Imbolc where the earth is starting to warm up and life is coming back," says Kathy.

Goddess Brigid is associated with Imbolc, in the same way the saint of the same name is connected to February 1.

There are many aspects to Brigid that appealed to Kathy once she started working with her in her adult life.

"In my own work facilitating large groups of women, I've come to see Brigid as a badass, a bridge between worlds and she's a unifier.

"Brigid is also associated with the whistle, and what do we do with the whistle? We sound it as an alarm if someone is under threat. Brigid is a matron of whistleblowers, resisting herd instincts and speaking up for justice — I learned that from historian Dr Mary Condren," says Kathy.

In her role as producer and curator of cultural events for more than a decade, she has observed how Brigid, in whatever guise, has made it mainstream.

"What is happening in the collective is Brigid is back from what was contorted into that Christian space. She didn't feel like a feminist icon to me in school.

"But when I started doing my work, it was in the hope of the feminine rising, and now she has truly risen — rising in both men and women," says Kathy.

"There's this ultimate reckoning, with her being enshrined in the public mainstream, having this holiday named after a woman," she adds.

Kathy is @thetrailblazery on Instagram

Dee Mulrooney: '2023 is not the time for any woman to be purified'

Brigid may be a guide to some, but she is muse to artist Dee Mulrooney who depicts her not as pure, but as a fiery force, a "Brigid from the flats". Not only does Dee depict Brigid in her visual art, but she channels her energy when she draws and paints.

"I really started to connect in with her when I started working with Mary Magdalene," says the artist.

Herstory Festival of Light for St. Brigid's Day Galway with art by Dee Mulrooney. Picture: Steve O'Connor
Herstory Festival of Light for St. Brigid's Day Galway with art by Dee Mulrooney. Picture: Steve O'Connor

Mary and Brigid came to Dee around the same time as the story of the nearly 800 babies in a septic tank in Tuam broke in 2014.

"I never plan a picture, the work comes out fully formed. When I was working with Mary Magdalene and connected in with Brigid, I painted a picture of Mary and Brigid when Tuam broke. There was this red cloak, and it was an effort to take those babies out of the septic tank and put them into clean soil. That blood was pure blood in the painting," says Dee.

Since then she has gone on to acquire a cult following, completing art work for album covers of musicians like Áine Tyrrell and for Imelda May's book of poetry.

When Dee is painting Brigid she says she is "with her" and that her energy and essence is anything but "pure".

"The energy, when she comes through me, is very, very fertile, fiery, really fiery, juicy, she takes no sh*t and doesn't mince her words, that's the feeling I get.

She's also Brigid from the flats, let's not do what we did with Mary like we did before and make her immaculate because women are all of these things — fish wives, sex workers, and the girl who gave birth in the grotto.

This St Brigid's Day the artist is keen that we take in the whole picture of Brigid, not a one-dimensional sanitised one.

"If we are going to reclaim her history, it needs to be in all its facets and not in hagiography. Ireland loves an ould hagiography," says Dee.

The essence she gets from the Brigid that comes to her is one of "I will not be purified", and "I do not obey".

The multidisciplinary artist, who also performs on stage as Growler, emphasises that 2023 is "not the time for any woman to be purified".

Growler, Dee's on-stage alter-ego is a 78-year-old vulva from the inner city of Dublin. Using spoken word she alchemises women's pain through storytelling, singing, and poetry. She sold out at last year's Dublin Fringe Festival, and she is off to Edinburgh Fringe Festival next.

See or @deemulrooney on Instagram

Emer O'Neill: 'She was an activist of her time'

Although Emer O'Neill's national school was called St Patrick's, the broadcaster's knowledge of our matron saint runs deeper. It is not just her knowledge of the woman behind the saint, but her affinity with the figure who was an activist of her time.

"She's a saint for women really, in the sense of childbirth and education, and for nuns.

"She was kind of, in a weird way, an old school feminist, you know not wanting to marry but continue her work," says Emer.

Emer O'Neill: Identified with Brigid's sense of conviction. Picture: Fran Veale
Emer O'Neill: Identified with Brigid's sense of conviction. Picture: Fran Veale

It is Brigid's sense of conviction though that Emer most identifies with. "She was a woman who was very convicted in her ways and she stood up for what she believed although it wasn't the common opinion of the time. She was steadfast in her beliefs and continuing her spreading of catholicism," says Emer.

When she calls Brigid to mind, so too comes an image of Rosie the Riveter - the cultural icon in the United States who represents the women who worked in factories and shipyards during the Second World War.

"She's one of those saints and you think of that American sign of the woman with her fist up with the bandana on, that's St Brigid of Kildare," says Emer.

But it is her credentials and morals as a person that most impresses one of Ireland's modern-day activists.

"She was just a really good person, someone who took care of the old, the weak, the poor, the lowly. She was a very generous person. She in a sense was an activist of her time."

The meaning of Brigid

The meaning of the word Brigid and its various spellings has its roots firmly planted in the term “exalted one”, as per old Irish. 

While we cannot exactly state its popularity as a name here, going back centuries, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) holds data on baby names from the early 1960s on.

The name Brigid peaked in popularity here in 1965, with 293 girls named Brigid that year. It was the 26th most popular name for girls that year. 

However, its popularity started to wane thereafter according to the CSO statistics, but it did remain in the top 100 most popular girls’ names until 1975.

The name started to almost die out for baby girls at the turn of the millennium, with fewer than eight babies given the name Brigid in any year except for 2006, when 10 such names were registered.

There were fewer than three babies called Brigid in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

There is also a note to be made here — there are many variations on the spelling of the name here in Ireland, the most popular of which is Bridget. 

In 2020, 23 girls were named Bridget, and in 2021, the figure was 20, when it was ranked 228th in terms of popularity.

In fact, the number of girls named Bridget reached a peak of 595 in 1964 when the CSO first collected such data and was the eighth most popular name for girls that year. It only dropped out of the top 100 most popular girls’ names in 1998.

Other variations include Breda, Bríd and Brigid spelt as Bridgid or Brighid.

Outside of Ireland, and perhaps a surprise to many, Oliver Cromwell, who landed here in 1649 to reconquer our land, named his eldest daughter Bridget.

Another famous Bridget of the same spelling is Bridget Hitler, although not named by Adolf Hitler, she was the sister-in-law of the German dictator, and was born Bridget Dowling in Dublin in 1891, and is found on the Irish Census of 1901, as living in Ballsbridge. She met Alois Hitler, half-brother to Adolf, at the Dublin Horse Show in 1909 and the pair eloped to London in 1910.

Other famous women include the actress Brigitte Bardot.

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