I was honoured to be asked to launch the 11th annual Brigid of Faughart Festival in Dundalk on Thursday 11th January 2018. Here are the notes of the talk which I gave at the launch night, which was held in the Louth County Library in Dundalk.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and thank you to Dolores for inviting me to launch the Brigid of Faughart festival. It’s great to be back here in this great centre of learning, where I have to admit to having spent many a distracted hour poring over old newspapers and books in search of information about all sorts of ancient mysteries.
Dolores and I have been good friends now for well over a decade, actually since the first time Brigid appeared on my horizon, or rather came dramatically into view during my researches in the year 2007.
That story is worth telling, even briefly. Island of the Setting Sun had been published in late 2006, but after its publication something had been bugging me, as if Brigid herself were tapping on my shoulder, saying “you need to look into this”. The “this” in question was an alignment of sites, documented in the first edition of Island. Richard Moore had asked me years ago what it was that Saint Patrick was doing when he was drawing the eyes of King Laoghaire and his people away from the Hill of Tara towards the great Paschal Fire on the Hill of Slane. What we found was some interesting cosmology. At the moment Patrick was lighting the fire, the cruciform constellation of Cygnus (the swan) was rising in the far northeast, above this great fire beneath the centre of the cross.
(Watch a video about the discovery of the Brigid alignment here:)
Further to this, the king’s line of vision from Tara over Slane also had him looking directly at Mount Oriel, where there is an ancient Bronze Age barrow cemetery. Following in the other direction, it led to Realtoge, a hill meaning “star”, and a prominent hill from the Bend of the Boyne, because on winter solstice an observer situated at the front of Newgrange will see the sun setting over Realtoge.
Anyway, this thing was bugging me for ages. I had to investigate this alignment further. It was a hunch. Nothing more. But a hunch that was to bear significant fruit.
In the words of Philip Freund, author of Myths of Creation, ‘The history of science is filled with instances of noted workers in all fields who testify in their memoirs that a “hunch”, a perhaps inexplicable ray of light, suddenly led them to a major discovery.’ Indeed.
Extending the alignment in either direction, northeastwards from Oriel and southwestwards from Tara, bore significant fruit. At either end were places crucial to the story of Saint Brigid – Brigid’s Well on the Hill of Faughart at one end and the Curragh plain on the other. I wondered why this might have been significant, and pondered over it for a while, but then Brigid came knocking again.
While on lunch at work one day, I was looking at the alignment on Google Earth, and noticed how accurate it seemed to be. Here were a number of eminent sites of history and prehistory, all lined up neatly over a distance of about 67 miles. The Curragh, Tara, Realtoge, Slane, Oriel and Faughart. Looking closer, I found the line passed through parts of Dundalk, and was absolutely flabbergasted to find it crossed a property in Bridge Street, which is still standing today – a small, yellow house attached to what was once McGuill’s pub. This house was important to my story. There, for a time in the 1920s, my grandmother had lived with her father, helping him with his cobbler’s business. The Travers family are still fondly remembered around Dundalk, although the business is long gone, and my grandmother, god rest her, is dead now for a quarter of a century.
Her name? What else only Brigid. She married my grandfather, James Murphy of Mullaharlin, and after the birth of their first child, my father’s late brother John, they moved to Drogheda. And the rest, they say, is history!
As I headed home from work that January evening, with all these thoughts about the significance of this alignment discovery rolling around in my head, I got a phone call from a friend of mine, Seán Gilmartin. Wonder what Sean’s ringing about, I thought.
"Hello Anthony, it’s Sean Gilmartin here."
"Howya Sean, how are things with you?"
"Things are grand. Come here, I was just ringing to let you know I’m giving a bit of a talk in Balbriggan Library next week and I thought you’d be interested in coming along."
"Oh right, sounds good. What’s it about?"
"Saint Brigid," he says.
I nearly crashed the car.
I told him about the new discoveries. He was fascinated. To be honest, so was I. Brigid had entered my life in a big way, and the Brigid alignment was one of the significant additions to Island of the Setting Sun when a revised and expanded edition was released in 2008.
While speaking about this alignment to a Brigid-themed event in Baggott Street in Dublin some time later, I caught the attention of Dolores and her good friend Karen Ward. Based on what they heard that day, they began working on the idea of a pilgrimage that would take people from Faughart to Kildare. Thus the Brigid’s Way was born. Only later did they discover that they were following in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims, and that there had indeed once been a pilgrim route from Faughart to Kildare. In my early talks about this alignment, I made light of the apparent friction between the people of Dundalk and the people of Kildare and how they each claimed Brigid for their own area. Here, finally, was something to link the two.
Brigid had made herself known, and, typical of a Dé Danann goddess (for this is what she was first and foremost, long before Christianity came to these shores), she was reawakening for these modern and turbulent times in which we live.
So why has she been reawakened, especially at a time when people seem to be moving away from the traditional Christian church? Perhaps it’s her more ancient aspect that wants to come to the fore.
Mary Condren wrote a paper about Brigid in 2010, entitled Brigit, Matron of Poetry, Healing, Smithwork and Mercy: Female Divinity in a European Wisdom Tradition. In this paper, Mary wrote:
"The political, economic and cultural crises in which we find ourselves have, on the one hand, destabilised the theological project; on the other hand, the question of religion has assumed major importance as cultural theorists now give renewed attention to the question of the social imaginary and its effects on the social orders".
"Many European wisdom traditions were preserved in rural and agricultural communities, and speak of a stream of wisdom, rooted in consciousness and perhaps even in European cellular memory. Sometimes these were attached to local festivals, goddesses, or even saints. How do we recuperate and translate them for today, especially on behalf of those in danger of being severely damaged by the pressures of contemporary living in cultures dominated by wars, and fuelled by greed."
An excellent question, and one that seems all the more relevant and urgent eight years later.
One only has to consider the turbulence in modern western democratic society, and the upheaval that has occurred here, and the ever-present danger of the inflammatory darkness that rises up from seemingly Fomorian forces, to see the relevance of the re-emergence of a significant figure of that wisdom tradition that begs to return, even in some form, before the world of humankind should be engulfed again in some needless conflagration. Remembering that tomorrow’s war could bring the end of mankind, we allow for the possibility that an ancient wisdom tradition should cast its pale glow into the darkness of the chasm of modern secularism, so that we shouldn’t allow a final and dreadful conflict to overthrow our sensibilities and bring us to our own final doom.
The renowned psychotherapist Carl Jung, a favourite of many students of mythology, realised this starkly during his own lifetime, and indeed he had frightful dreams and visions of a Europe awash with blood just before the Great War unleashed its fury on the European continent. Jung believed that the most urgent work of his time – something that has become an even more vital imperative in the 21st century – was the reconciliation of the masculine and the feminine, and more specifically, the recognition of the anima, the feminine within man, and its integration with the ego-consciousness. And the same for the animus, the masculine within woman.
In reflecting upon our current situation, I think about happenings in the past year upon which a revivification of the ancient figure of Brigid might well have a bearing. One is the MeToo campaign, and the denouncement of sexual misconduct and harassment allegations in the wake of revelations about the movie director Harvey Weinstein. Many stories of sexual violence were shared openly and bravely by some of the Brigids of our day, courageous women who stood up against the misogynistic and abusive behaviour of men. I am reminded, somewhat, of Brigid’s own standing up to the king of Leinster when he said she could only have as much land to graze her cattle as her cloak would cover. But the cloak spread, and covered all the land of the Curragh, I suppose in a way like the #metoo campaign has spread on social media.
How could Brigid possibly be relevant in all this, I hear you ask.
Brigid was “a poetess, daughter of the Dagda … a goddess whom filid [poets] used to worship. They called her goddess of poets.” And Mary Condren says that in ancient Ireland, poets were not simply wordsmiths. She says:
“Poets played a role in inaugurating and legitimating kings, and could overthrow them should they not live up to their duties. Poets, therefore, called the society to integrity and challenged unjust rule.”
We should not be so surprised to find that many of today’s actors, writers and creatives (ie the poets) are the ones who rail against injustice and the open misogyny, racism, xenophobia, harassment and warmongering that issues forth from the mouth of the Breses* of the modern era.
(*Bres becomes king of the Tuatha Dé Danann when Nuadu Silver Arm is wounded in the first battle of Moytura. But Bres is a poor king who neglects his duties. Things go rapidly downhill, and life becomes difficult under his rule. It later transpires that he is of Fomorian descent on his mother's side).
In my new book, Mythical Ireland: New Light on the Ancient Past, among many other chapters and sections I wrote a chapter called ‘Tracing the goddess of the Boyne river.’ And this, in essence, is what we are doing with the celebration of the Brigid of Faughart Festival. We are tracing the goddess. We are calling her back. We are breathing life into an ancient wisdom tradition. We are, as Dolores said on the phone to me last night, peeling back the layers of something that has been hidden for a long time. We are revivifying something that once had power and relevance to people, and which, I believe, can and must become relevant once again as we face the Fomorian influences which have challenged the peace and stability of our times. This is not a matter of creating a new religion. It is about bringing people to their true selves, and reconciling them with their own Fomorian shadow.
Before I conclude by reading a section of this chapter about tracing the goddess, can I wish you all the best with the festival. You have a packed and varied programme of events. There is a serious amount of work and organisation involved in putting something like this together, and I know that Dolores and her large team of willing volunteers work relentlessly to bring it all together. Thank you for the work that you do, and may you have every success in bringing the light of Brigid into the modern world.
[There followed a reading from chapter 5.6 of Mythical Ireland: New Light on the Ancient Past, entitled 'Tracing the goddess of the Boyne river'.]
See a short video of part of my talk here: https://www.facebook.com/brigidoffaughart/videos/1299498413483483/
See a full programme events for the Brigid of Faughart Festival here: http://www.brigidoffaughart.ie/
Enter the ‘Ancient Sites’ section of this blog for a fascinating and wide-ranging exploration of the megalithic and sacred sites of Ireland. Find out all about the Stone Age and prehistoric ruins and learn more about the possible functions and alignments of these sites. Visit the great temples of Brú na Bóinne, the Hill of Tara, the ancient cairns of Loughcrew among many others.
Explore the ancient myths, legends and folklore of Ireland and their meaning. Read the epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, or the place-name myths in the Dindshenchas. Learn about how the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians came to Ireland and how the early texts describe various invasions of prehistoric Éire. Hear about Fionn and the Fianna, and discover how some myths might contain information about astronomy and the stars.
There is no doubt that the ancient megalith builders had a substantial knowledge of the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars through the heavens. Learn more about just how complex and impressive this knowledge was. There is evidence that the people of the Neolithic knew about the 19-year Metonic cycle of the moon, as well as being able to predict eclipses.