Monday, March 12, 2012

Brigit Reviews (Series Three): Plays and Poetry


The Story Brought by Brigit, Lady Gregory (1924) (play)
St Brigit of the Mantle, Norah Kelly (1924) (play)
Brigit of Kildare, Ann Egan, (2001) (novel/poetry) (SEE ALSO the review in the NOVELS posting)
Brighid’s Runes, ed. Rachel Mica McCann (2008) (poetry)


I'll be brief here as the reviews are not long, themselves. Each of the four books brings something of interest and value. Two are Christian, tinged with the rosy blush of the Celtic Twilight, one is Christian, but embraces to some degree the saint’s pagan roots, and bases the story on diligent research, and the last is NeoPagan poetry that has little to do with Brigit herself. 

The Story Brought By Brigit, Lady Gregory (1924) G. P. Putnam’s Sons (play)

T.R. Henn, in his introduction to Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, wrote that “Lady Gregory herself could achieve a comedy as refined as her gay and gracious nature, and a tragedy, pathetic or patriotic, fitted to her vision and gifts” (pg 37). This is evident in her Passion Play, The Story Brought By Brigit. The story is tightly scripted and effective, with poems sparsely interspersed in the dialogue. The characters speak in a homey Irish manner, which at first is surprising but which becomes comfortable and pleasant, to my ear, anyway. When a minor character speaks of oppression and rebellion we can easily read English where he says Roman. But if we are hoping to get more than a glimpse of the great lady herself (Brigit, not Lady Gregory) we are to be disappointed.

The play’s conceit is that if Brigit could be present at Christ’s birth (as in Irish and Scottish folk tales), why not at his death? St Brigit arrives in Jerusalem shortly before Passover in order to see Christ for herself, but she is very seldom on stage and has few, brief lines and no role in the action. Where she does surface is in the notes at the end of the play, where the author discusses Brigit’s connection to Mary and Jesus in Irish and Scottish folklore, pointing out that whereas in Scotland Brigit is thought to have gone to Palestine to Jesus’s birth, in Irish tales Mary and her son come to Brigit. Although the play itself has nothing to say about Brigit, the notes do share some lovely images.

Our tradition, and that of Gaelic Scotland, speak (sic) of St. Brigit as ‘the foster-mother of Christ’, and I have been told by poor women of Slieve Echtge that she succoured both the Blessed Mother and Child when they were brought here by a Heavenly Messenger for safety in Herod’s time, and that she ‘kept an account of every drop of blood He lost through His lifeftime.’”
pg vi
The two names are constantly put together, ‘calm, generous Brigit,’ ‘mild, loving Mary.’ And in the dedication, the binding, of the young hunter ‘not to kill a bird sitting, or a beast lying down,’ he was bade remember ‘the fairy swan of Brigit of the flocks; the fairy duck of Mary of Peace.’
                                                     pg 92

Fora fine rendering of the hymn Lady Gregory includes in the book, follow this link:

Those interested in a play that actually concerns Saint Brigit, Norah Kelly’s St Brigit of the Mantle, also published in 1924, is the one for you.

St Brigit of the Mantle, Norah Kelly (1924) Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London. (Religious Drama) 32 pp.

First produced in Gloucester Cathedral in 1923, this play is a lovely blend of Celtic Twilight Paganism and unpretentious Christian evangelism. Kelly acknowledges her debt to “‘Fiona MacLeod’ (William Sharp)” for her version of the legend of Brigit.

William Sharp was, with WB Yeats, Lady Gregory, and others, a Celtic Revivalist. This movement drew on traditional Celtic literature and art but did not reproduce them exactly, using them as the loam on which to seed a new self-image for Celtic people. As was Yeats, Sharp was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult group famous now for the membership of Aleister Crowley.

How Sharp’s occultism influenced his writing would make an interesting study, but regardless, with this acknowledgement we know that we can’t assume the story “MacLeod” has written, and Kelly bases her play on, is traditional. Had she used a story collected by some diligent folklorist, or an old Life of St Brigit, a vision she’d had at prayer one night, a tale handed down by her grandmother, we would watch out for different elements, trust the material in different ways.

The legend as given is a unique take on the life of St Brigit, bearing elements that likely stem from Scottish legend but which havebeen liberally embellished.

A herdsman named Dughall and his daughter Brigit, ordinary peasants, live on the Scottish island of Iona in the Hebrides in the mid-6thcentury CE. Only the local Arch-Druid knows that Dughall was a prince of Ireland, exiled for having allegedly made pregnant a Princess Mora. Both she and he protest his innocence—the child, she says, is an immortal, a daughter of the Tuatha De Danann1.

A storm washes their boat ashore on Iona, killing all but the father and child. Brigit proclaims that one day she will hold “the King of the Elements Himself” in her arms. They are welcomed by the Arch-Druid of Iona who links this statement to a prophecy that “a child of the immortals” would one day “hold eternity in herarms”, neatly combining Pagan and Christian symbols and marking Brigit as an Otherworld being.

Brigit grows up in Iona. Inspired by the Druids’ offerings to a “Most High God”, she time travels “in search of a deathless love” through a gate of quicken trees (either the mountain ash or the service-tree, both in the genus Aucuparia), trees with Otherworld associations. She arrives in Palestine, in therole of the inn-keeper’s daughter2at the “Rest and Be Thankful”, in time to offer lodging to Mary and Joseph and attend the birth of Jesus. In keeping with the traditions of Celtic Otherworld adventures, she is gone for a year and a day.

The prose is delightfully “old fashioned” and well put together. In a wonderful aside, Brigit worries about the cattle of Palestine, caught in drought, and says “scarce a drop of milk will they give, and that only after the milking lassies have sung tune after tune tothem...” I don’t know about the milking lassies of ancient Palestine, but this is exactly how the Irish dairymaids approached such a problem.

It is intriguing that the heavy Pagan symbolism, given in a positive light, is accepted and absorbed into the Christian story, rather than being rejected outright as at other times and places. But be not confused, this is purely Christian in its intent.

Thestory of Jesus’s birth is of course is a familiar one to those raised in Christian tradition, but the infusion of Brigit—disobedient, sincere, and generous to a fault—and the melding of her medieval vitae with the biblical tale is delightful. Introducing Celtic saints into biblical stories (and vice versa) is not uncommon and gives a wonderfully accessible and neighbourly feel to both the saints and the stories themselves. No longer a tale of a remote time and place, it is an incident fresh and real as today’s new churned butter. Mary chastises the storm for threatening to wake her baby. Brigit offers refreshment that grows no less for the drinking. She swaddles Jesus in her blue cloak to keep him warm, and Mary responds that henceforth she will be known as Brigit of the Mantle.

In the closing scene, Brigit has returned to Iona, now blessed with the knowledge of deathless love, to bring Christianity to her “own sea-girt isle...that never more may Druid-worship sway the people’smind.” Ah, well.

Nicely done, all told, and with the various hymns prescribed for scene openings, I can see that a very pleasant afternoon could come of the staging of this play.

1In the statement that Brigit is a daughter of Pagan deities we find a nontraditional element undoubtedly introduced by either Sharp or Kelly.
2See Bryce Milligan’s Brigid’s Cloak: An Ancient Irish Story (picture book) for another instance of Brigit’s assuming this role in fiction.

Brigit of Kildare, Ann Egan, (2001) (novel) Kildare County Council Library and Arts Service, Eire.

This novel is reviewed in the previous post—Brigit Book Reviews (Series Two) but I want to mention it here because Egan, an award-winning Irish poet, has included a number of excellent Brigidine poems.

From “Dufach’s Daughter”:

the touch of her small hand
cool as a breeze-kissed petal
on my hard warrior’s palm,
the woodbine tendrils on her brow

have me within her spell, I am
bondman to my druid daughter.
To her I bequeath my sword,
its hilt aglow with rubies.

Brighid’s Runes: A Collection of Women’s Soul Poetry, Rachel Mica McCann, editor, Mica Arts, England, 2008.

When I heard about this book I imagined that the poems would have something to do with Brigit, but almost without exception, they do not. Instead, they are dedicated in a more generalized way to Goddess, sometimes to specific goddesses, such as the Cailleach, or to the process of ritual and awakening, from a woman’s perspective.

There are some very nice pieces in here. All of the poets are connected in some way to Scotland, England, Wales, or Ireland. They range in poetic experience from relative newcomer to adept, but the sensibility throughout is one of celebration, connection, growth, and joy. The youngest author is in her teens; another has gone on to the Land ofthe Dead. A very pleasant collection under the aegis of Brigit, patron of poetry.

Samples from the poems:

I have a Venus urge
for slow love making
soft kisses, smooth caresses
Autumn cooking,
pickles, stewed apples and spices.
I feel my body soften
as the gentle waning sun beckons me outside,
to pick up hazlenuts from the warm afternoon track,
so that I can bake wisdom cake.
My love for you.

Debra Hall

It was in the wreckage of kelp limbs I found you
The long crescent of your thigh,
a shade quicker than sand,
woven in the tidal reach, the tangle of sea

dried into cloth or food,
dried salt around your lips
your sea fingers
open and
close about drifted wood...

Sophia Dale

St Blaize's Brigit Doll

St Blaize is an inspired craftswoman and photographer with a lovely Flickr series featuring her Brigit Doll. Her comments under each photo are worth reading, as well. Here is a sample, but do go have a look at the whole set:
St. Brigid in her Spring Cloak

The greens represent the dark evergreen colors at the top, contrasted with the new bright growth of spring.

Materials include: Willow branch, manzanita branches, pearly everlasting flowers, and dry chaparral grasses and flowers. Her head is stuffed with the lichen usnea.

Techniques include: stuffing, tying, machine applique, and machine piecing.

This is an interpretation of a traditional "corn dolly", using materials from the local chapparal ecosystem of the Central Coast of California. The willow branch is from a riverbed, part of the watershed of the Monterey Bay.

St. Brigid's Day is celebrated on the first or second of February in Ireland, and coincides with Imbolc, one of the four seasonal celebrations of the Gaelic calendar.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Brigit Reviews (Series Two): Fiction


     The Tomb of Reeds, by Sarah Baylis, (1987) (YA novel)
    Brigit of Kildare, Ann Egan, (2001) (novel/poetry)
    Brigid of Kildare, Cindy Thomson, (2006) (novel)
    The Brideog by Casey June Wolf. Escape Clause: A Speculative Fiction Anthology, edited by Clelie Rich (2009)
    Brigid of Kildare, Heather Terrell (2010) (novel)

(People! You’ve got to start getting more imaginative in the Brigit book titles! It’s getting a bit hard to tell them apart.)

    Mention only
Confessions of a Pagan Nun, Kate Horsley, (2001) (novel)
Sister Fidelma series (novels), Peter Tremayne/Peter Beresford Ellis (1994 onward)

         Historical novels which are based on real people must be constrained by known facts. The fiction comes in where facts are unknown. An author’s note at the end of the book will point the interested reader to which elements are fact and which are fiction, thus satisfying both the love of imagination and the love of clear scholarship. In the case of St Brigit, much of the “fact” is hagiography, tales written long after the woman’s death, but they nevertheless form a body of understanding that can’t be tossed aside without cause.

         At times authors feel free to dispense with, or are unaware of, important facts about the person or her times, and paint very misleading pictures as a result. Possibly this is unimportant to you if you’re looking for entertainment only and don’t also want to learn about the subject of the book. In our case, we do want to increase our understanding of Brigit, as goddess or saint or both; only one of the three novels included here is worth turning to for that purpose—Brigit of Kildare by Ann Egan.

Writing good historical fiction is a lot of work. If you don’t want to spend energy getting the details right, or if the details don’t suit your plot, there are lots of alternatives. Don’t present your story as historical fiction. Write fantasy, or alternate history; invent a similar situation and character and do whatever you like.

Acknowledgements provide clues as to what sort of novel you have in your hand. Egan thanks, among others, Kildare librarians and the Regional Archivist. Thompson thanks, among others, God and her prayer partners. This does not mean that the one is not prayerful, and the other did no research, but it does hint at how much weight is given to each in the shaping of the book. (Terrell, for the record, thanks her publisher and friends—among others.)

Although Egan and Thompson draw from the same source materials, and approach Saint Brigit as Christians, their interpretations are worlds apart. Egan’s Brocassa and her daughter Brigit live in a world where Paganism is the norm; they understand and are themselves a part of that world. There is no disdain or distance between themselves and those who haven’t adopted Christian beliefs – beliefs which were in their day rare and unimportant in Irish society. Pagans are their relatives and their friends. There is an assumption that it is a good thing that Brigit herself and people around her become Christians, but it isn’t made at the expense of those who do not.

Thompson reveals a very different attitude. Pagans, especially druids, are nearly all deluded or dangerous. To Egan Brigit’s father is a good guy who cares about his land and his family, including Brigit and her mother, his slave Brocassa, whom he is in love with. His wife is greedy, but she is smart. For Thompson he is despicable, fat, and greedy. (Another stereotype I would love to see the back of: if you are greedy you are fat, and vice versa.) His wife is an evil druid. The Christian characters display a smug, knowing arrogance toward the Pagans which becomes more clear as the novel progresses.

Egan is herself an Irishwoman, living in the area where Brigit lived. Her dialogue is natural and readable, with no particular accent attempted. Thompson, who is American, uses a clunky “Irish” accent in the dialogue. This is in part a reflection of their writing skills. These are first novels for both of them, but Egan is an accomplished poet. She has won many literary awards, and Thompson is very much a beginning writer. There is talent here, but her skill is as yet unpolished.
The single short story looks at a traditional visitation on St. Brigit's Eve by Wolf, a Canadian writer of speculative fiction.
Terrell’s novel aims to be a rousing mystery story of the DaVinci Code ilk, with no particular religious sentiment beyond a dash of feminist revisionism. There is more polish in her writing than in Thompson’s, but it never comes alive; between that and the mishandling of historical materials, this book, which I was so looking forward to, is very disappointing.