How Ireland used to celebrate St Brigid’s Day in the past

Analysis: From Biddy and Brat Bríde boys to Holy Wells and Brigid’s Crosses, February 1st was marked with much excitement in old Ireland

St Brigid’s Day, or La Fheile Bride, was once a major turning point in the ancient Irish calendar and was widely celebrated. Taking place at the same time as Imbolc, an ancestral festival that ushered in the beginnings of spring and new growth, it marked a stretch in the evenings and was a time to take stock and anticipate.

More recently in Ireland it has largely come down to a simple flip of the calendar, and many of us don’t think twice about it. However, Saint Brigid’s Day will be a new public holiday in the Republic of Ireland from 2023 and there will be renewed interest and emphasis on this ancient holiday. But how did our most recent ancestors celebrate the occasion – and are there any traditions worth reviving?

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland, Fiona Byrne from the Ulster Folk Museum on a new public holiday to mark St Bridget’s Day

Imbolc became Christianized in Ireland as the feast day of Saint Brigid, the first female Irish saint, and a version of the universal goddess Brigid, from ancient folk religions. Legends portrayed the Christian saint as a formidable woman with the power to influence kings, and devotees prayed to her to intercede on their behalf with God. Until the middle of the 20th century, Brigid was one of the most popular names for Catholic girls, such was her status.

Who exactly was worshiped on St Brigid’s Day – Christian saint or “pagan” goddess – was interchangeable depending on the rituals performed. People attended mass and prayed at Holy Wells on St Brigid’s Day, but also took part in older customs, the exact origins of which are unknown.

Saint Brigid

With all Irish feasts of ancient origin, the great celebration took place on the eve of the feast day, at sundown on St Brigid’s Eve, January 31, in this case. At that time, St Brigid was said to pass over Ireland bestowing her blessings on all. Offerings of food were ceremonially left for him and a simple festive supper was held at home. Fresh rushes were strewn on the floor of the house (a traditional sign of welcome), and the door was left open to allow Brigid to enter. St Brigid’s crosses were made at this time.

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Ó RTÉ Radio 1’s Beo Ar Éigean, tá Áine, Siún agus Sinéad ag caint faoi imbolc, Brigid agus piseoga

St Brigid’s Cross

St Brigid’s cross is an emblematic shape most often made from rushes, always to be pulled, never to be cut. The real St Brigid of Kildare is said to have explained the concept of Christianity to an Irish king by taking rushes from his soil and weaving a cross. The cross is an ancient design of simple beauty: easy and quick to create, a feature that makes it a popular project for Irish primary school children.

In the past, the cross was believed to provide protection for the household, the farm, and the earth. In some areas, when a new one was made, the old one from the previous year was burned. Burning a sacred object may seem disrespectful to us today, but the act marked the concepts of death and rebirth that underlie many pre-Christian beliefs related to the natural calendar.

The Biddy Boys Parade

There are many customs associated with St Brigid’s Day that have largely died out, but are ripe for a revival. On St Brigid’s Day itself, the ‘Biddy Boy’ procession has occurred in parts of Ireland. The biddy boys often wore straw suits and played music, going from house to house to collect food or money. It was considered unlucky to deny them a gift. They carried a small straw doll dressed in white known as engaged, which was essentially an effigy of the saint.

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From RTÉ News, Seán Mac an tSíthigh reports on the Biddy boys tradition in Kilgobnet, Co. Kerry in 2015

Sometimes they carried with them a Crios Bríde, which was a long cord of straw formed into a large circular shape, with three crosses woven into its design. People crossed the Crios or pulled it over their heads, which was supposed to ensure good luck and health for the coming year.

Brat Bride and Sacred Wells

Another custom was to leave a small piece of cloth or rag outside on a bush on the eve of Saint Brigid’s Day. The belief was that it would be blessed by St Brigid during the night and would be endowed with healing properties in the morning. This fabric was known as brat bride (also known in places as Married Bratog) and can be worn in clothing for protection or used as a remedy for headaches or toothaches.

It was also a day of stock taking around the house, people trying to figure out how much longer supplies of fodder and food would last. It was also a day off, and you had to avoid spinning wheels, including bicycles, sewing and spinning machines.

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s history programme, Colette Kinsella talks to Gary Branigan about the hidden sacred wells around the capital

To mark the start of the tillage season, a farmer could step out into the field and symbolically break up the ground with a spade. Some thought that if the first lamb of the season was born black, there would be mourning for the family within a year. St Brigid’s Day itself was a day to visit holy wells dedicated to the saint. Holy water was considered more potent if collected on her feast day and sprinkled on objects, people, and animals to provide protection.

Weather forecast and wedding

Many ancient Irish festivals featured divination of some sort and St Brigid’s was no exception, and people tried to predict the weather and predict marriage. Any excess rushes were woven into small ladders or wheels, and placed under pillows so that bachelors could dream of their future spouses on St Brigid’s evening.

Good weather on February 1 was believed to be a harbinger of bad weather to come, while a rainy February heralded a fine summer. Whatever the guess, St Brigid’s Day occurred at a time when the weather improved slightly and the length of the day lengthened. Finally, people could expect brighter things after a cold and dark winter.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ