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Lily-of-the-Valley courtesy of Wikipedia

It is time to welcome Spring with the ancient Irish Festival of Imbolc! Normally this would be a laughable thing to imagine for a person in the Chicago area in February, who would more often than not, be snug indoors peering out at a snow-covered world and listening to the icy howl of winter wind. However this year in Chicago, except for a few normal winter-like days, January and this first day of February have felt more like Spring than Winter! In fact, yesterday I actually saw a child dressed in a t-shirt and shorts working as a crossing guard at my son’s school – though I couldn’t keep my self from mumbling, “Doesn’t that boy have a mother?”  So this year anyway, welcoming Spring does not require a great stretch of the imagination.

Imbolc falls about halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox and was a pagan Irish festival that marked the beginning of Spring. Today Imbolc is more commonly celebrated as Lá Fhéile Bríde,  St. Brigid’s Day. This is one example of the early Christian tactic in Ireland of superimposing itself over the long-standing pagan rites and celebrations, which worked so well, to convert Ireland to Christianity while avoiding the bloodshed experienced in so many other lands. By creating the Feast of St. Brigid on February 1st, the pagan goddess Brigid, was somewhat seamlessly replaced with the Christian, St. Brigid of Kildare, of whom I’ve written a bit more about in an earlier post  titled  St. Brigid’s Day.

So, today I wish you a happy Imbolc and a happy St. Brigid’s Day from lovely, mild Chicago and leave you with a poem that is not only attributed to St. Brigid herself, but is a great example of why she is so loved and admired to this day!

SAINT BRIGID’S PRAYER

I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.
I’d love the heavenly
Host to be tippling there
For all eternity.
 
I’d love the men of Heaven to live with me,
To dance and sing.
If they wanted, I’d put at their disposal
Vats of suffering.
 
White cups of love I’d give to them
With a heart and a half;
Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer
To every man.
 
I’d make Heaven a cheerful spot
Because the happy heart is true.
I’d make the men contented for their own sake.
I’d like Jesus to love me too.
 
I’d like the people of Heaven to gather
From all the parishes around.
I’d give a special welcome to the women,
The three Marys of great renown.
 
I’d sit with the men, the women and God
There by the lake of beer.
We’d be drinking good health forever
And every drop would be a prayer.

Brigid of Kildare, courtesy teabagsinfusion.blogspot

As we hunker down in Chicago awaiting what we’ve been warned will be a blizzard bringing anywhere from 1 and 2 feet of snow by tomorrow afternoon, let’s remember it’s the first day of Spring – according to the Celtic Calendar anyway! Lá Fhéile Bríde, St. Brigid’s Day, falls on the 1st of February and is the Christian replacement for the pagan festival of Imbolc, which honored the goddess Brigid, and celebrated the official beginning of the growing and lambing season.

St. Brigid, a contemporary of St. Patrick and often called “Mary of the Gaels” is still a popular saint in Ireland. There was a time when people believed that she walked the earth on her feast day, in the company of her white, red-eared cow, bestowing blessings upon people and livestock. The tradition was for families to welcome her by leaving an oaten cake and some butter on the outside window sill – along with some corn for her cow. People would also tie ribbons, bits of cloth or handkerchiefs on tree limbs or clothes lines, to be blessed by St. Brigid as she passed their way. This blessed remnant of cloth, called “St. Brigid’s Mantle”, was once thought to have special healing powers. I doubt that many people these days follow this particular tradition, except perhaps in the spirit of celebration and acknowledgment of Ireland’s historic past. However, I do believe young school children still practice the tradition of weaving St. Brigid’s Crosses from rushes to bring home for their parents to hang upon the wall in place of the cross they made the year before. Another practice that may still be followed today by some in Ireland, as well as a few Irish-Americans, would be the preparation of certain dishes traditionally eaten on St. Brigid’s Feast Day. These would be the afore-mentioned Oaten Cakes, as well as Boxty and, my choice for the day, Colcannon. Yes, I am going to try my hand at this traditional Irish dish today, as I watch the snow quietly piling up around my Midwestern Illinois home. There would be no point in attempting to create a St. Brigid’s Cross from rushes, because even if I knew what a rush looked like, it would probably be buried beneath several inches of snow in this place so far from St. Brigid’s country or any sign of Spring!

Colcannon (serves 6)

1 1/4 pounds Kale or green Cabbage

2 cups water

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 1/4 pounds peeled and quartered potatoes

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 cup cleaned and chopped leeks, white part only

1 cup milk

Pinch of ground mace

Salt and ground pepper to taste

1/2 cup melted butter

Simmer kale or cabbage in 2 cups water and oil for 10 minutes, then drain, and chop fine. Boil potatoes and water, simmer until tender. Simmer the leeks in milk for ten minutes, until tender. Drain and puree the potatoes. Add leeks and their milk and the cooked kale, stir together. Stir in mace, salt and pepper. Mound on a plate and pour on the melted butter. Garnish with parsley. – Recipe courtesy fisheaters.com, where you will also find recipes for Boxty and Oaten Cakes.

My store-bought St. Brigid's Cross.

Brigid's Cross, courtesy fisheaters.com

Naomh Bhríde, St. Brigid (c. 453-523), also known as “The Patroness of Ireland” and “The Mary of the Gael”, has been credited with being a pioneer of early monastic life in Ireland. A contemporary of St. Patrick, St. Brigid, the daughter of an Irish Chieftain and his Pict slave, began her first convent with seven nuns, went on to set up and become the abbess of a double monastery, which housed both men and women, and eventually was even ordained Bishop. St. Brigid is surrounded by myth and mist, which is beautifully mixed with the folklore and rituals of the Celtic goddess, Brigid, her pagan predecessor. About where Brigid ends and St. Brigid begins, there has been much debate.

This scant bit of information was all I needed to be drawn to St. Brigid’s Cathedral in Kildare, County Kildare, Ireland. The fact that I had lived in Newbridge, County Kildare for several months before finally making it to the cathedral a few miles away, just goes to show how a person can get bogged down with day-to-day living, even while living abroad for one year with a long list of things to see! When we finally made it to Kildare and the cathedral, it was late on a cold, damp winter’s day. Though the gates were open with a bit more than an hour until closing, the cathedral was closed due to limited winter hours, so we had to satisfy ourselves with just touring the grounds. To tour the grounds of this particular cathedral is to wander, not only the place where St. Brigid’s original church and monastery once stood, but also to reach back into Ireland’s pagan past to the sacred site of the goddess Brigid, upon which St. Brigid is thought to have built her monastery.  Although a Norman Bishop in 1233 built the cathedral, which now stands on the site, the grounds contain the second tallest round tower in Ireland and the remains of the ancient oratory, “St. Brigid’s Fire House”. A sacred fire burned on this spot for centuries, probably going back to pre-Christian times when priestesses lit and tended fires for the goddess Brigid. When her monastery and church were built upon this site, St. Brigid, perhaps in keeping with the wise tactics of St. Patrick, adapted the local pagan practices into Christian ritual and continued the custom of a perpetual fire. This fire was kept burning throughout her life and through several centuries by the nuns who came after, up until the suppression of Ireland’s monasteries in the sixteenth century.

Due to the season, the cold, wet weather and the time of day, we had all these treasures of antiquity to ourselves as Declan, Kate and I walked around reading plaques, touching ancient, weathered stone and in general, attempted to sense a bit of the energy and vibes of this historically significant and sacred place. By the time we made our way around the cathedral there were about 15 minutes left until closing, and with dusk upon us and darkness approaching, that invisible energy we had looked for was beginning to feel a little too close for comfort and we were ready to leave and find a nice, warm tea shop. However, upon our return to the entry gate it was, not only closed –  but locked! The bars were wrapped in a thick, metal chain and secured tightly with a heavy lock, and there was not another person in site. At first, Kate, Declan and I walked calmly around the grounds, looking for another exit, which we were sure was available. When that proved fruitless, a little less calm, we began looking for a spot where one of us would be able to scale the wall and go for help. But we found that the Normans built their walls very well and with the height of the walls, followed by hedges and furze and a sharp decline beyond, none of the three of us felt up to the task of escaping this fortress. Back at the gate, we did what any person stuck in an abbey against their will would do, we called for help! The street leading to the gate was empty but as we were yelling a man happened to leave a nearby pub, and we were able to get his attention. Sure enough, he held up one finger telling us to wait, and went back into the pub where he retrieved the guard who was supposed to be on duty at the cathedral. The man came running with one of those big, old skeleton keys on a ring, and full of apologies. Apparently he had not seen us enter the gate and, considering the weather, had decided his time was better spent having a pint, than sitting in a damp old church awaiting visitors, so he closed up early and headed for the pub! Thank goodness the pub was close by, but then, aren’t they always close by?

A few months later we made it back to St. Brigid’s Cathedral when the tourist season was beginning to open things up a bit and we were able to get inside to tour the cathedral and walked the grounds again, pamphlet’s in hand and a bit more informed. We were even allowed to ring the church bell with its huge dangling rope, something 13-year-old Kate had a lot of fun doing! During this visit we learned that a strange hole passing through the stone at one outside corner of the cathedral, had its own piseog, or superstition, attached to it. The tradition is that a person places their arm through the hole far enough so that they can bend their elbow in order to touch their shoulder, and then they may make a wish! Here is a photo of me, on that windy day at St. Brigid’s Cathedral, making my wish. The bump in the photo is Eóin a few weeks before he was born. As any mother would guess, my wish was for an easy delivery of a healthy baby. Though we may never know the true origin of that hole in the stone wall, thankfully my wish came true!

Me, with Eóin aboard, making a wish!

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