Make a St. Brigid's Cross with the National Museum of Ireland in Mayo
February 1 marks Lá Fhéile Bríde or St. Brigid’s Day and there are many traditions and customs associated with this feast-day, dedicated to Ireland's only female patron saint.
St. Brigid's Day (and the older Celtic festival of Imbolc) was an important seasonal marker in folk tradition - signifying the start of spring, new life, fertility and growth.
The crafting of St. Brigid’s Crosses to celebrate Lá Fhéile Bríde is still popular in many Irish homes today.
Keep up the tradition with a free, drop-in activity to learn how to make your own St. Brigid's Crosses, taking place at the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life, Turlough Park, Castlebar, from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, 27 and 28 January.
The museum has an ongoing display that explores St Brigid's Day customs as well as a special temporary display of St Brigid's Crosses, to demonstrate the regional styles and variations throughout Ireland and the different materials used.
There will also be free guided tours of the Irish Folklife Collection at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. on both days, with a focus on objects, customs and traditions associated with St. Brigid.
This is a free, drop-in activity, suitable for all ages. No booking required. For further information, visit www.museum.ie.
Clodagh Doyle is the Keeper of the Irish Folklife Collection at the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life in Mayo.
She outlines here 10 interesting customs and traditions associated with St. Brigid:
1. Marking the Quarter Day
St. Brigid’s Day was one of the ‘quarter days’ celebrated by our ancestors. These days marked a transition from one season to the next. St Brigid’s Day (February 1) signalled the beginning of spring; Bealtaine (May 1) was the start of summer; Lúnasa (August 1) brought in the harvest season and Samhain (November 1) was the beginning of the dark season. Irish festivals were always celebrated on the eve of the day itself because this was considered a very liminal time – a time when the otherworld was close to this one, so appeals for protection and blessing were extra effective.
2. A festival of fertility
St. Brigid’s Day has its origins in the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc and it is the festival of new life and fertility. It was a time to look forward to brighter days, warmer weather, new growth on the land and the birth of farm animals. It was very important to seek protection and blessings for the family, home, crops and animals at this time.
3. The festive meal
No celebration would be complete without a festive meal. The traditional meal at St. Brigid’s Day was a supper of potatoes and freshly churned butter. Often, Colcannon was made by adding chopped cabbage. Apple cakes or barm brack followed with tea. The family would eat this meal together and make their St Brigid’s crosses.
4. St. Brigid’s Crosses
People believed St Brigid crossed 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. There were many regional styles and variations throughout Ireland with different materials used. Families would recite prayers, bless the rushes or straw with holy water and then each make the crosses. They would hang them over the door and around the home to welcome St. Brigid. Many households kept the cross each year in the under-thatch of the house and you could tell how old a house was or how long the family had lived there by the number of crosses in the roof!
5. Protecting crops and livestock
Leftover material from making crosses might be sprinkled on the land or incorporated into spancels and bedding for animals. Crops were often incorporated into the crosses themselves such as a potato or a sheaf of ripe corn. Last year’s dried crosses might also be crushed and sprinkled on the land. Crosses were hung in the byre as well as the home, so St. Brigid would provide protection for animals as she passed.
6. A gift for newlyweds
It was common to give a St. Brigid’s Cross as a gift to those with a new home, and to newlyweds, to offer protection and to wish the couple well in starting a family.
7. The Brat Bríde
Some households would leave out a small piece of cloth or a ribbon on the windowsill, called a Brat Bríde or Ribín Bríde. As St. Brigid crossed through the country on the eve of her feast, she would touch the Brat Bríde, endowing it with special curative properties to ward off illness and pain in both humans and animals. It was kept safe throughout the year and used for healing or incorporated into clothing to offer protection to the wearer.
8. Biddy Boys
Bands of men or children dressed in straw would often go from house to house with ‘Biddy’, an effigy of St Brigid, collecting for a party in her honour while reciting a rhyme.
9. St. Brigid’s Girdle
In the west of Ireland, the biddy boys would carry a large straw belt called a Crios Bríde or St Brigid’s Girdle. People would step through the girdle and pass it over their bodies while saying a prayer to St Brigid in the hope of gaining her protection from illness for the year ahead.
10. St. Brigid’s Well
There are many holy wells throughout Ireland dedicated to St. Brigid and people visited these wells on the eve or on the feast day itself. Often they left a ribbon or a votive offering at the well so that their intention would be remembered. Water collected from a holy well at this time was believed to be particularly blessed.