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The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog: The Landscape of Celtic Myth and Spirit

From Chapter 6, "The Well of Her Memory"

It was just past dawn on a soft day in January. Three pilgrims moved through the mist that swaddled the Curragh like a cold white blanket. The muddy path led straight for a time, then made a sudden arbitrary curve to the left, then right, before straightening out again. Arbitrary, for the land was gridiron flat; whatever the road bent around would have been invisible even on a clear day.

The low clouds erased the Curragh’s distant edges, so the pastureland seemed endless. Endless and primeval. No fence, wood, or stone, divided its vast acreage. Except for the power lines buzzing above us, we could have been in Celtic times, when the midlands were checkerboarded with such enormous pastures whereon grazed the cattle and horses of the tuath -- the people and their land, so deeply connected that a single word sufficed for both. Now there is only this shred, this parcel, this never-plowed fragment of the old way of communal landholding. The Curragh, unfenced and untitled, is Ireland’s last such link to Celtic times and ways.

It was winter. 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 held sway as we neared Imbolc, or so the cold and the damp proclaimed.

But spring was near, near as the sheep who materialized out of the fog near a spiky outcropping of granite. Seven ewes -- legs splayed, heavy bellies resting on the wet greening grass -- glared up at us. Lambs kicked within them, hidden as spring on a foggy January morning. The bitter chill and the ashen fields gave no clue to the nearness of a new season but, like the lambs, spring was "in the belly" of winter, for that is the meaning of the word Imbolc, the name of the festival we had come to Ireland to celebrate. Soon spring, in all its robust fragility and wild insouciant joy, would arrive as suddenly as birth which, like death, is always sudden no matter how fervently anticipated or feared.

A sharp sound from the left. Heavy pounding. We stopped, frozen in place. Three thoroughbreds emerged from the mist and raced past on a barely visible track. The center horse, a sleek black mare, tossed her head wildly, demanding more freedom from a rider who kept her tightly reined. Two accompanying roans galloped steadily, matching strides, their riders upright in the stirrups. Then they were gone, their hoofbeats dulling as white mist swallowed their dark forms.

We resumed our walk up the muddy path to the top of the Curragh. Before we left town, Sister Phil had warned us, "Be careful. Horses have the right of way on the Curragh." So we had been prepared for the explosion of animal energy we had just witnessed, prepared to find riders even so early on the Curragh plain. We were also, we hoped, prepared with directions to our destination. Sister Phil had assisted the other pilgrims onto a bus, but we had our own car. "You can’t drive onto the Curragh," Phil told us, "so park on the road and walk in. Meet up with us at the top -- you can’t miss it."

"You can’t miss it." How often have I heard those words in Ireland. And how often have they led to an hour of wandering down high-hedged boreens looking for "the big ash tree: you can’t miss it," or "the house highest on the hill: you can’t miss it," only to find groves of enormous trees and rows of homes each exactly as high on the hill as the next. The top of the Curragh? Could such flatness have a top? Surely a glacier had ironed down the land in prehistory, for we could have been in Indiana -- except for the mystic mist, except for the ewes pregnant in January, except for the racing thoroughbreds -- rather than in county Kildare.

Kildare is anglicized Irish, from Cille-Dara, "the church of the oak." The compound joins the two greatest influences on Irish spirituality, Christianity and paganism, symbolized by their quite different places of worship. Whereas Christians worshiped indoors, their sacred places contrasting with the unsanctified world outside the walls, the Celts found holiness in places of natural power, especially those marked by great oak trees. The Roman Pliny tells us that "they seek the oak tree for their sacred grove, and no ceremony is complete without its branches." In Kildare there was once an immense oak honored by the druids; under it was built, according to Christian legend, first a nun's cell, then a church and an abbey. Although the religion practiced there changed, the oak continued to be regarded as holy. Even five hundred years into the Christian era, its wood was deemed magical, if broken from the tree rather than cut. That sacred oak, gone for untold centuries, lives on in Kildare's name.

Just as neither church nor oak can be abstracted from Kildare's name, so can neither be removed from Irish spirituality without leaving it truncated, distorted. Paganism and Catholicism in Ireland are joined twins that cannot be separated. They are not opposites, as archaeologist Proinsias MacCana has pointed out, for in Ireland pagan ways and Christian beliefs formed an "extraordinary symbiosis." Not -- notice this -- a synthesis. Not two things melded into one, not one submerged into another, but two entities that combine for the benefit of both, interdependent though still detectably separate. Like moss, from which neither lichen nor fungi can be extracted without killing the whole, paganism and Christianity in Ireland need each other to live. And nowhere is this more clear than in the figure of Brigit, goddess and saint, whose sanctuary under the vast spreading oak on the edge of the Curragh was a temple in Celtic times, a convent in Christian times -- and is today a gathering place for those committed to bridging the chasm between Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants, between pagans and Christians, between men and women.

Bridging the chasm is an appropriate image for this endeavor, for bridge is itself a Brigit word. The Celtic word Brigit -- actually a title rather than a name, meaning "high one" or perhaps "bright one" and used of the goddess as we use lord of god -- was anglicized into Bridget; in turn, across Ireland and England, towns near ancient shrines to the goddess were called with names including "bridge," as in Bridgeport and Bridgetown. In Irish, the word is pronounced "breed" or "bride," leading to yet other compounds. Brideswell and Tubberbride are towns built near Brigit wells; McBride and Gilbride, from the Irish Mac Giolla Bhríde, are surnames of those devoted to Brigit. The word Brigit also survives as a name for Irish women, usually in the form of Bridget and in the nicknames Biddy, Bridgeen and Bridey.

Bridey Duffy. That would be her name if she lived today: Brigit, daughter of Dubthach. That is, if we credit the early writings claiming that a child named Brigit, who would grow up to become Ireland’s most important female spiritual leader, was born at Faughart in 450 C.E., less than two decades after Saint Patrick’s legendary arrival. She was born at dawn, exactly on the threshold of her mother’s home. Born of a pagan father and a Christian mother, one a noble and the other a slave. Born to straddle the two eras of Ireland’s religious history and to be a bridge between them.

Some contend that she never lived, that there never was a woman who grew up to refuse an arranged marriage, to establish the most renowned convent of the early Christian era, to guide the spiritual journeys of both men and women. Brigit is simply the Celtic goddess in a nun’s habit, say scholars like Miranda Green, who suspects a "false historicity" in the saint’s legends. There may have been historical women named Brigit who attained positions of significant influence in the early Celtic Church, but all those miracles -- Brigit hanging her cloak on a sunbeam, healing the sick with her bathwater, curing blindness with a touch of her hand -- are fabrications of a Church that wished to bring an immensely powerful and beloved goddess under its influence. Such is the argument of those who find no historical evidence for the saint’s existence.

But perhaps it is not necessary to deny the saint to affirm the goddess. As Irish feminist scholar Mary Condren has pointed out, stories are often as important as facts, for people act upon what they believe whether it is factually true or not. And stories have been told for 1,500 years about a sainted woman of Kildare named Brigit. There may, indeed, have been such a woman, pagan by birth but Christianized with the rest of Ireland. The Celts named their daughters for goddesses, just as Indian girls might today be named Sita or Devi after Hindu deities. Before Christianization, we know of pagan women named after the goddess, like Brigit Brethra, the renowned lawyer to king Conchobar mac Nessa. After Christianization, the custom survived. Even so, there seems to have been early concern about a saint with such a patently pagan name. One curious tale explained away the difficulty. A trinity of ghostly Christian clerics appeared to the unborn saint's pagan uncle to demand that she be named Brigit: "So the druid was apparently divinely inspired by a Christian apparition to give the baby the name of a prestigious Celtic goddess," says Miranda Green bemusedly.

Even had she not been given the name at birth, a canny administrator -- as Kildare’s sainted abbess must surely have been -- could readily have assumed the name, and thus the prestige, of the local goddess when she established her convent in the druidical sacred place in Leinster, province of the rising sun. Or, as the great Celticist R. A. S. MacAlister has argued, the head of the priestess college in the rich midlands may have traditionally assumed the name of the goddess; one such dean, after converting to Christianity, could have taken the whole sisterhood with her and become the basis for the saint’s legend. There may not have been miracles, but surely there was some abbess in early Christian times whose influence is felt down to the present.