Meanwhile, in Ireland: Imbolc/Saint Brigid’s Day

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The Wheel of the Year turns on as the sun begins to return, and with it, warmth, light, and life. 

Imbolc, celebrated on 1-2 February, is one of the great Fire Festivals, or markers of the change in season. In modern day, ancient traditions have become interwoven with the more recent additions to create a unique cultural celebration that continues to be recognized across Ireland (especially in the more traditional Gaeltacht regions along the West coast, from Cork to Donegal). 

The four great fire festivals on the wheel of the year are:

Imbolc (Pronounced Im+Bolk) – Beginning of Spring/Planting Season (1-2 February)

Bealtaine (Pronounced Bell+tawn+yuh – Anglicized as Beltane) – Beginning of Summer/The Growing Season (1-2 May)

Lughnasadh (Pronounced Look+Naw+suh) – Beginning of Autumn/The Harvest (1-2 August) 

Samhain (Pronounced Saw+in) – Beginning of Winter/The Dark Period/End of the Cycle (31 October – 2 November)

The story of Imbolc begins with Cailleach (Pronounced K+eye+Lick or K+eye+Lee), the old Crone of Winter who acts as a predecessor to our lovely Pennsylvania Groundhog friend, Punxsutawney Phil in many regards. Her story is as follows.

Artwork courtesy of Sabrina Moody

Cailleach, the Queen of Winter, is a goddess from Scotland originally, who also appears in Manx and Irish mythology. She is the goddess of winter and brings in the darkness and cold for the year. She is, thus, a crucial part of the Wheel of the Year, as she helps keep it turning. Cailleach is also sometimes called Beira in modern Scottish folklore and is directly translated to The Old Hag. 

The term “an Cailleach” (pronounced Awn K+eye+Lick or K+eye+Lee) is used more generally in the Gaelic languages of Ireland, Mann, and Scotland, to refer to old women, referring to them, essentially, as “witch”, “crone”, or “hag”. 

Photo courtesy of Mount Errigal, Co Donegal, from Twitter.

It is said the goddess Cailleach had a hand in creating several hills, mountains, and cliffs by accidentally dropping large stones from her basket as she traversed the lands of Ireland, Mann, and Scotland.  Some say these mountains were her creation, so she could use them as stepping stones to avoid stepping in the marshes and boglands. 

Cailleach rules the land during the winter months between Samhain and Bealtaine, after which Brigid, or Bríd (Pronounced Breej) in old Irish, goddess of fire, takes over the ruling of the land for the summer, or light period. Some suggest Bríd and Cailleach might be two faces of the same goddess, while others say Cailleach turns to stone on Bealtaine, but is able to turn back to human form when Samhain again returns, bringing with it the winter. 

It is said she herds deer during the winter, and can freeze the ground with her staff. On 1 February, she sometimes intends to keep winter around longer, and does so by making the sun shine brighter than normal so that she, Cailleach, can gather firewood to keep herself warm in the coming months. This is how one tells if she intends to make winter prolonged. 

She ushers in the winter by washing her great tartan in the Gulf of Corryvreckan, a process of which is said to take three days to complete. The roar of the incoming winter can be heard from some 20 miles inland. When she finishes washing her cloak, the tartan becomes pure white. With it, comes the snow. 

Bríd of the flames also plays a major role in the ancient story of Imbolc. Beginning on this day of Imbolc, she awakens and brings with her the flame, thus allowing warmth to return to the land. Bríd is in competition with Cailleach for control of the warmth or the cold when Cailleach is in command. 

Photo courtesy of The Celtic Journey at The triple goddess Bríd.

Bríd herself is known as a Triple Goddess. Represented by the Triskelion, his is a popular deitic form in Celtic mythology, with the three forms represented being the Maiden, The Mother, and the Crone. Other notable triple goddesses include The Morrígan (Irish goddess of war, fate, and death), Boann (Irish cattle goddess, Queen of the River Boyne), Eire (Warrior goddess of Ireland itself), and some also say Danu (Irish creation goddess, known as The Great Mother), among others. 

Three is among the most sacred of numbers in Celtic tradition, and even in pre Celtic tradition, as indicated by the carving of Triskelions on pre Celtic structures such as at The Newgrange in Ireland. In the case of the Triple Goddess, the forms are meant to represent the three stages of life for a woman and represent them as parts of the whole individual, powerful at all parts of her life.  

A prehistoric Triskelion carving, located at The Newgrange. Photo courtesy of

In addition to being the goddess of Fire, Bríd was also noted as a master craftswoman, metalworker, and blacksmith, and was a goddess of artisans and inspiration. It is believed that Saint Brigid of Kildare was named after the goddess Bríd by her pagan father, the King of Leinster, as Bríd was the primary goddess worshiped in the area. It is also believed that the land Saint Brigid acquired was once the site of an altar of sorts to the goddess, her namesake.

 It is hard to differentiate the Saint from the goddess because of centuries of oral traditions blending the two together, and the Saint having many of the same skills attributed also to the goddess, such as skill in metal working. 

I wish now to share the old folk tradition of Saint Brigid of Kildare, or as she is called in Irish, Naomh Bríd Cill Dara (Neev Breej Kill Dah+Ruh), for the festival of Imbolc is also her feast day. One must recognize the Christian traditions of Ireland in parallel to the pre-Christian, as they are heavily intertwined together, and also show the surviving legacy of the art of the Bardic tradition of storytelling in Irish culture.

Artwork courtesy of Sabrina Moody. Saint Brigid of Kildare.

Long ago, when Ireland was still mostly pagan, the King of Leinster had a daughter. She was everything to him, even though she was born not of a queen, but of a lowly servant woman. The woman was different from the King, and though they loved each other, they could not be with each other because of religious differences. 

You see, the King was pagan, but the woman was a Christian, having been converted to the faith by none other than the Welsh Missionary, Maewyn Succat, later known as Saint Patrick, Naomh Pádraig (Neev Paw+Drig), upon his passing. The King did not see much of his daughter, as her mother was the one who raised her. The baby’s name was Brigid, named after the old goddess of fire, the bringer of light. 

Even from a young age, the girl took after her mother. The few occasions she did spend with her father, he discovered Brigid had sold many of his jewels, fine weapons, and other objects of value to raise money to feed the poor. When she was a teenager, her faith only grew.

At 16, her father came to her and told her that it was time for her to marry, as all the children of the great kings and chieftains did, and presented her with a suitor. But Brigid had already made up her mind that she was not put on this earth to marry mortal men, but rather to dedicate her life to the Lord, and the Lord alone. After the king left leaving Brigid to think about her decision, Brigid prayed, and the first miracle came to her. She prayed that, if it was indeed the will of the Lord, that she may be granted aid to deter mortal men from wanting her hand, until she had taken final vows. 

Brigid’s prayers were answered, and the great beauty she once possessed had fled her. Those seeking her hand turned from her, and she was left alone. It was not until a year later that one man in particular came into her life that her beauty was restored. This was none other than Maewyn Succat. It was his mentorship that allowed her to fully give herself to the Lord.

Maewyn was overjoyed to see Brigid once again, as he had once Christened her. Likewise, Brigid was overjoyed to see him, and honoured that he would mentor her and be the one to guide her through her Novitiate (the period of training individuals undergo before taking final vows in whichever branch of catholicism they are entering – in this case, a nun.) And after one year, two things had changed. 

Firstly, Brigid, now 18, was ready to take her final vows, and did so. Secondly, Maewyn was more than just her mentor, but had become a good friend of hers, a friendship that would last a lifetime. A short time after taking her final vows, a number of others began joining her. Particularly other women, she had gained a small following. 

Wanting to establish a place where they could call home, in order to do the Lord’s work, Brigid decided to found her first monastery, but in order to gain the land she and her followers needed, she had to go to her father.

With her followers at her side, she went to her father, telling him how she had grown, giving her thanks to Maewyn and a man named Mac Caill (Pronounced Mawk Kale) of Offaly, who had also mentored her for a time, for their aid in her journey. She then asked her father for the land so that they could have a place to work and worship. She requested the area around where a shrine to her namesake, the goddess Brigid, sat, as it was ideal for their needs. 

The king replied that she could not have the land, for it was already a perfectly good place to worship. But Brigid was determined. She made a proposal, asking now if she could have the land in which her cloak would cover. Her father laughed, as Brigid was a small girl, and her cloak was only a few feet in length and width. But he agreed, finding her request amusing. Brigid and her followers prayed over the cloak and asked for a miracle. 

This was the second great miracle granted to Brigid. Her followers took each corner of her cloak, after they had finished praying over it, and began to walk in opposite directions, but as they did, they continued on, the cloak expanding for miles in each direction! The King was amazed by what he had witnessed, and gladly gave Brigid the land, upholding his promise to her. He then agreed to aid in the construction of her duel monastery (a monastery in which resides both monks and nuns), and his heart was changed. 

Brigid’s Cathedral in Kildare town, Co. Kildare. Photo courtesy of

Brigid and her followers built their first monastery, and around it grew the great city of Kildare. The name Kildare comes from the Irish Cill Dara (Pronounced Kill Dah+ruh), meaning “The Church of the Oaks”. Oak Trees, in Druidic tradition, were the most sacred of all trees, the chief if you will. Many more would join them, both men and women, with Brigid as their leader. 


Statue of St. Brigid at her Kildare Holywell. Photo courtesy of

A school of the arts was established there, and many fine illuminated manuscripts, rivaling the beauty of the famed Book of Kells, and many fine pieces of metal from the school of metalworking were made. Brigid was Ireland’s first nun, and her work over the next many decades, following in the footsteps of her old mentor and friend, continued to spread Christianity across the land. 

Many other abbeys and monasteries were established across Ireland, and many more came to faith through her and her followers. At her monastery, they lit a sacred flame, said to represent the fire that burns in the hearts of those who are true believers. This was considered the “eternal” flame of the Holy Spirit, in the Christian tradition. The fire had been put out during the suppression of monasteries under Henry VIII, in the 16th century, but was relit in 1993, by the Brigideen Sisters (the order that is dedicated to Saint Brigid), in Market Square, Kildare Town.

A page of the Book of Kells. Photo courtesy of

Brigid passed peacefully in her sleep, at an old age, her legacy living on as one of Ireland’s Patron Saints for what she did for the people. In many places in Ireland, there have been pushes to promote Saint Brigid, also known as “Mary of the Gaels,” as the true patron saint of Ireland, replacing her mentor Saint Patrick. 

Her symbol is a cross made of reeds, called a “Sunwheel,” with each branch representing the cardinal points of the year and the continuous movement of the sun as the year turns on. In places like Donegal, Imbolc is celebrated with particular interest placed on Saint Brigid of Kildare, but also on the goddess Brigid and other ancient traditions. 

For additional Imbolc/Saint Brigid’s Day resources, visit: (Courtesy of me and the Celtic Cultural Alliance [CCA].)

Brigid’s cross. Photo courtesy of Sabrina Moody.