Take On Nature: Pagan or Christian, Brigid has deep links to the Irish landscape

Oystercatchers on the Irish shoreline

A HUDDLED group of oystercatchers crouch low in a grazing field taking shelter from the blasts of icy wind that roar in off the sea. The waves rise in foaming mounds that shatter as they crash on to the rocky coastline.

The past weeks have seen dramatic shifts in weather with the landscape blanked out by a covering of snow, torrential downpours of rain and high winds that shapeshifted our landscape, ripping out trees and shrubs from the ground.

But there were days last week when it felt almost balmy, not that you would want to sit out in it, but there was a tangible warming that was all the more noticeable in the wake of the chill mornings of a few days earlier.

According to the ancient Irish calendar we are now in spring. St Brigid's Day on February 1 marked the start of the crop-sowing season for our forebears.

St Brigid is reputedly buried in Downpatrick, alongside St Patrick and St Columcille. But while Christian orthodoxy tells us that she was born in Co Louth in 450AD and founded a monastery in Co Kildare, others suggest that her name harks back to a pagan goddess worshipped by the Celts.

The pagan Brigid was a daughter of The Dagda, the chief of the gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and was a healer who inspired poets and blacksmiths. She was also associated with childbirth.

The St Brigid's cross, woven from reeds, looks like one of those intricate designs from the Book of Kells in which ancient Celtic symbols were incorporated by Ireland's early Christians to help make their message more palatable to the pagans they were trying to convert.

The four-armed cross has been liked to an ancient solar symbol that can be found throughout Europe, Asia and India.

Perhaps that is why her feast day falls on February 1, known by the Celts as Imbolc, when the sun is starting to gain strength and rise higher into the sky with each passing day.

We're not quite at the 'there's a quare stretch in the evenings' conversations just yet but you can see that day breaks now before 8am and there is still daylight until well after 5pm.

There is a sense at this time of year that all of nature is locked up and still only exists as potential. On the trees you can see hard, dark green and brown knuckles emerging from the naked branches from which this year's leaves are waiting to burst forth when the sun gets a bit higher in the sky and generates more heat.

Snowdrops can be seen along the grass verges on the roadside and the first blades of green daffodil stalks are slicing their way out of the ground. Already in the fields I have seen newborn lambs and calves frolicking and head butting each other before returning to their mothers to feed.

The ‘parcel' of oystercathers that I saw along the Co Down coast will pair off in the next few weeks, or maybe they already have, and mate and nest in the rocks which are being showered by the sea.

They have a shrill, piercing shriek that rises to high pitched alarm if you get too close when they are nesting and take to the sky to land well away from their nests, jigging about as if trying to draw you away from the eggs that have been laid or chicks that have hatched.

In one those weird mind-shifting synchronicities, just as I finish writing this and am cross-referencing folklore surrounding St Brigid and oystercatchers I discover that while the Irish word for oystercatcher is roilleach they are also known as Giolla Brighde, which translates as ‘Brigid's Servant'.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access