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by Patricia Monaghan

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Imbolc 2004, Vol 3-2

MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
Goddess Brigit with cauldron and labrys and cup
Brigit
© 2003 by Myrkrida. Used with permission.
Imbolc in Ireland

Winter in Ireland means dark and rain and mud and chill that aches in your bones. It means short wet days and long wet nights. Cold that runs damply down the sides of stone walls. Ashen fields, rubbly with last year's hay. Winter, which began as the sun lost its vigor at Samhain, still holds sway as the land nears Imbolc, or so the cold and the damp proclaim.

But spring is near, near as sheep who materialize out of the fog near spiky outcroppings of granite. Lambs kick within the ewes, hidden as spring on a foggy winter morning. The bitter chill and the ashen fields give no clue to the nearness of a new season but, like the lambs, spring is "in the belly" of winter, for that is the meaning of the word Imbolc. Soon spring, in all its robust fragility and wild insouciant joy, arrives as suddenly as birth which, like death, is always sudden no matter how fervently anticipated or feared.

Imbolc is La Feile Bridghe, the day of Brigit, celebrated each year in ritual in Kildare, the town historically associated with the Celtic goddess and saint. The festival focuses on the largest of the area's 32 holy wells, where a tiny wooden bridge leads into a grassy sacred precinct. Miniature standing stones link a deep rock-circled well with its outlet in a stream into which shallow stone steps descend. Brigit, sculpted in an old-fashioned nun's habit, stands in a stone grotto among coins and flowers and other offerings.

People come to the holy wells continually throughout the year, in groups and singly, for traditional healing rituals. But the greatest crowds arrive for Imbolc, when Brigidine sisters sponsor a vigil at the well, which I was honored to attend several years ago. Hundreds join in, many coming from other parts of Ireland to attend at Brigit's central shrine for her most important holiday. As we gathered in the late evening, we were greeted by a bonfire of gorsewood, welcome in the still-wintry chill. But that was not the only fire that lit the dark well precinct, for the women of Cháirde Bhríde -- "heart of Brigit," the local laywomen's association -- had placed hundreds of candles on the pathways and stone steps, outlining the well and the spring and the pathways. The rushing waters caught and reflected the candlelight, so that the whole precinct shimmered with light.

But the most important light had not yet arrived. For an hour we drifted from group to group, visiting with friends who had been strangers days before. Finally we were called to attention, as Sister Phil O'Shea arrived with the lantern carrying the sacred flame of Brigit, lit several years before and maintained in the Brigidine convent. We quickly fell in line behind her for the processional. A voice was lifted, a song introduced, and we all joined in. "Holy ground ... we're walking on holy ground ... where the Lady passes, there we stand on holy ground." Men and women, Catholic and Protestant and pagan, Irish and American and neither -- all joined voices in a chant to the power of the feminine who, unnamed, became all and everything we wished her to be.

The ritual itself is not utterly clear in my memory. There was song, of course, for this was Ireland: Luka Bloom leading us in a newly composed song about the light within, Nóirín Ní Ríain lifting her rich voice beside me, Father Adrian accompanying Mary and Phil on his guitar. And poetry: Gay Barbazon from Cháirde Bridghe reciting the Dougie McLean lyric, "It's the land that is our wisdom, it's the land, you cannot own the land, the land owns you." And dance: all of us moving slowly deiseal, sunwise, around the standing stones, then a smaller group of women circling in stately fashion beneath an upraised torch. And there were symbolic actions: calling out the names of the year's dead, to bring them to Brigit's attention; laying out the Brat Bhríde, the cloth that represented Brigit's mantle, so that she might walk upon it at dawn; invocations and prayers. But in what order these happened, or how long they lasted, or what else transpired, I cannot say, for I was in an altered state, conscious only of the way culture and season and art and history and spirit and my own body's memories came together in a perfect union.

sheep and cross in IrelandI have celebrated Imbolc almost yearly since the early 1970s, when I gathered with my women's circle in Alaska, in winter darkness that gave us a very tangible connection to the symbolism of light. Yearly I have spoken, or heard spoken, words about the festival's meaning, how it marks the beginning of spring, how it is the feast of milk because the ewes are lactating. But spring was always weeks away where I lived, and there were never any sheep nearby. In Kildare, at Imbolc, spring awakens the land. Ewes rest heavy bellies on wet greening grass, crocus buds nod their heavy heads, soft breezes tease the skin with suggestions of warmth. The holiday's symbolism is perfectly appropriate in Ireland, the land where the festival was born.

At other Imbolc ceremonies I've attended, the participants have moved through their symbolic actions with the care and reverence that comes of learning something first with the intellect, then with the body. No one, including myself, had memories of celebrating Imbolc as a little girl; we joined as adults creating a sacred space. Some of these rituals have been beautiful, moving, profoundly healing, but they are not Imbolc in Kildare. There I celebrated with people who were not creating or re-creating a ritual from books and dreams and symbols; they were celebrating an age-old festival that many remembered from childhood, tracing patterns that their foremothers had traced on that very day, in that very place, for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.

And I was one of them. I have never felt more Irish than I did that night. I felt an atavistic sense of blood connection, an awareness that I was celebrating in ways that had been part of my heritage for generations and generations. I felt as though my body were temporary, almost illusory, existing only to trace ancient sunwise paths around a holy place. As though my body reflected, like wellwater reflecting countless candles, the bodies of others -- women of Irish blood, women like me -- who had celebrated at that very place, on that very night, down through the centuries.

And the next day, when I woke to hear the first territorial songs of nesting birds, to see the crocus that overnight had burst into bloom on Moate House's lawn, to feel bright sun drying winter-flooded fields, to watch the first lambs bound toward their protective mothers, I felt the magic rightness of that vigil at the well -- felt, indeed, as though we had brought spring to Ireland by our songs and dances and prayers.

Excerpted from The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog: The Landscape of Celtic Myth and Spirit, recently published by New World Library (www.newworldlibrary.com).

Graphics Credits
+
Brigit © 2003 by Myrkrida. Used with permission.
+ sheep and cross, courtesy of PD Photo

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