Monday, April 24, 2017

Children's Book Review: “Brigid and the Butter” by Love and Stott

Review Brigid and the Butter: A Legend about Saint Brigid of Ireland 
  by Pamela Love (author) and Apryl Stott (illustrator) (2017) 
  Pauline Books and Media. 
  30 pp. For children ages 5-8 years.

What a delightful picture book! I was pleased when I learned of its existence. I have read, reviewed, and enjoyed three other picture books about Brigit so I looked forward to discovering another person’s—or rather pair of persons’—perspective on her young life. I was not disappointed.

Brigid and the Butter is the first Catholic offering I’ve encountered in the Saint Brigit picture book genre, which have included one specifically Orthodox book and two that tell the saint’s tales from an “Irish Legends” perspective and from an almost magical perspective in which young Saint Brigit goes to Bethlehem to help out Joseph and Mary in the birth of Jesus. (For my review of these books please go here.)

In Brigid and the Butter the first thing I notice of course is the art of Apryl Stott. The cover shows a comely, open-faced young girl with a bowl of butter, cattle in the pasture behind her, and a painted framework round the whole that mixes Irish knotwork with another style of art inlaid into it—beautiful though a little out of keeping with the setting. Flipping through the book without reading, to get an idea of the flow of the story and to steep in Stott’s imagery, I grew more excited—her paintings are rich and generous and well designed, and even the non-reader is quickly drawn into a land where there are great cattle looming over us, finely arching thistles growing up along a page, and an earnest young girl caring for the cattle and setting to work making butter.

I have few criticisms of Stott’s lovely work, apart from a neglect of research into the times depicted. The hut, for instance, looks like something from a different land (England, perhaps?), unlike what would be expected in Iron Age Ireland, when Brigid lived. The cattle would be at home in a modern cowyard but are not the native cattle of Ireland—and so on. Those elements, if done correctly, would have added to the charm of the book and its usefulness in teaching children about 5th century Ireland, but even as it is, the art is outstanding and supports the story of the book very well.

Pamela Love has drawn together a number of elements to tell a story that is both entertaining and educational, mostly in terms of its spiritual teachings. The child who reads the book will learn a little of what life was like for a youngster in Brigid’s time, for instance that children were expected to work independently and hard (potentially dangerous work, too, if you check out the size of and the horns on those critters). She handles a herd of animals much larger than herself, caring for them in many ways, and does the exhausting work of making butter from their milk. Butter comes from milk?! From a cow?! Amazing! And this is how it’s done. By hand?!

Add to this that the girl is briefly mentioned to be a slave. It may come as news to a child that Irish children have ever been slaves—in our uneven coverage of the topic we have tended to give the impression that only African people were ever captured as slaves, but of course slavery exists even today and has been an important and legal part of many cultures all across the world. This mention might give a teacher or parent an opportunity to talk to a child about slavery. But it is not explored in the book, and indeed if you forget that one introductory line you may think from the following story that Brigid and her mum lived unmolested on their own in a pretty, well equipped house and had a good herd of cows. You would notice, though, that they seem to have very little to eat.

And that is the crux of the story. Hard-working Brigid churns the butter and comes up with only a little for herself and her mother (who we never meet). There is no mention that most of the churnings and indeed most of the milk would have gone to the master; the impression is that only a teeny bit of produce comes from all that work, and I can only assume this is to simplify the story, but I do think it leaves it a little bit unanchored. If we saw that the results of Brigid’s hard work were mostly carted away and then she was left with only a little there would be a stronger impact—although even the smallness of the butter is a literary device, as there is no indication in Brigid’s Lives that she and her mother were poorly fed, only that they were hard-worked. No matter, a small opportunity lost but possibly needless clutter avoided.

So, back to the crux of the story, which is that with only a small amount of food for herself and her mother, Brigid is faced with a situation where someone with even less has asked for help, and she must decide what to do. An elderly, skinny woman comes to the door asking for food. Brigid offers to let her wait for her mum to return, saying she might bring food and they could share it with her, but the woman is in a hurry. Brigid says all they have is butter, with nothing to put it on, and the old woman gets a look of longing and says how much she loves butter and how it’s been ages since she’s tasted it.

Earlier in the story Brigid has heard Saint Patrick tell the story of the loaves and fishes. In it a young child brings a tiny offering of bread and fish, all he has, to Jesus, and Jesus makes of it enough to feed a great crowd. Brigid thinks of this when considering what to do with the butter. She and her mother had eaten nothing all day and she had been looking forward to tucking into the butter, whether her mother brought other food back with her or not. Now she was faced with the difficult choice of preventing a hungry woman from finding enough food to carry on and facing that deepening hunger herself. Her instinct is to be inviting and generous, but her feeling of self-preservation makes her reluctant to just give it all away.

Suddenly she understands that “helping others could be difficult”. What had seemed like a nice idea in the story was actually a hard reality in day to day life. She has a little conversation in her head with Jesus, a kind of natural prayer where she acknowledges that unlike him, she isn’t able to feed thousands, but that she can help the one person right in front of her. Thus, the elderly woman walks happily away, all the butter and even the bowl tucked nicely in her bag. Brigid is a little worried that her mother will be upset, and she asks Jesus to provide for them so that they, too, will have something to eat.

As was nearly always the case in the Lives of Brigid when she has acted in this fashion, her generosity ends up not being as costly as it at first appears it will. She turns back to the table and there two bowls of butter stand, each more full than the original. The young girl who has taken a risk with her own and her mother’s bellies in order to help someone else is rewarded with enough food for several days, and gives thanks.

I like how gently and humanly this story is told. There is no hectoring, no sense that she was a bad girl even to think of not giving, but that this was a difficult life decision that each of us faces—in fact we face such decisions thousands of times in our lives. Will we be generous today? Will we reserve enough for ourselves? What makes sense in any given situation? The complexities of such ethical decisions aren’t gone into here, nor should they, but the beginning of the conversation is opened up. The idea is put before a child that even when we ourselves have very little, we are capable of giving, capable of helping someone else, and that we might consider this when faced with a decision of whether or not to give help.

I like that Brigid and the Butter can be read as it is and enjoyed quite simply, with no pressure to have big heavy Teaching Discussions, or can become the starting off place for several different conversations, then or later, round the dinner table perhaps, on the different kinds of responsibilities children face, on slavery, on miracles, on generosity, on taking care of ourselves and our own families, on cattle rearing and making butter, or on the Biblical stories referred to in the text. (A family that is into history might even look into whether or not Saint Patrick and Saint Brigit could ever actually have met, as they were said to have done in some of her later Lives.)

The story is followed by a portrait of the grownup Brigid and a few paragraphs about her later life, and then by a short prayer to Saint Brigid:

“Saint Brigid, you gave food to someone who was hungry although your stomach was also empty. I want to be generous, too. Pray for me so that, like you, I may do what I can to help others. Help me to care for people in need, even when it isn’t easy. Amen.”

A prayer we could most of us benefit by.

The book ends with writeups and photos of the author and illustrator but also, wonderfully, of the Catholic Sisters who run Pauline Books and Media, as well as a brief catalogue of some of their children’s books. I am left with the sense of a very joyful and loving group of women, and I am well pleased that I have this book.

For a sneak peek into the first few pages of the book, follow this link.

For a review by a Catholic father of three (so you can get the kids’ response, and not just some fusty old adult’s), check out Steven R. MacEvoy’s blog.

What Would Brigit's Church Have Looked Like?

Many of us have read and been impressed by Cogitosus's wonderful description of the church at Kildare when he was a monk therea hundred years or more after the death of Saint Brigit.

It gives us a sense of a huge and active monastic community with a church large enough to accomodate the female and male monastics as well as the local lay Christians. But Saint Brigit and her eight sisters arriving in the fifth century into what came to be called Kildare would have built a much humbler "cell", perhaps like this recreated Patrician church of the same century. Those of you who read Heather Upfield's recent post about Saint Bride will be familiar with the idea.

According to the Ballintubber Abbey website:

Wooden Church-replica of Patrician churches (5th Century): 

These “Dairteachs” or wooden churches served as places of reflection on the Word of God or on nature, in the early Irish Church. Baptism and the Eucharist were more often celebrated in the open air, around wells and in groves in the tradition of our pre-Christian ancestors.

This is a small but clear image. Do enlarge it on your screen and have a look at greater detail. Not much protection from the elements, and smoke would have hung low in such a structure if fire or incense were litit's no wonder that most ritual was done outside.

Image: "Wooden Church-replica of Patrician churches (5th Century)." From Ballintubber Abbey website. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Ancient Ireland: Course and Free Downloads of Classic Studies

Rekindling an awareness of the Laws, Culture, Mythology, and Heritage of Ancient Ireland

The Brehon Law Academy provides links to a number of important resources for the study of ancient Ireland, videos, as well as books like On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish by Eugene O'Curry. It also offers a low cost course called Ancient Ireland: Culture and Society, which looks very good, and seems well appreciated by the people who have so far taken it.

Lovers of Brigit being generally lovers of ancient Ireland, or at least seeking an understanding of it so that she may be understood, may wish to have a look.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

‘St Brigid and St Bride in Scotland’ by Heather Upfield

My thanks to Heather Upfield for the following article, in which she shares her understanding of St. Bride of Scotland, and for her patience and sense of humour in dealing with my comments along the way. I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I have. (And my apologies for being unable to tame the formatting madness that is Blogger.)

While St Brigid of Ireland is well known throughout the World, far less is known about her presence and influence in Scotland. Indeed, many Scots themselves are unaware of this Saint’s impact on their shores. For the past ten years, I have been researching Bridie in Scotland both recording the hundreds of sites dedicated to her and learning more about the mythology which surrounds her.

One of the most significant facts surrounding St Brigid’s crossing of the Irish Sea to what is now known as Great Britain, back in the 5th Century, is that she became known as St Bride in England and Scotland, and frequently St Ffraid in Wales. Her presence in Glastonbury in England, in AD 488 resulted in a chapel she built on Bride’s Mound on the edges of the town. St Bride’s, a famous Church in Fleet Street in London (rebuilt by Wren after the Great Fire of London), has its foundations in a pre-Mediaeval church dedicated to St Bride, beside a holy well. In Wales there is the famous St Bride’s Bay on the west coast.

In Scotland, it is thought that St Brigid arrived at the town of Kilbride (now known as West Kilbride in North Ayrshire) around AD 500, having sailed from Ireland, northwards towards the Isle of Arran. The distance between Ireland and Arran is negligible - on a clear day, it is possible to see the north coast of Ireland while standing on the southern-most beach of Arran. At a time when waterways and the sea were the prime method of transport, it makes it highly likely that this journey would have been something like routine.

Having arrived in West Kilbride, south west of Glasgow, (close to where I live) she founded small monastic communities along the south west coast of Scotland: one on the Isle of Little Cumbrae another on the mainland coast at Southannan, (at the foot of Diamond Hill south of Fairlie Station), and another at Chapelton, (south of Seamill, opposite Limpet Craig). It is likely there were others!

We have to remember, that these settlements were not grand, stone-built monasteries, the like of which appeared during the 11th and 12th centuries, but simple wooden churches within a group of wooden dwellings for adherents. Likewise, St Bride would have not have been dressed in the classic habit and wimple of the Mediaeval nun - she would have been wearing the simple clothing of the day - as illustrated in the Church window from the High Kirk of St Bride in Brodick, Isle of Arran (above). In this window, she is depicted with her guardian wolf and the goose which symbolises the beginning and end of winter. The bottom light depicts St Bride with her boar. The Feast Day of St Bride is 1 February, and her flowers are the snowdrops. She is known as The Great Shepherdess and like the Irish St Brigid, is associated with cows and sheep. There are many prayers in the Highlands of Scotland surrounding Bride and the guardianship of the livestock.

It is believed that St Brigid of Ireland was invited to Abernethy in Perthshire, Scotland, by King Nechtan Mor, King of Dalriada. Abernethy claims that she died there and was buried in the churchyard, before her body was taken back to Kildare at a later date. Another story is that she died on the Isle of Little Cumbrae and was buried there in the Priest’s Grave.

In all respects, St Bride, as she is known in Scotland, is just a different spelling and pronunciation of St Brigid of Ireland. However, the story of St Bride in Scotland becomes more interesting, as there is yet another thread in the story. This is the lustrous and enigmatic St Bride of the Isles. If St Brigid/St Bride was generally a pastoral Saint, St Bride of the Isles is largely a maritime Saint.
In the seas surrounding mainland Scotland are around 790 islands. The most well-known are the Orkney Isles, Shetland Isles, the Outer Hebrides and the Inner Hebrides. It is the Hebridean Islands where the story of St Bride of the Isles begins.

Despite official derivation showing otherwise, ‘The Hebrides’ are popularly known as ‘The Brides’ or ‘Bride’s Isles’. According to local legend, she arrived on the shores of South Uist with an Oystercatcher on each wrist. The Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) is a black and white shoreline bird, with a very distinctive call. In the Ghaidlíg (the Scots form of Gaelic), the bird is known as Gille-Bhrìde, which means ‘Servant of Bride’. In the mythology, it is said that St Bride of the Isles was being pursued along the beach by villains, when she could go no further and fell down on the sand. As she was preparing to meet her Maker, Oystercatchers on the shore noticed her plight and gently covered her with seaweed, to hide her from her pursuers. After the men had left, St Bride blessed the Oystercatcher for ever more, above all other birds.  Its plaintive call is said to be ‘Bhride Bhride Bhride’. Thus it is that along with the cow and sheep, the most potent symbol of St Bride of the Isles is the Oystercatcher. 


In the mythology, St Bride is carried from the Isle of Iona, in the Inner Hebrides, to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, to be mid-wife to Mary at the birth of Jesus. In the Ghaidlíg, she was known as ‘Ban-Chuideachaidh Muire’ ‘knee woman of Mary’, as in the Hebrides, women gave birth on one knee.  Not only is she present at the birth of Jesus, but she also takes on the role of the Foster mother of Jesus - ‘Muime Chroisd’. In the Hebridean tradition, a Foster mother was considered more important than a natural mother. They took the view that any woman could become a mother - and be good or indifferent or bad. But the Foster mother took on the rearing of a child who was not her own, and this gave her greater status. In the eyes of the Hebrideans, therefore, St Bride is more important than St Mary and it is she who is considered the true Mary of the Gaels. A Hebridean prayer during labour was ‘Bride, Bride, Come in. Thy welcome is truly made. Give thou relief to the woman and give thou the conception to the Trinity’.

Following the Nativity, the Church celebrates Candlemas forty days after Christmas. St Bride is closely connected to this Festival. When Mary and Joseph carried the infant Jesus to the Temple, St Bride walked ahead of them. She wore a crown of candles and held a lighted candle in each hand. The flames stayed completely still and were not moved by the wind. In some traditions, Candlemas is known as Feast Day of St Bride of the Candles, and she herself is known as St Bride of Brightness.  The legend of the flames also corresponds with what we know of Oimelc (or Imbolc) as a Fire Festival. 


Is this the same St Bride as St Brigid? We will never know the origins of St Bride of the Isles, whether she has a much older lineage, or whether the stories of St Brigid were reinterpreted for the people of the Islands. Kathy Jones and Brian Wright in their respective books on the Goddess, place St Bride/St Brigid as antecedents of the Ancient British Goddess Brighid (also known as Brigit-Ana, or Britannia). It is likely that St Bride of the Isles is also part of this continuum. Sir James Frazer, an anthropologist, in his book on Comparative Religion entitled The Golden Bough (1890), described St Bride of the Isles as ‘The Goddess in a threadbare Christian Cloak’.

Certainly, the mythology and legend surrounding St Bride of the Isles leads one to imagine an older Goddess related history. This is apparent in the story of the battle between St Bride and the Cailleach, which has obvious parallels with the Underworld story of Persephone and Demeter.

The Cailleach is the Old Storm Woman of the Scottish Mountains, who governs winter, and is the enemy of growth. The legend goes, that on the first of November, after a struggle, St Bride is overpowered by the Cailleach, who imprisons her in Ben Nevis - Scotland’s highest mountain. The weather changes: Atlantic storms roar across the land, plants die and growth ceases.  But help is at hand!  After three months of hardship, at the end of January, Aengas of the White Steed dreams of Bride.  He rides his horse across the sea and rescues her from the mountain, on February the First. Spring bursts into flower with the snowdrops and growth is restored to the land.

St Bride of the Isles was associated with the fishing fleets on the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides and is present in milking songs, herding blessings and churn incantations. She is known as The Golden Haired Bride of the Kine. In Kildrummy in north east Scotland, there is a St Bride well to cure cattle diseases. On the Eve of St Bride’s Day, the custom was for the women and girls to make Bridie Dolls from stalks of corn. The dolls would be dressed in white, and adorned with shells and beads. A sparkling bead would be sewn over her heart to represent the Guiding Star of Bride over the Bethlehem stable. The dolls were associated with blessing of the fields and the promise of good crops. Like Brigid, she is also known as St Bride of the Mantle - ‘Bride-nam-Brat’ - but in the Hebridean tradition she hangs her mantle on the sun. In addition to the snowdrop, her flowers are the dandelion and the daisy, both of which represent the sun. The dandelion was especially revered, as its stems produce milk. It was known as ‘Bearnan Bride’ - ‘little notched flower of Bride’. In the Highlands, there was a saying ‘the plant of Bride nourishes with its milk the early lamb’.

Whether we are referencing St Brigid, St Bride or St Bride of the Isles, more substantial stone chapels were eventually built, from around the 10th century. They were usually rectangular, about 12’ x 8’, comprising two chambers. In my research into St Bride in Scotland, I have identified over ninety such Chapels which were dedicated to her, across the length and breadth of mainland Scotland and throughout the islands, up into the Orkney Isles. In the main, these Chapels are known as ‘Kilbride’. The prefix ‘Kil’ comes from the Ghaidlíg ‘Ceal’ meaning ‘Church’ and is a common place name - as in Kilmichael, Kilbride, Kilmarnock and Kildare etc. From the Norse, we get the prefix ‘Kirk’ - again meaning ‘Church’ - so there are a number of Kirkbrides as well.

St Bride of the Isles on the shore, with a lamb., Window and detail, in Holy Trinity Scottish Episcopal Church, Stirling.

The Protestant Reformation in Scotland in the 16th Century wiped out most of these Chapels, and now they are ruins, or a few blocks of stone in a field or merely bumps in the ground. There are, however, thirty living and consecrated Churches in Scotland which are dedicated either to St Bride or St Brigid. Some have their foundations in much earlier chapels from the Mediaeval period and are generally St Bride churches, while others were built during the 19th century, in response to immigrants from Ireland needing a place to worship. In general these are St Brigid churches.

With St Bride of the Isles being associated closely with the sea, there are a number of sea and coastal features dedicated to her, for example: ‘Sloc a’ Brighide’ - Deep of Bride - off the Isle of Lismore; Kilbride Bay - close to Tighnabruaich; ‘St Bride’s Ness’ - Headland of Bride - Isle of North Ronaldsay in the Orkney Isles; ‘Rubha Bhride’ - Bride’s Point - Isle of Jura; and ‘A’Bhrideanach’ - Bride’s Point - Isle of Rum - to name just a few.

In addition to the Hebrides being taken collectively to mean Bride’s Isles, a number of little individual islands are also dedicated to her, for example: ‘Eilean Bhride’ off the south coast of the Isle of Islay and ‘Kilbride Island’ in Loch Fyne. Generally, St Bride of the Isles is thought to embrace all the islands of Scotland. Scattered across the landscape of mainland Scotland and the Isles are thirty-eight farms and steadings named ‘Kilbride’, ten rivers named after Bride, nine hills, and twenty-four St Bride Holy Wells. There is even a Kilbryde Castle! It is possible that these Bridie sites were originally connected with Brighid. Indeed, the remains of Balbridie (‘little town of Bride’ - a pre-historic settlement near Banchory in east Scotland) have been dated to around 3600 BC.

At one time in Scotland’s history, St Bride/St Brigid, or St Bride of the Isles had tremendous influence in Scotland. How much of her life is enshrined in myth and legend and how much is ‘real’ we may never know. For me she has been truly inspirational both as Goddess and Saint. I continue to research sites dedicated to her and honour her in the changing of the seasons and the flowering of the land. Bridie Blessings to all from Caledonia.

Brighid, St Brigid, St Bride, St Bride of the Isles and Scotland’ 
©Heather Upfield,, 16 April 2017.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Amy Interviews Mael Brigde: Brigit Music, Daughters of the Flame, & More!

Well, that was lovely.

I just had a long conversation with Amy Panetta, who found me through this blog a few years ago (although I wasn't really aware of it until she approached me recently on Facebook). Amy is an energetic and very curious young womancurious about things, that is, not curious in herselfand has combined her musical skills and love of Brigit in a number of projects.

Her main focus is Brigidine music, especially that composed in the last decades, and we got together today to talk about it, and about my love of writing songs to and about Brigit. Somewhere between the time we made the plan to talk and the talk itself, Amy asked me if we could do it as an interview, thinking she might use it in her podcast-to-be. I agreed and off we went.

I have been interviewed on paper, or asked to write some reflections on my connection to Brigit, but I have never been interviewed aloud on these matters and some of things she asked about I had never spoken discussed with another. So it was an interesting and fun experience for me, where I got to let my thoughts stretch and my chin wag. (I'm usually more the listenerbelieve it or not, those who know me.)

Amy is an excellent interviewer, with clear questions, a relaxed style, and adding enough of her own thoughts to make it a conversation instead of a monologue. I didn't feel like I was alone and honking, but at ease and chatting with a friend.

Who knows if this will ever be used as a podcast, but it was a good experience, helping me to think in new ways about a subject that is dear to my heart.

I look forward to meeting Amy in the flesh when she comes to Vancouver in a couple of weeks for the CSANA 2017 Conference, (27–30 April 2017, the Celtic Studies Association of North America), where she will be presenting her topic "The Feminine Face of God: Vocal Music Dedicated to Bridget, the Pre-Christian Celtic Goddess and Saint".

This is not an expensive conference, and it runs for several days, so there will be much to bend your minds with if you are able to get to Vancouver, Canada for it.

Image: Croghan Hill (Bog of Allen County Offaly Ireland) by Sarah777. This is the image I looked at throughout our conversation, since we were talking on the computer without video, and it was weird staring at my desktop and all those annoying reminders of things to do.