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The following was contributed by an Irish relative in County Sligo, Ireland. He will be a guest contributor from time to time. The following was written in response to a comment on an earlier blog post of July 22, 2008.
A visitor has made a welcome comment as to what evidence I have regarding St. Bridget’s status. There is no direct evidence, but there are two bits of deductive evidence which I consider compelling.
What direct evidence we have comes from the Lives of the Saints and these were written a hundred or more years after the death of the Saint by a successor with a view to strengthen the particular institutions claim to primacy. Copies exist many hundreds of years old with some fragments going back to the eighth century. They are, however, regarded as not very reliable and as being full of exaggeration and dubious miracles. In St. Bridget’s life we are told that she was a head-strong independent young princess in conflict with her father when she met St. Patrick and was converted from paganism.
Another powerful Celtic woman was Queen Maebh (Maeve) of Connaught. She personally assessed the prowess of one hundred princes before deciding to marry Ailill and then went to war with Ulster because Ailill had a better bull than she had. The story of that war is told in the Táin. In pagan Celtic Ireland it was impossible for a princess to reach adulthood and still be a virgin.
One of the series of legends we have are the Imramha. They are a series of curragh voyages of adventure and they are a bit like a James Bond film in that they follow a formula. Among others they usually visit the Island of Apples (apples were a symbol of abundance in Celtic times), the Island of Fire, the Island of Ice and the Island of Women. The Island of Women was considered to be full of magic and mystery. In the Voyage of Bran the women did not want the men to return so when they tried to row away after a year the women threw magic ropes that stuck to the curragh and hauled them back. One time a crew member grabbed the rope before it touched the curragh and with his sword Bran chopped off the crew member’s hand and so they escaped. However, when they got home a hundred years had passed and as soon as they stepped ashore they became very old men.
In another story there were three women for every man and the men found the women’s demands so exhausting that they went on strike. The strike was settled when it was agreed that the men would be allowed to hunt for one day a week. In another there were seven women to every man and with his crew half dead the skipper went back on his own to get a second crew to relive the pressure on his first crew. St Brendan the Navigator’s voyages are in this tradition and he visits the Island of Fire and the Island of Ice but unfortunately missed the Island of Women.
I have tried to imagine the monks in their freezing scriptoriums solemnly writing down the sexual antics contained in the oral legends.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a community which had the last echoes of a Gaelic past and the cult of St. Bridget. Her cult had absorbed much of the Celtic goddess Bríd the fertility goddess, mother earth the mother goddess. I was genuinely taken aback when I walked into the church in Portugal and saw St. Bridget the Virgin because I had an image of St. Bridget as a mother figure and giving a mother’s protection to Ireland.
See more Irish family history articles and lessons learned in earlier posts below and in the archives.