Ireland's most important female saint is Saint Brigid of Kildare. Also known as Brigid of Ireland and Mary of the Gaels, the saint is connected to old ways, folklore, and agriculture. Saint Brigid's feast day on February 1, 2020, marks the beginning of spring in Ireland and the return of the light after winter. The date lands approximately halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
Saint Brigid’s Day possibly started as a pagan feast known as Imbolc, which dates back to the 10th century. The holiday was often focused not only on the saint herself but also on cattle and dairy (of which Brigid is the patron saint).
For locals and tourists, there are various ways to celebrate Saint Brigid's Day in Ireland, from preparing special foods and having an Irish beer to honoring animals or taking a trip to the spiritual site of Saint Brigid's Well near Kildare Town.
Make a Saint Brigid's Cross
Saint Brigid's crosses, or Bogha Bride, are traditionally handmade from rushes (wildflowers), but reeds, straws, and a variety of regional materials are used. Any medium utilized for making the cross should ideally be blessed or sprinkled with holy water.
The design of the Saint Brigid’s cross is a mix of pagan and Christian influences similar in design to a fylfot (an English symbol like a swastika), with each of the four arms bending at a right angle.
In Ireland, the finished cross is typically hung above the front door on the inside of a thatched roof, but people also put them inside their front door or over the doorway. Saint Brigid’s crosses are thought to protect the home from fire, evil, and hunger, and should be left in their place for the whole year, only to be remade on the following Saint Brigid’s Day.
Follow Holiday Traditions
Before Saint Brigid became a nun, she was a milkmaid known for getting more milk from every cow and churning more butter than most people. Her knack for dairy continued once she became a nun.
Saint Brigid was said to travel the countryside and bless households, accompanied by a white cow with red ears. Some people still leave bread and fresh butter on the outside windowsill—along with corn for the cow—to make her feel welcome in case she passes by on her saint's day. Locals may prepare a special dinner the night before the holiday. On Saint Brigid’s Day, people give food to those in need. Saint Brigid’s Bread, a festive oat bread—ideally blessed by a priest and then shared—is made in many regions.
In Ireland, it is also common to leave out clothes (such a piece of white cloth) or to hang a white silk ribbon on the outside of the front door for the saint to bless on the eve of Saint Brigid's Day. People also lay out some rushes Saint Brigid can kneel on while blessing the household.
Create a Brídeóg Doll
Some locals in Ireland still carry on certain customs on Saint Brigid's Eve (or Imbolc). Girls and unmarried young women create a doll representing Brigid, called the Brídeóg. Usually made of corn or reeds and wearing white clothes, the effigy is decorated with ribbons, stones, shells, and such. They create a bed for the doll as well.
The next day the females walk with the doll in a procession while singing a hymn to the saint, visiting each home in the village, where the girls are usually given food or more decoration for their Brídeóg.
Later, after a special meal, the doll gets put to bed with lullabies. Boys and young men visit and respectfully ask to see the Brídeóg. The boys and girls then dance until dawn.
Honor Animals in Saint Brigid's Name
In honor of the saint and her efforts to travel around Ireland giving blessings to people and their farm animals, these creatures are especially well taken care of on Saint Brigid's Day.
If you don't own a farm, give your companion animal a special treat or you can make a donation to the local humane society or animal shelter.
A few miles south of Kildare, a historic Irish market town, year-round visitors stop to explore a special place with spiritual significance known for its healing properties. Saint Brigid's Well, located between Liscannor and the Cliffs of Moher, is in County Clare on Ireland's west coast. The spring is housed inside a grotto, along with a bronze statue of Saint Brigid wearing a cross. Offerings such as rosaries, candles, and pieces of clothing have been left in the grotto and in the trees on the path to the historic cemetery above.
Raise a Glass to Saint Brigid's Health
An Irish celebration without a drink is almost impossible to find. Brigid was also famous for brewing ale, so feel free to have a pint on February 1 in honor of the saint, naturally. The stout Guinness will do nicely and is easily found on tap in Ireland. But don't stop there: Irish beer is so much more than Guinness. Pubs are a big part of Irish culture and you can enjoy a diversity of beers as well as live entertainment.