Tonight is perhaps one of the most celebrated in Ireland. No, there won’t be any mad parties or green beer. Not even wild heathen drumming on the High Places. Instead, this evening is about family, purification, and continuity of ancient practices.
You see, tonight is the eve of St. Brighid’s Feast–the eve of Imbolc–and it’s a big deal.
The indigenous Irish marked the beginning of their festivals at sundown, and deemed that dark time especially potent. [Consider how this thinking impacts the division of the Irish year between Samhain (winter) and Bealtaine (summer). And how the ‘new’ year begins at Samhain.] While February 1st is unlikely to mark the exact date of the ancient festival, it’s only off by a few days (or 10, as Máire MacNeill would have it), and the practice of keeping the Eve hallow continues.
For instance, tonight is when the Brídeóg procession takes place around the home, and Brighid is invited in for a meal with the family. The Brídeóg is a doll, often fashioned from the last sheaf of grain which was tenderly stored in the barn over winter. In many parts of the country the young girls of the family collected the Brídeóg from the barn and walked her around the home three times, calling out as they passed the door, “Brigid is coming!” During this Threshold Rite, those inside the home would respond, “Brigid is welcome! Welcome, Brigid!”
Tonight is also the time for making the Solar Cross (Brigid’s Cross); leaving it, and the Brat Bríde, on the doorstep to collect her blessing as she enters; and performing fire divination in the hearth ashes after everyone is to bed.
“Brid is come. Brid is welcome. Welcome Brid.”
Another important activity that takes place on this night is the vigil. Many will light candles around their local St. Brigid’s Well, perform the pattern—which may include circumambulating trees and mounds, in addition to the well—taking the holy water and leaving various offerings. Interestingly, there are often patterns held at St. Brighid’s well on another important (and mirror) festival: Lughnasadh.
On St. Brigid’s Eve, as the night fell,
my mother and I went to Saint Brigid’s Well,
where the candles do burn and the great walls do shine
on the graves of the dead and the vaults of O’Brien.
(Irish Folklore Commission MS 901; 55-56)
The etymology of Imbolc/Imbolg has been tied to the word for milk in a fairly conclusive way. Sanas Cormaic (ca. 900) indicates oímelc (sheep’s milk) as an etymological base, but Eric Hamp has argued – successfully I think – that the rather complicated etymology should be *uts-molgo- < *ommolg, so that oimelc is a mixed-up spelling for *ommolg. Hamp concludes that Imbolc arises from a root meaning both “milk” and “purification” (111), and he offers several examples within Irish literature where milk is used in these ways: as a cure for poison darts (1),where it is poured into the battlefield furrows of Eremon (2), and the curious detail from the story of Suibhne, where he drinks milk from a hole made in manure—the original implication being that milk would purify even dung!
So in keeping with the spirit of the season, I am on my spring-time vegetable juice fast. It enlivens my system and jump-starts my sluggish winter body. I am also, as my Grandmother taught me, cleaning-out and wiping-down all the surfaces of my home. This is an important step here in Ireland. Over the winter, when the sky is gray and low, the damp seeps into corners and down walls. Green peeks through the white wash and rooms begin to smell musty. It is time for a freshen-up!
Later today I will walk down the lane to the Holy Well and gather my reeds. Into my Solar Cross I will weave items specific to my livelihood and well-being—tokens I wish Brigid to bless as she visits. This was the purpose of the Brat Bríde: a piece of cloth, taken from the bread-winner’s clothing, would be put out for blessing. Strips of this would then be used for healing throughout the year, but a piece was also worn by the giver to protect him/her in their labour. Other tokens of livelihood might also be put out for blessing: grain from the last harvest, seed, milk, butter.
If you would like to make your own traditional Imbolc Eve meal, try Colcannon. It’s pretty easy and mighty tasty!
Colcannon (serves 6)
1 1/4 lbs. 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, and simmer ’til tender. Simmer the leeks in milk for ten minutes ’til tender. Drain and puree the potatoes. Add leeks and their milk and the cooked kale, and mix in. Add mace, salt and pepper. Mound on a plate and pour on the melted butter.Garnish with parsley.
“Brid agus Muire dhuit.”
We are under the shielding of Bríd each day, We are under the mantle of Bríd each night, We shall not be lost in this shifting age, Nor political corruption dismay us, Nor apathy delay us. No fire, no sun, nor star shall burn us, No lake, no water, nor sea shall drown us, Bríd is our comrade, Bríd is our escort through danger, Our choicest of women, our guide. ~ adapted by Traci
Duinn, Seán Ó. “The Rites of Brigid, Goddess and Saint”. The Columba Press.
Hamp, Eric. “Imbolc, Óimelc”. Studia Celtica 14/15 (1979-80), 106-113
MacNeill, Máire. “The Festival of Lughnasadh”. Oxford Press.
And many early Irish magical charms use butter as a curative agent; cf. Carney, “A Collection of Irish Charms”.
Eremon is the mythical first Milesian—i.e. human—king of Ireland; his name is thought to derive from the same origin as Aryaman/Airyaman, the Indo-Iranian embodiment of “Aryan-ness”, i.e. nobility and the ruling class.