The fate of the early Irish Brigitine church

We know from the earliest surviving hagiographic literature from Ireland (written by Cogitosus, Abbot of Kildare some time in the 7thC) that the original Irish ‘Brigitine’ monastic movement was probably one of the first forms of organised christianity that flourished in Ireland, sociologically interesting in that their communities or ‘abbeys’ apparently combined chapters of both male and female ascetics. These abbeys and their leaders are generally accepted to have been places where the children of the local aristocracy would be fostered to the care of the new political and spiritual forces influencing Ireland and Britain in the period, offering opportunities for learning and travel. It appears to have preceded the ‘Patrician’ movement which established its retrospective dominance in the ensuing four centuries of Uí Néill ascendancy, leading to Patrick becoming seen as the main patron saint of Ireland. Even by the 12th century, monastic writer Gerald of Wales was able to comment (perhaps to highlight in his eyes its need for reform) upon the strange setup at Kildare with its holy enclosures, sacred meadows and sanctuary with its eternal flame.

Cogitosus claimed that there had been an explosion of Brigitine missions and Abbeys in his own lifetime that had spread across Ireland, yet it is somewhat difficult to ascertain what and where all of these were. We can be certain that some of these were taken over by the subsequent movements of the male-centred order of Finnian and his students, perhaps in continuity of the Brigitines’ probable appropriation of goddess-centred sanctuaries for their own establishments. Indeed, the language and forms of popular legend and hagiography about characters such as Cóemgen (St Kevin of Glendalough) and Senán mac Geircinn (St Sennan of Scattery Island) contain coded references to deposed female characters and conquered ‘beasts’ – typical motifs used in dealing with indigenous paganism. It is very likely that these Irish early-christian religious institutions were established at the sites of former pagan shrines, and that many if not most of these were associated with well-springs, islands in sacred lakes and rivers and river-crossings, as well as fertile meadowlands – the typical sites of earthly goddess-worship and legends. The attributes of <Christian Brigit> in the accounts by Cogitosus and from later texts such as the Bethu Brighde were loquaciousness, fecundity, hospitality, healing powers, associations with fire and light, and some mechanical miracles.

With this in mind, Cormac’s Glossary (probably 10thC) had this to say about Brigit (trans. by John O’Donovan, Ed. Whitley Stokes):

“Brigit i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets, by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician (woman of leech craft), Brigit the female smith (woman of smith work), from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit.”

The passage is remarkable as it makes a specific reference to a pagan Brigit and claims this was the name by which all the goddesses of Ireland were once called by the Irish! She is referenced as a creatrix through the Smith-association, a mistress of nature’s healing bounty, and an exciter of the human imagination in expressing the things of the world. Explicitly in the Sanais Chormac, she is a triple goddess of the sort seen in the characters of the Matronaes depicted in some of the statuary and bas-relief traditions of late Iron Age Atlantic European cultures: Mother goddesses perhaps representing the three generative seasons of the year…

Brigitine monasticism is likely to have taken over the reigns of traditional goddess-worship in Irish society during the 5th/6th centuries (if not earlier), and then to have been supplanted by a male-centred order under the acolytes of her supposed contemporary Finnian of Clonard (attrib. 5th/6thC) who promoted a non-feminine regime magnifying the missions of Palladius and Patrick (sometimes now referred to as the ‘two Patricks’) as the main forebears of Irish christianity. Finnian is the character that the ‘second wave’ of Irish saints depend upon for their education at his great school. However, we must necessarily question whether these religious establishments that began to cascade as far as Ireland’s westernmost extremes and into Scotland, Mann, Wales and Cornwall before leaping to the continent, were based upon pre-existing (possibly syncretic) Brigitine sites.  There is no explicit evidence to demonstrate this, but much that is oblique or indirect, as formerly commented on.

One particularly interesting piece of literary evidence from the 15thC Book of Fermoy (roughly contemporary with Chaucer) contains an explicitly Christianised version of an older tale also known as ‘The Wooing of Etain’ (earliest surviving version is from the early 12thC), but referred to in this context as Altram Tige Da Medar (‘The Fosterage of the House of the ?Two Pails’). It is set in the pseudo-historical world of the ‘Gebala Eirenn’ mythos, and tells of the warrior tribes of Tuatha De Danann and their ruler Manannan who settles them in various Sid mansions and governs them with the laws of the Otherworld. In this tale, the fairy Eithne (apparently the same character as the earlier Etain, possibly also a version of the name ‘Aine’) has an inverted ‘otherworldly’ encounter with a christian priest and his church after being abstracted from her friends while batheing in the Boyne and becomes fostered by him and becomes a Christian!

You can read a copy of it here: @MaryJones

Readers may recognise ‘Eithne’ or ‘Ethniu’ (‘Enya’) as a character who makes a number of appearances in the mythological cycle tales – as the mother of the hero Lugh. Here she is daughter of a minor Tuatha Dé Danann (TDD) noble called Dicu, fostered by Aengus, and Manannan is portrayed – curiously – as the (Christian) god-fearing ruler of the TDD who tries to bring a new rule of law and order to the fairy tribe to whom he grants their Sidhe mansions or hills. The narrative hands to Eithne (for which we might also read (C)ethlinne or ‘Aine’) the role as the first TDD to become a Christian – fostered by one of Patrick’s priests. It is almost analogous to the early Bridget hagiographies in this regard – building a sympathetic or syncretic bridge between the pagan past and the Christian future which the Book of Fermoy’s 15thC aristocratic patrons must have enjoyed.  Manannan also fulfils the function of ‘Christian Godsend’ that Charles MacQuarrie suggests in his ‘Waves of Manannan’ thesis – an acceptable pagan analogy of the Christian god, who the narrator has Manannan hail and recommend in his role as benevolent otherworld leader of the TDD:

‘…The nobles inquired of Manannan where Ealcmar would find rest. ‘I know not’, said Manannan, ‘and no prophet or sage in the whole world knows, but the one God almighty knows.’ …. ‘

The displacement of Brigitine syncretism became a significant ambition of narrative traditions from the 6/7thC and therefore appears to have continued as late as the 15th century. After all, heresy was always the main home enemy of western christianity and from the 15th century would evolve into something known as the ‘witch craze’ where pagan folk-traditions would eventually under intense scrutiny by both the religious AND secular authorities and become a victim of the polemic of popular culture.

Boand – Water Goddess of the Boyne

I have already mentioned in recent posts that there were legendary connections between the Atlantic Goddess and water: For starters she is represented in the constellation Orion, standing on the banks of the great white river of the Milky Way as it arches across the winter sky. As ‘Tehi Tegi‘ in the Isle of Man, she conveyed the souls of the dead across the land until they reached the rivers or the sea and were able to enter the realm of the Otherworld. The Cailleach traditions of Ireland, Scotland and Wales tell of her role in creating Lochs and other floods by neglecting to close off springs, and as the Bean Nighe she sat near water washing the garments and effects of the dead.. In Brittany she is represented by the oceanic fairy queen known as the ‘Gro’ach‘ and as a Moura Encantada in Portugal and Gallicia she is a guardian of springs. Archaeologists across Atlantic Europe recognise the association of springs with pagan goddess-worship.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the rivers of Ireland have associations with pagan female entities preserved in their legendary lore. A good example of such stories are from the onomastic explanations of placenames found in medieval literature, often produced by Christian monks. These texts – published in compiled form in the early 20thC as the ‘Metrical Dindshenchas‘ (taken from the mss. the Book of the Dun Cow, the Book of Leinster, the Rennes Manuscript, the Book of Ballymote, the Great Book of Lecan and the Yellow Book of Lecan) – has the following (from Vol.3)  to say about the origin of the River Boyne (under ‘Boand 1’), the most prominent river of the Irish midlands, and one associated with a rich mythology and archaeology:

Sid Nechtain is the name that is on the mountain here,

the grave of the full-keen son of Labraid,

from which flows the stainless river

whose name is Boand ever-full.

Fifteen names, certainty of disputes,

given to this stream we enumerate,

from Sid Nechtain away

till it reaches the paradise of Adam.

Segais was her name in the Sid

to be sung by thee in every land:

River of Segais is her name from that point

to the pool of Mochua the cleric.

From the well of righteous Mochua

to the bounds of Meath’s wide plain,

the Arm of Nuadu’s Wife and her Leg are

the two noble and exalted names.

From the bounds of goodly Meath

till she reaches the sea’s green floor

she is called the Great Silver Yoke

and the White Marrow of Fedlimid.

Stormy Wave

from thence onward

unto branchy Cualnge;

River of the White Hazel

from stern Cualnge

to the lough of Eochu Red-Brows.

Banna is her name from faultless Lough Neagh:

Roof of the Ocean as far as Scotland:

Lunnand she is in blameless Scotland —

or its name is Torrand according to its meaning.

Severn is she called through the land of the sound Saxons,

Tiber in the Romans’ keep:

River Jordan thereafter in the east

and vast River Euphrates.

River Tigris

in enduring paradise,

long is she in the east, a time of wandering

from paradise back again hither

to the streams of this Sid.

Boand is her general pleasant name

from the Sid to the sea-wall;

The poet who wrote this account is effusive in his descriptions of the great river, comparing it (or perhaps more accurately actually identifying it) with the other great rivers of the known world, including the River Severn, the Tiber, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Jordan etc. It was believed that the oceans were made up of all the world’s rivers in the era of authorship – an idea born of classical antiquity and beyond. What is more important is the author implies that the river actually runs from Sid Nechtain to the ‘paradise of Adam’, being a direct allusion to a christianised  telling of the pagan Irish belief in an Otherworld at the Ocean’s End, and to the Garden of Eden, where Christians believe life begins! This almost tells of a former belief in rebirth… The passage also implies that the river is regenerated from the East and returns to Sid Nechtain to flow again by some unspecified route.

Quite amazing.

The compiled texts go on to describe the mythological origin of the River of Boand:

I remember the cause whence is named

the water of the wife of Labraid’s son.

Nechtain son of bold Labraid whose wife was Boand, I aver;

a secret well there was in his stead,

from which gushed forth every kind of mysterious evil.

There was none that would look to its bottom

but his two bright eyes would burst:

if he should move to left or right,

he would not come from it without blemish.

Therefore none of them dared approach it

save Nechtain and his cup-bearers: —

these are their names, famed for brilliant deed,

Flesc and Lam and Luam.

Hither came on a day white Boand (her noble pride uplifted her),

to the well, without being thirsty to make trial of its power.

As thrice she walked round about the well heedlessly,

three waves burst from it, whence came the death of Boand.

They came each wave of them against a limb,

they disfigured the soft-blooming woman;

a wave against her foot, a wave against her perfect eye,

the third wave shatters one hand.

She rushed to the sea (it was better for her) to escape her blemish,

so that none might see her mutilation;

The authors relate a typical Irish Christian rescension of the pagan tale of the woman and the water. The passage also tells of the practice of circling a well or spring three times, which any folklorist who has studied Celtic traditions will recognise. The tale of Boand therefore acts on a number of levels: Firstly as a poetic figurative description of the river as a woman, secondly as descriptive account of the Boyne replete with onomastic and pseudo-historical details, and thirdly it seems to contain a warning to the ungodly of the fate which will meet them if they emulate the legendary magical female… Of particular interest is the manner in which the water harms Boand: It causes the ‘wounds’ of the Cailleach – the ‘fairy stroke’ of withering in one eye, one arm, one leg. Such ‘wounds’ are given to other magical females at rivers or fords or shorelines in other Irish myths from medieval works, including that of the Christian ‘St Brighid‘…

Medieval Irish tales with pagan themes usually contain a Christian footnote in their third part…