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The patron saint of modern Ireland. By Mary Kenny

Blog | May 13, 2024


We’re in the age of compulsory equality – and now it has reached the community of the saints.

The Irish celebrate St Patrick’s Day across the world on 17th March. But this year, for the first time, St Brigid is to be given equal status with St Pat – with her very own bank holiday. St Brigid’s Day is traditionally on 1st February, but the public holiday for Brigid will now be held on the first Monday of every February.

Brigid was a holy woman who flourished in County Kildare from c 450 AD until 523. It’s said her father was a nobleman and her mother a slave.

She was (according to legend) an early peace advocate, who broke her father’s sword to deter him from going to war. Although apparently gifted with beauty, she refused all suitors so as to found a community of religious women who performed miracles, carried out charitable acts and held healing ceremonies at holy wells.

Although Ireland has ceased to be a Catholic country, feminists have nonetheless embraced St Brigid as one of their own. After all, she rejected the ‘patriarchy’ to form a women’s co-operative, and campaigned for peace.

Her love of nature made her an early environmentalist. She may even have been gay – she preferred the sisterhood to any swain.

St Brigid seems the ideal candidate for a gender-equality saint!

But will the Chicago River run green for St Brigid’s Day? Will the bagels of New York’s Jewish community be baked with an emerald dye? Will there be marching bands and dancing maidens for the occasion? St Brigid has some catching up to do, to equal St Pat.

Still, she does have a genuine place in folklore tradition. Even anti-clerical Irish households often have a St Brigid’s cross at the threshold. And throughout the centuries the name Brigid (and its variations) has flourished.

Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, called all her Irish domestic servants Biddy – and disparaged them as drunken minxes, which seemed a little prejudiced.

In the 1920s, Irish missionary nuns in China went round rescuing unwanted infant girls abandoned by the wayside, baptising them Brigid.

More than a half a million Britons (536,077) have taken Irish nationality since Brexit (a record 90,803 in 2022 alone). So perhaps these new British Irish should celebrate the bank holiday for the saint whose national identity they have now embraced.

The aspiration to equality, so dear to our younger people, is kindly and well-meaning. But, as an oldie, I’m sceptical that a state of social (or any other) equality can ever exist.

This was reinforced by a terrific history I read recently – The Unfree French – about France during the Occupation. Richard Vinen (also a specialist in the tumultuous year of 1968 – talkin’ about our generation) recounts many stories of ordinary French people during 1940-45.

And everything from deportation to accusations of collaboration could depend on social position.

It was poor young girls – and especially poor girls with no strong family links to protect them – who got easily bribed, and seduced, by their German occupiers; and poor young girls, too, who were more likely to have heads shaved afterwards for collaboration. It was young men who had no ‘connections’ who got transported to Germany for forced labour or to camps. The better-off, and the better-connected, more often managed to dodge arrest.

There was one social reversal. Country folk, who had lower status as rustic bumpkins in peacetime France, rose in the social ranks because they had better access to food. The gendarmes, charged with enforcing German orders, were reluctant to do so in the countryside because they, too, needed the food chain.

Social status, in terms of class and money, was important, but having ‘connections’ – including a strong network of family and friends – was also a prime source of protection. In-laws, interestingly, were often a very helpful part of the kinship constellation.

The French invented the notion of égalité: but absolute equality is always defeated by human behaviour.

Of course we should always strive to be fair, but maybe a useful lesson for life is ‘make the best of the hand you’re dealt’. Make friends, make connections, and keep your family network active!

During the winter chill, I’ve saved money on heating bills by recourse to my modest collection of vintage furs.

An old fur stole I bought in the 1980s from a junk shop for £25 is the toastiest of garments. A tattered musquash coat, the skeins partly held together by pins, is still blissfully warm.

It’s a great pity that women keep unused fur coats in their wardrobes, when they have stopped wearing fur. If not using this warmest, and most organic of materials, give it away to those who could benefit from it.