The Irish Embassy in London are set to celebrate St. Brigid’s Day with a programme of conversation, music, poetry and film that will bring the community together and from further afield then just London due to it being a virtual event for the first time.
The Embassy of Ireland in London have been acknowledging Irish womanhood as well as the advent of Spring– collectively celebrated as St Brigid’s Day and in Ireland’s pre-Christian past as Imbolc or Imbolg- with great success since 2018 with Amy Huberman, Aisling Bea and Siobhan McSweeney among those who have made appearances.
The Gaelic festival – once observed by Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man – was traditionally held on 1 February, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
The London event was more successful than the organisers had dared hope, with President Michael D Higgins inviting himself to it, and in a very short time it has established itself as a tradition.
This year presents unique challenges – and opportunities.
Because the event will have to held on-line it gives the organisers a chance to join
the Welsh and Scottish consulates and Irish organisations around the country – including Luton Irish Forum, Liverpool Irish Festival, the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith, Irish Film London and the London Irish Centre – in celebrating the creativity and talent of women.
On Saturday 30 January Luton Irish Forum will invite people to log on to Zoom for afternoon tea.
The next day, Sunday 31 January, a special online Embassy launch will go live on YouTube and Facebook at 6.00 pm.
It will include poetry by London-based Irish poet Martina Evans and musician and spoken word artist Sinead O’Brien, a conversation between Oxford vice-chancellor Louise Richardson (from Waterford) and ITN’s Julie Etchingham on Women in Education and musical performances from Joy Crookes, Aislinn Logan and FEARS (aka Constance Keane).
On Monday 1 February St. Brigid’s Day itself will be celebrated with events at the Edinburgh Consulate (11 am), Liverpool Irish Festival (5pm), Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith (6 pm), Irish Film London (7 pm) and the London Irish Centre in Camden (8 pm).
Poet Martina Evans told The Irish World that St. Brigid came to mean a great deal to her during her pregnancy: “St Brigid’s Day means a great deal to me although when I was growing up I didn’t know much about her, just a couple of stories from school.
“I didn’t have any contact with the Brigid’s Day traditions and I’d never seen the crosses being made although I loved the beautiful design which I associated with television because it was the logo of Telefís Éireann until 1995.
“Brigid was a dusty, indistinct not particularly interesting figure in 1991 when I entered the late, great Compendium Bookshop in Camden Town. I was twenty-nine, a tyro poet, and three months pregnant when I picked up a book called The Serpent and the Goddess by Mary Condren. The subtitle read— Women Religion and Power in Celtic Ireland. I was rapt within minutes. I didn’t know any of these stories—so full of light, warmth and abundance.
“As I walked up to the cash desk to pay, I continued to read this magic book bristling with stories I’d never heard before. St Patrick stepped into water up to his neck to mortify himself, Brigid stepped into the same water but then the water dried up. It shot a bolt through my memories of a repressive religion devoted to suffering like the story of Patrick baptising Óengus mac Nad Froích in blood when he drove his crozier through Óengus’s foot by mistake although I rather liked the horror of that story and Brigid could be fierce too.
“I thrilled to read about how she removed her own eyes rather than marry. Since before I knew that I was pregnant, I’d been obsessively writing poems about cows. I wasn’t sure why but through this book I discovered that they were an ancient fertility symbol, a central aspect of Brigid’s mythology. Cows gave three times the amount of milk when Brigid passed by. As a baby, Brigid was nursed on the milk of a white cow with red ears which gave her power to turn milk into beer. I couldn’t get enough of this new exciting lore.
“When I got back to the flat in Holloway, I couldn’t even remember getting on the Northern Line— I’d been in the kind of trance I used to experience when reading as a child. Brigid was ‘the patroness of poets and in her honour the chief poet always carried a tinkling bell’.
“She was also known as midwife and Irish women traditionally prayed to her for help in childbirth. Pregnancy was an incredibly exciting time for me –- I never felt so happy in my body and I wrote many poems.
“To this day, I am never sure if it was the hormones or The Serpent and the Goddess – most likely a heady mixture of both. Not every story in the book was about Brigid, there was a whole cast of characters, saints and other exciting individuals.”
Sinead O’Brien adds: “As an Irish woman, “Naomh Brid” or Saint Brigid (450-525) first came to my attention as Ireland’s only female patron saint.
“There are several male patron saints in Ireland – the most important being St. Patrick, but February 1st marks Ireland’s celebration of the feminine – this healing nun, shepherdess, goddess.
“Interestingly, she traverses the pagan and Christian worlds; the first day of February (her feast day) being traditionally considered a pagan celebration as it marked the beginning of Spring.
“Brigid is patron of many things including fertility and childbirth but of particular interest to me is her association with creativity.
“She is identified in various ancient texts as a poet and a woman of wisdom and eloquence. Where she was once seen mainly as a symbol for the Irish church, nowadays she is an inspirational figure for feminine strength and creativity as well as the environment and nature.”
Martina continues to say that an event like this is even more important in times of pandemic and lockdown.
“The Irish Embassy have done sterling work with their St Brigid’s Day events ever since Adrian O’Neill had the brilliant idea in 2017. Attending my first Embassy event was a little like entering Compendium Bookshop in 1991. I thought this looks interesting and came away feeling like I was on fire. I’d never met so many interesting women in one place—some, like Angela Bourke and Catriona Crowe I’d known and admired from a distance but never met—others I didn’t know at all.
“I’d no idea that an Irish woman astronaut actually existed and I was dazzled by the Irish-Nigerian writer Emma Dabiri. After the event, Emma and I travelled home together to Hackney on the 38 bus, talking and talking. Her ground-breaking Don’t Touch My Hair had yet to be published but I had more than a taste that night of its brilliance.
“There was such a sense of camaraderie too. This year, of course, sadly because of the pandemic, there wasn’t a chance to meet any of the other women. We all came and went separately to record our part of the film although on the other hand, I did meet a couple of impressive women working at the Embassy. But I’m looking forward very much to meeting more new Irish women on film when it’s broadcast on February 1st.”
While the Irish community has changed since Martina arrived in London in the 80s, she says it feels just as strong now as then.
“At the beginning I felt that I lost out on the Irish community because I didn’t go to mass and I didn’t go to the pub!
“I was a single mother for most of my time here. But I did X-ray many Irish people and so many of them were men who worked incredibly hard and dangerous jobs often without any insurance or security.
“I saw the dark side of that when I X-rayed their injuries at the Whittington. As my daughter grew up and I began to get out more, I found the Irish literary scene very active, lively and warm.
“Ironically, although I see less Irish out and about generally— the men in the building trade for instance are more likely to be Eastern European and the Irish pubs are disappearing—I am meeting more of the Irish community and it feels strong to me.
“There was, however, one place where I met a lively Irish community early on in my writing career. This was when Tony Murray invited me to be a guest writer at his London Irish Writer’s Summer School at the London Metropolitan University in 1995.
“I loved meeting the first and second generation book-loving Irish who flocked to this Mecca on Holloway Road.
“Tony, who is also Curator of the extensive Archive of the Irish in Britain, has invited me many times since. Last year would have been the school’s twenty-fifth anniversary – sadly it was cancelled due to the pandemic so it’s going to have its big celebration this year which will be all the more appreciated after the year we’ve had.
“In recent years I’ve come to know the large community who attend the Irish Literary Society events. These events are great fun while being seriously literary, wonderfully curated thanks to the vision of Gavin Clarke and the ILS Committee. The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith—although a bit far from Hackney— is another great venue attended by the same community.”