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Brigid the Saint

Daughter of a wealthy landowner Dubthach and a slave woman, Brigid was born on the 1st day of February at the instant the sun came over the horizon. When she was born a light shone out from her forehead so brightly that all the neighbours came running fearing that the house was on fire. Dubthach, a devout pagan, named his daughter Brigid in honour of the pagan goddess and the young girl grew up very beautiful.

Though her father feared she might be half a fool she gave away everything to those in need. She gave meat meant for her father’s table to a starving dog, but when she realised that she would get in trouble and said a prayer the joint became whole again. She gave a pail of milk to an old beggar woman but when she tried to milk the cow again, it gave her three more pails of milk. Most troubling of all when her father brought her before the High King to see if anything could be done with her, she gave away his jewelled dagger to a beggar while he and the king where talking. Luckily the High King convinced him that this girl was special.

The girl Brigid heard the sermons of St. Patrick and she decided that she wanted to dedicate her life to this Christian God. But there was no place for women in the Church at the time. Her mother invited the Bishop to come to their house and meet her daughter sure that he would see her potential. When the girl was called in from the fields where she had been working she hung up her cloak and went to shake the Bishop’s hand only to find that he was gaping at her. She had hung her cloak up on a sun beam and had not even noticed.

With this and the other miracles she had performed, Brigid was welcomed into the early Church but her father was not at all happy about this. He did not want anything to do with this new religion and he tried to force her to marry. She was very beautiful and he was able to find a suitor for her without too much trouble. The night before her wedding Brigid prayed to God for help and in the morning when her bridegroom saw her he was horrified. His lovely bride had transformed into a hideous crone. Brigid said that if he released her he would go to a certain spot in the woods and would find there a lovely maiden and everything he said would be pleasing to her. The young man readily agreed and both he and Brigid were happy. Her new hideous appearance remained until the day she took her vows as a nun when her beauty was restored to her. It was because of this beauty that a man tried to entrap her thinking that if he seduced her once she would have to leave the Church and become his wife. He gave her a precious brooch and charged her with keeping it safe knowing that if she failed in this he would have a claim over her. He stole the brooch from her and cast it into the sea. When he went and asked her for the brooch back, of course Brigid could not find it. She asked him to stay for dinner while it was searched for and she blessed the fish she was about to carve for the meal. When she cut into the fish, she found the same gold brooch in its belly. The man bowed to St. Brigid in remorse.

St. Brigid attracted many followers, women who wanted to join her on this path. She started to look for a place to build her Abbey. She went to the King of Leinster and asked for a piece of land from him. He laughed at her, but when she smiled at him and asked for only the land that her cloak could cover, he agreed to that. So St. Brigid spread her cloak out on the ground and it grew and grew until it covered the whole province. When the King cried out that he was ruined, St. Brigid told him that she would only take what she needed provided he learnt his lesson and not be so tight fisted in the future.

She built a great Abbey in Kildare on the same site as the Grove of the Goddess, Brigid. For centuries to follow, the Abbess of Kildare would be regarded as the superior general over all the monasteries of Ireland, equal in authority to any bishop.

St. Brigid became famous for her healing, her kindness and the abundance that seemed to follow her wherever she went. One day a woman gave her a gift of apples and saw her go only a short way down the road where she gave them to a bunch of lepers. The woman was angry and thereafter her orchard did not bare any fruit. Another woman gave her the same gift but did not object when Brigid gave the fruit away to beggars but asked instead for her garden to be blessed. St. Brigid told her to cut shoots from a certain tree in her garden and that all the trees that grew from that one would bare twice as much fruit as an ordinary one.

On her father’s deathbed, Dubthach’s daughter returned to tend him and spoke to him of the faith of Christ but the staunch old pagan refused to convert. Picking up rushes from the floor, St. Brigid wove a cross with four equal arms and told him the story of the crucifixion, whereupon Dubthach agreed to convert to Christianity. To this day, the same cross is woven from rushes on the 1st February and hung in houses to protect against fire and to bring good luck. One day on a journey, she met a man carrying a sack of salt and asked him for a little to season her porridge. He refused, claiming that he was carrying stones. St. Brigid replied, “stones be they so” and the man was crushed under the sudden weight of his sack. Once she visited the halls of a king who was absent. His sons welcomed her in but they were terribly ashamed that their father was gone and taken all of the musicians and entertainers with him. So they could not offer her any music at all. She noticed that there were harps hanging on the walls and asked if the King’s sons would play those for her. But they were sad to say that none of them had any musical talent. She touched each of them lightly on the fingers and asked again that they play for her. To their astonishment, when they took the harps down to play they were able to play the most beautiful music. St. Brigid passed a fine night with the best of entertainment in the world and thereafter those king’s sons became famous harpers.

One of St. Brigid’s young nuns failed in her vows of chastity and gave in to youthful desire. She became pregnant. When she confessed to St. Brigid, sobbing, St. Brigid forgave her. St. Brigid laid her hands on the woman’s womb and prayed. Without pain and without delivery the child disappeared from her womb and the nun’s chastity was restored to her so she was able to resume her good work in St. Brigid’s Order. Her convent became a beacon for young women in particular who wanted to learn and she kept a flame burning in a sacred grove that only could be attended by women. St. Brigid’s flame burned as late as the 16th Century when it was extinguished by a Vatican priest as a pagan relic. However, the Brigidine Order relit St. Brigid’s flame in 1993 and it burns to this day in the town of Kildare.

Brigid the Goddess

Daughter of the Daghda and the Morrigan the Goddess Brigid was born on the 1st day of February which became her sacred day of Imbolg. She was born with flames around her forehead just as the sun came over the horizon. Now the Morrigan not being the most nurturing of goddesses, the infant Brigid was suckled by another worldly cow, white, with red ears and grew up in the other world tending to an apple orchard whose bees moved between this world and the other world. Brigid loved learning, knowledge and inspiration and she set up a school of sorts in Kildare where she tended to a sacred grove. Her followers were instructed for ten years and she taught them how to gather healing herbs and tend to livestock, how to forge iron into tools. They would spend thirty years in service to her, the first ten years in learning, the second ten years in tending to her sacred grove and working and the final ten years in teaching.

There was an ancient oak tree in her grove in Kildare as well as a healing well and a sacred flame. Nineteen of her followers, all women, tended this flame. Each one had to watch over it for a day not letting it go out and on the 20th day, Brigid herself would tend to this everlasting flame. She was said to reward any offering to her so people started the custom of throwing coins into wells to honour her. She lit the fire of inspiration in the hearts of poets and musicians and is said to have been married to Senchán Torpéist, the author of the Tain Bo Cuainge.

One day two lepers came to her for healing and she told them to bathe each other in her sacred well until their sores were gone. The first leper bathed his companion faithfully and the sores fell away from his skin until he was completely healed. But when the healed man looked at his fellow, he felt such revulsion that he could not bring himself to touch the other even to bathe him. When Brigid found out that he hadn’t held up his end of the bargain, she was furious and she struck him down with leprosy again. She then wrapped the other leper in her mantle and his disease was gone from him in an instant.

She was said to have consorted with Breas, the handsome young king whose misrule lead to the second battle of Moytura. They had a son together called Ruadhan who grew up to be a great warrior and fought with his father’s Formorians against his mother’s people in the battle. Ruadhan tried to kill his uncle, Gobniu, the Smyth, but the craftsman struck a blow against Ruadhan who died instead. When her son fell, Brigid made the first keening over his body, the sound was so loud and so sorrowful that it took the battle fury out of all that were still fighting and they lay down their arms at the sound of it.

Brigid was worshipped as the Goddess of Leinster and invoked by Leinster men when they went into Battle. She was especially invoked by midwives, being associated with women, healing and childbirth. Her healing cloak could expand in size as needed and she could spread it all over Ireland in times of need. She was said to spread her cloak over Ireland at her festival day of Imbolg on the 1st February to usher in the change of seasons and turn winter into spring. Solar crosses with four arms equal in length were woven on Imbolg to honour Brigid’s role in changing the four seasons and were kept in people’s houses to invoke the goddess’s protection. The first dew of the morning fell from her cloak on that day and any rag left out to catch it would be infused with Brigid’s healing and could be laid on a sick person for the curing of sore throats and other ailments.

The Gobán Saor

The Gobán Saor was the greatest craftsman and builder who ever lived in Ireland. He built mighty castles for all the lords, and for each of Ireland’s five kings. Though he was most famous for his skill as a builder, he could fashion a spear-shaft in the time it would take you to count to five, and make a spear-head with only three strokes of the hammer.

When he wanted to hammer nails into a high beam, he would fling them into the air and throw his hammer after them, catching it as it came down after driving the nails into the beam. In this way, he was able to get through the work of ten men in short order.

His fame spread all over Ireland, and after a time, his reputation reached the ears of the King of England. Now, the King of England decided that he wanted the Gobán Saor to build his castle for him, a bigger and a finer one than any other king had at that time, but he fretted that some other king could wait until his was built and then hire the Gobán Saor to build an even better one. The King of England decided that the only way to make sure this didn’t happen was to wait till his castle was built, and then do away with the Gobán Saor.

Knowing nothing of his treacherous intent, the Gobán Saor set out for England with his son. They hadn’t been on the road long when he told his son to “Shorten the road for me.” Perplexed, the lad hadn’t a clue what his father was asking him, and so the two turned around and went home again. The same thing happened on the second day, and the Gobán Saor’s wife took her son aside and asked him what was going on. When he told her, she explained the riddle to him, and sent them on their way for the third time the next morning. This time, when the Gobán Saor asked his son to “Shorten the road,” the son took his mother’s advice and told his father a story to entertain him, and make the road seem shorter!

The first house they stayed in on their journey had two daughters living in it: one dark-haired and hardworking, who didn’t sit still all evening, and the other fair-haired and charming, who preferred to sit with her hands crossed, talking by the fire than to do any work at all. The Gobán Saor saw that these girls were about the same age as his own son, and told his son he had a mind to ask for one of them for his wife. “But,” he said, “We must find out which is the better match for you.” So he called both daughters to him and gave them three pieces of advice, if they wanted to get a husband. The first: to always keep an old woman’s head by the range; the second: to warm themselves on cold mornings with their work; and the third: to take a sheep’s skin to market and come home again with the skin and it’s price.

The rest of their journey was long, and on their way they helped out anyone they could. The Gobán Saor helped a poor man who was trying to roof a circular building using only three joists, none of them long enough to span the whole breadth. He made two grooves in one end of each stick and fitted them together so that they made a triangle in the centre, with the arms of the joists resting on the edge of the roof. Later, he met a group of carpenters who were struggling to build a bridge with neither peg nor nail in any part, and showed them how to construct a brilliant bridge out of posts and crossbars that got stronger the more weight was put on it.

At last they came to the King of England’s site, and the Gobán Saor and his son set to work building the castle. It rose up out of the ground like a mushroom, so quickly and skilfully did they work, and people came from miles around to watch the Gobán Saor build.

It was not many days before the castle was almost complete. That night, a serving girl came to visit the Gobán Saor and his son. She spoke both Irish and English, and she had overheard the King of England’s plan. She warned the Gobán Saor that when he climbed the scaffold to put the final capstone in place, the King had arranged it so that the scaffold would collapse, and the Gobán Saor would be killed.

The Gobán Saor thanked her, and thought how best to get out of this. He went to the King the next day and told him that he always finished a building with a particular charm, and there was a bit of magic in it, but that he’d forgotten his tool for it. “Can my son go back and get it?” he asked. But the King refused. He didn’t want the Gobán Saor’s son to go free either, in case he might one day be his father’s match! He offered to send someone else instead.

But the Gobán Saor explained to the King that his wife would not trust just anyone with this special tool: if it wasn’t to be him or his son, it would have to be someone with royal blood. So the King of England agreed to send his own son to get the tool. The Gobán Saor told him to ask his wife for “cor in aghaidh an caim”, an Irish phrase, which meant “crooked against crooked”.

Some time later, the servants who had gone with the King of England’s son returned, downcast. They reported that the prince was having the best of times with the Gobán Saor’s wife, enjoying great hospitality and games, but that she refused to let him out of her sight, and all the Gobán Saor’s people were preventing him from leaving and said they would not let him go until her husband and son were back home safe and sound. She of course had understood her husband’s riddle at once!

The King of England was furious, but there wasn’t a thing he could do about it but to let the Gobán Saor and his son go. For their part, they held no grudge, and finished his castle to perfection before they left.

On the way home, they stopped in again at the house of the two daughters to find out how they’d fared with the Gobán Saor’s advice. The fair-haired girl spoke first. “I did exactly as you said,” she said, “And it was a disaster! First, I dug up an old woman’s skull from the churchyard and hung it up over the hob, but it frightened everyone so much I had to get rid of it. Then, on a cold morning my mother told me to card flax, so I threw it in the fire to keep myself warm and got into terrible trouble. And the worst was when I took the sheepskin to market! I asked all around to find out how to get the price of the sheepskin and be able to take it home with me, but all the merchants laughed at me, except one man who offered to give me the price of it if I followed him into a tavern, and that upset me so much I left!”

“Well, at least it shows some sense that you left,” said the Gobán Saor, “Now, your dark-haired sister, how did she get on?”

The second girl started to answer, but an old woman sitting close by the fire spoke up first. “I was destitute,” she said, “Until this girl came and found me. She’s a distant relative of mine, and she’s made sure I’ve been sitting in the warmest place in the house since she got me, right here by the fire.” That was what served the girl for “an old woman’s head by the range.” When he asked her about cold mornings, the girl replied that she had so much to do and was always keeping her hands and feet moving so she didn’t really feel the cold. Then he asked her how she had fared with the sheepskin. “I took one to market,” the girl replied, “And then stretched it and plucked off all the wool. I sold the wool, and brought the skin home with me!”

The Gobán Saor was delighted with this, and asked the man and woman of the house there and then if they would consent to her marrying his son. “And if her husband ever mistreats her, he’ll have me to answer to!” he said.

The match was made, and the Gobán Saor sent for his wife to bring the Prince of England to the wedding feast on his way back home to his father.

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