Masks and Myths

M is for MYTHSs and the invisible MASKs we use to help us survive #.JJBola’s Mask Off explores the masks of MASCULINITY from a non-Western perspective. I recommend it for anyone interested in gender. What does Ireland’s St. Brigid’s day in 2023 tell me about Irish MYTHS and icons?

Creating Icons

In 2021, the Irish Government  decided to create a national holiday for St. Brigid. The decision stirred in me a strange cocktail of  covid, gender equality, Christianity, oak trees and our pagan heritage. Stories of St Brigid are rooted in her pagan origins and evokes the atheist pagan in me which co-exists with my Christian background. Paganism and its rituals have different meanings according to the century we live in. A common thread is a greater connection to the earth, the galaxy and the elements perpetuated through myths and superstitions. Lightning, thunder, storms and trees are the manifestations of gods or goddesses who protect or attack humanity. In lockdown in 2021, I had time to explore the connection between St. Brigid and her sacred grove of oak trees as I sat on a hill in Donegal waiting for permission to restore oaks and other native species to what was a wooded hillside centuries ago.

Is there a connection between a pagan Goddess and a Christian saint? Wikipedia and other sources including Shauna Gilligan and Margo Mc Nulty’s Mantles reveal the saint was named after the goddess Bridh by her father, a pagan chieftain who kept her and her Christian mother as house slaves. Our Saint Brigid refused to marry. She converted to Christianity and founded a convent in the place of the ancient Oak, revered by pagans. According to Irish legends, she converted her father to Christianity on his deathbed when she wove a cross from rushes to symbolise death and resurrection. Making a St Brigid’s cross continues as a ritual on the eve of her Saint’s day on the1st February. A ritual of burning last year’s cross and putting up the fresh one protects the house from fire.

The new Irish holiday is connected to pre-Christian rituals. St. Brigid’s day is on Imbolc, which marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the time when day and night are equal. The word Imbolc translates as “in the belly of the mother “ symbolising the seeds of the Earth preparing for Spring. Pre-Christian festivals relating to the Sun and the seasons are intertwined with many religious holidays for example our Christmas is timed just after the winter solstice on the shortest day. Stories of the Saint with special powers have blended well with the legends of the Goddess, whom she was named after and who was the Goddess of fire, music, handicrafts, and poetry or maybe pagan Brigid was a trinity of trends in goddesses – one for healing, one for poetry and one for agriculture.

Myths and icons

Wikipedia authors have done their best but it not easy to separate fact from myth in the stories about St. Brigid which have changed through the centuries. There was always a cross of rushes in the hallway of our home in Strabane in the 1960’s but it was put into the shade by a framed picture of three other icons – two popes and between the popes an image of John F. Kennedy, president of the United States, a Catholic and an Irish American. This frame symbolised a new era of Irish Catholicism. Irish Catholics were no longer the underdogs. When doubts about the existence of Saint Brigid with her pagan links emerged in the Roman Catholic church in 1969, the Vatican removed her from the church calendar along with St. Christopher. Meanwhile campaigns for civil rights and women’s rights across Ireland harboured a renewed interest in St. Brigid.

St. Brigid-Bridget-Brid-Biddy has stayed with us in her many namesakes including my local St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic church in Ballintra. Stories of her miracles have also been resurrected on the internet. According to legend, she sought land from a pagan chief for her convent but he refused. Tired of her persistent requests he agreed finally to give her as much land as her cloak could cover. Bridget asked four of the company to each take a corner of her cloak and it covered so much land, the pagan chief granted her wish. A new version of the myth says it was a clever move rather than a miracle. She heard of map-making and drew a map of his land and threw her cloak over that and he was so impressed by her knowledge he even converted to the novelty of Christianity.

Ancient beliefs and a modern holiday

Many of the designs of St. Brigid’s cross contain Celtic symbols  where earth, air and water are interwoven into symbols of birth, death, and eternal life. According to Venceslas Kruta, author of Celtic Art there is a dynamic exchange of symbols based on a “extremely structured system of their idea of a universal order and its spatial and temporal understanding.” The ancients created Celtic images and traditions where the cosmic axis  was seen as “as a tree, preferably oak carrying mistletoe, whose branches support the canopy of heaven and the roots joining the underground world. It thus linked together three superimposed worlds: the Heavens, the Earth of the humans and the Underground world.”

The mix of fact and fiction around St. Brigid’s story and the myths around her symbolise the link between pre-Christian and Christian Ireland. It seems likely there was at least one strong woman who established a temple or convent at the same time as St. Patrick was wandering around Ireland. In Brigid’s time, nature and humanity were more closely intertwined in our roots than today when ,mighty diggers clear hedgerows, woodlands, bogs and megalithic sites in the name of progress.  Could we make St. Brigid’s holiday an occasion to celebrate oak trees and the natural environment and rediscover another sort of spirit which is less entangled with property, finance and the abuse of power over children and women? Or will St. Bridget’s holiday become another excuse to dress up as bishops or leprachauns and drown our sorrows?

Sitting in divided Ulster with the distractions of Brexit and the complications of the pandemic and endless delays on planting native woodland, it seems appropriate that the head of Saint Brigid was buried in Armagh in the UK and her body in Kildare in the Republic. Her church which may have been the site of a pagan temple beside the sacred oaks is now Church of Ireland rather than Roman Catholic. St. Brigid is renowned as the first woman bishop but there have been no woman bishops since that in the Roman Catholic religion. However, the Anglican Catholic Church of Ireland has appointed its first woman Bishop to the Dioceses of Meath and Kildare, the site of St. Brigid’s church and the convent for both men and women. On 1st February 2022, I abandoned my laptop and the myths ancient and modern. I grabbed an oak sapling in a pot and headed down to the Diamond in Donegal Town for a demonstration about the scandal of deforestation in Ireland. I live in hope of celebration of more trees and greater equality on 1st February some year soon.  Masks off?

Celtic Art: Venceslas Kruta, published Phaidon 2015)

Mantles: Encountering Saint Brigid: Shauna Gillian and Margo Mc Nulty, published Arlen House 2021. Shauna also has a bibliography.

Mask Off: JJ Bola, published Pluto Press 2019

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