Celebrating St. Bridget’s Day in Gaelic (Là Fhèill Brìghde)

by | Jan 22, 2016

Christian worship through the medium of the Scottish Gaelic language is rare these days. I have been looking for ways to increase opportunities for Gaelic worship, both as a form of religious expression and as a way to practice and use Gaelic meaningfully outside the classroom.

The Gaelic saints interest me greatly, although being from a Protestant background, I was mostly conversant with them through reading. A few years ago I wanted to plan an all-Gaelic church service in February to commemorate Là Fhèill Brìghde (St. Bridget’s feast day). So I started reading…

Icon of St. Bridget and some of her symbols

As I read more, though, I realized that all practices involved with observing the feast day of Brìghde involved ceremonies and other practices in the home, not in the church. Moreover, the feast day itself is February 1, but rituals to commemorate the saint are traditionally held on January 31, the eve of the feast day. Therefore we decided to invite friends over to our house for an evening ritual and cèilidh, keeping in mind that any event planned in January or February in Nova Scotia is likely to be cancelled due to a snowstorm!

My goal was for the evening to be 1) ecumenical, that is, non-denominational and inclusively Christian; 2) pan-Gaelic, encompassing Gaelic Brigid traditions from Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man; and 3) conducted as much in Gaelic as possible, to give us another meaningful and enjoyable way to use Gaelic as a group. Please note that what I’m describing here in this blog post is not a definitive “what to do” guide, just an account of what we decided to do, and how we actually did it, for two consecutive years.

The Threshold Rite

To guide my plans, I found a lovely book titled The Rites of Brigid: Goddess and Saint (The Columba Press, 2005) by Seán Ó Duinn OSB, an Irish monk. The book describes beliefs and observances documented in Irish folklore archives and other sources, including the annual return of Brìghde to the earth on the eve of her feast day, preparing a bed for her, the tending of her ever-living fire at Kildare, mumming-like house visiting rituals with an effigy called the Brídeog, a threshold rite, several forms of crosses, a piece of cloth called Brigid’s Cloak, a circle of straw rope called Brigid’s Belt, holy wells, and the forbidding of work involving turning wheels.

Of these traditions I picked the threshold rite, which contained scripted Gaelic dialogue and was most feasible for us to do with a group in a single home. In Chapter 10 of the book, Ó Duinn described the rite, which was practiced in the north of Ireland. He compiled the following sequence of events for this “Brigidine Threshold Rite” using folklore accounts from three areas of County Donegal (pp. 97-98):

1) Before sunset on 31st January, rushes are cut and placed in a bundle outside the door.
2) While this is taking place outdoors, potatoes are being prepared, boiled and mashed in a pot indoors.
3) When this is ready, the man of the house or somebody else goes outside, closes the door after him, takes the bundle of rushes in his arms and recites the threshold dialogue with those within the house.
4) When the dialogue is completed, the door is opened by the woman of the house wearing a veil.
5) The man/woman enters carrying the bundle.
6) He/she deposits the bundle of rushes under the pot – presumably the bundle was laid on the floor and the pot was placed on top of it.
7) The supper then takes place, the mashed potatoes being taken from the pot resting on the bundle of rushes.
8) When supper is over the pot is removed.
9) The members of the family divide the rushes among them and proceed to make St Brigid’s crosses.

The author quoted one particularly detailed description in Irish from Ros Coill, Co. Donegal (p. 95). This involved spoken word invocations for step 3 of the threshold dialgoue, which I translated into Scottish Gaelic.

Here is the English translation of the invocation dialogue:

Man of the house or other person outside:

“Go on your knees,
Open your eyes,
And let Blessed Brigid enter.”

The family inside answers:

“She is welcome; Welcome to the Noble Lady”

The dialogue in the original Irish is:

“Gabhaigí ar bhur nglúine,
Osclaigí bhur súile,
Agus ligigí isteach Bríd Bheannaithe.”

“’Se beatha; ’Se beatha na mná uiasle”

My translated Scottish Gaelic version is:

“Gabhaibh air bhur glùinean,
Fosgailibh bhur sùilean,
Is leigibh a-steach Brìghde Bheannaichte.”

“’Se beatha, ’Se beatha na mna uaisle.”

We added an extra aspect to this from an account from Co. Wexford given by a man who heard it from his father who probably lived from 1799-1892 (pp. 99-100). In this version, the man of the house would cut the rushes for the crosses, leave them outside the house, and then at feast time:

“He again leaves the house, and walking round it in the direction of the sun, picks up the bundle and completes one circuit. When he reached the open door, all inside kneel down and listen attentively to his petition:

‘Go down on your knees;
Open your eyes;
And let St. Brigid in.’

They all answer: ‘She is welcome, she is welcome’

He makes a second circuit, and a third circuit of the house, always with the same petition at the door, and the same answer is given. At the end of the third petition, the man of the house enters, lays the bundle of rushes under the table, says grace, and invites all to partake of the meal. After the feast, the rushes used to be placed in the middle of the room, and the family used to wave the crosses of St Brigid. Next day, the crosses used to be blessed and hung up in each room and every outhouse.”

The author says that this aspect was likely a feature of the ritual in many places, but only survived to a later period in Collon and Rathnure. He speculates on the meaning: “Brigid must have been seen as forming a triple ring of protection around the house to save it and its inhabitants from all evil during the course of the coming year” (p. 101).

We added this “triple circumambulation” to step 3, with one more extra element the first year: a friend carried a candle lantern and accompanied my husband carrying the bundle of straw around the house all three times to light his way since it was so dark and snowy. From step 4, I omitted wearing a veil.

The bundle of straw itself is a very simple form of the “Brídeog.” In a different house-visiting ritual that was formerly practiced in southern areas of Ireland, the Brídeog was made of a bundle of straw, a butter churn paddle, or other object, which people dressed in clothing like a female doll. A group would bring it from house to house receiving gifts of food or money. There is more information about the Brídeog and the ritual in general cited from various published sources in this article from a contemporary pagan Gaelic polytheist website.

Another small change that we made to step 6 was to place the bundle of straw under the dining room table and place the prepared potato dishes on the table itself, so that we wouldn’t be putting our guests’ food on the floor, nor the straw on the dining room table. I had prepared the food ahead of time, not as the rushes were being cut as described in step 1.

House Cèilidh

Before the ritual, we had a small house cèilidh in our living room. I asked all of our friends if they could contribute a tune or a Gaelic song, poem, story, or prayer with a connection to Brigid.

Our friend Lodaidh retold a traditional Gaelic story of how Brigid helped Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Our friend Kathy shared a Gaelic poem she had written about the oral tradition of St. Brigid’s visit to the Isle of South Uist in a coracle. The poem mentioned the oystercatcher, a sea bird common in Uist, which is called in Gaelic gille-Brìde, servant of Bridget. There is a Gaelic legend about how the bird got its name; a short English version can be found here.

Oystercatcher and chum, North Uist

The oystercatcher story, other stories, and a great deal of other information about Brìghde as she was venerated by Scottish Gaels is found in the Carmina Gadelica, volume 1, pp. 164-173. Her genealogy which was recited as a protective charm is given in Gaelic and English versions on pp. 174-5.

If you are looking for more material to recite, a number of Scottish Gaelic poems and charms either attributed to or about Brìghde are found in the Carmina Gadelica, which is:

“a compendium of prayers, hymns, charms, incantations, blessings, literary-folkloric poems and songs, proverbs, lexical items, historical anecdotes, natural history observations, and miscellaneous lore gathered in the Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland between 1860 and 1909. The material was recorded, translated, and reworked by the exciseman and folklorist Alexander Carmichael (1832–1912).”

Excerpt from Sian Bhuadha Brìghde, Bridget's Charm of Grace

Excerpt from Sian Bhuadha Brìghde, Bridget’s Charm of Grace in Carmina Gadelica

For my own contribution to the cèilidh I selected a traditional Manx Gaelic song that I learned from singer Ruth Keggin on the Isle of Man. Ruth is a professional singer and I was lucky to meet her during a trip to the Isle of Man in 2012. The song is called “Clean Suggane” or “Arrane Y Ben Thie.” Vreeshey is the vocative case of Breeshey which is Brigid in Manx Gaelic. In English the song is called “The Invocation to St. Brigid” and the notes in the songbook say that “It was sung at the house door on St. Brigid’s Eve, 31st January.” It sounds as though it was part of a very similar Gaelic threshold ritual in the Isle of Man.

Sheet music, a midi file with the tunes for piano and voice, and an audio file with pronunciation can be found here. A soundfile of a beautiful version for a choir can be downloaded in a zip file from the same site here. The tune is also suitable for instrumental rendition.

It is also included in the book Kiaull yn Theay 1: Manx Music and Songs for Folk Instruments published by Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh, p. 14. The words given are:

Vreeshey Vreeshey tar gys my hie.
Tar gus y tie aym noght.
Vreeshey Vreeshey tar o tar gys y tie aym noght.
O foshiljee yn dorrys da Breeshey as lhig da Breeshey cheet stiagh.
Vreeshey Vreeshey tar oo gys y tie aym noght.

The English translation is:

Bridget Bridget come to my house.
Come to my house tonight.
Bridget Bridget come o come to my house tonight.
O open the door to Bridget and let Bridget come in.
Bridget Bridget come thee to my house tonight.

An Irish Hymn to Bridget

I also took the Irish hymn “Gabhaim Molta Brìde” and translated it into Scottish Gaelic, rewriting some of the lyrics. The original Irish version, English translation, and a video with the tune can be found on the website of Gaol Naofa, a present-day pagan Gaelic polytheist group.

In the second verse, rather than the original Irish nationalist lyrics, I used adjectives from some of the traditional epithets of Brìghde from the Carmina Gadelica. Brìghde belongs not only to Ireland but also to all Gaels, and there were plenty of Gaelic folk rituals about her in the Isle of Man and Scotland as well.

Gabhaim Moladh Brìghde
(Scottish Gaelic translation by Emily McEwan-Fujita)

1.
Gabhaim moladh Brìghde
Muime ’n Tighearna Ìosa
Ionmhainn i le Gàidheil
Molamaid gu lèir i

2.
Lòchran geal nan Gàidheal
Soillse air ar beatha
Miadhail, coibhneil, fialaidh
Sgaoileadh gràdh an Tighearna

3.
Thig an geamhradh dian dubh
Gearradh le a ghèire
Ach air Là Fhèill Brìghde
Teann oirnn Earrach èibhneach

Crois Brìghde – St. Bridget’s Cross

No commemoration of Brìghde would be complete without making her cross. Rushes did not seem feasible since everything is covered in snow and ice here at this time of year, but straw is also used in some traditions. I visited a local animal feed store to get some wheat straw (not hay, which is different altogether). I unpacked the bale outside ahead of time to try to pull out stalks that were as long and straight as possible – not that easy. I soaked the stalks in the sink beforehand to make them more pliable. Naturally we made a giant mess inside, but it was a lot of fun.

Rather than try to explain how to make the crosses, I’ll share the instructions that we used.

Children can use pipe cleaners of different colours which are much easier to work with and yield very nice-looking results.

Each person can take their cross(es) home with them to hang up in the house for the coming year.

A St. Bridget's cross made of straw

A St. Bridget’s cross made of straw

Food

A lot of different folk practices are mentioned in the book I used, including the preparation of certain kinds of food. Two of the foods featured prominently in rituals for Bridget were bread and potatoes.

Another important aspect of St. Bridget’s feast day in Scotland was bannock (bonnach in Gaelic). There is a special bannock recipe for St. Michael’s Day called struan, but for St. Bridget I can only find references to an oaten bannock (i.e. made with oatmeal) but no traditional recipes.

Making the everyday version of bonnach in someone’s kitchen through the medium of Gaelic was a favourite activity of the Gaelic conversation classes here in Halifax. This activity actually took place multiple times during Gaelic classes in what is now my own house – but it was before I moved in with my husband! He doesn’t remember how to make it now (although he’s a decent cook), so unfortunately I missed all the fun. Sometimes the classes would make their own fresh butter to go with it.

I do best when following a written recipe, rather than a handful of this and a pinch of that, so I dug up a bannock recipe in English. This one is from the lovely cookbook Nancy’s Wedding Feast and Other Tasty Tales published by Cape Breton University Press (p. 142):

3 cups all-purpose flour (750 ml)
1 tsp salt (5ml)
2 Tbsp baking powder (30 ml)
2 Tbsp granulated sugar (30 ml)
3 Tbsp lard or shortening (45 ml)
1 cup milk (250 ml)

In a bowl, combine flour, salt, baking powder and sugar.
Using a pastry blender or fingertips, work lard or shortening into dry ingredients until crumbly.
Pour in milk. Stir with a fork and form into a ball. Turn out on floured work surface. Knead about 10 times.
After kneading, form dough into a circle and place on ungreased baking sheet. Pat dough to one-inch (2.5 cm) thickness. Score into triangles.
Bake in a 400 degree F (200 C) oven for about 20 minutes, until well browned.
Bannock can also be cut in circles and baked.

Or you could go a different route, making whatever kind of bread you like, or something that fits your dietary restrictions. Here is a modern version of a sweetened oat bannock from a pagan blog.

For my own celebration I chose to made a modern recipe for an oatmeal quick bread in a loaf pan (with baking powder and baking soda). Not “authentic” or “traditional” in the slightest, but tasty.

For potatoes, I decided to find recipes for my two favourite Scottish dishes that involve mashed potatoes: tattie scones and stovies. (You could equally pick boxty or champ or colcannon from Ireland in place of plain old mashed potatoes.)

Fortunately Canadian Living has a good recipe for delicious tattie scones [potato scones] which I made.

The tattie scones turned out great!

The tattie scones turned out great!

I also made stovies – I fondly remember stovies being served as a late-night snack (a “night lunch” as it would be called in Nova Scotia) at the Celtic Society cèilidhs at the University of Aberdeen.

I found this excellent recipe for stovies in Broths to Bannocks: Cooking in Scotland 1690 to the Present Day by Catherine Brown:

2 oz (50 g) meat dripping with 2-3 Tablespoons gravy or 2 Tablespoons oil and water
2 large Spanish onions, finely chopped
2 lb potatoes (I used Yukon Golds for extra flavour), peeled
Salt and pepper

Melt the dripping (or heat the oil) in a large deep pot. Add the onion and cook till soft but not coloured. Slice the potatoes, some thin and some thick, and add to the onions. Mix well, cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook gently for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Add the meat gravy or water. Season, stir well and put lid back on. Leave to cook very slowly till the thin potatoes are mushy and the larger ones soft – about 1 hour. For browned stovies, turn up the heat and brown them, turning frequently to avoid burning, mixing in the browned bits.

The recipe says to garnish with chopped leftover meat (presumably from the beef, lamb, or pork roast that you cooked to get the dripping) – but I mixed it in because that was how I remembered having it in the past.

Fire and Candles

Bridget is also associated with a sacred perpetual fire. We didn’t emphasize that, but we had lots of candles and lights anyway to chase away the darkness. I decided to buy beeswax candles from someone at our farmer’s market because they have a beautiful warm amber colour and give off a lovely scent as well as being a natural and local product. I left the little white fairy lights from Christmas up around the living room windows. Had I been more organized, I would have put tea light candles in mason jars on the front pathway too, because who doesn’t love a mason jar these days, but we can’t do everything!

Nine unlit beeswax candles from the farmers' market

Nine unlit beeswax candles from the farmers’ market

Free Colouring Page

If you have children coming to your celebration, you could always give them this free St. Bridget colouring page provided by the Waltzing Matilda blog (click on the “St. Brigid Coloring Page” link below the first paragraph to find it.

Free St. Brigid Colouring Page

Conclusion

To recap, here’s what we did for the evening:

A few days beforehand, we got straw. From a few hours beforehand until guests started arriving, I cleaned my house (also traditional!), soaked the straw, and made the potato dishes.

Once our guests had arrived, we had the house cèilidh, followed by the threshold ritual, and then a light evening meal of stovies, tattie scones, oaten bread, butter and jam, plus tea, etc.

After eating, we made the St. Bridget’s crosses and then everyone bid good night and took their crosses home with them. It was a lovely evening.

Here is a group photo of everyone from our evening in 2013, holding up their St. Bridget’s crosses.

A group gathered for the eve of St. Bridget's Feast Day

If you check the book and the online reading sources I recommended in the links above, perhaps you will find other aspects of the St. Bridget tradition that you could incorporate into your own celebration.

Là Fhèill Brìghde sona dhuibh uile! Happy St. Bridget’s Day to you all!

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