“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 humanity into poetry.
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 western ‘American’ culture. Similar to other colonized peoples such as those indigenous to “the Americas” and “Australia”, the Irish, despite being white bodied, were 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 rooted in the trees. 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.
Image by Yuri Leitch, author, The Ogham Grove
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. But as has been done with other genocides and actions against marginalized peoples, much has been erased from our schoolbooks. For example, many 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 natives 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, as one of the designated ‘guardians’ 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 demeaning to original peoples and their relationship to the land.
During the time of the Great Famine 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 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 Coloureds, No Irish, No Children.”
Patrick became the Saint they carried with them – a Roma-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 and care for the earth and all her creatures was largely forgotten. This is easily evidenced by the promotion of Saint Patrick’s Day You can read the online Catholic encyclopedia’s full story on Patrick’s battle against the Druids here. The success of replacing Bhride with Patrick is evidenced easily by the popular parades each March 17th in the US, Ireland and all around the world. It is also noted by oral tradition keepers like John Willmont of Carrowcrory Gardens, stories of more subtle but enduring maneuvers, such as renaming holy wells to shift their dedications and veneration from Brigid to Patrick.
In a time of great upheaval in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and a wholly unacceptable number of black brothers and sisters in the United States, 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 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.
White bodied people are told not to culturally appropriate from the traditions of others in our ‘melting pot’ but what – if anything – does that leave? Shame? An unending apology? Reparations – yes. But if we can look at that shame and make that sincere apology we can begin to retrieve our cultural and spiritual identity.
So this year, begin. Begin by honoring the ways of your ancestors. Begin by not only 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.”
Sonya Renee Taylor – Being Assigned White at Birth – Complete Video
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, they 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. In Ireland, the ‘lawyers’ were the keepers of the wisdom of the trees.
Leave prayer ties out on your tree branches for healing on the night of Jan 31st – Brigid’s Eve. Walk to your well, your river, your stream and make a prayer. Be a Brigid of hospitality to a friend, a family member, a coworker, 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.
*Author’s Note: Immediately following the original publication of this post, the Irish daughter of a Mother and Baby Homes survivor Laura Murphy penned an Open Letter to the Taoiseach in response to the recent 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 1st as a National Holiday in Ireland. 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 ‘perverted’ religious narrative that continues to perpetuate trauma unnecessarily, in lieu of healing both in Ireland and around the world. Please read her letter and support #ExtendtheCommission and #BrigidsDay2022.
You can learn more by watching Ms. 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 9000 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. Tune in to disclosure and hope.”
The Irish Famine: Complicity in Murder, The Washington Post
Saint Patrick in the DIB, Royal Irish Academy
When America Despised the Irish: The 19th Century’s Refugee Crisis, History Stories, Christopher Klein
2021 Online offerings for Brigid this Imbolc – Solas Bhride Centre & Hermitages
Sonya Renee Taylor: Videos including Bodies of Resistance