Brigid, Queen of Imbolc

It was a really cold day. Drifts of snow lay on the ground, and frost iced the branches of trees and blades of grass with sparkling fairy dust. I decided to mark the festival of Imbolc by visiting St Brigid’s Well at Lisnabantry, about five minutes drive from where I live.

It is situated on the edge of bogland, near a very ancient looking cemetery called Roffney Burial Ground. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. It was well looked after, and clearly quite recently visited, as you can see from the pictures; there was evidence of many candles having been lit, and gifts had been left for Brigid.



It was a very peaceful place, in lovely, quiet countryside. I said my bit to Brigid, swirled my hand in the bone-chilling water, and turned to leave. It was only then that I noticed the magnificent milk-white bull at the top of the hill, watching me. You can just see him in the title picture. His presence felt right.



According to the Celts, Imbolc is the first day of Spring. It is also the feast day of Brigid, a Princess of the Tuatha de Denann, now more popularly known in Ireland as a Christian Saint. The word Imbolc is Old Irish, and thought to mean ‘in the belly’, with reference to the pregnancy of ewes. Indeed, the C10th manuscript known as Cormac’s Glossary explains it as oimelc, or ‘ewe’s milk’.

However, another term which I much prefer, but which scholars deem unlikely, is that of imb-fholc, meaning ‘to thoroughly wash/ cleanse’. To me, this is clearly a reference to ritual cleansing and purification, and as Imbolc is one of the four great Celtic fire festivals (the others being Beltaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain), it makes much more sense to me.

For the ancient Irish, the day began with darkness, not light. It began at sunset. Therefore, although the festival is held on February 1st, it actually begins on the evening of January 31st. Great bonfires were lit, which represented the return of the heat and light of the sun as the days began to lengthen and ripen into summer. Fire and smoke were also important for purification rites.

Many of Ireland’s ancient stone monuments confirm the festival’s importance. The Mound of Hostages at Tara, for example, is a Neolithic passage tomb aligned with the rising sun on the morning of Imbolc. Loughcrew has another.

Brigid is generally accepted as being the daughter of the Dagda, who was once the Ard Rí, or High King of the Denann. As with many of the Irish female deities, she was a Triune Goddess, meaning she was one and three all at the same time. This triple aspect of their femininity related to the stages of womanhood, namely maiden-mother-crone. Unusually, Brigid’s triple aspect revolved around her skills, poetry-smithcraft-healing. In particular, she was greatly loved for her healing and protection. She is associated with fire, and, very popularly, with lactating sheep.

I wonder about the sheep association; the Denann were famous for possessing beautiful milk-white cattle (hence the guardian of the well on the hill above me). In her own herd of livestock, Brigid was said to have kept  two royal cattle called Fea and Feimhean, the King of the Boars known as Torc Triath, and Cirb, who was king of the wethers. In case you don’t know, a wether is a castrated male sheep. No lactating ewes.

Brigid was worshipped all over Ireland and also in the UK. There is a carving in the tower on Glastonbury Tor which depicts her milking, not a sheep, but a cow. Cattle were considered very important in Ireland in ancient times; not only were they seen as a symbol of wealth and power, but they were used as currency. Queen Medb was famous for going to war over a bull, as told in the Cattle Raid of Cooley. An association with cattle would therefore make so much more sense to me.

Brigid was married to Bres, of Denann-Fomori heritage, with whom she had a son, Ruadan. Bres went on to become High King, but was deposed for his tyrannical rule. Seeking revenge, he enlisted the help of his Fomori relatives and waged war on the Denann. During the battle, Ruadan was sent into the Denann camp as a spy. He tried to kill their smith, Goibniu, but was himself killed in the attempt. Brigid collapsed in grief over her son’s body, crying her sorrow, and was thus said to have invented the act of keening (in Irish caoine, or cine) for the dead.

Bres was defeated by the Denann, but his life was spared by Lugh, although it is said that he was responsible later for killing Bres with a cup of poisoned wine.

One story claims that Brigid also had a union with Tuirean after Bres was killed, probably marriage, as they had three sons together, Ichvar, Ichvarba and Brian. These three men caused a feud with Lugh by killing his father, Cian. But what became of Brigid, I’m not sure.

St Brigid founded a nunnery in Kildare. Here an eternal flame was lit in her honour, and tended by nineteen nuns. Men were not allowed to enter. She had a close companion who went on to take her place as abbess when she died. Intriguingly, this woman’s name was Darlughdacha, which means ‘daughter of Lugh’.

The name Brighid means ‘bright/ exalted one’, thought to refer to her association with fire and the sun. This sounds more like a title to me. Some say her name derives from Breo-Saighead which means ‘fiery arrow’. To me, this conjures up images of lightning… you know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

Lugh was the God of Lightning. Perhaps Darlughdacha was the real Brigid, daughter of Lugh, Goddess of Lightning. Lightning is a fitting way to describe the light, or divine inspiration of the poetry with which she is associated. It also accurately describes the glowing white-hot iron she would have manipulated in the fire of the forge. And the Celts used light rather than cosmic energy in their spiritual healing.

This paints a slightly different picture of Brigid than the one we’re used to, and perhaps it’s a challenge too far for some. In the end, none of it really matters. Belief is individual. She is what she is to you.


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55 Comments on “Brigid, Queen of Imbolc

  1. Just sitting here, wondering where I would go first after dropping Bart back at the Dublin Airport. Now, I know that Brigid’s Well will be my first stop, and will likely be the first stop on my tour next year titled Goddesses and Heroines. Thanks for this lovely peak into yet another sacred spot.

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  2. Pingback: Goddess of Spring | aliisaacstoryteller

  3. Ack! You live 5 minutes away from here?! I am so envious. I’ve not made it here or Kildare but both are on my list of places I simply must go. I’ve always associated Brigid (or, at least Imbolc) with sheep. But also with cattle. Interesting. I cannot believe you saw a white bull there. Just waiting for you? Are there a lot around there or did you get a visit? 😉

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    • Hi Sarah! I live right smack in the centre of a cattle farming area, and yes, there are a LOT of white ones. That one in particular stared at me the whole time I was there, or at least, from when I was aware of him, but he didn’t move. He accepted me, or at least tolerated me. I thought he must be the guardian of Brigid’s well.

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  4. Love the way you think this stuff through, Ali. We were told so many conflicting versions of these myths as children, both in school and out of it, and we never thought about why the stories never could agree. It’s nice that you’re questioning all that here, brings me right back!

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  5. WordPress didn’t send me this post! Yesterday all notifications were sent to the spam folder anyway. We’ve upset someone somewhere! Gorgeous post as usual, you lucky thing 🙂 Would reblog but I have the poetry compet to post 🙂

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  6. Oh my gosh. I can’t believe you live so close to something so amazing. I’m green with envy (ha ha) that you get to experience that everyday.

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  7. Reblogged this on vaskaxtumir and commented:
    Celtic mythology is fascinating, but to me, the Irish strand of it stand out for the unsually high esteem in which the Irish held women and the degree of social recognition women were able to achieve in pre-Christian Ireland (where they could even be judges). Why Christianity turned into such a repressive patriarchal cult is a bit of a mystery, given some of the obviously strong and highly regarded women characters in the Old Testament (Deborah, for intance).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Irish Mythology | Brigid, Queen of Imbolc | vaskaxtumir

  9. Once again, you’ve taught me a little more about the beautiful culture of Ireland… Brigid sounds amazing! And I’m glad you identified those rosary beads, because just looking at the photos, it looked like you drew a dotted line to show us something. 🙂 Oh, and I also had NO idea what a wether was, so thank you for the explanation! 🙂

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  10. Oh, the sheep question … What I have learned in stories told is that Lasir or Laziar now spelled, was the ‘sheep woman’. Her stories are so much like Brighid but the variation being her reverence at Bealtaine and having a flock of sheep, sheep shearing time during May also being reverence due to the harvest of wool. Add to that, Brighid being connected to union and to birth, Lasir being connected to conception … and both being 9 months away from each other ??? 🙂

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    • I’ve heard of Lazir but know nothing about her. There does seem to be some crossover between the female deities, the river godesses have very similar stories to each other too. I think the monks didnt trouble themselves too much, as they were only women. But thanks for clearing that up. I do feel annoyed though that Brigid is being wrongly associated with sheep. Its as annoying as Grainne’s tea!

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  11. My favourite name variation for her is Brí de Óg, ‘light of love’, and there are some wonderful pre-Faughart stories, and teenage stories of the Brighid of Kildare from the townland and small village of Brideog near Lough Gara on the Sligo-Roscommon border. The River Brideog runs from Lough Gara to Lough Mask. There is a river from below Céis caves, from the Lough Feenagh, that goes to Lough Gara and some tell of that being part of the River Brideog too, and that story does go into the goddess realm of stories. All fascinating stuff.

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      • I suppose its a combination of being totally fascinated for almost 60 years now, since I was a child, talking to a lot of farmers and foresters along the way, listening to a load of storytellers and lately, blog writers, such as yourself, bring back memories of what these other people have said. To me a lot of their stories are fragments and I try to piece them together in my mind. Sometimes it all makes sense. Sometimes it needs a visit to a townlands to see the landscapes, contours, water, remains of sites, field lines, tree copses and how they may contribute themselves. Then there are the townland names and trying to figure out how they came about.

        The last thing I do is read some academics work. I could never remember the facts anyway, but when you are in the grip of a storyteller or a landscape or both then every story becomes a vision, a first love, and you just don’t forget it, for awhile 🙂

        … and sometimes something comes along to remind you and the memory of it all is clear again.

        So what I do is story. I do not think anyone could write history books on it … but even so, history books, from what I see, largely have an agenda connection so their accuracy, if any, cannot be much more … and certainly not as interesting 🙂

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        • I so agree with you about history books. Half of it is propaganda, half of it is guesswork. You’ll never get to the actual truth, because its all relative, and even the people who witnessed it could only report through their own interpretation, which of course differs from person to person.

          I also agree that visiting a place where something is said to have happened really helps put the story into context. I really felt this at Moytura, it was the perfect llace for a battle and it practically played itself out on the landscape before my eyes, incredible.

          But I wish I knew a fraction of what you knew. The alternative ending you gave Diarmuid and Grainne, for example, has really stayed with me.

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          • Fascinating vision there Ali. I am hell to leather trying to finish a book for our next USA tour in April because without a new book and recording there’s no money to cover tour expenses. It’s called Bathing In The Fae’s Breath and I got into a chapter that strangely goes through the different re-tellings of the Frog Prince made famous by the Grimm brothers. My intent was to share the ‘eco’ version. What I discovered by doing this is that the different story variations of Frog Prince are as varied as the Diarmuid and Grainne stories but the most popular is the Patriarchal version with an emphasis on Kings demands and teaching that girls should be ‘good girls’ manipulated by the men. Diarmuid to me, in the best known story, is a little bit like the Prince that popped out of the frog torso.

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            • Well that sounds unusual! I didnt even know there were other versions of the frog prince! Is your tour a storytelling tour or is it performance? Love the title! And good luck… sounds like you have a deadline looming!

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        • What a lovely post, and so beautifully written!

          Just one thing: story telling, if it is truthful and inspired, IS the telling and writing of history. Herodotus, the first known historian of our (“Western”) part of the world was himself quite clear on that and aware of both the value of oral traditions of history making and history-transmission, and of history-writing as itself a special form of story telling. Our stories can be — and sometimes, some of them are indeed — true.

          Ali Isaac’s own narrative account of her visit to St Brigid’s Well at Lisnabantry strikes me as not merely a story but as a historically accurate narrative of some of the key experiences and things she saw — was given and vouchsafed to witness — on that day. There is still true magic in Ireland, and Ali has done us all good service to have recorded a very quiet moment of it in her account of that day in Lisnabantry.

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          • Thank you Vaska! You are right, but in so many cases, the events of history have been manipulated, whether intentionally or not, to suit the beliefs of the time. Geneologies were invented to link a poets benefactor to illustrious leaders of the past in order to further claims to power, and the old religions banished, legends retold and made to fit new values. So we can never be really sure if the stories handed down to us are true or not. At best, they may contain some truth. The more closely you live with those stories and their characters, though, the more they present their truth to you, if you are willing to accept them as they are, rather than rushing to push them into a mould of what you think they should be. Too many people try to bring a scientific attitude to them, they need proof, facts, or they dismiss it entirely. That never works. For me, I love their elusive nature and ambiguity.

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  12. Thank you so much for including the pictures too! The timing is so different over there; you’ve got barely a dusting of snow and the grass is still green. Here (upstate NY) we’re still thoroughly in the grip of winter. We just got 12″ of snow yesterday and the temps are running between 18F and -10F. The ewes won’t be lactating for at least another 2 months.

    Makes me wonder what the Celtic calendar/festivals would look like if they lived here!

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    • Oh believe me we had more! But nothing like what you have! Ireland never loses its greeness ( not a word?) Even under the snow. Glad you liked the pics.

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