Restoring Brigid, Restoring Justice
Editor’s Note. This article was originally posted by Shannon M.D. Smith on the Women of the Water website as “A Time of Justice, A Season of Renewal” in January 2021 and on the CEE website on March 8, 2021 to mark President Biden’s Proclamation on Irish-American Heritage Month, 2021. CEE is reposting it now to lift up St. Brigid’s Day, celebrated on February 1 in Ireland. Beginning this year, Brigid’s Day will be an official bank holiday in the country, to be commemorated on the first Monday in February.
We sing a song to Brigid
Brigid brings the spring
Awakens all the fields and flowers
And calls the birds to sing…
In the rekindling of the sacred fires of early Christianity, a Celtic Christianity that was not afraid of Earth-based traditions, we pause at the cross-quarter days of Imbolc to welcome Brigid—Goddess or Saint—as she brings spring back to the land.
Brigid (Brigit, Bhride, Brighid, Bríd) as saint is Patroness of Ireland, she is also a triple-goddess figure of a pre-Christian time. She represents the aspects of Irish traditions and culture encompassing blacksmithing, animal husbandry, hospitality and justice. She holds the teachings of the elementals and of alchemy from the forging of iron and shaping of tools to the forging of words, philosophy and spirit into the prophetic bardic tradition of poetry.
It is worthy to note the perspective of the Brigidine Sisters, Catholic sisters who to this day celebrate the qualities of Brigid as a woman “for our time.” She is emblematic of the call to care for the Earth and a beacon in the work of justice and a guide for chaplaincy. “‘A Life of Brigid’ (Vita Brigitae), composed by Cogitosus about 650 AD, places great emphasis on Brigid’s faith, her healing powers, her hospitality, her generosity, her great skill with animals, and her compassion for the poor and the oppressed. Twenty three of the thirty-two chapters tell of her extraordinary concern for the poor. Today that call for justice is strong.” (Brigidine Sisters)
The story of the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes sits as a stain for the Irish people. Irish Central reported in 2019, “The Magdalene Laundries, named after Mary Magdalene who was in earlier centuries characterized as a converted prostitute, existed from the early 1760s through the late 1990s in Ireland, the UK, Australia and the US. An estimated 30,000 women were confined.” The last laundry closed in 1996, just 25 years ago. The numbers of women and babies held was largely speculated but ultimately unknown as records of forced labor and imprisonment as well as records of pregnancies and forced, sometimes illegal, adoptions were not always kept. It has long been a sore reality of children now grown into adulthood not knowing their histories having been separated from their shamed mothers, some not even knowing their own birthdate.
The grievousness of this buried trauma came into painful focus when 796 children, most of them infants, were found in a mass grave on the grounds of the Mother and Baby home in Tuam that had been operated by an order of the Roman Catholic Church between 1925 and 1961. The bodies of the children were found conspicuously in the area of a sewage tank with no shrouds, no coffins. This horrible discovery begged the question, what else was hidden, what else was unknown about this terrible time in Irish history?
In 2015, a federal commission was formed to collect survivor testimony with the intention to produce a report of what happened principally between 1925 and 1998. When the report was to be completed and released in the fall of 2020 in the midst of Covid, a series of missteps began to occur. Survivor testimony was reported lost, portions of the report were leaked, motions were passed in government at a moment’s notice seemingly without regard for the survivors themselves. These events compounded other issues. In January 2021 the Mother and Baby Homes Commission reported 57,000 children being moved through these homes and more than 9,000 infant deaths, however, only 18 homes were included in the report and the recommendation by the Irish Human Rights Commission to apply a human rights framework to the Mother and Baby Homes investigation had been rejected.
The image given to the public was one of a desire to rush through to the completion of the investigation without response to areas of concern and without consultation from survivors, those whose stories of abuse would be summarized, assessed and filed away. While the government leader, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, offered an apology, for some it has not been enough to bring justice to the wounds of the past. In his remarks Martin said, “One of the clearest messages of the testimonies in this report is how this treatment of women and children is something which was the direct result of how the State, and how we as a society acted.”
This statement inspired the daughter of a Mother and Baby Homes survivor, Laura Murphy, to write an extraordinary history about what created the conditions that led to the mistreatment, humiliation and oppression of women and their children at the hands of both the church and state when from their collusion,” a terrible beauty was born.” In her declaration, “The Irish people were coercively controlled—indoctrinated—through instruments of shame and fear to behave in ways that were contrary to our nature. Muintir na hÉireann did not give informed consent.” “Mná na hÉireann (the women of Ireland) did not give informed consent”, “the people of Ireland did not give informed consent”, separating the actions of the church and state from the will of the people (“we as a society”).
In this clarion call for justice, her words speak volumes to the loss of Brigid for the Irish and descendants worldwide and to the potential watershed of healing as we acknowledge and repair the trauma of colonization and the “perverse” religious narrative that was adopted and continues to perpetuate harm.
Our society was the remnants of one invasion after another from the beginning of our history, the vestiges of a perpetual battle for the reclamation of sovereignty and the preservation of the spirit of our people and land. It was a miracle that we—a small, pillaged, broken nation—had any remaining energy or means to fight for and win our freedom. But we did. Irish women were pivotal in the winning of Irish independence. When Pádraic Pearse declared Irish independence, he addressed “Irishmen and Irishwomen.” The promise of our proclamation was “equality, happiness and prosperity for all men, women and children.” We were a war-weary, exhausted, divided and vulnerable society. Women and children were written out and the Roman Catholic Church was written in. This truth needs to be understood, acknowledged and acted upon. Survivors need real respect, redress and support, not just lip service. As part of this I am calling for a new national holiday to mark Brigid’s Day. It is time to honour Ireland’s women, past, present and future.
In these days when the call to justice, not just recapitulation, is bold and strong we must heed the wisdom of those who keep their hearts and minds close to what is truly being called for. Black Lives Matter and Land Back movements are among those pointing the way. Justice does not come from tolerance, but from equity. Justice comes when we tell the truth about our history. Reconciliation only comes after the Truth.
There is much to learn from the history of the Irish and Irish American people’s experience having been colonized on their own soil by the British; then emigrating, persecuted and punished; then assimilated into ‘American’ and other westernized cultures. Similar to other colonized peoples such as those indigenous to “the Americas” and “Australia”, the Irish, despite being white bodied, were also subject to beatings and humiliation in their post-colonial schools if caught speaking their native language. Their skulls were measured, some on their heads and some stolen from graves, by British researchers in an attempt to prove the Irish as the ‘missing link’ in evolution between monkeys and black bodied people.
When the British came to Ireland they burned the trees to enforce their domination. It destroyed the shelter in which the Irish could hide from their colonizers and simultaneously destroyed a cultural connection to the land, terrorizing a free people away from their language and traditions which were rooted in the forests. For the Irish, their first laws and language emerged from the trees. Brehon Laws were passed to wisdom keepers by oral tradition until the monastic scribes wrote down what they could to preserve them. The Irish language formed from the Proto-Celtic Ogham alphabet where each letter was representative of a species of tree. This system of law and language for many is interwoven with their living indigenous forms of timekeeping which align seasonal, agricultural and archetypal calendars.
When the Irish came to the shores of Turtle Island they were leaving under duress fleeing famine and persecution at home. As descendants of Irish immigrants in the Americas many of us learned a skeletal version of the story of the potato famine. As has been done with other genocides and actions against marginalized peoples, much was erased from our school books. Most of us were not taught how the English sent food that was growing in the nearly barren soil back to England, starving the poor and the hungry people native to the land all while burning their houses and their forests. Some report the most sacred Oaks were cut and used to build the stately homes of the oppressors.
We know that this was not the only instance of colonization enforced through the desacralization of trees as the British had also applied a similar tactic at home. Hawthorne trees, for example, are sacred to the Celts and pre-Celtic nations of many European lands. You will find them commonly beside sacred sites, especially holy wells, one of the ‘guardian trees’ of these sacred openings into the womb of the Mother. The English co-opted use of the Hawthornes from their place in indigenous culture and turned them into shrubbery used to demarcate property—another design of the dominator culture to enforce ‘ownership’ of the land—a concept both foreign and damaging to original peoples. What we understand from this is that for colonization to take root and to thrive it is necessary to cut the relationship between the land and the people. And it is only by the enforcement of this disembodiment can the dominator maintain control.
During the time of the Great Hunger many Irish departed for foreign lands from a place called the Bridge of Tears in the north of the republic near Donegal so named because it was the place where families said goodbye to loved ones making far-away journeys. Those leaving did not know if they would ever be returning home—those staying behind not knowing if they would ever see their loved ones again. Some left for the likes of Australia or South Africa, others to Nova Scotia where Irish communities still exist, some co-mingled with Native American populations like the Mic Maq on Cape Breton. Some came through the gates of the “New World.” Into the twentieth century they may have faced the signs of racism “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”, or in London “to let” signs reading “No Coloured, No Irish, No Children.”
Patrick became the Saint they carried with them—a Roman-British missionary from a wealthy family credited with the arrival of Christianity to Ireland and driving out the snakes. Patrick himself was brought to Ireland initially as a child under capture and “found God.” When he returned to Ireland as an adult he challenged the Druids—and drove the earth based traditions into the ground—a story told in the allegory of driving out the “snakes.” Brigid herself—Irish patroness, symbol of justice, love for the stranger, care for the earth and all her creatures—was largely forgotten. While some describe Patrick as a figure who embraced the old world and the new, one can read the Catholic Encyclopedia’s full story on Patrick’s battle against the Druids online here. The success of replacing Bhride with Patrick is evidenced easily by the popular parades each March 17 in the U.S., Ireland and all around the world. It is also noted by oral tradition keepers like John Willmont of Nature Folklore, stories of more subtle but enduring maneuvers, such as the renaming of holy wells to shift their dedications from Brigid to Patrick changing the course of local traditions and veneration.
Why is this important, especially in these times?
The designation of Brigid’s Day as a national holiday is a step towards fulfilling the promise of Ireland to care for her women and children. It is also a national and global step towards prioritization and integration of the principles that Brigid evokes towards justice, towards a holistic and inter-related world view of care for one another and the Earth. For the diaspora, it is an opportunity to understand our shared history in a new light and to embody this understanding as a people wherever we are.
In a time of great upheaval, and in the U.S., in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and a wholly unacceptable number of black brothers and sisters in the U.S., white descendants of immigrants (and sometimes of the original colonizers themselves) have been asked or rather tasked with a sometimes uncomfortable demand—to go back and wrestle with the truth of our own heritage and the sins committed both by and against our ancestors. We are tasked with undoing the inculturation of white supremacy—of all forms of supremacy—to relieve our black, brown, yellow and red brothers and sisters of the burden white supremacy has placed on them. To relieve the burden the doctrine of domination has wrought upon the earth. There is no question that in addition to the burdens placed upon our colonized ancestors, there was a moment when the old world’s stories were put to the side to rise within the new society where one’s ability to conform and willingness to compete, paved the way for acceptance and material success. But now what?
White-bodied people in the US are instructed not to culturally appropriate from the traditions of others in our “melting pot” of diversity but what, if anything, does that leave? With churches seeing record numbers of losses in membership and systems of privilege, capitalism, and patriarchy under fire for abuse, where does that leave so many people? On defense? With shame? An unending apology? Reparations? Yes. But if we can look at the shame that is exposed and make that sincere apology we can begin to make equitable amends and to retrieve our own cultural and spiritual identities.
So this year, we can begin. Begin by honoring the ways of your ancestors. Begin making relations with the land you are on and the waters where you reside, but also, begin to research, to study, to understand, and even to practice what it was that your ancestors did to offer their gratitude, to pray, to connect to the earth. To honor the cycles and the seasons—just begin.
As social justice innovator Sonya Renee Taylor offers, there are some questions to ask, and a quest to fulfill:
White people cannot escape the violences of whiteness without reckoning with their history. Without reckoning with their ancestors… The history of whiteness is a trauma on the whole world, and every day people of color have to deal with the trauma of whiteness. The problem is white people have been trying not to deal with the trauma of whiteness in their own lives.
And the only way to do that is to actually go back and heal—
- To heal the relationship with your ancestors
- To grieve the loss of their humanity through their violent acts
- To learn what it was that it made them
- To seek who they were before they became white
- To see what can be salvaged from that place that is within your own culture
- and to account for that which was done in harm to gain power.
That’s the only way to move from whiteness …
It is in the cultural mindset of whiteness to figure out how to not have to sit in the discomfort of that history. Be clear I’m talking about an indoctrination in whiteness (not the color of your skin). You actually have to become really clear about how whiteness operates as a system and where it operates as a system. And then the work is to not only remove it from yourself, but to remove it from the systems and structures in the world where it continues to wreak harm.
This is Our Call to the Both/And
Not the Both/And that asks us to give equal airtime to the oppressors and the oppressed. This is the Both/And of both dismantling the broken system of white supremacy—and beginning to sow new roots in the culture and traditions we have been uprooted from.
Just for today, just for now, remember and recognize that your people, wherever your ancestors are from, were connected to the earth. No matter how far back you have to go to find it. They prayed with the fire and the water. The forests were sacred. They still are: a realization and a revelation of our time on Earth “When we come to it,” as Maya Angelou says again and again as a mantra of awakening in “A Brave and Startling Truth.”
As President Biden writes in his address for this month of Irish-American History, “Everything between us runs deep: literature, poetry, sadness, joy, and, most of all, resilience. Through every trial and tempest, we never stop dreaming.” In beautiful confluence with International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, let us join in a chorus for Brigid to raise her into our consciousness again with the goal to bring forth justice.
Lady, from winters dark,
Star of Imbolc, rise
Dance around our threshold,
Scattering warm laughter,
Seeds of hospitality, forgiveness!
Return again to the folk;
You the spring we yearn for!
Walk to a well, a river, a stream and tend to the waters in reverence. Return among the trees. Be a Brigid of hospitality to a friend, a family member, or a stranger who needs it. Do the work of justice on the inside. Let that guide you in the work of justice without. Be in community. Take care of one another. Alchemize—metal into fire, words into inspirations, poetry into action.
The Irish daughter of a Mother and Baby Homes survivor, Laura Murphy, penned an Open Letter to the Taoiseach in response to the controversial 3,000-page report. In her letter she addresses themes and issues brought forth here, and suggests the designation of Brigid’s Day, February 1 as a National Holiday in Ireland.
You can learn more by watching Murphy’s Feb 26, 2021 interview with Carrie Ford on One Boat International Chaplaincy for Covid Times. “The Friday Conversation with activist Laura Murphy discloses a terrible history of shame, cover-ups, lost lives, workhouse conditions, silencing, traumatised lives, and over 9,000 documented infant deaths in the recent revelations of the twentieth century experiment of social control exercised by the Catholic Church and State in the first century of the Republic of Ireland. And opens up a pathway for healing and hope.”
This piece was researched and written in cooperation with Karen Minchin, Bean Feasa.
Herstory Ireland spearheaded the campaign for Brigid’s Day and has wonderful content and resources about both the campaign and celebrating Brigid this year.
Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home, Wikipedia
Brigidine Sisters of Australia, Our Patroness
Cork City, Ireland. Old Cork Waterworks Experience
Catholic Ireland, St. Brigid of Ireland
Kayla Hertz, The last Magdalene Laundry in Ireland Closed its Doors in 1996, Irish Central (Oct 25, 2019).
Government of Ireland, Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Mother and Baby Homes Commission Report (March 1, 2021).
Christopher Klein, When America Despised the Irish: The 19th Century’s Refugee Crisis, History Stories (history.com).
Gerry McFlynn, St Brigid: A Saint For Our Times, Irish Chaplaincy.
Patsy McGarry, Mother and Baby Homes Report: 9,000 Children Died Amid High Infant Mortality Rate, The Irish Times (Jan 12, 2021).
Yuri Leitch, “The Ogham Grove: The Year Wheel of the Celtic/Druidic god Ogma the Sun-Faced” (2015).
Tanya Mercer, ‘Two generations. One fight’: Black Men Talk about their Experiences of Racism in Ipswich’, ITV Anglia (June 20, 2020).
James Patterson, “Anti-Irish Bigotry in Britain Has Not Gone Away,” The Irish Times (Feb 22, 2020)
J. Reardon, The Irish Famine: Complicity in Murder, The Washington Post (Sept. 27, 1997).
Royal Irish Academy, Saint Patrick in the DIB (March 17, 2020).
Sonya Renee Taylor, Videos (including Bodies of Resistance).
St. Patrick, Catholic Encyclopedia (Catholic Online)
John Willmont, Nature Folklore