In the United States, the 2nd of February is Groundhog Day. And while it is a great day of rejoicing, especially if it is a cloudy day and Mr. Groundhog doesn’t see his shadow. On the liturgical calendar, however, it is Candlemas (the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, the Presentation in the Temple of Jesus) and the last day of Epiphany. It comes on the heels, at least here in Ireland, of St. Bridget’s Day, February 1st, the start of Spring: not astronomical spring, which does not begin until the Vernal Equinox on March 20th/21st, or meteorological spring, which begins on March 1st. Officially, we won’t have Spring until March (whether or not the groundhog is scared by his shadow), but traditionally, Spring begins on and around St. Bridget’s Day, as in the famous poem “Cill Aodáin” by the blind poet Raftery which begins:
Anois teacht an Earraigh
beidh an lá dúl chun shíneadh,
Is tar eis na féile Bríde
ardóigh mé mo sheol.
Ó cuir me i mo ceann é
ní stopfaidh me choíche
Go seasfaidh mé síos
i lár Chondae Mhaigh Eo.”
Now with the springtime
The days will grow longer
And after St. Bride’s day’
My sail I’ll let go
I put my mind to it,
And I never will linger
Till I find myself back
In the County Mayo.
So who is St. Bridget? First, please don’t confuse her with St. Bridget of Sweden. Bridget of Ireland, or Bridget of Kildare, is a 5th/6th century Irish abbess, famed for founding the monastic settlement in Kildare. She is one of the three patron saints of Ireland along with St. Patrick and St. Columcille. Owing to the Viking raids in the 9th century, St. Bridget’s relics were taken to Downpatrick from her shrine in Kildare, where they were interred in the tomb of St. Patrick and St. Columcille. The relics of the three saints were supposedly re-discovered in the 12th century, and were reinterred in Down Cathedral. From this, we get the verse:
“Three saints at Down one grave do fill,
Patrick, Bridget and Columcille.”
There are varying accounts of her birth and life, along with legendary miracles, but the basic shape of it is that her father was a pagan chieftain or king named Dubhthach, and her mother was a Christian slave and secondary wife or concubine of his. Because of jealousy and dissent from Dubhthach’s main wife, Bridget’s mother was sold and it is not clear whether or not Bridget went along with her (one 9th century Life of St. Bridget states that her mother was sold to a druid and Bridget went with her, but her father was advised not to sell the child). However it fell out, Bridget was raised as a servant (either in her father’s house or the house of the druid) with particular charge of the cattle. Bridget returned to her father’s house, and was a servant there.
She was renowned for her generosity; the most famous story is how, because she gave away so much in alms, her father decided to off-load her onto the King of Leinster. He left Bridget in his chariot (along with his sword) while he went in to talk to the king, and a leper came along begging for alms. Bridget had nothing but her father’s sword, so she gave him that. (In some versions, it is Christ in the form of the leper who seeks alms, as St. Francis is said to have encountered Christ in the form of a leper). Her father and the king came out, her father was furious with her for what she had done, and the king intervened and bought Bridget’s freedom by giving her father a sword in exchange (there is also the intimation, in the story, that he knew Bridget would have given away his own property just as freely, so he was being prudent in refusing to buy her from her father).
As with most stories of early female saints, her father and brothers wanted to marry her off but she refused, because she wanted to be a nun. One of her brothers made a mocking remark about her beautiful eyes being wasted without a husband, she pulled one of them out onto her face and more or less said “There’s my beautiful eye for you”, and when her family saw that, they promised she should never be made to marry against her will, whereupon she prayed to God and her eye was healed. Another story, which seems to have been constructed to explain why the abbesses who succeeded St. Bridget as head in her monastic foundations (one for men, one for women) were ranked equivalent to abbot-bishops and were regarded as superior general of the monasteries in Ireland, concerns her consecration to the religious life by St. Mel (this is the same Mel after whom Mel Gibson is named, fact fans!). Allegedly, either by mistake (because of old age) or divine inspiration, St. Mel read the order for the consecration of a bishop over Bridget, and when this was pointed out, he just shrugged and said that’s how it was:
It came to pass then, through the grace of the Holy Ghost, that the form of ordaining a bishop was read over Brigit. MacCaille said that ‘The order of a bishop should not be (conferred) on a woman.’ Dixit Bishop Mél: ‘No power have I in this matter, inasmuch as by God hath been given unto her this honour beyond every woman.’ Hence, it is that the men of Ireland give the honour of bishop to Brigit’s successor.
Because of this, she is often represented in art as a nun holding a bishop’s crosier, along with other attributes such as a Bible or a model church (to represent her foundations of churches and convents).
There are many miracles associated with her, and many customs survive to this day for St. Bridget’s Day. One of them is making what’s called “St. Brigid’s Cross”; you cut green rushes from the bogs and weave them into a cross-shape, which you can then hang up in the house (over doors) or in cattle byres to protect both people and animals. The story behind this is that Bridget went to nurse a sick pagan chief, and as she sat by his bedside, she passed the time by taking up some of the rushes strewn on the floor and wove them into a cross-shape. The man asked her what it was, she told him the story of Christ, and he was converted to Christianity.
Another custom, which was followed in my house when I was growing up, from my mother’s father is that of the “Black Breeda” or brat Bhríde (literally “Bridget’s cloak”). You take a black piece of cloth – a scarf, anything you have – and on the night before St. Brigid’s Day (that would the night of 31st January) you hang it outside on your front door. The idea is that Bridget passes by on the eve of her feast and blesses the cloths, so that there is a healing in them (my grandfather, according to my mother, had great devotion to St. Bridget and used these for relieving headaches by tying them round his head).
There is also the poem attributed to St. Bridget (perhaps because she is supposed to have performed miracles of turning water to ale and, like Elijah with the widow’s cruse of oil, of supplying beer for days from a small amount which should have been used up in a day) which goes as follows (this translation from “Vox de Nube” by Noirín Ní Riain and the Monks of Glenstal Abbey):
I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.
I’d love the Heavenly Host
To be tippling there
For all eternity.
I’d love the men of Heaven to live with me,
To dance and sing.
If they wanted, I’d put at their disposal
Vats of suffering.
White cups of love I’d give them,
With a heart and a half;
Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer
To every man.
I’d make Heaven a cheerful spot,
Because the happy heart is true.
I’d make the men contented for their own sake
I’d like Jesus to love me too.
I’d like the people of heaven to gather
From all the parishes around,
I’d give a special welcome to the women,
The three Marys of great renown.
I’d sit with the men, the women of God
There by the lake of beer
We’d be drinking good health forever
And every drop would be a prayer.
St. Bridget is one of the most renowned Irish saints – she is known as “the Mary of the Gael”, meaning that she is as illustrious as the Blessed Virgin. Irish folklore, because her feast comes before the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple, associates her with the infant Jesus as His foster-mother. To quote the “Bethu Brigte” (Life of Bridget) in its conclusion:
A certain man of Brigit’s family once made (some) mead for the King of Leinster. When the King came to consume it, not a drop thereof was found, for Brigit had given all the mead to the poor. Brigit at once rose up to protect the host, and blessed the vessels, and they were at once full of choice mead. For everything which Brigit used to ask of the Lord used to given to her at once. For this was her desire: to feed the poor, to repel every hardship, to be gentle to every misery.
…She was abstinent, innocent, liberal, patient. She was joyous in God’s commandments, steadfast, lowly, forgiving, charitable. She was a conscrated vessel for keeping Christ’s body. She was a temple of God. Her heart and her mind were a throne of rest for the Holy Ghost. Towards God she was simple : towards the wretched she was compassionate : in miracles she was splendid. Therefore her type among created things is the Dove among birds, the Vine among trees, the Sun above stars.
This is the father of this holy virgin — the Heavenly Father. This is her son — Jesus Christ. This is her fosterer — the Holy Ghost : and thence it is that this holy virgin wrought these great innumerable marvels.
She is that helpeth every one who is in straits and in danger. She it is that abateth the pestilences. She it is that quelleth the wave-voice and the wrath of the great sea. This is the prophesied woman of Christ. She is the Queen of the South. She is the Mary of the Gael.
…Her soul is like the sun in the heavenly City among quires of angels and archangels, in union with cherubim and seraphim, in union with Mary’s Son, to wit, in the union with all the Holy Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Ghost.
I beseech the Lord’s mercy, through Saint Brigit’s intercession. May we all attain that union in sæcula sæculorum. Amen.
And finally, to get back to where we started and Groundhog Day: it was also a custom in both Ireland and Scotland to forecast the weather coming by the emergence of badgers or snakes from their dens and holes on St. Bridget’s Day. When Irish and Scottish emigrants went to America, this custom went with them, and it’s very likely that they transferred it to groundhogs.
So Punxsutawney Phil owes his fame, at least in part, to an Irishwoman. Raise a glass of your favorite tipple in her honor, hope for better weather, and as the anonymous hagiographer said: “May we all attain that union [with the Father, Son and Holy Ghost] forever and ever. Amen.”